The historian Amanda Foreman rebukes the calumnies against Charlie in a terrific op-ed on Charlie at the Wall Street Journal.
The heartfelt standing ovation for Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret—who accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage award on behalf of the magazine—had its own eloquence. Unusually, the many writers in the room didn’t need to say anything to make themselves heard. Simply being at the dinner was a statement, a Rubicon moment for those who believe that universal human rights is a cause worth dying for. Just as boycotting the awards has become the rallying event for those who believe that it comes second to other considerations.
I don’t much want to die for any cause, but if I had to that would be the one I would choose. Universal human rights, not local ones, not faith-based ones, not communal ones.
In the days since 204 writers including Peter Carey, Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose—roughly 5% of the membership—signed a letter outlining their objections to the award, criticism of their stance has been unending. From the liberal Nation to the conservative Weekly Standard, the outrage from the majority of the writing community has been unequivocal: Freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment, is a nonnegotiable right.
After the boycott began, it was met with a thorough demolishing of the claims by its supporters, especially the charge that Charlie Hebdo is racist. Whether through ignorance or malice, this self-appointed committee of public safety insinuated that the magazine’s writers had provoked their own murder by attacking Islam in general, and victimizing French Muslims in particular. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of humor, we were told, “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”
That calumny has now been exposed as a lie in point-by-point repudiations by some of the most respected voices in France, including the author Bernard-Henri Lévy and Dominique Sopo, the head of SOS-Racisme. The facts are there for all to see, such as: the Hebdo staffers were murdered while planning a conference on antiracism, and only seven of 523 covers for the magazine in the past decade touched on Islam. The protesters can no longer peddle the libel that Charlie Hebdo is a modern-day equivalent of a Nazi propaganda sheet, as several have, including Deborah Eisenberg, whose letter to PEN asked whether it would next be “giving the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer.”
She goes on to tell an important story about the Dubrovnik conference, something I don’t recall being aware of before.
While denouncing the PEN boycott, Mr. Lévy referred to the “deplorable Congress of Dubrovnik of 1933, at which the predecessors of Peter Carey refused to take a position against the book-burnings in Germany.” The Dubrovnik conference, in what was then Yugoslavia, took place on May 10, 82 years ago.
The PEN president at the time, H.G. Wells, tried to maintain neutrality between those who wanted to speak out against Nazism and those who argued that politics had no place in a literary organization. His aim was defeated by the sole American delegate, Henry Seidel Canby, who forced through a resolution crafted by PEN America that restated PEN’s core mission as an advocacy organization.
Because of Canby’s courageous stand, the exiled German playwright Ernst Toller was able to make his own speech the following day—an impassioned plea on behalf of writers suffering Nazi persecution. The German delegation and others walked out. Toller’s speech persuaded the remaining delegates that the organization had to remold itself into the one we know today.
And who are the Nazi persecutors today? Not the staff of Charlie Hebdo, that’s for damn sure.
Like its 1933 counterpart, PEN today has decided it will not be neutral in the battle between free speech and the assassin’s veto. It may be that some members will never be fully comfortable with this decision. They should be let go without heartache or second-guessing. There are plenty of other organizations for which the dictates of personal taste, sensitivity and interpretation carry the day.
For those who believe in freedom of expression, the moment has come to make the choice between its defense or abandonment against a murderous movement that believes democratic values are subordinate to religious sensibilities. At the end of the evening on Tuesday, I spoke with Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo’s film critic. “There are just two options facing us all,” he said, “and we have to take a side.”
I’ve taken mine.