PEN/Charlie Hebdo

May 4th, 2015 | Uncategorized

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 He was looking for cartoonists to replace the writers who had withdrawn from the event in protest of the presentation of the annual “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo.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.

76 Responses to “PEN/Charlie Hebdo”

  1. Spud says:

    The CH guys didn’t deserve to die, but neither do they deserve to be valourized with an award for trading on tired racist cliches. The “explanations” on that CH translation site are so full of rhetorical contortions and doublespeak that indeed, they ARE unrecognizable as satire – but not for the reasons Alison suggests.

    Western artists and opinion makers need to take a good, hard look at themselves and why they cannot engage in discussion or criticism of Islam without inevitably riffing on racist stereotypes.

    Why are we giving out awards for recycling the same old shitty cartoons featuring angry turbanned, bearded guys, anyway?

  2. Alison, I support your decision 100%.
    I was born in a liberal, Left-wing family with Egyptian roots, and grew up in France on a steady diet of “bande dessinée”, from Pilote and Tintin to Fluide Glacial and Hara Kiri, Charlie’s predecessor. Those last two were not my favorite, because of the “sophomoric” aspects, but it was always understood that they were to be taken as ironic, and more often than not with an extra topping of irony. What the French call second- and third-degrees, or levels, of humour.
    Aside from that satiric tradition, the Arab/Muslim population of France is and has been subjected to so much contempt, humiliation, and downright hatred, that there is a lot of hopelessness and anger. But that treatment usually comes from the Right, which the authors and readers of Charlie most definitely are not.
    I see the January 7 events as the result of a devastating “erreur sur la personne”: Charlie’s humour never was the enemy of the Arabs and Muslims of France. Marine Le Pen’s Front National party is.

  3. Gabriel says:

    “The CH guys didn’t deserve to die, but…”

    That the term “whataboutters” has not yet become stale and hokey but continues to quite literally characterize this insane line of argument is remarkably upsetting.

    “Why are we giving out awards for recycling the same old shitty cartoons featuring angry turbanned, bearded guys, anyway?”

    Because people keep on getting murdered for doing just that. Once the act of drawing a cartoon no longer requires one to put their life on the line, the valorization will evaporate. Until then, they deserve every iota of support.

  4. It was always something I loved about Dykes To Watch Out For — how you resisted the very strong pull toward absolutes, toward being polarized. How the characters in the strip could strongly disagree and still be — with tensions, with mess — in their community together. Me, I appreciate your willingness to let us in on your thinking here, and in your acknowledgment that: “the protesters are right when they point out that in an unequal society, certain unsayable things have an unequal impact.”

  5. Baffled says:

    It just seems odd to even discuss the merits of murder victims’ cartoons. It is sort of like discussing the clothing style of rape victims, it contains the implicit message “they were asking for it”.

  6. Sarah Schulman says:

    Hi Alison, Thanks for posting, I just want to clarify my reasons for signing because they are not addressed in your post. As you well know, our government has organized the murder of thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan for no reason and destroyed cultures both ancient and contemporary. We have also paid for the murder of 2,200 civilians in Gaza last summer. Hatred and control of Muslims and Arabs has been used to stun our populace into a false haze of fear that keeps us from focusing on the real changes that we need to make in our nation. While Charlie Hebdo should be able to publish images that feed dehumanizing cliches, which serve in turn as propaganda for this kind of slaughter, I certainly do not want to honor them for it. Why not honor the writers of Gaza, those who are still alive? Of course it is tragic that these individuals were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo office, but our country is being awakened by a #BlackLivesMatters campaign that insists that all human beings lives matter, and rejects the idea that a few white individuals are more important than the thousands of civilians who have been destroyed by wars propelled by anti-Muslim propaganda. It is easy for our Christian nation to demonize Muslims. But Islam is a multi-dimensional expression, and this recognition has to replace one-dimensional ideas and images if we are to partner with each other for peace.

  7. Josh says:

    As to Sarah Schulman’s letter: I opposed the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and the war in Iraq. I don’t understand why she is conflating those things with the murder of the cartoonists and writers (and also four Jews in a Kosher grocery.) It almost sounds like she is saying they on some level deserved it. This is deeply disturbing. Charlie Hebdo satirized Zionism and Jewish fundamentalism as well as Islamic fundamentalism. I don’t think this in any way means they were “demonizing” Muslims, as Schulman suggests. And I am grateful to PEN for honoring their memory.

  8. Spud says:

    Gabriel, I’d like to think that Westerners can think harder and do better than trot out the same old offensive imagery. That guy in the turban is the default stock character of almost every Western editorial cartoon about Islam, and it’s racist, degrading, and insulting. I don’t buy the argument that producing more of this crap is supposed to “desensitize” people to it, or that Muslim minorities in Western countries have no right to be upset about such blatant disregard for their humanity. Is it “courageous” to punch down on an oppressed minority? I don’t think so.

