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Speech Acts

In support of his claim that the left is suppressing free speech [“A Climate of Fear,” Revision, March], Russell Jacoby dredges up some old news, including the PEN/Charlie Hebdo controversy in 2015, and quotes out of context a line from an article I wrote at the time, on “gentlemanly Islamophobia.” The protest by some two hundred writers was not about Charlie’s right to publish what it pleases, but rather about the fact that the surviving editors were to be honored at a gala dinner with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, normally given to writers suffering persecution or imprisonment by their governments. In my article, I wrote: “The question here is not whether they are victims of free speech—of course they are—but whether they are heroes of free speech, deserving of a prize for ‘courage’. . . . It implicitly affirms that what they have to say is valuable.” Charlie routinely depicted black people as monkeys and Muslims as turbaned fanatics. (More recently, it has made jokes about drowned migrants.) Jacoby, nevertheless, equates the reluctance to honor this work with approval of its murderous enemies.

I am bizarrely the only supposedly anti–free speech leftist named repeatedly by Jacoby. In the absence of concrete evidence, he resorts to the straw man trick of attributing sentiments: “Weinberger was probably pleased” by a statement from a British Islamic organization that I never saw, or, hilariously, “Weinberger would doubtless take [Voltaire] to task” for attacking the Catholic Church.

Last year, there were more than 2,500 instances of book banning in American schools, and seventeen state legislatures forged “anti-woke” bills. In Florida, the governor is attempting to prohibit classroom discussions of topics he considers “indoctrination” and fire professors whose views he dislikes. These strike me as more threatening examples, right now, of actual government censorship—the basis for laws protecting freedom of speech—than the private responses to the Danish cartoons in 2005, a novel about Mohammed in 2008, or, as representative of what the presumably monolithic “left” believes, an article Jacoby found in a scholarly journal. Speaking of “gentlemanly Islamophobia,” it should be noted that all the cases of “free speech” that Jacoby defends involve unflattering portrayals of Muslims.

Eliot Weinberger
New York


Jacoby’s article is a clear example of a pervasive trend: arguments that purport to be about free speech but are really about the author’s frustration with a certain direction speech has gone in.

The “free speech skeptics” described by Jacoby do several things—protest an award, criticize a magazine—that in other circumstances he would consider healthy acts of vigorous dissent. Jacoby complains that some writers and human rights groups did not unequivocally support the politics of Charlie Hebdo after the horrific shooting at its offices. (The shooting itself, like both the fatwa and the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, rightly provoked universal condemnation.) But one tenet of free speech is that even victimized newspapers can and should be criticized. If only the New York Times, whose offices were a few miles from Ground Zero, had been more sharply taken to task for its reporting on weapons of mass destruction.

The article does mention a real outrage: the firing of Erika López Prater for showing her class a painting of Mohammed. It would have been more honest—though hardly helpful to Jacoby’s thesis—to mention the furious outpouring of support for Prater, which included a statement from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a petition from an international group of scholars that garnered almost nineteen thousand signatures.

The question in this piece is really one of taste. Jacoby believes that offending Muslims is in good taste; those he calls free speech skeptics believe that fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment is in bad taste. It isn’t clear to me that Jacoby has the greater claim to the values of freedom and expression.

S. C. Cornell
Mexico City

Russell Jacoby responds:

Eliot Weinberger lives in a much faster world than I do. I am dredging up “old news” from 2015. Who can remember the killing of twelve people way back then? Weinberger doesn’t even mention the 2022 attack on Salman Rushdie, the subject of my piece. Perhaps that has also faded. None of those distinguished literati who condemned PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo, as far as I know, have changed their views. In fact, Weinberger still maintains that Charlie didn’t deserve a freedom of expression award that “normally” goes to those persecuted or imprisoned by governments. A free speech organization should apparently ignore journalists murdered by assassins. Moreover, a prize for freedom of expression “implicitly” endorses the message’s content. This is an increasingly common sentiment, echoed by S. C. Cornell, for whom free expression is a matter of “taste.” But free speech dies if it depends on good taste or implicit approval.

Weinberger writes that “anti-woke” legislation and book banning are much “more threatening” to freedom of speech than, for instance, “the private responses to the Danish cartoons in 2005.” But this is a false choice: defending murdered cartoonists does not preclude protesting thuggish efforts to censor books and curricula. In any event, how many people have been slain by “anti-woke” state censors? Zero. More than one hundred people were killed in the “private response” to the Danish cartoons.

I do, however, apologize if Weinberger feels singled out. Some two hundred authors signed the protest of the PEN award to Charlie. Weinberger is not alone. I hope to make amends.


Pet Cemetery

As the mother of four children who persuaded me to adopt a variety of pets over the years with a variety of results—some tragic, some awful, some peaceful and sweet—I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s essay about Bunky the frog’s long life [“Frog,” Memoir, March]. She perfectly captured what it’s like to provide our children with non-human companions, and her essay is a wonderful tribute to Bunky and to all pets.

Susan Eleuterio
Highland, Ind.




At Random” by Christian Lorentzen [Report, March] incorrectly described Mary Roach as a novelist. In fact, Roach is the author of non-fiction books.

Some punctuation in an excerpt of The Diaries of Franz Kafka [Readings, April] was altered without the translator’s approval.

We regret the errors.

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