An Embarrassment at PEN

(Trigger warning: this post includes words and images)

PEN American Center decided to honor the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo with an award for the magazine’s courage in standing up for free speech. This is an award for courage in the face of censorship; a free speech award. It was meant to recognize the fact that CH was repeatedly threatened by groups of extremist Muslims who insisted that their particular theological rules must be respected by everyone and no one is allowed to cross their red lines. Even with their lives under threat (and the threats were always serious, not taken as a joke even before they were carried out) CH insisted on their right to satirize and comment on every subject, including the subject of Islam. In response their offices were attacked by armed fanatics and several CH staff were killed, as was one Muslim policeman of Algerian ethnic origin. It must be noted that Islam was not an obsession for CH and was not their main target by any means.

Anyway, the magazine insisted that they had the right to write about Islam in the same way as they wrote about other subjects, and they paid a heavy price. Then, with several colleagues lying dead, the magazine refused to back down and published an intelligent and eminently sane issue to show that they were not cowed. Courage is clearly something they do not lack and PEN American Center decided to honor them for this very straightforward exhibition of devotion to the cause of free speech. A cause that used to be a liberal and progressive cause and which is one of the few ways in which modern democratic society really is superior to other civilizations, past and present.

But everyone did not jump on this “free speech” bandwagon.  A group of writers (including a few real stars like Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Junot Diaz) announced that they were boycotting the award ceremony because CH is not a fit candidate for this award. Most writers (even most liberals) refused to join the refuseniks, but there was support, especially within the postmarxist Left. Still, the affair went ahead, though with an air of needless controversy (needless, of course, in my view. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and those writers probably think the controversy was desperately needed). Now that the award has been handed out I decided to put together a few random personal observations and some interesting snippets from the internet:

1. The objectors clearly misrepresented CH by portraying it as a racist, supremacist, (practically) right wing supporter of the “war on terror”. As Justin EH Smith and others have pointed out in great detail and with solid documentation, the magazine is a LEFT wing, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist magazine that is not obsessed with Islam or Muslims and that spends most of its time skewering the French ruling class and not the disenfranchised masses on whose behalf these denizens of the first world took their not-so-brave stand. Justin also provides the clearest argument in favor of satire as a weapon in the hands of those who stand for freedom and who question absurd or unfair powers, and CH as a magazine that has consistently used it in this fashion.

A quote from Justin’s article:

I am not a big fan of most laïcité rhetoric, and I am sensitive to how it is used for purposes of exclusion. (I am also not listening to what Salman Rushdie is saying on this topic.) This is why I’ve tried to be consistent about coupling my position on Charlie Hebdo with an equally insistent position on, e.g., the rights and dignity of regular and non-regular (‘illegal’) migrants to France. I see my position as the one that, more than that of those with whom I disagree, is most insistent that Islam must not be perceived as a monolith, that in fact there is no such thing as the Muslim community, but rather numerous disagreeing factions, by no means all of which agree with the attackers that there is something unacceptably offensive about the content of Charlie Hebdo.


2. Joyce Carol Oates represents the confused and conflicted wing of the refuseniks. After signing the letter, she took to twitter to backtrack and make sure she satisfied all sides. A position that becomes understandable once you notice that she has PEN awards of her own and has been a guest and even a presenter at an award show that honored, among others, the American war reporter Lara Logan. If she found no difficulty there, one wonders what upset her so much about CH? Does she think CH is somehow MORE “metropole” or pro-war-on-terror than Lara Logan? Anyway, my guess is that plain-vanilla ignorance is not the primary reason she signed on to the letter (though it is surely part of it, since she seems to have no idea what CH actually promotes).  My guess (and of course, it is only a guess) is that she signed because of a combination of:
A. Vague (and very poorly informed) postmarxism that made her imagine that this was a fight between White, Western privilege and the disenfranchised masses yearning to be free, and in such a fight, it was her duty as a socially aware rich White Westerner to show that she was on the side of the angels.
B. Some people she considered friends asked her to sign. She did what had to be done. Then backtracked when she realized that other friends (and potential judges at future award events) were in the opposite camp.