    The CH murders are a horrifying attack on free speech. People who would kill over a cartoon are the insane ones. But as Sarah Schulman noted above, why are we exalting a few white guys and ignoring the work of Muslims who argue – and yes, even provoke – for freedom of speech?

    The very best commentary I saw regarding 9/11 and its aftermath for Muslims in the West was in DTWOF (the “No Words” episode, Samia and her sham marriage). Maybe not every cartoonist should be expected to be as good as Alison is, but we can at least expect them to be more thoughtful than they have been. And the Left needs to start being accountable for its own racism.

  9. DG says:

    You are doing something heroic in attending as a literary host. It shows a moral clarity about who are the victims (murdered writers and cartoonists) and who are the powerful (religious authorities and their extremist followers). At the same time, I love your admission, “To be honest, if these people had come to me first, I probably would have signed on with them”! I think the vast majority of the letter signers do not know that Charlie was an anti-racist magazine. As a result, they are lining up with the forces of hatred against the forces of freedom.

  10. Jamie says:

    Dear Alison:

    I am a Canadian short-story author, novelist and PEN member who has been enjoying your work since discovering it years ago in the back pages of an indie GLBTQ rag in Tucson. “Dykes to Watch Out For” was ground-breaking in terms of the cultural exposure it afforded us marginalized queers, so I can understand your sympathy with the relevant points raised by those writers who recused themselves from tonight’s gala. Widening the domain of the cultural envelope by pushing the boundaries is part of art’s role, so Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons do, in one sense, “punch down” as Garry Trudeau suggests in his remarks about the kerfuffle.

    But Garry misses the broader point about how Hebdo’s satire is applied – with a spatula as opposed to the pointillist’s needle. It also dismisses the particular currency ridicule enjoys in French literature as well as the part it plays in the general cultural conversation. Placed in context, to be ridiculed (in France) is to be PART of the culture. Garry, like the writers who have recused themselves, is insisting rather upon a PC interpretation of the proposed award (i.e., “how Muslims might see it”) as a political gesture to highlight that particular interpretation of the cultural tension between radical Islam and free expression.

    By contrast, you get the point about how we cannot abridge or water-down or temper a political principle. We can temper our behavior, our own reaction to things that offend us. But when we water down a political principle, we
    deprive the individual exercise of his own rights – and of his own right to judge. There is an emerging sense in our culture that if we just refrained from expressing certain ideas, drawing certain cartoons, saying certain things, that we wouldn’t have to cope with lethal terror attacks. It amounts to a softening of the line on free expression, a courting of censorship, a
    willingness to deal away portions of that freedom in exchange for a kind of fuzzy detente (“we don’t draw cartoons of Mohammed and you won’t try and kill us, ‘kay?”). This sounds reasonable to some on the Left. It also sounds good to British jihadi apologist Anjem Choudary, who tweeted the night of the attacks in Garland:

    #garlandshooting we must learn the lessons from Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, Theo Van Gogh & Charlie Hebdo not to insult the Messenger Mohammed (saw)!

    I, too, am left cold by the Hebdo cartoons. And I find the notion of sponsoring a Mohammed cartoon contest deliberately tasteless and provocative. But we either have free speech in our culture or we do not. Put another way – you have the personal choice whether or not to offend Muslims by drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but you do not have the right to make that choice for me or anyone else. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of free expression.

    As a PEN member, I wish to personally thank you for your decision to step in and help out tonight. It is a courageous and significant move at an important time.

    Enjoy the gala.

    With deep gratitude and great respect,
    Jamie Mason

  11. William says:

    Sarah, you’re misunderstanding the cartoons. Which is fine. But you should be aware that you are. Charlie Hebdo was lampooning the dehumanization that you talk about. There’s no question of that for anyone familiar with their cartoons. Their latest cover is a case in point, and I think you would agree with its sentiment: the equivalent of the Titanic is going down week after week after week, but: Celine Dion! The Titanic! How romantic! The LRB pointed to this cover as self-evidently racist when it’s self-evidently anti-first-world-complacency.

  12. Lint Gravy says:

    Thank you for this piece, which is a rarity in that it attempts not to add its own weight in argument onto one side of the disagreement, but to refine a better understanding of the nature of that disagreement. This is not about good guys and bad guys who believe different things, it is about a localized hotspot of disagreement between good guys whose beliefs generally tend to be rather more congruent. It’s worth zeroing on precisely what the point is rather than fan it into something bigger, as so many others deliberately or inadvertently seem to be doing.

    There does seem to be a crucial, relatively unexamined difference entirely within the opposition to this award. Roughly, it is between two perspectives:

    1) One recognizes at least to some degree that Charlie Hebdo is anti-racist or at not itself racist, but finds its exploitation of offensive tropes, even if their purpose is to characterize and mock bullies and racists, to be insupportable.

    2) The other recognizes nothing of the kind and judges the images, and thus CH, fixedly and permanently on a prima facie basis, even to the point of not accepting translations of accompanying text and captions that provide an immediate first-party counterargument to that interpretation.

