About a week ago, six writers who are members of PEN, an organization that promotes and supports freedom of literary expression, refused to attend and be “table hosts” at a PEN banquet. This was a protest against PEN’s giving a “freedom of expression award” to Charlie Hebdo after the brutal murders of its outspoken writers and artists. Now, according to the New York Times, the Shameful Six have been joined by 139 other writers who are equally misguided.
The Intercept gives the text of the letter and a list of the 145 signers. Here’s an excerpt from the letter. I’ve highlighted the inevitable “however,” which alway tells us in such matters that the writers have paid lip service to the principle but then will argue that in this case the principle doesn’t really apply:
It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic.
. . . However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
. . . We the undersigned, as writers, thinkers, and members of PEN, therefore respectfully wish to disassociate ourselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.
This letter proves three things: that the writers either can’t read French or don’t understand France, that they don’t fathom what Charlie Hebdo was all about, and that their notion of “punching down” doesn’t make sense. Charlie Hebdo not only satirized Catholicism (isn’t that punching up?), but also the French government and the many racist elements in French politics, particularly the odious Le Pens. Isn’t that punching up? And really, how “marginalized” are two angry Muslims with an arsenal? With their recourse to weapons and willingness to use them, I’d hardly consider jihadists “marginalized” or “powerless.” Finally, as I’ve said many times, Charlie Hebdo was on the Left insofar as it combatted racism and fought for the rights of immigrants and foreign minorities. They just didn’t like bigotry or religion, and mocked them mercilessly.
These signers are, pardon my French, useful idiots. Their criticism of the magazine’s “valorizing selectively offensive material” is a euphemism for “Charlie Hebdo said stuff that offended people”—and that’s precisely what a freedom-of-expression award is for. What do they want: a recipient that had the courage to offend nobody??
I don’t recognize most of the signers (perhaps that exposes my ignorance of the humanities), but here are ones I do know: Eve Ensler, Michael Cunningham, Kathyrn Harrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Danzy Senna, and Wallace Shawn. You can see the full list at the letter link, and shame on them all.
But there are also two eloquent and spirited reactions to these misguided writers. One is by the ever-admirable Nick Cohen in the Spectator, “Charlie Hebdo: The literary indulgence of murder.” Cohen (whom I’m going to award, along with Jeffrey Taylor, the PCC Award for Rationality) is particularly incensed with writer Francine Prose’s critique in the Guardian of the PEN award, but also levels a strong attack on the hypocrisy of “liberal” writers who, cowering before Islamic thugs, abandon the very Enlightenment principles butressing traditional Leftism (my emphasis):
Prose, [Peter] Carey, the London Review of Books and so many others agree with Islamists first demand that the world should have a de facto blasphemy law enforced at gunpoint. Break it and you have only yourself to blame if the assassins you provoked kill you
They not only go along with the terrorists from the religious ultra-right but with every state that uses Islam to maintain its power. They can show no solidarity with gays in Iran, bloggers in Saudi Arabia and persecuted women and religious minorities across the Middle East, who must fight theocracy. They have no understanding that enemies of Charlie Hebdo are also the enemies of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West. In the battle between the two, they have in their stupidity and malice allied with the wrong side.
Most glaringly they have failed to understand power. It is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred – as my most liberal British Muslim friends do – but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared.
When I read the literary attacks on PEN’s award to Hebdo, I wondered whether it was worth staying on the middle-class left. Prose’s piece on its own was enough to make me leave in disgust. It seems a corrupted, cowardly, lying and selfish movement bereft on any spirit of camaraderie; and dishonest to its bones.
But then I recollected that PEN stood firm. It politely thanked its various luminaries for their protests and then said it would ignore them.
I, too, am deeply embarrassed at the reaction of much of the middle-class Left, particularly writers and cartoonists, like Garry Trudeau, who appeal to that moiety. But I reserve my right to be a Leftist and also decry the hypocrisy and cowardice of those who are supposedly on my side.
Finally, although I consider Adam Gopnik too soft on religion (we’re having a friendly discussion of this issue at the moment), I admire his supporting the right to mock faith in his New Yorker piece, “PEN has every right to honor Charlie Hebdo.” Unlike his thick-headed literary confrères, Gopnik clearly distinguishes making fun of faith from demonizing faith’s adherents. One would think that would be a no-brainer, but for 145 writers it’s clearly not. Gopnik:
It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression. It’s what free expression is. The Charlie Hebdostaff kept working in the face of death threats, and scorning an effort to honor that courage gives too much authority to those who want that veto. The killers were not speaking for an offended community and explaining why, after all, someone might easily miss the point of the cartoons. They were responding to an insult with murder. The honored cartoonists, in turn, are not markers in an abstract game of sensitivities. They were elderly artists whose last view in life was of a masked man with a machine gun. If that is not horror, then nothing is horror. If that is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. If writers won’t honor their courage, then what courage can we honor?
. . . How can we tell insults to ideology from threats to people? Well, as I’ve written before, that is why we have critics, courts, and laws. Hell, it’s why we have writers. It’s the work they do. And it’s the reason why they gather at galas, where they can argue.
I hold those truths to be self-evident, but apparently they can’t be emphasized too often in today’s climate of identity politics.