Need to examine — without rancor, please!–when someone’s “freedom of expression” is someone else’s devastating & assaultive “hate speech.”

Should be kept in mind that PEN gives many awards & most for literary excellence. Current controversy disproportionate, misleading.

I have no way of knowing this is why she behaved as she did, any more than she has a way of knowing what was in the hearts of CH editors and cartoonists when they drew the cartoons. She is not taking their anti-racist, progressive statements at face value, I am not taking hers, that’s just how the world works. Though the difference remains that I am conscious I am making assumptions about her motives while doing my mind-reading, but she seems to think she just knows. In any case, her case against CH has been summarized and judged, correctly, by this German blogger. The last line is philosophical gold.

3. Francine Prose wrote a piece defending her decision to sign the letter and included this gem:
“And the idea that one is either “for us or against us” in such matters not only precludes rational and careful thinking, but also has a chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech that all of us – and all the people at PEN – are working so tirelessly to guarantee.”

Criticising her decision has a “chilling effect” on free speech but cartoonists getting shot for drawing cartoons does not? And her refusal to honor CH? does that have a “chilling effect” on free speech or is it only chilling if she is being criticized?

4. The cartoonist Gary Trudeau. After making some ignorant remarks, he backtracked a little, but not much. Here he is defending his stand against CH (and in his case, it clearly is a stand against CH, not some vague notion of “others I like deserved it more, so I am unhappy and wont go”)

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Transcription from Nib:

I was as outraged as the rest of the word at the time. I mourn them deeply. We’re a very small fraternity of political cartoonists around the globe… What I didn’t do is necessarily agree with the decisions they made that brought a world of pain to France.

I think that in France the wider Muslim community feels disempowered and disenfranchised in way that I’m sure is also true in this country. And that while I would imagine only a tiny fraction were sympathetic to the acts that were carried out and the killings, I think probably the vast majority shared in the outraged. Certainly that seems to be what people are hearing in the schoolyards in France now, is that they’re finding common cause at least with the issue, if not with the action.

I think that’s bad for France, it’s unfortunate, it’s a tragedy that could have been avoided. But every body has to decide where the red lines are for themselves.

Well, this cartoon sums it up.

5. Professor Amitava Kumar signed on to the protest but it seems he is not the confrontational sort, so he is not exactly reveling in the SJW mode. Instead, he says he protested because he saw into the future and “the stand I am taking is; why is so much vitriol being poured on those who are protesting (against CH)”. THIS is why he signed the letter? because he is clairvoyant and knew unfair criticism would befall those who signed? Hear it and marvel. He even complains that one reason he is upset is because Hebdo is being awarded and nobody is talking about Avijit Roy or Sabeen least one of whom was killed by exactly the same ideology and for exactly the same reasons as the attack on Hebdo. One would think Hebdo’s courage creates space for people like Avijit, but the good professor does not see it that way. . he spends a lot of this interview answering every question with appeals to “complexity” and “nuance” and “raising questions” instead of answering the question he has been asked. Interestingly, he also tries to bring in the objection that awards as such are the problem. A stand to which I hope he will stick diligently in the future. Anyway, this interview is a gem and worth your time. Listen for yourself and wonder why and how he became a professor.

