Offended PEN members refuse to participate in annual gala because Charlie Hebdo got an award

April 27, 2015 • 9:20 am

Jebus! Here’s the Roll of Shame: six writers who took a misguided stand against Charlie Hebdo, apparently not understanding what the magazine was all about:

Peter Carey
Michael Ondaatje
Francine Prose
Teju Cole
Rachel Kushner
Taiye Selasi

What did they do? According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, these writers “[withdrew] as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.” At that gala, the magazine will receive the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, an award that apparently hurt the tender feelings of those six. Other writers, like Deborah Eisenberg, didn’t withdraw but also criticized Charlie Hebdo for “denigrating portrayals of Muslims.” Sorry, but the magazine published denigrating portrayals of Islamic belief, which Eisenberg simply gets wrong, mistaking criticism of a faith—or of bad behavior of its adherents—with hatred of people.

Here are their reasons for not showing up:

In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.

Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.

He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

. . . In an essay for The New Yorker’s website after the attack, Mr. Cole noted that the magazine claimed to offend all parties, but in fact in recent years “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” (Mr. Cole declined to comment for this article.)

Seriously, “racist and Islamophobic provocations”?  The word “provocation” clearly implies that the magazine is somehow responsible for what happened to its employees.  And as for “racism,” well, Muslims are not a race but a religion.  And I wonder if Cole would have written his essay had Charlie Hebdo made fun only of Catholicism and Christianity rather than Islam. Where’s the criticism of “Catholicphobia”? Chalk one up for New Yorker’s “let’s-not-offend-anyone-except-Republicans” attitude.

All of this, I think, rests on a deep misunderstanding of the magazine’s aims, which were to satirize Islam (along with every other religion), but also to stand up for the rights of minorities and immigrants in France, regularly mocking the French Right. Combine that with the hyprocritical Leftist double-standard of coddling Islam because it’s a “minority group” comprising people of color, and you get this kind of stupid behavior.

Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN International, was also surprised, saying this: “We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice,” he said. “But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”

Garry Trudeau, whom I no longer admire, also belongs on this list after excoriating Charlie Hebdo for hate speech and for “punching down.” One can almost read Trudeau’s remarks as blaming the magazine itself for the murderous attack by terrorists.

The saddest thing is that PEN International has always promoted freedom of expression. That is, in fact, one of its goals. Here’s a statement from their website (my emphasis):

International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, was founded in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere; to emphasize the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to act as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views.

Thank Ceiling Cat that Salman Rushdie, a voice of sanity who himself continues to experience the same threats that decimated Charlie Hebdo, made a statement supporting PEN’s ideals:

. . . Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” said the issues were perfectly clear. Mr. Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

PEN issued a statement extolling Charlie Hebdo but respecting the Shameful Six for their “convictions”, misguided as they were. And the PEN statement gets the aims of the magazine right:

But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo‘s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits—no matter the purpose, intent, or import of the expression.

Once again we see the cognitive dissonance produced on the Left between its Enlightenment values of free expression and of desire to protect the rights of minorities. But those values never included prohibition of criticizing “minority faiths.” The attitude of those six writers, and of their running dogs, threatens to do in all Enlightenment values, values opposed by the extremists that attacked Charlie Hebdo and the many Muslims who silently support them.

As Rushdie said, the Shameful Six are simply and horribly wrong.

50 thoughts on “Offended PEN members refuse to participate in annual gala because Charlie Hebdo got an award

    1. Exactly. I am constantly frustrated by the number of people who can’t seem to grasp the concept of freedom of expression. (I think I’ve written that sentence several times before in response to posts by Jerry.)

    1. Yes, it would that despite being a liberal modern guy, still carries some Old Testament inspired beliefs about sins of his fathers. Perhaps he is overcompensating based on his family’s history of slave ownership and doing precisely what Jerry says, excluding racial and ethnic minorities from criticism out of a sense white liberal guilt?

