the key documents giving rise to the controversy that has erupted inside PEN America over the award the group is bestowing on Charlie Hebdo.
He starts with an email from Deborah Eisenberg to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel on March 26.
What a wonderful thing to give an award to some person or institution that courageously exemplifies freedom of expression – and how entirely in keeping with the objectives of PEN. But as a member, up until now anyhow, of PEN, I would like to express myself freely on PEN’s decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on the magazine Charlie Hebdo.
It is clear and inarguable that the January slaughter of 10 Charlie Hebdo staff members as well as 2 policemen 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. Indeed, the matter is fraught, complex, and very troubling.
I doubt there are many who consider the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be models of wit, but what is at issue is obviously not the value of the cartoons. What is at issue are the various – confused, vague, and sometimes contradictory – symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted in recent months, and exactly which of those symbolic meanings PEN is intending to applaud.
An award for courage is inevitably an award for the value in whose service courage has been exercised. In the case of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award that value is “freedom of expression.” But freedom of expression too, is a very broad designation. Anything at all can be expressed, and just because something is expressed doesn’t ensure that it has either virtue or meaning.
Thus far I agree with her. Charlie Hebdo could have been comparable to Der Stürmer or Radio Mille Collines, in which case I too would think PEN should not give them an award. But it isn’t. CH is not comparable to Der Stürmer or Radio Mille Collines.
I don’t doubt that the Charlie Hebdo staff is, and was, entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But although the magazine apparently disdains all organized religion, certain expressions of anti-Semitism are illegal in France, so Judaism is out of bounds for satire. In fact, the author of a purported anti-Semitic slur in a 2008 Charlie Hebdo column was fired. Therefore, in pursuing its goal of inclusive mockery of large organized religions, at least those that have a conspicuous presence in France, Charlie Hebdo has been more or less confined to Catholicism and Islam.
But those two religions hold very different positions in France, as well as in most of the Western world. Catholicism, in its most regrettable European roles, has represented centuries of authoritarian repressiveness and the abuse of power, whereas Islam, in modern Europe, has represented a few decades of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. So in a contemporary European context, satires of Catholicism and satires of Islam do not balance out on a scale.
Uh, no. Islam represents centuries of authoritarian repressiveness and the abuse of power just as Catholicism does, including in Europe. Eisenberg seems to be thinking of “Islam in modern Europe” as identical to Muslim immigrants and children of immigrants in Europe, and that’s all wrong. Some immigrants of Muslim background immigrated precisely because they wanted to escape the authoritarian repressiveness and the abuse of power of Islam. Others immigrated for other reasons, but that doesn’t mean they love the authoritarian repressiveness and abuse of power of Islam. Some repressive authoritarian Muslims immigrated to Europe and have been oppressing their relatives ever since. What Eisenberg means is that Muslims are a marginalized group in Europe, which is true, but that fact is entirely compatible with the fact that Islam goes in for authoritarian repressiveness.
I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well. To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
“Must be”? Must be why? Must be according to whom?
Was it the primary purpose of the magazine to mortify and inflame a marginalized demographic? It would seem not. And yet the staff apparently considered the context of their satire and its wide-ranging potential consequences to be insignificant, or even an inducement to redouble their efforts – as if it were of paramount importance to demonstrate the right to smoke a cigarette by dropping your lit match into a dry forest.
Right, because Muslims are as devoid of reason and agency as a dry forest. If someone draws a cartoon of the prophet, they will burst into flames, because that just is the physics of the situation.
Apparently PEN has reasoned that it is the spectacularly offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s expression in itself that makes the magazine the ideal recipient for the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award – that awarding Charlie Hebdo underscores the very indivisibility of the principle of freedom of expression and the laws that protect it.
But in that case, one has to ask, is Charlie Hebdo really the most tasteless, brainless, and reckless example of free expression that can be found? Is it more deserving of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award than other example of tasteless, brainless recklessness?
What about the racist chapters of SAE and other fraternities right here in our own country? I would say that they meet the criteria. We have our own reviled population, under constant threat of police brutality, prison and the like. So, are our racist fraternities not equally deserving of the Award? We are PEN America after all, not PEN France, and the fraternity brothers have expressed their views – even in humorous (to them) song – with great clarity and force.
She comes up with a dead-wrong premise – that PEN is giving the award to Charlie Hebdo because it is so “spectacularly offensive” – and then runs into the weeds with it. CH is not comparable to Sigma Alpha Epsilon!
To me, in my confusion, the decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie 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.
That is so ignorant it’s embarrassing. I cringe for her. Charlie Hebdo nationalistic!!
I suppose Glenn Greenwald thinks she’s right-on.