6. The full time social justice warriors (especially those of Latin American origin) among the refuseniks are easier to understand. For them, if it is “the power” versus someone else, then one supports someone else. Free speech per se is not a “good”. It is good if it promotes “social justice”, bad if it does not. Since the world is assumed to be divided between grown up and evil White people (White is not necessarily about color in this case; the Japanese are practically White, the Turks are not) and childlike and innocent “people of color” (this category includes chromatically White people from Latin America, whose ancestors crimes against Native Americans and Africans have long since been forgiven, it’s complicated), therefore in any conflict between good and evil, one sides with the good.  In this case, PEN American Center and Charlie Hebdo are both “White” (never mind a few race traitors who have joined the ranks of the oppressors), compared to Muslims (herein regarded as POC irrespective of skin pigmentation), the choice is not difficult.
I also have the (anecdotal) impression that SJWs who are willing to be “anti-free speech” in this case may, in other conversations, come across as very much pro-free speech. It seems they have a hierarchy of crimes in mind, with “Western hegemonism/colonialism/imperialism/racism” being at the top of the list. Between suppression of speech and (perceived) support of “the metropole” in the name of free speech, they will opt for suppression of speech.
It sort of makes sense if you buy into their premises. It is sometimes hard to imagine why anyone does buy their premises, since they are historically, anthropologically, culturally and biologically incorrect. But that is a discussion for another day.
By the way, Teju Cole is in this group but I do wonder about him a little. What if his Nigerian heritage causes him to take a more personal interest in Islamic terrorists at some point? Would he slightly adjust his SJW positions? I am not sure what (if any) connection he has with Nigeria now, but if it is more than mere nostalgia then this is at least a slight possibility. He wont change positions explicitly and openly of course, and the ultimate responsibility for all events in Nigeria will continue to be assigned to Britain or America (since I expect his own bread and butter will continue to come from the American SJW community) but a little bit of a shift may happen with him. We will have to wait and see.

7. Peter Carey managed to include the entire French nation in the list of criminals:
“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.”
Surely we can all agree with that. Those arrogant French people have had it coming ever since Napoleon insulted Carey’s ancestors with that quip about “a nation of shopkeepers”.

6. Razib Khan has a post up about what the data says on the issue of free speech in America. As he sums it up “the consistent free speech position gets stronger as you get more liberal, and, as you get more intelligent.” So, a few noisy SJWs do not represent either liberal or intelligent opinion in the country. Not on the issue of free speech. (though some may argue that liberals just wish to appear more tolerant, not that they are more tolerant. I still think liberalism had a LOT to do with establishing the notion of free speech protection and remains one of its main defenders. The PC crowd is an aberration… I hope)

Razib also adds a caveat that i think is valid: One major caveat that needs to placed here is that traditionally the elites of this country have been more defensive about free speech than the populace as a whole. That’s probably because the elites are worried more about power plays by their rivals. Ultimately politically oriented free speech is important for those with ambition and aspirations.

7. Meanwhile, if you want more background on blasphemy-killing as a way to silence criticism, you can see my article here. 

An image of a person in a turban holding a sign “I am Charlie” with the title “all is forgiven” was removed from this part for obvious reasons.

Post Scrip: I just saw this excellent article by Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid that pretty much sums it up.

What the radical Islamists and their apologists won’t discuss is the tradition of drawing Prophet Muhammad’s images as a form of tribute by many Muslim artists throughout centuries. What they won’t discuss either is the fact that an ostensibly anti-Muslim publication received glowing tributes from many Arab Muslim newspapers in the aftermath of the Paris attack, with Op-Eds in Charlie Hebdo’s support being published in Pakistan as well. An Iranian newspaper published ‘Je suis Charlie’ on its front page.
You can deem Sabeen’s talk or Charlie Hebdo’s satire as “violating the acceptable” but in either case you can’t simultaneously be a flag-bearer of free speech. For consistency’s sake, it’s better to not pay any regard to freedom of speech, than being selective in safeguarding it. If you’re Sabeen, but not Charlie, for all practical purposes you’re neither.”

By the way, I did not include Kamila Shamsie in my random examples of signatories and their contradictions because she is not one of the famous signatories. But I must say that I would have expected more of her kin to sign this protest. What happened?

I hasten to add that Pakistani writers in English include some genuine talents (Mohammed Hanif, Bapsi Sidhwa and Nadim Aslam come to mind, just off the top of my head) but you know what I mean.. there is a group who would sign almost anything supported by Teju Cole and Joyce Carol Oates, so I am a bit surprised more of them did not jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps nobody called?
PS #2: Where is Pankaj Mishra? Why was he not asked to sign? or, God forbid, did he refuse? Just curious. 

PS#3: An interesting objection: Someone objected that contrary to my claim, speech was freer in pre-modern Punjab than it is in modern America. I am not convinced, but if anyone has some argument about that, feel free to add it to the comments. 

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