        1. My thought on what Affleck did after finding out he had some slave ownership in the gene pool, besides being a giant hypocrite, is that he is likely pretty clueless on American History anyway. Anything that appeared offensive to him would have to be avoided.

  1. Does Kushner really think a French cartoon magazine can force or enforce secularism on people?

    I very much like Rushdie’s response. “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name…” Spot on.

    Its kind of amazing that the six protestors can’t even get to the “I disagree with what they say, but will defend their right to say it” position. Don’t the understand that the award is precisely that – not necessarily an agreement with everything Charlie Hebdo says, but a defense of their right to say it?

    1. I for one don’t even *know* everything CH has said, and I don’t even care to find out. I do know, however, you don’t kill a guy for saying whatever it is. (At worst you file a complaint that you feel your life is in danger!)

  2. If you’re opining on the victims of Islamic extremists, and it turns out your opinions are the opposite of Salman Rushdie’s, you might want to reconsider your opinions. No one man has all the answers, of course, I’m just saying reconsider. He’s lived under a fatwa and you haven’t – he might have an insight you don’t have.

  3. All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation

    What a blatantly Francophobic thing to say. I am deeply offended by his hateful stereotyping of the French as being somehow “arrogant.” What’s next? The Italians are all amorous? The Germans humorless? The Brits can’t cook?

    b&

    1. It’s not Francophobic it’s punching up because there are more French people than there are Muslims, er….. wait, never mind.

      1. This illustrates well the silliness of the way the “punch up” stuff is framed. What’s the reference class for the numbers? How much difference is allowed? What comparisons are allowed? (After all, men are a minority – there are more women in the world – so …)

        1. Yes; pretty much everyone who is criticized or mocked feels that they’re being bullied by people who are abusing power. Even if you see your critics as lowly flies or worms beneath your feet, you’re rather outraged that they would be so annoying as to attack you and put poor you on the defense.

          Given that religion is supposed to get its credibility from the Highest possible power, source, reason, or being in reality, going after it looks like an automatic punch ‘up’ to me.

          1. That is brilliant! If criticizing ideas about God is not punching up, then it has to be punching down (or at least sideways). God is smaller than satirists? Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. Seems to eliminate the idea that he could be all powerful and all knowing. Hardly something worth worshiping…everybody can move along now, nothing to see here.

          2. “Going after (religion) looks like an automatic punch ‘up’ to me”

            I like that very much Sastra(in fact I like it so much I’m going to nick it). After all, God isn’t just privileged, He’s infinitely privileged. And He’s a man, He’s part of the establishment, almost certainly votes Conservative/Republican, He’s essentially a slave-owner…the guy’s only going to be on one side of the politico-economic divide.

    2. “The Brits can’t cook?”

      Some things, Ben, are self-evidently true.

      (Signed)
      infinite
      (Brit)

      😉

          1. Well, one of the more memorable ones was Pakistani…but there was also a bakery on a street corner that seemed to be roughly the equivalent of an unassuming non-chain generic American donut shop…save the pastries were some of the best I’ve ever had.

            And, for that matter, the banger I got from a street vendor outside the Tube station near Trafalgar Square was much, much better than any sausage product you’d get at any American ballpark.

            b&

  4. It’s a damn shame. Carey can write a killer novel. If anyone has the time, pick up his book “My Life As A Fake”, preferably at a used bookstore, so that Carey doesn’t get any money for it. It’s genius.

  5. Carey: A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.

    What?! Yes it was a freedoms of speech issue and no one is being self righteous! It’s about a small minority threatening and carrying out violence to bully writers and illustrators into silence. How more of a freedom of speech issue can this be? And the way the first sentence is trotted out then diminished is almost as offensive as what follows.

    1. “A hideous crime was committed, but…”

      No, “a hideous crime was committed, period.”

      End of discussion.

