Below are the key documents giving rise to the controversy that has erupted inside PEN America over the award the group is bestowing on…
Below are the key documents giving rise to the controversy that has erupted inside PEN America over the award the group is bestowing on Charlie Hebdo, which you can read about here. They include the key correspondence between the writer Deborah Eisenberg (pictured, above left) and PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel (above, right), which sparked the controversy, as well as the full comment given to the Intercept by the writer Teju Cole, who has withdrawn as a table head. The Intercept has also submitted several questions to Nossel, which are posted below; we will prominently post PEN’s responses as soon as they are received.
Eisenberg letter to Nossel, March 26, 2015
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.
I have read – and heard – that “equal opportunity offence” is the aspiration of Charlie Hebdo. But how is such an aspiration to be fulfilled unless the disparate “targets” of offence occupy an equal position and have an equivalent meaning within the dominant culture?
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.
Additionally, an insult particular to Islam lies in a visual portrayal of the Prophet, which is in itself interdicted. Christianity, on the other hand, not only condones, but actually encourages visual portrayals of the sanctified – in fact, for hundreds of years Christian artists painted little else but Jesus and His mother.
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.
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.
It is difficult and painful to support the protection of offensive expression, but it is necessary; freedom of expression must be indivisible. The point of protecting all kinds of expression is that neither you nor I get to determine what attitudes are acceptable – to ensure that expression cannot be subordinated to powerful interests. But does that mean that courage in expression is to be measured by its offensiveness?
Apparently according to PEN it does. 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.
And France itself offers compellingly meritorious alternatives to Charlie Hebdo for the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. What about those recently responsible for the desecrations of a Jewish cemetery? Were there no virulently anti-Semitic graffiti to be found in that ravaged cemetery that should be considered outstanding examples of courageous free expression? Or what about giving the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer and its satirical anti-Semitic cartoons? Streicher’s actual purpose was to mobilize popular sentiment against a vilified demographic, so perhaps those cartoons could be considered even more valorous than the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which, although they do mobilize popular sentiment against a vilified demographic, are intended merely as representative mockery of any and all religions.
In short: is there not a difference – a critical difference – between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression? Maybe not – maybe I’m confused. 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.
In these times when provisions of the amorphous Patriot Act can be invoked to stifle and severely punish the dissemination of information, PEN could have chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom in order to bring information to the rest of us. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are familiar examples, though there are many others. There are also those who have courageously served as conduits for the information such people have unearthed, such as Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. And there are the many journalists who have gone to the Middle East in an attempt to clarify the tangle of horrors that has been unleashed there over the last 20 years or so, including the American, Japanese, and British journalists who have been brutishly beheaded by raging fundamentalist Islamic State terrorists.
Certainly no one could assert that the Charlie Hebdo staff are not, and were not, courageous. They had been threatened for years with violence at the hands of fundamentalist Islamic extremists, and yet they continued to pursue what they considered be their mission. Thus they expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism. It is also courageous to bait a hallucinating and armed soldier, to walk around naked in the dead of winter, to jump off a roof, to drink from a sewer, or to attempt sexual intercourse with a wild boar.
Those journalists and whistleblowers who exemplify the principles of free expression are also supremely courageous, but their courage has been fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity. Evidently, however, PEN seems to have reasoned that it would undermine the fundamental principle of free expression and cheapen the Award to give it to those whose purposes are noble, intelligent, and selfless rather than pitiful, foolish, and immensely destructive.
Jew and atheist
Nossel reply to Eisneberg, March 27
Dear Deborah (if I may):
Thanks for your note and your thoughtful reflections on our decision to confer the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo. I’d be happy to talk through your concerns by phone, but I am taking the opportunity to respond in writing so that you and those on your cc list can see the points as well. I very much appreciate the thought and rigor that went into your message and want to try to give it its due. As you say, these questions are certainly complex and matters on which reasonable people disagree. At PEN we have never shied away from controversy. I am not sure I can convince you that this was the right decision, but I do want to share just some of our thinking.
