You have got to be kidding.
The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.
It’s one of those cases where there wouldn’t be a “debate” if so many people weren’t industriously getting everything wrong.
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.
I’m disgusted and appalled and repulsed. Francine Prose used to be an excellent novelist, with a good eye for bullshit and a nice line in sarcasm. She should be a natural ally of Charlie.
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,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.
Forced? Forced? FORCED? CH isn’t the one who was doing the forcing. CH is a magazine (or weekly newspaper); it says things and draws things; it forces no one and nothing. All the force came from the two men with huge guns who broke into their office that morning and murdered nine people.
Peter Carey said 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.
One stares in disbelief.
What else could it possibly be? Does Peter Carey think a showy mass murder of cartoonists and writers and an editor is not a freedom of speech issue? How could it possibly help being?
Then he said something incredibly stupid about “the cultural arrogance of the French nation” and its failure to recognize “its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population” – as if the Kouachi brothers killed all those people by way of demanding better schools for French Muslims, and, worse, as if the Kouachi brothers represent French Muslims. That’s a horrible insult to the large and disempowered segment of their population that Peter Carey claims to be defending or speaking for or whatever the hell that was supposed to be.
The withdrawals reflect the debate over Charlie Hebdo that erupted immediately after the attack, with some questioning whether casting the victims as free-speech heroes ignored what some saw as the magazine’s particular glee in beating up on France’s vulnerable Muslim minority.
In an essay for The New Yorker’s website after the attack, Mr. Cole noted that the magazine claimed to offend all parties, but in fact in recent years “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” (Mr. Cole declined to comment for this article.)
Yeah yeah yeah and shouldn’t Salman Rushdie have thought twice before writing The Satanic Verses and shouldn’t Theo Van Gogh have decided not to film Submission and shouldn’t Lars Vilks and shouldn’t Jyllands-Posten and shouldn’t Raif Badawi and shouldn’t Avijit Roy and shouldn’t Washiqur Rahman – shouldn’t they all have thought twice and then shut up? Aren’t they all racist and Islamophobic?
No, they should not, and no, they are not. Mr Cole is collaborating with evil.
The short story writer Deborah Eisenberg said via email yesterday that she had written in late March to Ms. Nossel to criticize the award.
“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.”
It wouldn’t be if Deborah Eisenberg knew anything about it. The parochialism of all this is embarrassing.
Salman Rushdie puts it forcefully at the end.
But Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” said the issues were perfectly clear. Mr. Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”
“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.”
I daresay nobody ever will, because they’re saying the things the murderers want people to say.