I believe that the PEN America is important to remember, and Deborah Eisenberg’s self claimed identity as a ‘Jew and Atheist’
And in Deborah Eisenberg’s second reply, she did mention other awardees:
– Raif Badawi, Saudi Arabian Atheist and received the PEN Canada One Humanity Award in 2014 (plus other) who has an Unknown religion per Wikipedia but is, I would claim, a member of the the freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists community
– Avijit Roy, Bangladeshi and American and par of the freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists community
– Edward Snowden, An American Whistleblower and/or a violator of the laws assumed by his being provided a top level security clearance, depending upon your perspective
– Chelsea, An American Whistleblower and/or a violator of the laws assumed by his being provided a top level security clearance, depending upon your perspective
Thus, is the issue more that certain folks in PEN America feel she is not focusing on topics more in line with an North American centric focus? This statement is a broad generalization, I understand, but doing a perusal of Wiki and tying various people together, I get the following picture:
– Suzanne Nossel’s previous stance on preemptive war stance on Afganistan
– Suzanne Nossel’s prior work with the U.S. Statement Department under the Obama administration
– Glenn Greenwald’s The Interceptor and its relationships with whistleblowers
This sounds more like PEN America internal politics and an attempt to ouster Suzanne Nossel rather than the principle both writers are projecting in public. Of course, you and others may already know this, but….I was just confused on the reason why Charlie Hebdo should not win the PEN Award. The others are certainty worthy as well, so I assume other motivations.
Are these people so wrapped up in their own BS that they can’t even hear themselves? Their argument is seriously that saying “Muslims are rational adults who can handle criticism” is horrible racist oppression while “Muslims are incapable of thinking so we must protect them from hurt feelings” is enlightened and compassionate.
I just don’t see any other way to frame it; this seems to be the root of the argument. And that’s before we get to the absolutely ludicrous notion that because some individual Muslims and groups in Europe have been marginalized, that criticism of Islam itself is therefore aimed at these particular people. Sorry, but I just don’t believe anyone could actually think that without doing a lot of mental gymnastics.
If I thought these people were genuinely coming from where they say they are, I wouldn’t be angry with them. But they’re not. They’re the ones who think that Muslims are less-capable than the rest of us when it comes to acting like reasonable people. They’re the ones who think that Muslims are inherently dangerous. That’s what the insulting, and yes, Islamophobic view would be.
Ophelia Benson says
Donnie – the date on Eisenberg’s first email to Nossel – the one I quoted – is March 26. Your “correction” is incorrect. She wrote a second email, replying to one from Nossel, on April 10, but that’s not the one I quote in this post.
Questions submitted by the Intercept to PEN America:
3) Given that PEN is supposed to stand for unpopular and marginalized
views that are under assault, what purpose does it serve to simply echo
the overwhelming consensus among western governments: that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are heroes
If people are ready to kill you for your views, your views are certainly unpopular, marginalized and under assault. In consequence, it is more than absurd to imply – as Greenwald obviously does – that this holds not true for CH. The circumstance that unprincipled Western governments exploited the CH tragedy for sad, empty lip services to free speech does not really matter here. Especially since the politics towards free speech on religious issues in most Western nations are more and more in line with what Greenwald et al. seem to wish for.
Beyond that, it is actually quite ironic that Greenwald – our heroic anti-imperalist, anti-colonialist, anti-zionist overlord – is so Eurocentric that he cannot interpret the CH massacre in any other context than the whites vs. oppressed minority one. Greenwald and all his acolytes are so stuck in their West vs. Subaltern narrative that they are unable to associate the CH attacks with similar attacks on Badawi, Rahman, Roy, Rushdie, Zunar or Dala.
Ophelia Benson says
And Nasreen. Taslima has been under attack for longer than any of them.
Correct, I was just using your intro line as a source start of my commenting but I changed the March 10 to April 10 because I was focusing on the 2nd email. Rereading the post, I should not have done it for it looked as if I was correcting you, when in fact I was being lazy and using your line as a blockquote to start my own line of reasoning (conspiracy theory) because I cannot believe some writers would be that daft and clueless so I was searching for more of an ulterior motive. Reading backwards in your blog history, I realized that “yes. some writers can be that daft”.
Ophelia Benson says
Ah! I see. Never mind then.
The same reflexive cringe in the face of violence has been demonstrated since Khomeini’s valentine to Salman Rushdie.
First, the Right, complaining that Rushdie’s writing was ‘elitist’ and oppressive to our Freedom Fighting Allies against Godless Communism.
Since then, the appeaser’s spirit has shifted to the pseudo-progressives lining up with Greenwalk, Coles, Chomsky etc. There is a near perfect amnesia, reminiscent of the Hitler/Stalin Pact. ‘We have always been at war with East-Asia.’
Both tribes were rooted in nearly identical racist notions. The Poor Little Dears just can’t be expected to endure the rough and tumble of grown-up culture. That’s bad enough, but the denial of intention and agency to non-Westerners is appalling.