We believe that honoring Charlie Hebdo affords us an opportunity to inflect global opinion on an issue of longstanding concern to PEN and to free expression advocates worldwide, including many in the Muslim world: namely, efforts to devalue, ban, or punish acts deemed to constitute the defamation of religion. Such assaults come both from governments and from vigilantes, and they are not acceptable in either context. Moreover, the actions of governments have sometimes served to enable or urge on vigilantes, and vis-versa, an interplay which is particularly concerning. I worked on this issue for more than 18 months as an official of the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. At the time, certain delegations, led by Pakistan, were waging a powerful global campaign to try to secure an international treaty banning the so-called defamation of religion.
Their efforts, they explained to me, were fueled by a sense of deep grievance by ordinary citizens in their countries toward the West and toward insults against their religion. This sense of frustration and anger fueled the deadly protests in Afghanistan after copies of the Koran were disposed of inappropriately at Guantanamo as well as the assassinations of several moderate figures promoting religious reconciliation in Pakistan, including the Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. Bhatti was murdered in 2011 because he was a “blasphemer of Mohammed.” In private discussions with diplomats from multiple Islamic governments, including at the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad, I heard from officials who admitted that they did not believe that international bans on blasphemy were the right answer to the problems and pressure they were facing. They shared concerns that campaigns for such bans gave a kind of license to those assailants, including rioters in Kabul and assassins in Islamabad, who treated insults to Mohammed as grounds for violent reprisals. In making an award to Charlie Hebdo, we call attention the fact that such policies are abhorrent and extremely dangerous.
There are a range of views about the prohibition on depictions of Mohammed. In a position that has emerged fairly widely in the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks, even some Muslim government officials I spoke to rejected the notion that such a prohibition is universal or enshrined in Islam. Some did say, however, that they thought that insults to the Prophet should be unlawful, and that banning them was perfectly consistent with free speech. Their understanding of the principles of free speech was different than our own. They were willing to listen, and over time we found common ground. The Organization of the Islamic Conference ultimately decided to work very closely with us in trying to steer the debate in a new direction, precisely because they thought that banning and protesting such offensive speech was contrary to free expression and was contributing to violence. Our diplomatic efforts also took me to places such as Paris, London, Geneva, Brasilia, Santiago and Buenos Aires. At the UN, changing course on a human rights issue requires very broad consensus: the Europeans had to bend on their unwillingness to recognize legitimate concerns about respect for religious differences; Islamic delegations had to back off their proposals to ban speech; and moderate Latin and African delegations were needed to provide a measure of political cover to both sides. We worked to convince delegations that the right answer to the efforts to ban defamation of religion was not to vote the Pakistani-backed resolution down and defeat it, but rather to work with all delegations on a compromise approach that would unite the international community behind practical measures – like interfaith dialogue, education, effective hate crimes (as distinct from hate speech) prosecutions, etc.—in place of the proposed bans.
This effort at compromise was successful, culminating in passage of a consensus resolution to replace the defamation of religions resolutions in 2011. This piece recounts some of what happened. Unfortunately, while the compromise has held the matter cannot be said to be resolved. Efforts to ban insults to religion have continued to rear their heads in other places:
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings, which united many governments, religious leaders and civil society organizations in a joint expression of solidarity, drew global attention to the dangers of intolerance for criticism of religion. It awakened even some devout Muslim leaders with poor track records of respect for free speech to the dangers of declaring such insults out-of-bounds, or condoning open season on those who draw or publish them. The idea that no words, no matter how offensive or insulting, can ever justify violence seems basic to us here, but is honored in the breach in many parts of the world. We see honoring Charlie Hebdo as a potent way to affirm and elevate that principle at a moment when the world is paying attention. We see a chance to promote and defend a global definition of free speech that is broad enough to encompass all speech except that which falls outside the U.S.’s First Amendment, namely incitement to imminent violence; speech such as the calls to genocide over the Rwandan airwaves (the European standard is different, and there are some prohibitions on speech – such as bans on Holocaust denial and blasphemy laws still on the books in places like Ireland – that we reject). Our doing this protests the rash of attacks on others such as Kurt Wetgaard and Finn Nørgaard in Denmark and Avijit Roy in Bangladesh.