    It is hard to reach the latter — in my conversations they tend to just set their faces, fold their arms and say some near cognate of “no, they’re evil, period.” But the former is a respectable position and can be engaged with good faith.

  13. Kate L says:

    … interesting. I, too, had conflicted thoughts about freedom of expression how that freedom of expression is used. Btw, THIS is what downtown Smallville looked like about 24 hours ago. I had just missed being in this flash flood after mailing my niece her birthday card (she’s 46, so I didn’t send her the talking Yoda birthday card that first caught my eye). Anyway, I think this is where California’s rain has gone.

  14. NLC says:

    [[There are a number of important issues that have become hopelessly tangled here –whether PEN should have made this award; are there others who should have gotten the award; how do we separate the issues of whether material is offensive from defending the right to publish that material–
    but let me address just one specific point.]]

    Can someone explain to me what relevance the question
    of whether the cartoons are offensive has to the
    fundamental question here?

    For example, it was suggested above that claiming that the
    cartoons are offensive was equivalent to suggesting
    that “they got what they asked for?” (And let’s state
    for the record that this charge is nonsense.)

    But why should we find any less problematic the
    position taken by folks who, in situations like this, fall all
    over themselves try to prove that there can’t be
    anything offensive about the material in question. (E.g. that
    “the cartoons are just BH’s style”, etc.)

    Couldn’t we, in the same vein, point out that this sounds
    perilously close to asserting that we can only be bothered
    to defend material once we have deemed it “acceptable”?

    (To be clear, my opinion is that anyone who tries to make
    a case that the strips aren’t offensive has a long row to hoe
    –and, frankly, most of the attempts I’ve seen so far have
    succeeded only in making their proponents look rather silly.)

    But again, even if we were all to agree that the
    strips are offensive, why does this matter?
    What relevance does the content have to whether we can decide
    to be serious about defending the right that it be expressed?

  15. Anne says:

    “What relevance does the content have to whether we can decide to be serious about defending the right that it be expressed?”

    I can’t believe that’s even a question. We don’t give awards to racist skinheads even when they have every right to free speech. Even if they were gunned down. Use any analogy that makes sense to you. In this case I’ll use the analogy of the Westboro Baptist Church — which uses plenty of satire in their free speech — whom we will not ever be giving awards for courage. There are people who believe that the CH cartoonists were every bit as intentional about the harms caused by their cartoons. Intent is not a defense against real harm when the people doing the harm were told over and over they were causing that harm.

    Most importantly, I do not believe that privileged white male intellectuals should be the arbiters of what poor immigrants of color should understand about low French satire. In fact, this whole thing has male entitlement written all over it. Salman Rushdie called those he disagrees with “pussies” — a word so laden with sexist dismissal, that came so easily to him, that it is clear to me that he has his own male ego at stake here.

    This would have been an easy fight to avoid; I’m sorry you took it on, Ms. Bechdel. I don’t think anyone involved will be better for it.

  16. Craig Ranapia says:

    “The CH guys didn’t deserve to die, but neither do they deserve to be valourized with an award for trading on tired racist cliches”

    With all due and sincere respect, Spud, this is a really bad time for America to be mounting that extremely problematic moral high horse when its own media and popular culture is awash in systemic racism (and misogyny and homophobia). Perhaps people in glasshouses should throw stones across the Atlantic with more care, and a great deal more knowledge of the very specific cultural and social context all art exists in. (I sure know many Americans who, quite rightly, take exception at Europeans who stereotype Americans based on watching You Tube clips of Fox News.)

  17. […] author of “Fun Home,” in posting about her decision to host a table at the PEN gala on her blog, writes, “satire is a powerful weapon, but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often […]

  18. Susie Bright says:

    I’m very very proud of you, as always.

  19. PAJ says:

    It would have been great if instead of the problematic Hebdo, PEN had honored persecuted Arab artists throughout the middle east who bravely fight for freedom of speech and internal reform, as well as the institutions/magazines who publish and support them. Somebody truly courageous like Ali Dilem:

    Ali Dilem is the exactly the kind of brave individual whom PEN should…

    Ah, so he contributes to CH. In the words of the immmortal Emily Litella, “Nevermind.”

  20. William says:

    Says Anne: “I do not believe that privileged white male intellectuals should be the arbiters of what poor immigrants of color should understand about low French satire.” Which might include Peter Carey?

    Interestingly, what you’re saying echoes what Sophia Aram said on French TV.

    tf;dr (too French, didn’t read): We Muslims don’t want patronizing outsiders to explain how to us what Charlie Hebdo really means and how we should be against it. We get the humor and most of us generally agree with its anti-racist, anti-right wing, anti-xenophobic, anti-clerical positions.

  21. Dear Alison,

    thank you very much for your decision to become a table host with the PEN awards. It is obviously fraught with a multitude of issues but standing up for those murdered cannot be wrong, whatever the issues.

