As you have no doubt heard by now, six writers who were to have served as “table hosts” at the PEN American Center’s 2015 Gala recently backed out in protest of PEN’s decision to present the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. Some of them have written an open letter to PEN explaining their position – a letter that has since been signed by 145 writers (including me) and counting.
Here’s the crux of the dispute:
Both PEN and the dissenters agree that freedom of speech is crucial to defend; that the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s staff on January 7, 2015 was an unspeakable crime; and that the murder of 10 of the journal’s staff members and contributors was an act of terrorism, committed by religious fundamentalists whose deed was utterly inexcusable. When the attack occurred, PEN decried the murders immediately and continued to issue statements in support of the journal and its decision to continue publishing. The dissenters agree.
What the dissenters object to is PEN’s decision in March to make Charlie Hebdo the recipient of a prestigious PEN award. As PEN sees it, the journal’s surviving staff deserve this honor because of the heinousness of the attack against them and the courageousness of their decision to go on publishing the journal despite the attack. The dissenters, on the other hand, object that honoring the journal with this award implies a more profound and wide-ranging seal of PEN approval on the work of the journal as a whole than is appropriate. Some of the things that appear in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, when considered in the cultural context of 21st century France, make the dissenters uncomfortable. Everyone knows by now that the magazine prints racially charged caricatures of Muslims. It also prints caricatures of Jews (looking rather like the Muslims but with different clothes), as well as Catholics and other religious and political groups. Charlie Hebdo is indeed an “equal opportunity offender,” as people have taken to saying in its defense. But as the writers of the protest letter point out, “in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”
It’s well known that a large number of Muslims in France belong to an impoverished underclass – a legacy of France’s colonial past – and there is widespread discrimination against them. Publishing popular images mocking their features and beliefs in a context where right-wing French politicians speak openly against them with impunity contributes to a climate that makes their standing in French society precarious, to say the least. While Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish such images, and while it is certainly appropriate for PEN to support its right to do so, PEN’s singling out the journal to be emphatically honored above many other embattled practitioners of free speech sends a message that the organization is unconcerned with the situation of Muslims in France. And that’s a message I object to.
To be sure, this entire argument (on both sides, actually) is based on a relatively superficial analysis of the satires Charlie Hebdo publishes. For an intelligently nuanced close reading of the journal’s work, see the analysis Caleb Crain published yesterday on his blog. But close reading is largely beside the point in a debate of this sort. Political symbols are not matters of nuance, of delicate calligraphy – they are swabbed on walls with push-brooms dipped in buckets of paint. And the message on this particular wall as seen, say, from the Middle East, probably looks something like this: “PEN Says Mocking Muslims Is Courageous.” Peace-loving Muslims around the world, hearing of PEN’s lionizing of Charlie Hebdo, might reasonably conclude that the organization has no interest in them or (in the case of those who are disadvantaged minorities in France and other countries) their own lack of outlets for free expression. By merely appearing to side with the forces that oppress, say, an impoverished Muslim living in the banlieues of Paris, we contribute to his oppression. And the thought that an organization like PEN would show so little concern for this population is just disheartening to me. PEN’s position aligns it with the point of view of privilege. I can’t speak for everyone who signed the PEN protest letter – people’s reasons for signing no doubt vary – but for me, it comes down to this: I just don’t want anything done in my name that appears to further harm an already disadvantaged population. As a PEN member, I want PEN to be respectful – at the very least – of those who lack privilege and power.
Meanwhile, I have been shocked at the way the first dissenters to go public were attacked. Salman Rushdie called them “pussies” (he later apologized for his choice of words, but the harm was already done); Simon Schama called them “stupid” (no apology so far). I’ve heard them criticized as “sententious” and “sanctimonious,” as though articulating a counter-position implied a failure of tone. Would critics of the dissenters have preferred to see the protest letter written as satire? In fact, I wonder whether “sententious” isn’t the new “shrill,” especially given that the first of the letter writers to go public with her objections was a woman. I am also alarmed to see critics of the dissenters implying both subtly and directly that by objecting to the PEN award, the dissenters are aligning themselves with “the assassin’s veto.” Um, no. This is a highly inaccurate accusation, a bullying accusation, words intended to intimidate and shut down discussion and dissent.
Fortunately voices of support have been raised as well, e.g. that of Jacob Silverman, who follows Teju Cole’s lead in suggesting that Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning might have been more suitable recipients of this award. Well, back when I still sat on the PEN board as Chair of the Translation Committee (2011-2014), I proposed that PEN issue a statement in support of Chelsea Manning, only to be shot down by a fellow board member: “Why would we support him [sic]? He’s a criminal. He stole government property.” To this day, PEN has never said a peep about her heroic actions. Seen from that perspective, the choice of Charlie Hebdo appears utterly safe, even State Department-friendly. It will ruffle no feathers in our own government nor in the governments of our major allies. Other choices might have been riskier – courageous, even.