We also believe strongly in upholding and defending the role of satire in free societies. Satire is, by definition, disrespectful and often insulting. Based on Charlie Hebdo’s history, their statements and the accounts of those within PEN who have personally known and worked with the magazine, we believe that it sits firmly within the tradition of French satire (see in particular http://www.wsj.com/articles/charlie-hebdo-is-heir-to-the-french-tradition-of-religious-mockery-1420842456). They mocked religions, but also prejudices against religion, racial prejudices, ethnocentric attitudes and a whole range of other targets: Boko Harm, Brits, Jews (while I don’t know all the facts but I think the incident you described did happen, but they also published other cartoons targeting Jews. Including quite a few by Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered Hebdo editor), gays etc. They defined their role as pushing boundaries, questioning orthodoxy, casting light on obscured motives and ensuring that nothing was above comment or debate.
We have spoken since the attacks to several American cartoonists who have said that, in contrast to Charlie Hebdo, they see their role as to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” meaning that they would not publish cartoons that could be seen as offensive to Muslims, precisely because Muslims are discriminated against, targeted and marginalized within Western societies. In my own view, it is a very good thing that many or most cartoonists and satirists feel that way in that it allows Muslims to feel a greater sense of comfort and acceptance. But a commitment to free expression must make room for those who do not accept rules of prudence or political correctness, and who define their own moral obligations differently. A rule that all satirists must only target for offense those who enjoy a concomitant or equal level of security or prestige within a society would surely take too much off limits.
The new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism—an argument some have made about the incursion of religion into American politics. As we look through the cartoons we think most if not all can be understood in that context.
In pushing the boundaries of discourse as the best satirists do—American, European, or otherwise–Charlie Hebdo broke taboos, raised questions and sparked debates that expanded the space for expression and the exchange of ideas. They paid a heavy price for doing so, and then pressed on despite heartbreak and devastation. We think that shows a powerful commitment to free expression no matter the costs, and it is that commitment that we wish to honor. We don’t see this award as legitimizing or applauding everything Charlie Hebdo has written or depicted; the very premise of their own magazine is that nothing enjoys sanctity and everything is a fair object of critique.
We also don’t believe, on the basis of written statements from and interviews with the magazine’s surviving staff, and on the opinions of PEN members who know them, that the editors of Charlie Hebdo intended to cause humiliation or suffering by printing the cartoons. The outcry by a great many Muslim groups in the aftermath of the attacks also reflects a view that satirists should have liberty to express their views, and that these cartoonists were not motivated by cruelty. We have heard from Muslims, many of whom reject the prohibitions on the depiction of Mohammed, actually decrying the discussion about Muslim grievances in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. They believe this line of discourse legitimizes Muslim extremism, which they see as a far greater danger to Muslims than Western anti-Muslim sentiment. This segment on Chinese TV displays two diametrically opposing Muslim views on the topic. (For what it’s worth, the man rejecting the discourse on marginalization is a former officer of Canadian PEN). Personally, I do think it is important to talk about Hebdo in the context of the precarious position of Muslims in French society; I reject the idea that such points should be off-limits in an explication of Hebdo. But I am very cognizant of the diversity of Muslim views on these questions so don’t see those very real issues as grounds not to honor Hebdo. Above all and vitally, we don’t accept the characterization of Hebdo as merchants of hate in the vein of a Streicher or a cemetery vandal; you may disagree but that’s not who we believe they are.
