PEN america & charlie hebdo
i follow two famous novelists on twitter — joyce carol oates (them, Blonde) and salman rushdie (Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet) — and it’s been interesting to find them on opposite sides of the argument re whether or not charlie hebdo deserves PEN’s prestigious freedom-of-expression courage award. rushdie was rather pompous and sexist and brooked no argument.
The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.
oates, among the 200 or so who boycotted the gala in protest, didn’t bite, instead was self-reflexively ironic.
Exciting to witness a conflict in which each side is “holier than thou.”
and then i ran into this piece by glenn greenwald (of snowden fame) siding with the protesters, that led to another page where he posted the exchange of letters between deborah eisenberg and PEN’s executive director suzanne nossel that sparked the controversy.
sharing this, from eisenberg (Twilight of the Superheroes):
… Satire might be thought of as sort of a free zone, where potentially dangerous or destabilizing ideas can be safely sent out to play, or to perform for us, and social inequities are implicitly an element in most satire – though it is the parties thought to be holding disproportionate power or prestige who are the usual object of successful satire. It seems to me that power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire, and that to ignore very real inequities between the person holding the mighty pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen, risks making empty and self-serving nonsense of the discussion. In any case, your apparent assumption that I fail to recognize the value of satire is puzzling, given that I made liberal use of it in my letter of March 26.
… It is the work available to us, not the objectives behind it, which we experience and judge. If, for example, I read a book that strikes me as worthless, my opinion of it will not go up simply because the author tells me that she had wanted it to be better than War and Peace. And further, the subjects of a satire are bound to have a different relationship to that satire than those who are only peripherally involved or who have the same set of cultural assumptions as the satire’s author. The Muslim population of France, so much of which feels despised and out of place in their own home, is very aware that the non-Muslim population of France is reading and enjoying mockery of their religion, and they are very unlikely to care what objectives Charlie Hebdo ascribes to itself, however lofty those objectives may be. A person wounded by ridicule is unlikely to much care what the ridiculer intended – to care whether the goal of the ridicule was to stimulate insight or to inflict humiliation.
But presumably the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award is being awarded to Charlie Hebdo for its actual publications, not for its stated aspirations. So those aspirations are as immaterial to PEN’s choice as they are irrelevant to the Muslim population of France. What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? And that is still not one bit clear to me.
Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
Here I am, piping up again, and re-stating some of the things I’ve already said. And how good it would be if you and I could sort out and settle all these issues and those that are attached to them in the exchange of a few letters! But obviously these matters are not easily sorted out, let alone settled – and they are not easily discussed, either. They do, however, call for discussion – for examination, for re-examination, for endless, painstaking vigilance and continual efforts at clear thinking.
You seek to persuade me that Charlie Hebdo was a judicious choice to receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award by telling me people are flocking to join PEN because of its support for Charlie Hebdo – but that only redoubles the anxieties I described in my first letter. I can only wonder what exactly is so alluring to these new dues-payers: are they indeed demonstrating enthusiasm for PEN’s long-standing support of free and courageous expression, or are they demonstrating enthusiasm for a license that is being offered by PEN to openly rally behind a popular prejudice that has suddenly been legitimized and made palatable by the January atrocities?
In short, it is not Charlie Hebdo I’m writing to you about, it is PEN. I would be very sorry if this essential organization were to alter radically in character, from one that supports and protects endangered voices of dissent to one that encourages voices of intolerance.
and this, from garry trudeau (Doonesbury):
… Ironically, Charlie Hebdo, which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest.
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.
The White House took a lot of hits for not sending a high-level representative to the pro-Charlie solidarity march, but that oversight is now starting to look smart. The French tradition of free expression is too full of contradictions to fully embrace. Even Charlie Hebdo once fired a writer for not retracting an anti-Semitic column. Apparently he crossed some red line that was in place for one minority but not another.
What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must. Or that that group gives up the right to be outraged. They’re allowed to feel pain. Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.