May 4th, 2015 | Other Projects
Well, I somehow find myself taking sides in the PEN Awards fracas over Charlie Hebdo. Here’s an article in today’s New York Times with links to key earlier articles, in case you haven’t been following this thing with bated breath since it erupted last week.
Art Spiegelman emailed me last Monday asking if I would be willing to come to PEN American Center’s gala tomorrow night. He was looking for cartoonists to replace the writers who had withdrawn from the event in protest of the presentation of the annual “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo. This was the first I had heard about the protest—or the award, or anything. I’m not a member of PEN though I keep meaning to join. Anyhow, I quickly looked it up and learned that all these great writers who I respect didn’t think Charlie Hebdo should get this award because they find the content of the magazine problematic.
In a letter to PEN, they write:
“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
To be honest, if these people had come to me first, I probably would have signed on with them–not because I’m weak-minded and easily led (though I am) but because both sides of this debate make some really good points. But I got the call from Art, in an email whose subject line read “Cartoonists’ Lives Matter.” And I’m goin’ to the gala. What it comes down to for me is that it’s possible to separate the award—which is for courage, after all—from editorial content.
Like most Americans, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo until the massacre in January. So all my information about the magazine came from that context—from US news reports about the murdered writers and cartoonists which often included examples of Charlie’s cartoons, with English translations. Some charming, some crude. One that struck me as perhaps needlessly provocative showed a naked Mohammad from behind as he bowed in prayer. But the main thing I came away from these cartoons with was a sense that I just didn’t get them. Even if I could understand the words, there were too many cultural and political references I was missing. Satire is a powerful weapon, but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often doesn’t work when it’s the slightest bit out of context.
I just discovered this great site that takes the trouble of translating not just the text, but the whole gestalt of some CH cartoons. Often something that looks at first glance like a racist or homophobic joke turns out to be making the opposite point. But it’s true that things can get pretty crude and sophomoric.
It’s not my kind of humor. But just because I wouldn’t do that kind of cartoon doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where no one is allowed to. Making space for this type of expression seems vital. Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said in a letter to the board defending the decision to grant the award, “There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”
But at the same time, the protesters are right when they point out that in an unequal society, certain unsayable things have an unequal impact.
The global response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was huge, which was great. But there’s something askew in the world when the murder of twelve people gets exponentially more coverage and reaction in the West than the ongoing civilian casualties of US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. There was a short article in this morning’s Times about a US airstrike on Syria that local activists say killed 52 civilians. It’s 250 words long—completely dwarfed by the media frenzy over PEN’s black tie dinner.
Of course there was also an article in the paper this morning about the attack on the “Draw Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas. This was just as reprehensible as the one on Charlie Hebdo, though it turned out differently, with the gunmen being killed. But the more I read about the organization staging the event, the more appalled I got. This goal of this group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, really does seem to be to provoke. They use free speech rhetoric to advance their anti-Muslim agenda. If PEN were giving an award to these people, I would absolutely protest it. But Charlie Hebdo, even though it often offends, seems to be engaged in a very different enterprise.
Anyhow, it’s weird to have this big rift going on between people I think of as being on the same side. Salman Rushdie and Katha Pollitt are defending the award, and Teju Cole, Sarah Schulman and Rachel Kushner are opposing it. Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, wrote this op-ed in the Times on Friday, in which they try to minimize the divide. “Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.”
It’s good to have so much thoughtful conversation going on about the complicated dynamic between free speech and hate speech, between fundamentalism and xenophobia. I can’t say I am exactly looking forward to this little dinner party tomorrow night. But at the same time, I’m glad that I’m going. Violence is intended to polarize. I want to try and resist that.