    One of the weirdest things that truly irks me is – with a lot of the English-speaking world – the complete ignorance towards the particularly FRENCH side of things. The cultural, economical and religious issues are so complex, vast and the position of “Charlie Hebdo” in everyday life so weird that a lot of people truly miss out on its function there.

    CH makes fun of everything and everyone. No holds barred (and no, Islam is not the no.1 topic, this has been fully researched by Le Monde, amongst others). Crude, overly simplistic (if you don’t get it which can easily happen as you so rightly stated), provocative, insulting. Do I like it? No. Am I buying it on a regular basis? No. Will I ever? Probably not.

    However, the history of satire, of cartoons, of this particular art in France (and to a certain extent, Belgium) will tell you why _this particular kind of publication_ is possible in France and only there.

    Fighting all of the issues involved is important. But this award is about appreciation of freedom of speech, not quality or whatever supposed political correctness thinks it should make of it.

    If giving your life fighting for said freedom isn’t worth an award – what else is?

    Agin, thank you, Alison.

  22. Paula Gottlieb says:

    As an artist with a deep social conscience I think about these issues continuously. Thank you Alison for putting into words what I have been unable to articulate. Brilliant, as always.

  23. Spud says:

    Hi Craig – I’m actually Canadian, and I absolutely recognize that there’s no shortage of racist caricature and stereotype in art and culture throughout the West. That’s why I take issue with the idea that producing more of that stuff would make anybody a “knight in shining armour” for freedom of speech.

    What I’m getting at in all of this is that it’s one thing to defend space for problematic and abusive speech – space which was taken away from the murdered CH cartoonists along with their lives – and quite another to celebrate its continuation with an award. That’s a bridge too far. This nuance seems to have been lost on CH’s more ardent supporters – and on the folks bestowing the PEN award, too.

  24. Terry Castle says:

    Thanks Alison T.

  25. Jan Oxenberg says:

    Bravo Allison. One day the fact that prominent writers boycotted an award for the Charlie Hebdo victims and survivors will be viewed with incredulity. What a shameful moment. There is no but. And anyone who takes the trouble to learn about Charlie Hebdo will see principled satire not hate, whether the style and tone of the work is to their taste or not.

  26. Josh says:

    Sorry to not use my own words, but Art Spiegelman is so much more articulate!

  27. says:

    It’s one thing to write dubious satire that trades in racism while pleading free speech.
    After all you can go to Texas and draw Mohamed and get a photo op…
    But it is something else to celebrate such a theme in the context of the United States longstanding exercise in slaughtering tens of thousands of peoples of the Middle East — most of whom are Muslim — either directly or through an Israli proxy.
    How sick is that? And how perverse that you also sign on…by dint of some indulgent angst.
    Boo hoo.
    To seek to excuse this slaughter, even by satiric means,puts you on the side of those who would deepen and extend it.
    ISIS and the like may be savage dogs but they are creatures of Uncle Sam’s deeds as surely as Al Qaeda is.To presume that by vilifying Mohamed some progressive point can be made is a sickness the French dilettantes have in common with their American counterparts.
    After all,in a ‘civilized’ society such as the US, you need to really hate people before you can officially sign on to kill them…
    And in Algeria the French maybe killed 1.5 million Algerians.
    That’s the roots of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ — just as PEN has signed on as a conduit for US foreign policy.

  28. Kaci says:

    I would like to rectify that says RAJ Ali Dilem is Arab. Dilem is not Arabic. He comes from a people under Arab colonization, but he is not even Arabic. His drawings are his form of resistance to this colonization. Dilem is a Kabylian!I suggest you look at the blog in question, this will enable you to better understand the world and you will avoid to say injustice- Thank you!

  29. PAJ says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Kaci. Apologies for the confusion, one I made in a rush to point out that the clear-cut delineation some were making between Hebdo artists and voices in North Africa and the Middle East struggling for reform was in fact muddier than they had assumed. I believe this whole controversy arose from people over-relying on their pre-existing frames of reference to stridently group people & ideas into categories they didn’t actually belong, and I regret in any way contributing to that trend.

  30. Acilius says:

    Alison, I’m sure you’ve done the right thing, because I’ve come to trust your judgment.

    For me, the key point is that “Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate.” Only hate will move us to endorse violence, whether state-sponsored or other, and only hate will keep us from realizing what’s going on when a profoundly anti-human political order is taking shape around us.

    So, a commitment to protect freedom of thought is in the first instance a commitment to renounce the power to silence people who are expressing thoughts that one oneself hates. You’ve been a model of this in your guardianship of this space over the years. To give one example, I remember the early summer of 2009 when a commenter owned up to a radically different opinion about abortion than the one most of us hold around here, and I remember your mighty efforts to turn that discussion into an attempt to learn from each other. I don’t know how much anyone did learn about the issue, but what you created was the exact opposite of the social and intellectual environment in which violence seems like the logical way to express disapproval of a hated thought.