The January attacks also made vivid the types of threats that cartoonists and writers around the world face daily; these issues suddenly became front page news of concern to a much wider constituency than tends to be the case when individual, unknown writers are jailed or killed in far off places. Part of our job here at PEN is to put free expression issues front and center in the global debate. Charlie Hebdo’s notoriety and the impassioned global response evoked by the attacks thus offers the opportunity to draw into PEN’s mission new supporters who have been moved by the attacks and their aftermath. This can be a point of entry that leads new people to explore and become involved with our other work. We saw this in our membership trends, online and social media campaigning after the attacks. For those directly involved in planning the Gala and Awards there was a feeling that including Charlie Hebdo would have a mobilizing effect on PEN’s work more broadly. I understand that it can seem self-serving for an organization like ours to build on a high-profile event to generate support for our cause. But we only do it when we judge that the events and those involved are firmly consonant with our mission.
The evidence that the Hebdo attacks have energized PEN’s core constituency of writers is tangible. Here are a few examples of what new PEN members wrote as part of the spike in membership applications that we received in the immediate aftermath of the attack:
“In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, I am reminded that freedom of expression is a vital element of our humanity.”
“I have had “join PEN” on my calendar for awhile, but the tragedy in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this past week reminded me of the importance of being part of this community.”
“After reading a Facebook post from a colleague who shared the message of PEN in the wake of the Paris terror attack, I was moved to join.”
“I have meant to join for several years but the recent tragedy in Paris was a catalyst.”
“I’ve been meaning to join PEN for some time but after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo I believe we need to support freedom of expression more than ever.”
“While I have long written about freedom of speech issues, the recent massacre of staffers at Charlie Hebdo was a real wake-up call. I figured that purchasing an overseas subscription to the newspaper (in spite of my shaky French) and joining PEN were the least I could do.”
In sum, we are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.
There are indeed a great many other great examples of courageous champions of free speech worldwide. It has not yet been announced, but this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award will go to Khadija Ismayilova, an intrepid Azerbaijani journalist now in jail. Her bravery is extraordinary and will be a focal point of the Gala and the advocacy action we all take there together. As Pussy Riot helped do for Ilham Tohti, so we hope Charlie Hebdo will help raise Khadija’s profile and make her the 36th winner (out of 40) of the Goldsmith prize to be released from prison. Last year Laura Poitras accepted our invitation to give the Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (long before she won the Pulitzer or the Oscar) but then withdrew to our great disappointment because she was finishing the documentary and did not feel she could travel. We have held panels on U.S. whistleblowers and are doing a forthcoming report on the topic. Glenn Greenwald was, via Skype, the keynote speaker at a major symposium we held 18 months ago on NSA surveillance. We are inspired by them all. We have also stepped up significantly our work here at PEN spotlighting free expression challenges here in the United States, ranging from an original report on press freedom violations in Ferguson to two landmark reports on NSA surveillance to a series of events on Guantanamo to a new lawsuit filed two weeks ago challenging the U.S. intelligence agencies’ Upstream program.
Deborah, I hope this very long note helps shed light on our reasoning. I appreciate very much your taking the time to read it, and to consider our logic. We very much value you as a member of PEN, and are especially grateful for your involvement in our upcoming Guantanamo event in Montclair which will be amazing. A great friend of mine, Diane Archer, had the privilege of sitting with you at last year’s Gala and had such a wonderful time. We definitely don’t want to lose you here at PEN.
I am happy to discuss any and all of the above by phone.
All my best,
Executive Director, PEN American Center
Eisenberg reply to Nossel, April 10
I’m sorry to be so long getting back to you about your detailed response to my letter of March 26 – I’ve come back home to New York after long travels, and have been swamped by chores. In any event, thank you very much for your letter and for your generous offer to talk through my concerns by phone. Unfortunately, though, allaying my concerns would entail altering the state of the world, which I doubt you and I could manage to do on the phone.
