For nearly a century, PEN America, a chapter of International PEN, has been one of the world's foremost defenders of global free speech. "Free expression" is right there in the organization's motto, and the international charter includes such verbiage as "PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in their country or their community." This ain't just idle talk—PEN has historically championed the causes of dissidents (such as Vaclav Havel, or writers languishing in Cuba) who have dared speak too loudly against their regimes, no matter how momentarily fashionable the underlying ideology of the oppressors might be to some dues-payers in the West.
So it should come as little surprise that the organization chose this year to honor in its annual gala what few surviving members there are of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that criticized violent Islamic radicals (in addition to fundamentalists of every stripe), for which it was firebombed and eventually massacred. And yet less than four months after one of the most egregious assaults against free speech in modern history, a half-dozen PEN-gala co-hosts are backing out of the event because they worry that the dead cartoonists might have been insufficiently non-racist.
I wish I was making this up. From The New York Times:
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala[.]
The arguments from these free-speech refuseniks are remarkable in their awfulness. Here's Peter Carey, in an email to the Times:
"A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?" he wrote.
He added, "All this is complicated by PEN's seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population."
As Anthony Fisher pointed out soon after the murders, the "I'm All for Free Speech and Murder is Wrong, But…" crowd has really covered themselves with an ignorant, cowardly stink that will not soon wash off. Carey gets extra credit here for pivoting from an attack on Charlie's perceived sins of collective discrimination—even though murdered editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier has new book out decrying, um, the collective French discrimination against a large and disempowered segment of its population ("If one day all Muslims in France converted to Catholicism … these foreigners or French of foreign origin would still be seen as responsible for all ills")—and going straight from there to a blanket condemnation of the entire French nation. No way will I go to that awards dinner, because those guys were racist, and besides, every person from France is terrible!
Here's Rachel Kushner:
In an email to PEN's leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine's "cultural intolerance" and promotion of "a kind of forced secular view[.]"
How does a "secular view" get even kind of "forced"? Was there some power, hidden just off-screen, compelling Charlie Hebdo staffers to be a-hole atheists? Or—just spitballing here!—maybe they were "part of a radically irreverent school of secular thought that goes back centuries," as this Wall Street Journal subhed put it succinctly. At any rate, color me surprised to discover that aggressive secularism is considered by some to be incompatible with the values of free speech.
Teju Cole is another Charlie agoniste; his post-attack essay in The New Yorker, with its pretentious headline "Unmournable Bodies," contains one of the worst hand-waving dismissals of context you will ever read in an intellectual journal:
Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine's cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.
Short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg also protested the move:
"What I question is what PEN is hoping to convey by awarding a magazine that has become famous both for the horrible murder of staff members by Muslim extremists and for its denigrating portrayals of Muslims," she said. "Charlie Hebdo's symbolic significance is unclear here."
Actually, the only thing "unclear" here is the judgment and knowledge base of Charlie's posthumous critics. As Jesse Walker pointed out in his discussion of Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau's idiotic comments about the newspaper,
Right after the killings, you may recall, an instant take was available for Charlie contrarians: You accused the outfit of hate speech, suggested it was "punching down," maybe pointed to some images that supposedly proved what a racist outfit the weekly was. This critique grew less tenable when people more familiar with the paper provided context for those cartoons and explained the anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment outlook that fueled them. The discussion left room for people to like or dislike the humor in Charlie's pages, but at least they knew which way it was aiming its punches.
Unless they didn't pay attention.
That's just it: People who call themselves writers and champions of free speech paid just enough attention to slime dead cartoonists as racists even before all the blood was mopped up. They continue to reveal themselves by their works.
It's somewhat wince-inducing to see on the front of PEN's website the blurb "None of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the principle of free expression for which they stand," but at least the organization is sticking to its guns, and making a principled case against "the assassin's veto."
As for the anti-Charlie dissidents, Salman Rushdie, appropriately, gets the last word in the Times article:
"If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name," Mr. Rushdie said. "What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."
UPDATE: Over at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald has published a bunch of correspondence about the controversy between PEN members and organizers.