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He could have castigated his readers for caring so little about the plight of the poor and hungry. He could have lambasted government policy for failing to redress widespread famine and homelessness. Instead, he suggested they sell their sons and daughters as meat to wealthy nobleman and ladies. In so doing, Jonathan Swift did more in 1729 to draw attention to the plight of Irish peasants than any editorial could have done—and he did it using satire.

Swift was by no means the first to employ this literary genre. Romans had already turned it into an artform nearly 2,000 years earlier. There’s even evidence suggesting Ancient Egyptians were taking the piss 2,000 years before that.

Think about that for a moment: for over 4,000 years, humans—of every creed, colour, locality and ethnicity—have been using wit to peacefully protest social ills and the excesses of the elites; employing irony, sarcasm, analogy, and a host of other literary devices to cleverly critique monarchs and moguls, governments and gods.

That urge to speak truth to power—to call bullshit, even offend—might just be at the heart of what it means to be a human. At the very least, satire marvelously displays the heights to which the human intellect can soar—and how saying one thing but meaning another can do more to raise awareness, even bring about change than simply saying what we mean.

The Ancient Athenians understood the importance of free speech. The Ancient Romans, too. England enshrined it for parliamentarians in 1689. The French went so far as to affirm it as an inalienable right 100 years later. Though simply being allowed to express oneself freely does not quite capture the full essence and scope of it: people must be free to seek information and ideas, to receive them and to disseminate them—freely, without interference and without reprisal.

Tragically, throughout human history there have been those who have steadfastly opposed the freedom of speech, who have stamped out—violently, fatally—the dissemination of dissent, who have recoiled in horror and lashed out with a vengeance at the spread of differing opinions and new ideas. At every juncture and with every attempt those individuals, organizations, governments, and religions have always been met not with silence but with more words and louder voices.

To silence speech is to snuff out humanity itself. Try as some might, they will not succeed. Blood has been spilled before, bodies burned at stakes. Yet the voices remain, the ideas persist. And it is precisely those ideas that are met with greatest of hostilities we ought to discuss the loudest. Thank goodness we did, and we do: where would we be without the ideas of Kepler and Kant; Darwin and Descartes; Milton and Mill; Locke and Rousseau; Galileo and Copernicus? At one time, all of them were silenced—by the Roman Catholic Church—for offending the faithful and blaspheming their faith. Hilarious.

While few would argue the works published by Charlie Hebdo rivalled those of such thinkers, that they publish them (often about Islam) is no less important. Indeed, however crass some might have found their methods, however blunt the instrument of their criticism, there is much about Islam, as there was about Catholicism, to criticize. Indeed, ideas that prefer faith to reason, outlaw dissent, demand unthinking fealty, manufacture differences to instigate discord and hatred, promote misogyny and homophobia, and encourage acts of murder be committed in their name must surely be held up for public scrutiny if not outright humiliation. And if they offend? So what?

That is not to say free speech is without limits. There is a difference, though, between yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre and suggesting there is no God, or that one’s articles of faith are utterly ridiculous, without scientific or moral merit, anathema to humanity, truly deserving of disrespect.

It is impossible to offend a belief. Ideas, even religions, don’t have feelings. People do, though; and people tend to hold beliefs about all sorts of things, including the existence of god. Those people are often harmless. Mercifully, their religiosity is mostly benign. Sometimes, sadly, however, we witness malignant forms of such zealotry that test our resolve, and shake the very foundations of our society. What better way to respond to such a cancer than with that most human form of medicine: laughter.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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I can’t recall the last time I went to the movies. Regardless, I sprang at the chance to attend a screening of Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris,” with friends the other night.

What a wise decision.

I’ve long been a fan of Allen’s films — save for, “Annie Hall,” which I loathe with a rage that burns hotter than a thousand suns. (More on this in a moment.) His wit, his charm, his outlook on life; I adore them all.

His latest offering, in which Owen Wilson more than capably stands in for Allen himself, is a real gem, and a true return to form for the septuagenarian auteur.

Aside from the fact it features an extraordinary cast, many of whom ape artists and other literary icons from the 20th century (Adrien Brody’s take on Salvador Dalí is hilarious; Alison Pil is a riot as Zelda Fitzgerald; and, Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway is a scene-stealer), it puts Paris, itself, centre stage. And for that alone, I absolutely loved this film.