    I do want to add something to what has been said about the thoughts Charlie expressed that brought the hatred of so many people. Race, yes, Charlie’s “lampooning” of racial caricatures was one thing in the first few years of the magazine, or in the first few years of the cartoonists’ careers, but come on- who hasn’t taken the point by now? Who still needs to see those sorts of images to unlearn racism? Unless we can think of someone who will, in this day and age, look at Charlie and realize for the first time that racists make themselves ridiculous, how can we deny that the satirical dimension of the magazine, its relentless leftism, is to a considerable extent an excuse to wallow in racism?

    To grant that Charlie is in part racist is to grant that when we ask members of the groups that racism targets to respect its freedom is to ask them to respect the freedom of the thought they hate. Which we should ask of everyone! And to have the moral standing to be taken seriously when we ask it, we should ourselves exhibit that same respect at all times.

    We should also realize what a hard thing it is we are asking when we ask people to respect the freedom of the thought they hate. That’s particularly hard to do when you can’t imagine hating the thought in question. Westerners have trouble imagining what it’s like for Muslims to hate blasphemy. So from the Enlightenment to the present day, we in the West have lived with continual challenges to religious belief from writers and artists, challenges which range from mild to ferocious, from philosophical to bawdy, from good-natured to shockingly violent. That leaves two categories of educated Westerners, believers who can’t take blasphemy seriously because their faith has weathered every conceivable form of it, and nonbelievers who can’t take blasphemy seriously because they can’t take belief seriously. So, if we want Muslims to know that we are mindful of their concerns when we ask them to respect the freedom of the thought they hate when the thought they hate is blasphemy against Islam, we have a tremendous amount of work to do in climbing the wall of incomprehension that our history has built between us and those concerns.

    So, yes, by all means we must show defiance to the men with guns. To the extent that the award does that, I’m glad you have expressed support for the award. At the same time, the men with guns will never stop coming as long as we keep “over-relying on [our] pre-existing frames of reference to stridently group people & ideas into categories they don’t actually belong,” as PAJ puts it so well in the comment above. And so I’m glad you’ve gone out of your way to express sympathy for and deep understanding of the opponents of the award. Let’s have more people like you, please!

  31. susan St. Aubin says:

    Thank you for saying this, so much better than I could!

  32. Hey Al —

    I see your point, and Art S’s & many others I respect. But, not that anyone asked me, I wd have protested the award too.

    CH’s principal political position is anti-religious. I’m all for it. In Iran (or even the U.S.) that would be a brave political stance. But the fact is secularism is the law & the state religion of France, has been since the Revolution. Prohibitions on religious speech & expression do not apply to Christians & Jews, however. Only Muslims are prohibited from, e.g., wearing headscarves to school.

    Glenn Greewald, who certainly has earned his stripes taking risks for freedom of speech (and is also Jewish &, incidentally, gay), notes that PEN would never have awarded this prize to a mag that lampooned Jews & been attacked by Zionist extremists. Nor would Europeans have come out in massive support of that mag.

    It’s not just about punching down, it’s about the relatively minor political risks CH has always taken. So their courage comes down to keeping on publishing after the attacks. No small thing, but as others have pointed out, you could find many examples of similar courage in Latin America, the Middle East, the former Soviet countries.

    Somebody (can’t remember who) said the Je Suis Charlie demos, esp. w/the sanctimonious heads of repressive states asssembled, constituted a massive endorsement of the War on Terror.

    I oppose hate speech laws, b/c they criminalize thought. I’ve been an active civil libertarian all my life. The principle of free speech is indivisible — there is no “relative,” “partial” free expression. It’s all or nothing.

    That said, speech does not exist in a vacuum. Progressives need to recognize that race (broadly defined here) is part of every perception, every political decision. I could be wrong but I can’t think of any writer of color who has come out strongly in CH’s defense. And that, too, should tell us something.

  33. […] Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post. […]

  34. Andrew Ogus says:

    It’s important to remember that the cartoons were not aimed specifically at the minority Muslims in France (which misconception seems to be the root of some of the objections) but at the Muslim belief that no one has the right to criticize them, or the evil actions of some of their members, o r to”mock” their religion. How many of the PEN people would object to cartoons about Christianity?

    Anyway, there’s a very simple solution for people who find these cartoons offensive. Don’t look at them.

  35. Kate L says:

    … not of global importance as is the discussion above, but my harrier hound was just diagnosed with a mystric heart murmur. Does anyone in DTWOF BlogSpace have experience caring for a canine in this condition? Also, it seems that the city of Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, was not suitable for at least one Kansas businessman (caution: the local police used the word “stupid” to describe the man’s actions, and one passerby called him a “kook”). The businessman’s going out of business sign said, “Goodbye, Obamaville”, which gives you the tone of what he’s been up to.

  36. Acilius says:

    Thanks for linking to your webpage, Andrew Ogus, that’s some sensational work you do.

  37. Acilius says:

    Sorry to hear about your dog, Kate!