But I do want to clarify a few things about which I evidently expressed myself confusingly and to try to disentangle various considerations that have inevitably come up in our correspondence about the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
On many or most points I’m in complete agreement with you. I agree unreservedly that an expression of views, whether satirical or not, and however disagreeable, is not to be answered by murder. I agree unreservedly that the free expression of views should not be banned. And I agree unreservedly that threats of violence let alone actual violence against people who express their views must be vigorously and vociferously opposed.
You made the very interesting point that laws against blasphemy might encourage independent vigilantes; that certainly seems plausible to me, but, as I’ve never thought there should be laws against blasphemy, I’m not sure how it applies to what I said, unless I gave you the impression that I do think there should be such laws – which I assure you is very far from the case.
But here is a point on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise.
Really? Why is that? A person who is murdered (or threatened or harassed) for his or her views is by definition a victim – but not by definition a hero. He or she may be a hero or not. Let us say that a man considers his wife to be inferior to him and derides her repeatedly, and that she then murders him in his sleep. I think most of us would agree that it is wrong to murder the husband, but I hope few of us would agree that the husband deserves an award.
Your account of international negotiations regarding the differing concepts underpinning laws that regulate limits on expression is interesting and informative, but insofar is it applies to my letter to you, it seems to underscore rather than contravene my conviction that satire is largely dependent for its meaning and effect on context and cultural norms.
You say: “A rule that all satirists must only target for offense those who enjoy a concomitant or equal level of security or prestige within a society would surely take too much off limits.” I agree with that statement, too, as far as it goes. But in actual practice the matter goes very much farther than that wholesale abstract formulation, and the potential ramifications and nuances occasioned by any concrete instance of satire are likely to be ample.
Satire might be thought of as sort of a free zone, where potentially dangerous or destabilizing ideas can be safely sent out to play, or to perform for us, and social inequities are implicitly an element in most satire – though it is the parties thought to be holding disproportionate power or prestige who are the usual object of successful satire. It seems to me that power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire, and that to ignore very real inequities between the person holding the mighty pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen, risks making empty and self-serving nonsense of the discussion. In any case, your apparent assumption that I fail to recognize the value of satire is puzzling, given that I made liberal use of it in my letter of March 26.
Even leaving aside the vast and murky area that concerns freedoms, satire, and norms, at the basis of our discussion, I suppose, are – also vast and murky but urgent – questions of how to confront terrorism. And there, too, you and I are bound to stand on some common ground. Terrorism seeks to inhibit and control behavior and even ideas through the simple and very effective expedient of violence, so it is critical to respond by maintaining our autonomy, both in refusing to be silenced by threats or acts and also by refusing to let fear and intimidation interfere with our ideas and responses to the world around us -which is of course a subtler, vaguer, and more easily manipulated business.
Like you, I greatly admire the courage of those who retain their autonomy and hold fast to reasoned ideals in the face of intimidation. But by the same token, I do not believe that a repudiation of terrorism obliges me to join forces with prejudices I find repugnant. If I were to follow PEN’s line of thought in this instance – the equating of free expression with offensiveness – to its logical conclusion, I would have to distort my own inclinations and convictions and devote myself to drawing incredibly offensive magazine covers. And that, in my view, would be as much a capitulation to terrorism as silence would be.
The issue of objectives you raise in the case of Charlie Hebdo seems to me be critical, and I believe that confusion about it has obfuscated the general discussion. You inform me that the “new editor of Charlie Hebdo has said that in mocking religion their aim has been not to attack religion itself, but rather the role of religion in politics and the blurring of lines in-between, which they see as promoting totalitarianism . . . “ and that the editors (I believe that’s who you’re referring to) “defined their role as pushing boundaries, questioning orthodoxy, casting light on obscured motives and ensuring that nothing was above comment or debate.”
