This afternoon, a letter went out to members of the PEN American Center — not an official communique but a letter of dissent, boasting 35 signatories and soliciting many more. It concluded, “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.”
So they think the Kouachi brothers were right, then – not right to murder, but right in their reasons to murder.
For all its swiftness, the minor PEN revolt over Hebdo’s offensive depictions of Muslims had been brewing for some time. Ever since the attack and the subsequent outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity, a vocal minority of writers have distanced themselves from the magazine, usually on the grounds that its secular satire was needlessly provocative — perhaps to the point of hate speech — and aimed at dispossessed French Muslims.
Which is just ignorant of them.
On March 27, two days after PEN announced the Hebdo honor, PEN member Deborah Eisenberg (not a table host) wrote to executive director Suzanne Nossel to object at length. A revered short-story writer with a strong leftist-activist bent (along with her partner, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn), Eisenberg attacked the paper’s crude illustrations as offensive not just to fundamentalists but to all Muslims (particularly those marginalized in France).
So she thinks she knows what all Muslims think? And she thinks they’re all fanatically theocratic? And she thinks that’s not crude and offensive?
She added that PEN’s decision to salute Hebdo “almost looks less like an endorsement of free expression than like an opportunistic exploitation of the horrible murders in Paris to justify and glorify offensive material expressing anti-Islamic and nationalistic sentiments already widely shared in the Western world.”
Which just underlines how uninformed she is.
News stories on Sunday referenced Eisenberg’s letter as an unrelated example of brewing dissent. In fact, her exchange had made the rounds of sympathetic writers, and she shared her dismay with others early on. Her letter had proposed Edward Snowden go-between Glenn Greenwald as an alternative PEN honoree, and Greenwald was looped into conversations this past weekend. Cole and Greenwald had both written pieces questioning the lionization of Charlie Hebdo. They and Kushner are vocal critics of Western policies that, they argue, kill and suppress far more people than terrorists in Europe; their protest is a dissent of the literary left from the liberal middle.
Nope. I’ve never accepted the claim that those people are to the left of people who oppose theocracy. There is nothing left-wing about theocracy. Secularism is or at least should be a pillar of the left.
Here’s the letter with the signatories:
If you are in sympathy with the following statement from some of your fellow members of PEN, please reply, and your name will be added to the list of signatories.
April 26, 2015
In March it was announced that the PEN Literary Gala, to be held May 5th 2015, would honor the magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in response to the January 7 attacks that claimed the lives of many members of its editorial staff.
It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly, were used to make that decision.
We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder.
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 disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense 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.
In our view, PEN America could have chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.
PEN is an essential organization in the global battle for freedom of expression. It is therefore disheartening to see that PEN America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose courage, even when provocative and discomfiting, has also been pointedly exercised for the good of humanity.
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.
Joyce Carol Oates
I’m surprised to see Kamila Shamsie there. Just the other day she was mourning the murder of her friend Sabeen Mahmud.