They said they did not want to bother “the recently bereaved”

Boris Kachka gives a rather sneery account of the PEN gala.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two people most sanguine about the ruckus were the honorees, who’ve seen worse. “I’m surrounded by cops, and it’s no problem,” said Gérard Biard, the French satirical paper’s current editor-in-chief. “I began to get used to it,” he added — as he has to the notion that Hebdo traffics in needlessly provocative racist caricatures. “I would like to remind the protesters that the first victims of Islamism are Muslim. We don’t attack Muslims, we defend them. Do they?”

One of the aspects of the issue that the protesters are overlooking is the fact that some Muslims emigrate from majority-Muslim countries because they don’t want to live lives dominated by Islam. Some Muslims leave such countries because they want to escape Islamism.

His colleague Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who was late to the editorial meeting at which eight Hebdo staff members were killed in January, regretted that the missing hosts — including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachel Kushner, and Teju Cole — had skipped a morning PEN panel where he’d appeared. (They’d declined in an email, saying they did not want to bother “the recently bereaved.”)

Oh, please. That’s insulting, if you like.

Other PEN hosts — especially Art Spiegelman and several other cartoonists he’d drafted to replace the protesters at tables — gave less ground on the ten-day-old debate. “I think of them as the Sanctimonious Six,” said Spiegelman, wearing a Nancy comic tie, of the absent hosts. He detected in them a note of anti-cartoonist bias, especially in the way criticism over the last few days had integrated the Dallas Muhammad-drawing contest that provoked a shooting. “Some of them were derogatory for the medium, talking about them as by nature vulgar,” he said. “Sure, Charlie Hebdo’s drawings are often vulgar when you think of Muhammad with a crescent moon up his ass, but the ideas behind it are rather sophisticated. A lot of the criticism seemed to blur the distinctions between Pamela Geller’s organization,” the Muhammad-drawing contest group, “and Charlie Hebdo, which has been lauded as an anti-racist organization by SOS Racisme” — a French anti-racism NGO.

Quite. The protesters talk as if Charlie Hebdo is allied with and comparable to Pam Geller, which is a crude mistake – yet they refuse to learn otherwise.

The defense offered stood on three legs. SOS Racisme tackled the first one, arguing that the work of Charlie Hebdo was not racist. “We honor their antiracist commitment, which has been consistent throughout their existence,” said Sopo. The previous week’s “polemic” was based on a fundamental “misunderstanding of what Charlie Hebdo means in France. I think it’s very important that we do not kill those who died a second time by raising a polemic.”

The second leg was a defense of secularism. “Secularism is not a bad word,” Biard said in his speech, subtitles flashing behind him, making it feel only more like a high-school lesson on laicité. “Nor is it a French cultural obsession, like smelly cheese or flabby presidents. It’s one of the many conditions for democracy. Secularism protects our freedom of conscience, which is both the right to believe and the right not to believe.”

New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff made the final point. “The attack was targeted on cartoonists, and that wasn’t an accident,” he said. “I do feel that cartoonists, humorists, satirists, and jokers are the marginalized group in the defense of freedom of expression. Often, humor is the second-class citizen in the defense, and I want to say that it’s nice that Charlie Hebdo is up here in the first-class cabin.” Then he named the one thing his cartoons and Hebdo’s have in common: “Not everyone gets the joke.” It echoed Biard’s closing line, like a flashy defense attorney’s last flourish: “Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

Well you can call it flashy and a flourish all you like, but it’s true and it’s about a thing that truly did happen. I myself don’t think it’s a subject that requires an ironic treatment.

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