These are truly laudable objectives. And I am quite willing to accept your characterization of the Hebdo staff. But my belief, as I’ve indicated, is that Charlie Hebdo’s objectives are entirely beside the point.
It is the work available to us, not the objectives behind it, which we experience and judge. If, for example, I read a book that strikes me as worthless, my opinion of it will not go up simply because the author tells me that she had wanted it to be better than War and Peace. And further, the subjects of a satire are bound to have a different relationship to that satire than those who are only peripherally involved or who have the same set of cultural assumptions as the satire’s author. The Muslim population of France, so much of which feels despised and out of place in their own home, is very aware that the non-Muslim population of France is reading and enjoying mockery of their religion, and they are very unlikely to care what objectives Charlie Hebdo ascribes to itself, however lofty those objectives may be. A person wounded by ridicule is unlikely to much care what the ridiculer intended – to care whether the goal of the ridicule was to stimulate insight or to inflict humiliation.
But presumably the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award is being awarded to Charlie Hebdo for its actual publications, not for its stated aspirations. So those aspirations are as immaterial to PEN’s choice as they are irrelevant to the Muslim population of France. What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? And that is still not one bit clear to me.
Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
Here I am, piping up again, and re-stating some of the things I’ve already said. And how good it would be if you and I could sort out and settle all these issues and those that are attached to them in the exchange of a few letters! But obviously these matters are not easily sorted out, let alone settled – and they are not easily discussed, either. They do, however, call for discussion – for examination, for re-examination, for endless, painstaking vigilance and continual efforts at clear thinking.
You seek to persuade me that Charlie Hebdo was a judicious choice to receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award by telling me people are flocking to join PEN because of its support for Charlie Hebdo – but that only redoubles the anxieties I described in my first letter. I can only wonder what exactly is so alluring to these new dues-payers: are they indeed demonstrating enthusiasm for PEN’s long-standing support of free and courageous expression, or are they demonstrating enthusiasm for a license that is being offered by PEN to openly rally behind a popular prejudice that has suddenly been legitimized and made palatable by the January atrocities?
In short, it is not Charlie Hebdo I’m writing to you about, it is PEN. I would be very sorry if this essential organization were to alter radically in character, from one that supports and protects endangered voices of dissent to one that encourages voices of intolerance.
All the best,
Teju Cole comment to The Intercept
I am a member of PEN, and a supporter of its work and causes. I agreed to
be a table host at this year’s PEN Literary Gala. Later on, in March, it
was announced that Charlie Hebdo would be honored with the the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in response to the January 7 attacks that claimed the lives of many members of its editorial staff.
I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our
headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular.
L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different
as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to
sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been
difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus
about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or
somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.
I would rather honor Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea
Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are
much more progressive than Charlie’s. I would like an acknowledgement of
the Kenyan students who were murdered for no greater crime than being
college students. And, if we are talking about free speech, I would rather
PEN shed more light on the awful effects of governmental spying in the US,
and the general issue of surveillance.
I have withdrawn from my role as table host at the PEN Literary Gala this
year, as have a number of my fellow writers, including Peter Carey, Rachel
Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi. But in my
notes above, I speak for myself, not on behalf of anyone else.
Questions submitted by The Intercept to PEN America:
1) How many writers or table heads have withdrew from the PEN event in
protest of the Charlie Hebdo award? Has anything on this scale happened
before at PEN?
2) What’s your response to those who are withdrawing? Do they have any
3) Given that PEN is supposed to stand for unpopular and marginalized
views that are under assault, what purpose does it serve to simply echo
the overwhelming consensus among western governments: that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are heroes?
4) In deciding to call them “heroes,” did PEN evaluate the content of
their cartoons? Would PEN consider anyone who is killed for their views
a “hero” without regard to the substance of those views?
5) Is there any validity to the concern about former Obama
administration officials running human rights and similar groups that
are supposed to be adversarial to the government?
Photo: Eisenberg: Brad Barket/Getty Images; Nossel: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images