  38. Kate L says:

    Thanks! 🙁 I was told by the vet that she wants me to look out for certain changes in the dog’s behavior (including a cardiac cough – she did not call it that, but my mother died of cardiac complications back in the 80’s, so I’m all too familiar with it). The vet was insistent that I continue walking the dog… no problem there, as the dog is always ready to WALK. I told a friend about all this yesterday, and she said that her husband has a heart murmur. I asked her if she walks him regularly, as well.

  39. Acilius says:

    Well, I hope your friend does take her husband out for fresh air and exercise, and of course remembers to clean up after him, as a responsible neighbor who-

    No, but seriously, best wishes to you and your canine friend.

  40. Kate L says:

    … this isn’t canine-related, but I just came back from the Moo U 2015 Commencement, where for the 11th year I was one of the people lining the walkway the graduates and their friends and family had to walk, congratulating them and (just as importantly) blocking their view of the protestors from the Westboro Church in Topeka. We arrived early to take the high ground along the walkway, otherwise the Westboro people would have been there and turned it into a gauntlet of abuse for the people entering stately Bramblage Coliseum. My 60-year old legs nearly gave out, but mission accomplished!

  41. NLC says:

    I’m not sure how big the overlap is between readers of this blog and listeners to Michael Feldman’s “Whad’ya Know”, but I just thought I’d mention that next week’s the Town of the Week is Lock Haven PA.

  42. Kate L says:

    NLC (#41). “Not much, you?” See, there is some overlap!

  43. Ellen Orleans says:

    In any case, how the hell does anyone say no to Art Spiegelman?

  44. Mentor says:

    [Plans for a national tour of FHtM: [CLICK HERE] –Mentor]

  45. shadocat says:

    Oh I hope it come to Kansas City!

  46. Jain Elliott says:

    I am so excited!

  47. Kate L says:

    Mentor (#44) Jeepers! 🙂 Any chance they could come to the Amelia Earhart Theater at Moo U? I can see the theater from my office window!

    Tweet of the Day on “Alls I’m saying is the Dixie Chicks had better information than my brother”.
    – former frontrunner Jeb Bush
    — @LOLGOP

  48. Mentor says:

    …and this is too cool to pass up:
    [Meet T-RJB] (“The Real Joan Benson”)

  49. Kate L says:

    … the folks at Google came up with THIS animation to honor what would have been the 64th birthday of astronaut Sally Ride.

  50. Gary says:

    I don’t agree with the kind of attitude of those Texas folks either but I think on this particular issue, that’s a brilliant example of how the right-wing has really just made the left look like a disaster.
    As long as they’re not deliberately targeting and harassing peaceful muslims when they do these cartoon things, everyone else can easily just avoid it and the extremists who showed up are now dead.
    I think it’s very hard for liberals to tackle this situation but it’s very hard to see how that right-wing nutter approach hasn’t lead to a better outcome than this cowardly sensitivity that’s overun the left.

  51. Jaibe says:

    I am completely with Baffled and will in fact quote them “It just seems odd to even discuss the merits of murder victims’ cartoons. It is sort of like discussing the clothing style of rape victims, it contains the implicit message “they were asking for it”.” In fact CH did not focus on any one religion, or on religion, and is no more offensive than MAD magazine, but this is irrelevant. There should be no “buts” in supporting free speech. I fully agree with Alison too that the larger issue is why our leaders stood with CH but not with Syria, and still make “free speech zones” in the USA.

  52. Jaibe says:

    Wow, the CH explanatory page linked by Alison is fantastic too, I really have to wonder if many of the commentators here read it. Hopefully like me they at least read it after commenting…

  53. Mentor says:

    [AB (+ VT) + CBSThisMorning: [CLICK HERE]

    (Extra Waldo Credit: Find the hidden edited word.) –Mentor]

  54. LocusOfMe says:

    I find this discussion very interesting. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another, but there’s always been a little uneasiness inside me when we knee-jerk elevate average behavior to the heroic or sublime because of an act of victimization. It seems to me that if the quality of the work has been relatively the same; If CH is only being considered for the award because of the attack, then either there was a problem with the evaluation process before hand, or CH is being celebrated as a martyr and out of popular interest, and not necessarily because of its comparative commitment to freedom of expression.

    The other thought I had to share was around this idea: “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.” While I think that its very likely that this is the world the attackers would like, I’m not sure that giving or not giving the award to CH does anything measurable in terms of the degree of free expression in western society one way or another. (I can’t speak specifically for the French, of course.)

    It seems to me that a violent radical group performed a murderous act, and it’s up to us (society) to decide if it will change us. The people at CH were the unfortunate direct victims, but it’s society as a whole that is invested in this outcome.

  55. Kate L says:

    Fun Home the major motion picture? Please? 🙂

  56. hairball_of_hope says:

    No doubt AB is whiffing the smelling salts right about now, the act of pinching herself having merely numbed her already-numb body further.

