Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi and Francine Prose are very clever people. Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, for example, is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant novels in years. So you would think that at least one of them could muster a justification for their decision to withdraw from the forthcoming PEN gala, at which Charlie Hebdo will receive the annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, that wouldn’t make you want to bang your head against your desk. Apparently not.
Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.
At least she doesn’t indulge in victim-blaming to the grotesque extent that Garry Trudeau did recently, but she saves her most offensive claim till last. “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” Narrative. Neatly. No doubt the victims would have preferred a more ambiguous story arc as long as it left them still breathing. The flipside of Prose’s claim is that the “narrative” is inconvenient for her. (Even in edited form: she fails to mention that copy editor Mustapha Ourrad was Algerian-French; that the Kouachi brothers also killed a maintenance worker and two police officers, one of whom was a Muslim; and that their friend Amedy Coulibaly murdered four customers in a kosher supermarket because they were Jewish.) Just because Islamophobes capitalised on the fact that Islamist extremists went on a killing spree, it doesn’t mean that Islamist extremists didn’t go on a killing spree. Prose is right to say that the murders were seized upon by people with an axe to grind and “many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism”. But all tragedies are politicised, and the subsequent opportunism doesn’t change the facts. This was a religious execution.
In his statement, Teju Cole brought up the Rushdie affair. “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.” Leaving aside Cole’s contentious claim that the magazine was flat-out racist, it’s a distinction that the Kouachis themselves didn’t make. They weren’t machine-gunning cartoonists for the crimes of racism or Islamophobia. Even the most vile and unapologetic racists are very rarely murdered. No, they were punishing the crime of blasphemy. I’d be interested to learn of any other cases, in any other countries, in which PEN members have snubbed journalists who were murdered on this basis.
One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between “good” and “bad” satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. Teju Cole listed some people he felt were more deserving of the award, including persecuted Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Does he not realise that Badawi’s enemies are the same as Charlie Hebdo’s? If the Kouachis had been raised in Saudi Arabia rather than France, they would be the kind of men who would be flogging Badawi with enthusiasm. Outside of rock-solid dictatorships like North Korea, there is no force more brutally intolerant of freedom of expression.
So why does Prose believe Charlie Hebdo doesn’t deserve the award? “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honour writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live.” Well, murderous extremism in the name of God is, unfortunately, a truth about the world in which we live. “That is important work that requires perseverance and courage.” OK. Even if you hate the Charlie Hebdo staff, you’d have to grant them those two qualities. But wait. “And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.” Why is this not the same? She doesn’t say. Pussy Riot made crude music and offended religious believers by performing in a church, but nobody boycotted their award last year. And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.
I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. Perhaps they suspect that PEN is secretly led by racists and neocons with a grudge against Islam. Perhaps they really believe that the magazine, whose regular targets included the political elite and the Front National, was an intolerably racist enterprise. To illustrate the distinction between tolerating speech and endorsing it, Prose actually stooped to a comparison with neo-Nazis in Illinois; Deborah Eisenberg went further and mentioned Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus. Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, clarified that principle in a blogpost yesterday:
Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January. We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture. On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending.… Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.
Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of Cole’s preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the “right” direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it.
Salman Rushdie has sharply criticised the six. He knows full well what it’s like to not be the perfect poster-boy for freedom of speech. During the Satanic Verses affair, Roald Dahl, John le Carré and John Berger accused him of reckless arrogance and “insensitivity”. Former president Jimmy Carter called the novel “a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated”. Le Carré has since apologised and those attacks, levelled at a man facing a death sentence for writing a novel, now seem horribly misguided. Not because he wasn’t arrogant (he is rather) or insensitive (that was the point), but because they tried to make him less worthy of solidarity from fellow writers. It was the “wrong” kind of free speech, just as Charlie Hebdo’s is. Such criticisms are absolutely valid in the pages of the TLS or the NYRB but when lives are threatened or taken, the arithmetic changes. There’s an obligation to try to separate matters of taste from questions of principle.
My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?