I fell madly in love with Paris at about this time last summer. And Allen manages to capture the magic, the mystery, the magnificence of the city in every shot, every scene. (A skill he has used to great effect when documenting New York, across the pond.) So much so, in fact, that when my friends and I were leaving the theatre, we experienced genuine culture shock when we spilled out of the Towne theatre onto the mean streets of Winnipeg’s Notre Dame Avenue — a far cry from the Notre Dame of Paris, I assure you!

Yes, I was so absorbed by Paris — of today, of the 20s, of La Belle Époque — I was momentarily disoriented by the crumbling sidewalks, empty streets, neglected façades of my hometown. For a brief second, I was at home in Paris, a foreigner in Winnipeg.

And it was that fleeting feeling that I think best captures why I loved this film so much.

Of course, I cannot say the same about Annie Hall — neither the film nor the character, herself, played painfully by Diane Keaton. (Those hats, those pants, that simpering manner. Gag me.) I suppose had I seen the film when it was first released, I might be more sympathetic. I did not, and so cannot be. I find it grating, contrived, and altogether unbearable. Thankfully, “Midnight in Paris,” is none of those things.

I highly recommend Allen’s latest film. It’s a marvellous summer treat, and a pitch-perfect postcard for the city that gave it its name.

2010 has been a fantastic year.

And if I could summarize it with just one word, it would be this: travel.

Las Vegas not once, but twice. Twice to DohaQatar, too. Colorado, Kansas and Chicago. Summer through Spain and Morocco, in Paris, LondonEdinburgh, and Toronto, and across Ireland. Phew!

Along the way, I ate, I drank, I laughed and I loved.

And then, come the fall, I returned to school, to the kitchen, to chase down a dream.

Yes, 2010 was a pretty good year. And while I doubt 2011 will look anything like it, I’m hopeful it will be as exciting — replete with new sights, new sounds, new tastes, new adventures.

Onward.

After five glorious days in Paris, I bid adieu to the city and headed westward across the English Channel towards London (by way of the Channel Tunnel!).

Truth be told, I was saddened to be leaving Paris. I’d loved the city so much, and felt I’d only just begun to discover the place. Still, other destinations were calling and I had to press on.

Once arriving at the beautifully restored and renovated St. Pancras International, I made my way to friends’ house in Westminster, which is where I resided for about a week. Doing so allowed me to catch my breath, rest up and do some much needed laundry before the next leg of my adventure: Ireland.

Whilst in London, I did very little in the way of classically touristy things since I’d been to the city so many times before. I did, however, pay a visit to the Tate Modern, which is always a treat; I also discovered the National Portrait Gallery, which I absolutely loved.

Otherwise, it was a quiet week in London, which, when one is trying to navigate the crowds on the hot, sweaty, cramped Tube, seems like a near impossibility. I managed… thanks to the extraordinary generosity of friends.

What took me so long? I’ve been to so many places in my life, but always managed to avoid Paris. Idiot!

Rarely have I felt so foolish as I do now: this city is without equal and I’m madly in love with it.

Following almost three weeks traipsing across Spain and Morocco, and after bidding farewell to my dear friend and trusty travel companion in Casablanca, I headed north to spend five days in Paris.

I don’t usually arrive at a place with a checklist of things to see and do, but I made an exception in this case.

The list, while trite, definitely helped me maximize my time in and around the city. To wit:

I’m proud to say I hit them all. And at no point was I disappointed. On the contrary, each site was more spectacular than I even imagined it would be.

The Palace and Park of Versailles—specifically the expansive and ornate gardens, as well as the more organic ones found around Marie Antoinette’s adjoining estate—were a particular favourite of mine.

Of course, Paris is about more than its museums, gardens and galleries. There are the gorgeous, tree-lined avenues; the people-watching from sidewalk cafés; the food. And so, I strolled, I watched and I ate. Oh, did I eat! And I dare say, nothing was more delicious than the escargots swimming in herbed butter at the lovely bistro pictured below.

I can’t say for certain when I’ll be back in Paris, but I do know this: back I will be. Absolument!