  6. Jerry, I couldn’t agree more with you here.
    In fact Charlie Hebdo (and it’s predecessor, Harakiri) was a nearly SJW magazine, but in a -admittedly often crudely- humorous way. They mocked (and I hope they still will) bigotry, fascism, authoritarianism and fundamentalism. They systematically took the part of the downtrodden.
    Some do not understand the ways of CH and Harakiri, those six clearly are part of those.

  7. He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

    Behold the Little People Argument once again, in which all Muslims are grouped together and framed as weak, over-sensitive, simple-minded, and permanently barred from the adult table where ideas are discussed and disputed. Look at how little they can handle. Lower expectations and call it “cultural tolerance.”

    This line of defense is fed by the assumption that religion automatically subsumes a believer’s entire identity. Using humor to show that fundamentalism is absurd is just like refusing to give someone a job because their skin is a different color. Because Little People simply can’t manage the o so difficult distinction, we shouldn’t either.

    1. And in what way are French Muslims ‘disempowered’? They are equal French citizens; they have the vote; they are legally protected against *actual* racism etc. Carey seems to have jerked his knee without engaging his brain.

      1. I think racism can disempower people even if they’re technically protected by laws. I’m not familiar enough with France to know whether a knee was unfairly jerked on that issue. That wasn’t my point.

        Unlike race, sex, gender, nationality, or other aspects of intrinsic identity which involve nothing more than difference, religion is supposed to involve actual truth claims. To allow an entire group of people to avoid the consequences of that because They Can’t Handle Truth OR open public discourse disempowers them.

    2. ‘J’ai mal à la plume’ – I have a sore pen – as was written on a placard of one of the little people in a Beirut vigil for Charlie Hebdo. There were more little people like the Egyptian journalist Diaa Rashwan who led the journalists’ protest. And there was the vigil in Tunis. ‘Je suis Charlie’ signs were seen even in Syria. And all this a day before the office of the Hamburger Morgenpost in Germany was firebombed in copy-cat of the CH attack.

      In Muslim countries, 4 protests that I have found brave enough to stand up for free speech. But of the 49 Muslim countries that’s it. Nothing. And that’s a problem.

      Did any of these 6 authors even try to contact Muslim liberal thinkers to seek their views? People like Maajid Nawaz who outright condemned the CH attacks. Or Irshad Manji. Or in the Muslim countries, Ibrahim Eissa, Dr. Noha Mahmoud Salem or Dhiyaa al-Musawi. What about the millions across the Arab world who participated in the first fruits of the Arab Spring protests? Are they all so delicate that they cannot bare a bit of criticism of Islamic theocracy? They want and need our support.

      If we do not defend free speech, full stop, what sort of message does it send to countries like Bangladesh? Where insult to the prophet always and almost instinctively trumps free speech. And little people secular bloggers like Washiqur Rahman Babu are hacked to death in the street by another little person who securely explains, “I stabbed him because he humiliated my prophet.”

      Allele akhbar. x

  8. This is not the first time that Ondaatje has demonstrated moral confusion. I believe that in his novel “The English Patient,” which is set during WWII, he floats this Chomsky-like idea that casualties are all that matter in a war regardless of what side they are on, and so he views the Allies and the Nazis as being roughly equal in that both caused people to die, just different people. That it matters which side wins doesn’t enter Ondaatje’s thinking too much.

    1. Beautifully put. Yep I remembered that about Ondaatje.

      And I think the character in the English Patient was based on a real guy who was a Nazi sympathizer.

  9. In a Tw**t, Rushdie also referred to those authors as “Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.” 🙂

  10. Starting to catch up on my missed emails (been one of *those* weeks), who or what are are or is “PEN”? From their website :

    International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, was founded in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere; to emphasize the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression;

    Well, that’ll have them on a lot of religious hit lists. “Hit” in the sense of “paid extrajudicial murder by a hired hand^H^H^H^H sword”.

    and to act as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views.

    That’ll add a few publishers and critics to the hit-funders.

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