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.