A room half full of the self-righteously misinformed

From one of the worst piece on Charlie Hebdo and PEN to one of the best: Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast.

On January 7, Jean-Baptiste Thoret was ambling toward the office, late for an editorial meeting—he’s a French film critic, after all—when 12 of his colleagues at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were being cut to ribbons by AK-47 fire. A fraternal team of semi-illiterate religious fanatics, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, both Paris-born, casually returned to their getaway car, congratulating themselves for having avenged their aggrieved prophet. As a digestif, an accomplice was across town, preparing to murder Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

It helps to know how to write, doesn’t it, particularly on this subject. It’s striking how much of the writing of the antis has been leaden and wit-free and clunky, even from people who ordinarily do know how to write. It’s as if the style is forced to match the thought: both must be equally talentless, the way two horses pulling a carriage have to pace together.

Charlie Hebdo would seem a rather obvious choice for a prize celebrating journalistic courage, considering the newspaper was firebombed  in 2011 for producing cartoons satirizing militant Islam, lived with a heavy—but not heavy enough—security presence, and continued to raise a middle finger to those who threatened its journalists with death. But the award was an obvious choice that annoyed more than 200 PEN members—including Eric Bogosian, Wallace Shawn, Junot Diaz, and Peter Carey—who responded to the honor with a campaign of defamation against the dead.

You’d think it would catch in their throats, wouldn’t you. You’d think they would shiver and stop and re-think their positions. You’d think they would quail at giving political support to people who murder cartoonists and Jewish supermarket-shoppers.

Charlie Hebdo—scourge of the post-fascist political party Front National, enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activists, fellow travelers of the French Communist Party, staunch agitators for Palestine—has been accused of racism and employing crude and offensive satire to “punch down” at an aggrieved minority.

Six impossible things before breakfast.

Two days after the murders, under the crass headline “Unmournable Bodies,” The New Yorker’s Teju Cole provided a confused exegesis on French satire, a subject he has previously avoided discussing.Charlie Hebdo, he wrote, was possessed of a “bullyingly racist agenda” and traded in “violently racist” images.

I couldn’t even read that thing in January. I took a look, I cringed, and I couldn’t stand to read it.

Elsewhere, the #JeSuisCharlie brigades were admonished for affiliating with an anti-Arab magazine whose “staff was white,” a point not contested by editor Moustapha Ourrad because he had annoyingly just been murdered by religious psychopaths. Nor did Zineb El Rhazoui protest, likely because she was too busy mourning her dead friends and cobbling together the newspaper’s first post-bloodbath issue. Francine Prose, one of the first refuseniks, said PEN’s choice “very conveniently feeds into a larger political narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case,” a point with which the families of slain Hebdo staffers might take issue.

“Conveniently” – how I hate that “conveniently.” How I hate the fake knowingness behind that whole sentence.

Should you trust the judgments of newly minted French satire experts, most of whom don’t speak French and have never held a copy of the newspaper? Or should you trust Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS-Racisme, France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization, who made the obvious point that Charlie Hebdo was the “most anti-racist newspaper” in the country? Those accusing his murdered friends of supporting the very things they so passionately opposed, Sopo said, were either motivated by “stupidity or intellectual dishonesty…Every week in Charlie Hebdoevery week—half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

Well, ok, but why wasn’t the award given to Julian Assange? The brave martyr hiding in an embassy to avoid rape charges?

Few of PEN’s critics responded to this counter evidence. When asked on Twitter if he had ever thumbed through a copy of Charlie Hebdo, n+1 editor and what-a-bunch-of-racists petition signatory Keith Gessen admitted that he hadn’t. “Nor would my French be up to it if I did. This is more about PEN than it is about Charlie, and I know lots about PEN. :)” In other words, Gessen has a beef with PEN America—likely about how the recipient was chosen—which necessitated signing a petition branding Charlie Hebdo a racist publication.

Smiley face.

Tee hee.

Novelist Deborah Eisenberg, one of PEN’s most vocal and least informed critics, said Hebdo’s brand of satire was “reckless,” like “dropping your lit match into a dry forest.” Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau indulged in his own bit of victim-blaming, saying that “the decision they made” to be satirists, applying religious satire evenly across faiths and denominations, “brought really a world of pain to France.”

Strange, coming from Garry Trudeau, isn’t it – since he made the decision to be a satirist himself, and hasn’t noticeably deferred to ridiculous taboos. Why would he blame other people for not deferring to ridiculous taboos? I will never understand it.

There’s more, not-to-be-missed stuff. Don’t miss it.

PEN’s dissident Fanonists might stay away from Tuesday night’s ceremony, or make a bold stand against the nonexistent racism of 12 dead journalists by refusing to clap for the one who got away, or simply hope that next year’s Courage Award honoree will have been murdered for inoffensive journalism that comports with the bien pensant opinions of America’s literary class.

As for Thoret, after the atrocity visited upon Charlie Hebdo in January, he can manage a room half full of the self-righteously misinformed. His comrades are gone; the newspaper is more popular than ever; and his American critics, he sighs, “don’t really know what they are talking about.”

But their ignorance isn’t stopping them talking about it. They’re an embarrassment.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Moynihan: …the now 200-strong dissident faction …

    So the banquet boycotters picked up another 55 in the last couple of days?

    Or did Moynihan get that wrong (along with counting the killed cop as a CH staffer)?

  2. says

    “reckless,” like “dropping your lit match into a dry forest.”

    Almost like … “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” — a popular quip usually trotted out as one of the few good arguments against free speech. Funny coming from “America’s Literary Elite”

  3. quixote says

    or simply hope that next year’s Courage Award honoree will have been murdered for inoffensive journalism that comports with the bien pensant opinions of America’s literary class

    The whole thing is priceless, but when I reached that I had to laugh out loud.

    And no matter how clear people make it for them, the number of Fanonists keeps growing? How is that even possible? They’re not stupid. Sometimes.

  4. luke says

    I think Prose’s “convenient narrative” quote might be the single worst sentence anyone has ever composed. I just… can’t even…

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