Their work was not for those who like subtlety and suavity in their satire

How not to start a piece about PEN and Charlie Hebdo and The Protest.

The annual PEN Literary Gala, in which writers, the male half badly dressed in once-a-year tuxedos, assemble under the big whale at the American Museum of Natural History to mutter about their advances and applaud their imprisoned confreres, has always had its comic aspects. Glamour and guys (or gals) who write are not two subjects that are often congruent.

Sigh. We are not a parenthesis. We are not an afterthought. We are not the other. We are not the exception. We are not second. We are not an eccentric forgotten deviation from the rule that writers (and all other important people) are men. We are not the diameter to men’s circumference. We are not et cetera. We are not a catch-up. We are not an edit. We are not a corrected typo. We are not also.

Moving on, hoping Adam Gopnik doesn’t distract with any more gaffes –

And yet the PEN gala feels essential, and for one reason above all: the writers are there to stand up for some other writers who can’t be there because some bad guy has locked them up for writing something that the bad guy didn’t like. The principle involved is that the free expression of ideas, including insulting ideas, is part of what writing is. If people aren’t free to insult authority in some distant country, then we aren’t entirely free here. This does seem like a good principle to banquet upon.

Still with the “guy”; pretend not to notice.

Other table hosts have publicly chided the missing for going missing. (I should say that I am one of those hosts; The New Yorker is also part of the Benefit Committee, and our cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, will be onstage with the Charlie Hebdo editors.) Salman Rushdie, who speaks with some sad authority on such issues, was succinct, calling them “six authors in search of character.”

He says they no doubt mean well. They think the views of Charlie Hebdo are “bigoted or, at least, to use the word of the decade, insensitive.”

This badly misunderstands the actual views, history, and practices of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Their work, as I’ve written, was not for those who like subtlety and suavity in their satire—it was not entirely to my own taste—but they were still radically democratic and egalitarian in their views, with their one passionate dislike being, simply, the hypocrisies of any organized religion. Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately “minoritarian”—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities. No one in France has, for example, been more relentlessly, courageously contemptuous of the extreme right-wing Le Pens, père et fille.

Prose and the 150 are just wrong about Charlie Hebdo. Mistaken. In error.

Their doubters, it seems, believe that this activity of imagination was wrong or condemnable. They believe, instead, in a kind of communal protection—that the comfort of communities is more important than the public criticism of ideas. It’s a legitimate thought, one with a history of its own. It just doesn’t seem to be a thought worth inspiring a boycott by a self-defined cosmopolitan community of writers. If literature has any social function, after all, it is premised on the belief that, in the long run, the most comfortable community is going to be the one that knows the most about itself. Criticism is always going to be uncomfortable for somebody. There is something to be said for group solidarity over unhindered expression. But writers are the last people on earth who ought to be saying it. (Writers ought always to be a little on the outside; that’s one reason they look so awkward when they come together as a group.)

Maybe, or maybe it’s just because writers are nerdy (because it’s so hard to write in a crowd). Plenty of writers are very big on comfortable community and very bad at standing a little apart to take an outsider’s look.

It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression. It’s what free expression is. The Charlie Hebdo staff kept working in the face of death threats, and scorning an effort to honor that courage gives too much authority to those who want that veto. The killers were not speaking for an offended community and explaining why, after all, someone might easily miss the point of the cartoons. They were responding to an insult with murder. The honored cartoonists, in turn, are not markers in an abstract game of sensitivities. They were elderly artists whose last view in life was of a masked man with a machine gun. If that is not horror, then nothing is horror. If that is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. If writers won’t honor their courage, then what courage can we honor?

My feelings exactly. I forgive him for everything.


  1. psanity says

    Funny thing — I have just whittled my 6-month backlog of New Yorkers down to under 4 months — woot! — and not 15 minutes ago, I finally read Gopnik’s TotT piece from Jan 19th (the one with your avatar on the cover). He did such a good and clear job of laying out the context and intent of Charlie Hebdo; he might have been anticipating all the “liberal” stupidity we’ve seen in the weeks since. Gopnik must be wondering how often he’s going to have to explain this — I bet you are, too. And so it goes.

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