    The hordes are slowly snaking out of Radio City into the Manhattan night, and reality sets in.

    Fun Home won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris), Best Book (Lisa Kron), Best Original Score (Music:Jeanine Tesori/Lyrics:Lisa Kron), and Best Direction in a Musical (Sam Gold).


    A MacArthur and a bunch of Tonys all within the past six months. The Supreme Court on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage. And all I can think about is how the DTWOF crew would be picking this apart within a few deftly drawn/written panels. Surely Mo would have some brilliant insight into the mainstreaming of AB’s life story.

    (… goes back to a June night that seems to be part of a changed universe. Happy Pride Month, y’all …)

  57. Mentor says:

    [For those who might not have seen tonight’s Tony Awards,
    here are some clips:

    – Number from Fun Home (Ring of Keys): [CLICK HERE]

    – Acceptance speech for Best Original Score for a Musical (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron): [CLICK HERE]

    – Acceptance speech for Best Book for a Musical (Lisa Kron): [CLICK HERE]

    – Acceptance speech for Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Michael Cerveris): [CLICK HERE]

    – Acceptance speech for Best Director of a Musical (Sam Gold): [CLICK HERE]

    – Award for best Musical: [CLICK HERE]


  58. Kate Kelly says:

    After living under a rock these past several years getting my doctorate, I have finally unsurfaced to find that alison is a mac fellow and fun home is the tony award winning musical this year. I feel like a cavewoman discovering the internet. Congrats AB–you deserve it!

  59. shadocat says:

    Alison, Alison, I know you are still processing all this right now, but I am so excited for you! Best Musical! Woot! And if Michael Ceveris got a Tony for playing my father in a musical, I think I would implode from happiness!

  60. SLU says:

    Yes, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should have the right to free expression, no matter how vile and hate-filled it is. But the PEN awards are a place to reward good creative content, not a place merely to reward free expression, regardless of the quality of intent of its content.

    Decades ago, the ACLU and others defended the right of the Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois as an expression of free speech. Many in the US, including Jews and including me, supported the Nazi’s right to march.

    But did anyone suggest giving an award to the Nazi party to somehow support their crusade? How is rewarding Charlie Hebdo different?

  61. Kate L says:

    Tom the Dancing Bug has something to say about cartoonists.

  62. SF says:

    Funny that I’ve never heard about Atena’s case before. How many like her are out there being attacked with little public outcry?

  63. Fi says:

    SLU, did (or does) the Charlie Hebdo canon incite the mob to villify or extinguish an entire race? I suspect not and I don’t think an analogy with the Nazis holds.

  64. hairball_of_hope says:

    From the Interesting Reading Dept…

    Today’s Wall Street Journal has a interview with Jules Feiffer:

    Reading his description of his early family life, I’m trying to imagine it as a Broadway musical. Must be something in the water around here.

    (… goes back to wondering about the fate of the ISS espresso machine, now that ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is back on terra firma …)

  65. Mentor says:

    [Vicious Grand Marshals : [CLICK HERE] –Mentor]

  66. Kate L says:

    hairball (#64), A.B., Mentor, all,

    I have just been waiting for an excuse to post THIS video clip that Captain Cristoforetti sent to Earthlings during her 200-day stay aboard the International Space Station!

  67. Kate L says:

    … Sorry to hog the DTWOF blogosphere, but the Supreme Court just upheld the Affordable Care Act by a 6-to-3 vote, with the opinion upholding Obamacare being written by the Chief Justice. This will be a week long remembered, first the demise of the Confederate flag, now this… and, coming up, dare I say it – the ruling on the right of gay couples to marry? I predict that prediction is about to come to pass. Who wants to bet that its Justice Notorious RBG who writes the opinion? 🙂

  68. shadocat says:

    Kate-I know it’s exciting news! It looks like marriage will be next-gawd, the world is changing so fast.

    BTW mentor, have they announced the touring schedule for Fun Home yet?

    [I’ve not seen anything beyond the article linked-to in comment#44 above. –Mentor]

  69. Mentor says:

    [In case you’ve not been listening to the news this morning:

    “The Supreme Court on Friday delivered an historic victory for gay rights, ruling 5-4 that the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry no matter where they live and that states may no longer reserve the right only for heterosexual couples.”



  70. hairball_of_hope says:

    Did anyone notice Justice Scalia’s colorful use of language in his dissent? “Jiggery-pokerery,” he said. “Pure applesauce,” he further declared.

    While I don’t normally much care for his opinions, the word geek in me revels in his creative use of language in what are typically dry and turgid legal writings. No wonder Justice Ginsberg gets along well with him socially (their shared fondness for opera surely helps).

    The “applesauce” reference is really an allusion to “horse apples,” which in turn is a euphemism for “horse manure,” or the more colloquial and vulgar “horse $#*+.” Clever.

