As I was close to finishing my own story, The New York Times published a long article last night about the rather intense and fascinating controversy that has erupted inside PEN America, the group long devoted to defending writers’ freedom of expression from attacks by governments. In essence, numerous prominent writers who were to serve as “table heads,” or who are longtime PEN members, have withdrawn from the group’s annual awards gala and otherwise expressed anger over PEN’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.
The Times story does a good job laying out the events and describing the general controversy, so in lieu of repeating that, I instead want to publish the key correspondence between the writer Deborah Eisenberg and PEN’s Executive Director, former Obama State Department official and Amnesty USA Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, which sparked the controversy; post the full comment given to The Intercept by the writer Teju Cole, who has withdrawn as a table head; and make a few observations of my own. The Intercept has also submitted several questions to Nossel, which I’m also posting, and will prominently post PEN’s responses as soon as they are received. All of those documents are here.
Though the core documents are lengthy, this argument is really worth following because it highlights how ideals of free speech, and the Charlie Hebdo attack itself, were crassly exploited by governments around the world to promote all sorts of agendas having nothing to do with free expression. Indeed, some of the most repressive regimes on the planet sent officials to participate in the Paris “Free Speech” rally, and France itself began almost immediately arresting and prosecuting people for expressing unpopular, verboten political viewpoints and then undertaking a series of official censorship acts, including the blocking of websites disliked by its government. The French government perpetrated these acts of censorship, and continues to do so, with almost no objections from those who flamboyantly paraded around as free speech fanatics during Charlie Hebdo Week.
Under the guise of the “War on Terror,” there has indeed been a systematic assault on free speech: though it’s been one waged by Western governments primarily against their Muslim citizens. For that reason, it has provoked almost no objections from those who dressed up as free speech crusaders that week. That’s because, as I wrote in the aftermath of that rally, the incident was used to manipulatively exploit, not celebrate and protect, free expression. Celebrating Charlie Hebdo was largely about glorifying anti-Muslim sentiment; free expression was the pretext.
This is all quite redolent of how the U.S. government and its acolytes quite adeptly exploit social issues to advance imperial aims. U.S. officials, for instance, gin up anger toward Putin or Iran by highlighting the maltreatment of those countries’ LGBT citizens — as though that’s why the U.S. government is hostile — while at the same time showering arms and money on allied regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt whose treatment of gays is at least as bad (while LGBT groups in the U.S. say nothing because those are Obama’s policies). Or American and British officials will denounce free press attacks by governments they want to demonize while cozying up to regimes that allow no press freedoms at all. It’s also similar to how neocons tried to persuade feminists to support the war in Afghanistan because the Taliban is heinous to women or justified the invasions of Iraq because Saddam violated human rights — at the very same time that the regimes neocons love the most are at least as bad if not worse on those issues (to say nothing of the human rights records of neocons themselves and the U.S. government).
This is now a common, and quite potent, tactic: inducing support for highly illiberal Western government policy by dressing it up as support for liberal principles. And it highlights the fraud of pretending that celebrations of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are independent of the fact that the particular group they most prominently mock are Muslims, a marginalized, targeted, and largely powerless group in France and the West generally.
As I wrote after the Paris rally, it is simply inconceivable that Charlie Hebdo would have been depicted as heroes had their primary targets been groups more favored and powerful in the West (indeed, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was fired by the magazine in 2009 for mocking Judaism: where were all the newfound free speech crusaders then?). As the objecting PEN writers note, one can regard the murders of the Charle Hebdo cartoonists as repugnant, vile and dangerous (as any decent person does) while simultaneously scorning the Muslim-bashing focus of their “satire.”
What, pray tell, is remotely admirable about sitting in the West — which has been invading, bombing, and otherwise dominating Muslim countries around the world for decades, and has spent the last decade depicting Islam as the Gravest Threat — and echoing that prevailing sentiment by bashing Muslims? Nothing is easier than mocking and maligning the group in your society most marginalized and oppressed. People in the West have their careers destroyed when they’re accused of sympathizing with Islam, not for opposing it. Bashing Muslims and Islam is orthodoxy in the West, both on the level of official policy and political culture.
The controversy provoked by the PEN writers raises an ancillary though important issue: the role played by former Obama officials in human rights and other organizations designed to function as adversaries to the government. Human Rights Watch has come under fire because key officials served in the U.S. State Department and critics claim the group thus echoes the U.S. government line. NYU students are currently protesting the appointment to the faculty of former Yale Law School dean Harold Koh, who as a legal adviser in Obama’s State Department acted as an advocate of drone killings and Obama’s right to wage war in Libya in the face of a Congressional vote against that war. And now PEN is led by Nossel, a former Obama State Department official who faced serious criticisms after she left for using Amnesty USA’s credibility to advance Obama’s foreign policy.
Nobody suggests that working as an official of the U.S. government should be permanently disqualifying. But there have to be groups that act as genuine adversaries to the most powerful government on the planet — especially ones claiming to be human rights organizations or those who oppose state censorship — and when those groups are led by the very people who defended and implemented the policies of that government, those groups’ credibility to act in that capacity is seriously compromised. That’s how supposedly dissident groups become co-opted and converted into the opposite of what they claim. The writer Wallace Shawn, who is a member of PEN and protests the Charlie Hebdo award, told me:
The “boards” of every non-profit organization, university, theatre, etc., no matter what the organization’s original goals were, are made up of the same tiny group of people, and they choose the organization’s leaders, presidents, artistic directors on the basis that those individuals would be good at “fund-raising,” i.e. getting money out of a few more people from that same group……Then even the once serious people in the organization begin to internalize the in-born belief of the corporate-minded board members that the most important thing for the organization is to grow, raise more money, get more members………..the trend points in the same direction for every organization…….. (ellipses in original)
Whatever else is true, PEN America has always existed to defend unorthodox and marginalized views from attack, and there is absolutely nothing unorthodox or marginalized in the West about the views expressed by Charlie Hebdo cartoonists or in showering them with courage awards. As Eisenberg put it in her original letter, the Charlie Hebdo award appears to be “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.”
The letters and other documents giving rise to this controversy, which I really encourage you to read, can be found here.
Photo of world leaders and dignitaries attend a mass unity rally following the recent Paris terrorist attacks on January 11, 2015 in Paris, France (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)