Well this is a novel way to crap on Charlie Hebdo – fully seeing what’s wrong with all the cries of “racist!” from people who have no French and no knowledge of French culture and no willingness to listen to people who do – and coldly deciding to crap on Charlie anyway, because bafflegab.
When I heard that the writers Deborah Eisenberg, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachael Kushner and Taiye Salasi had publically withdrawn from their roles as table hosts for PEN America’s annual gala in protest over the organization’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo the Freedom of Expression Courage Award, my first reaction was to cringe at the spectacle of a group of writers — many of whom I greatly respect — coming out against a clearly beleaguered, clearly courageous publication simply because they disagreed with its politics.
At the same time, I felt, on some fundamental level, that they were right to be criticizing PEN. That I couldn’t place exactly why troubled me.
But he got to work and managed to come up with something, so now he’s content.
He was annoyed by the presence of a whole slew of illiberal heads of state at the Charlie protest march in Paris. Yes, so was I, but that’s not a reason to crap on Charlie.
There was a “je ne suis pas Charlie” counter-protest, but that troubled him too. But that was then.
The pertinent question now isn’t whether Charlie Hebdo’s politics conform to my own, or even whether I’m offended by the content of their cartoons, but rather, what PEN’s purpose in honoring the journal in this specific way in this specific context is and what this says about PEN.
To answer this question, one must look at the context of the award—not just the attacks but all that’s happened since. One must take into account the competing narratives and symbolic meanings that have accumulated around the magazine, and ask: does PEN want to affirm the over-simplified narrative being peddled by the politicians who gathered in Paris, and if not, how does it recognize the way this narrative has been challenged by the vigorous arguments about class and race that rose out of the wake of the attacks?
So that’s a reason to crap on Charlie, according to Furst. Nope. It isn’t. It could be a reason to write a piece about the award (just as he’s doing, in fact), but it’s not a reason to call Charlie Hebdo racist or compare it to neo-Nazis or to boycott the award.
Was Charlie Hebdo simply the safest, easiest choice to present to this audience? Is PEN a cultural institution here to celebrate the idea of free speech while providing intellectual cover for the preexisting assumptions of our capitalist democracy, or is it an organization meant to rattle and challenge, and yes, fight to protect those whose voices are stifled by political, economic and social repression, both here and abroad?
It’s easy for an American organization to celebrate those who have take stands against America’s enemies. By choosing to honor Charlie Hebdo, the victim of Islamic radicals, rather than any of the many worthy dissidents they could have chosen, people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, truly courageous people whose actions and words have placed them at odds with the powerful western nations of the world, PEN has communicated to their donors that it is on the side of powerful and reinforced the neo-liberal assumptions that allow for unchecked oppression to be perpetuated in our name around the world.
This, to me, is a fundamental betrayal of everything PEN is meant to stand for. And so, despite not agreeing with every word it contained, I felt strongly enough about the central idea of the letter protesting PEN’s choice that I was compelled to sign it.
Furst seems to have overlooked something. The people at Charlie Hebdo were killed. Assange and Snowden are alive. He also seems to be overlooking, or forgetting, the fact that Charlie Hebdo is no fan of capitalism or neo-liberalism.
This is how it’s done, I guess. This is how it was done to Salman in 1989 and after, and it’s how it’s done now. It’s an ugly business.