    As for the upcoming four decisions that still remain on the Supremes’ docket (same-sex marriage, Congressional redistricting, power plant emissions, and lethal injection drugs), some may get released today and some next week. Four decisions, four calendar days when the court is in session, I’m guessing they’ll release one decision daily.

    If the same-sex decision is favorable, and if it is released today during Pride Week, there will be a helluva celebration at Sunday’s Pride March in NYC.

    In preparation for the decision, I spent last night rereading DTWOF strips and blog posts with the “Freedom to Marry” storyline, starting with #497 (Raffi and Stella post Toni and Clarice’s argument over Gloria on Youtube). I read all the way to 1/20/09, the day of Obama’s inauguration.

    God, were so hopeful then. Along the way, we factored polynomials in the blog, shared cake recipes, and generally engaged in thoughtful and earnest dialogue.

    I kept remembering where I was in my life when I first read those posts. I kept thinking how long ago it felt, all the life/health/job crises I had endured and prevailed, how many people I knew had passed during that time.

    And then there were the running news bits in the DTWOF strips, that seem just as fresh and relevant today.

    The 1/20/09 blog post has a personal significance for me, it’s the one that pushed me out of my decade-long BBS forum/chat room/blog silence after burning out as a long-time moderator. I chose my nom de screen from one of AB’s strips, and made my first two DTWOF posts in that thread. The second of them surprised me upon rereading it last night. In it, I mused that in a year’s time, Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” might be replaced on bookshelves with “Mendacity of Hope.”

    It’s still far too early to evaluate Obama’s lasting Presidential impact. Perhaps he has been victim of all of our pent-up hopes and aspirations for his Presidency, and that’s why so many of us feel disappointed or worse in the way things have played out during his terms in office.

    But still, I can’t imagine getting to this day, where the US Supreme Court is likely to legalize same-sex marriage, without the Justices Obama nominated to the bench. And for that, I am thankful.

    (… goes back to wondering about what a long, strange trip it’s been …)

  71. hairball_of_hope says:

    Oh my God. I no sooner clicked on “Post” for my previous scriblings, when word comes that SCOTUS has upheld the right for same-sex couples to marry. Wow.

    I just downloaded the decision (5-4), I will be reading this with tears in my eyes and a skip in my heart.

    (… goes back to grinning like an idiot …)

  72. David in Cambridge says:

    A New York Times article about the SCOTUS decision and queer culture features Lisa Kron, FHTM, and a namecheck for DTWOF.

  73. Kate L says:

    … Needless to say, there was a celebration by the local LGBT community in Smallville’s Triangle Park* yesterday afternoon after the Supreme Court ruling was announced. While I was there, I was particularly interested in the reaction of passers-by on the street where we had all lined up. With one exception, they were all positive and supportive! 🙂

    * The local LGBT groups that like to have demonstrations in this small, pocket park near the Moo U campus call it Triangle Park, but it is really named for a local businessman of the 20th century. The plaque on the entrance to the park talks about how he had a kind word for everyone. I remember him in the late 60’s as the only adult I knew who treated the first openly lesbian couple in Smallville just as nicely as he treated everyone else.

  74. NLC says:

    In the event you’ve not seen the reports on the CCN/gay-pride/ISIS kerfluffle[*] here’s a good article, including the original story: [HERE]

    (On so many levels…)

    [* Feel free to insert your own euphemism here.]

  75. Andrew B says:

    NLC, yeah, my first thought when I started to see those reports was, “I guess Lois went to London for Pride”. Still a terrorist after all these years…

    Also, I’m all in favor of euphemisms but in the context of that particular story I’d rather not “insert” anything. Just my personal preference…

    Everybody who is on Twitter knows that yesterday, if you tweeted with the hashtag #LoveWins, Twitter would automatically add a rainbow heart emoji. It got a little nauseating, but I had to like this one. (Note the account that sent it.)

  76. hairball_of_hope says:

    Re: The CNN dildo/butt-plug flag kerfuffle

    (That was SO much fun to type!)

    I am just waiting to see CNN’s correction for that piece. No doubt it will be heavily euphemized, if they even mention the sex toys at all, e.g. “Earlier today CNN mistakenly reported that an ISIS flag was flown at the London Gay Pride march. It was actually a parody of an ISIS flag that was flown. CNN regrets the mistake.”

    But my guess is they will try not to mention the incident at all.

    In DTWOF-world, the correction would run something like this: “Earlier today CNN mistakenly reported that an ISIS flag was flown at the London Gay Pride march. It was actually a parody of an ISIS flag, with images of various sex toys in place of the Arabic script. CNN recognizes that our lack of on-air and production staff who are familiar with either Arabic or sex toys contributed to this error, and we regret the mistake. In the future, we will enhance the diversity of the CNN team to include native Arabic language hosts and staff, and personnel who are sex-positive. Here to explain the symbolism of the parody flag are sex-positive activist Lois McGiver and native Arabic-speaker Samia…”

    Well, that would be a welcome first.

    (… goes back to watching the Gay Pride fireworks currently filling the air over Manhattan …)