Commentary — May 4, 2015, 12:53 pm

A Legitimate Distinction

In defense of the PEN America Center’s decision to give Charlie Hebdo its Freedom of Expression Courage Award

Tomorrow night at the PEN America Center’s annual gala in New York City, the organization will honor the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award. As has been widely reported, several PEN members, including Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, and Michael Ondaatje, have withdrawn from the gala and dozens more have signed an open letter protesting the decision to honor the magazine, whose pages over the years have included crude images of the prophet Mohammed and other material that many readers have found offensive. The letter draws a distinction “between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” This is fair enough, so far as it goes. Most PEN members would not hesitate to condemn yesterday’s armed attack on an anti-Islamic art event in Texas. At the same time, I doubt that PEN would seriously consider giving an award to Pamela Geller, the Islamophobic agitator who organized the event.

So it’s a legitimate distinction, but one that strikes me as largely irrelevant in this case, and not just because Charlie Hebdo isn’t an Islamophobic hate group. While the protests have prompted much analysis of Charlie Hebdo’s work and its place within a larger tradition of French satire and anti-clericalism, few of the protestors who have spoken in any detail on the matter have actually suggested that the content of Charlie Hebdo’s work is the primary reason for their objections. “[W]hat is at issue is obviously not the value of the cartoons,” Deborah Eisenberg wrote in a letter to PEN, but rather the “symbolic meanings with which the magazine has been freighted” in the months since most of its staff was gunned down by two French Muslim brothers associated with Al Qaeda. Former PEN president Francine Prose worried that “the narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists … feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” (No doubt the men and women being posthumously honored would have preferred to die in service of a more politically acceptable narrative.) Peter Carey questioned whether the murder of journalists was even “a free speech issue to be self-righteous about.” (He did not explain what about this particular decision made it more self-righteous than previous years’ awards.) On Twitter, Keith Gessen admitted that he would likely have supported the award if Charlie Hebdos editors had been murdered by members of the right wing National Front, though that obviously would not have changed the nature of the offending cartoons. In each case, the more or less explicit argument is that the award plays into the hands of those in Western countries who want to use the specter of violent and illiberal Islamist extremism as an excuse to oppress their own Muslim populations or to project Western power in the Muslim world.

Here’s where a more relevant distinction might be drawn. The sad truth is that there does exist a violent and illiberal strain of Islamist extremism, that it has gained a great amount of political ground in the past year, and that one of the movement’s goals is to silence those who express views it takes to be blasphemous. As a group whose primary purpose is defending freedom of expression around the world, PEN is right to take a strong stance against this goal and to honor journalists who died at the movement’s hands. Doing so does not mean condoning the oppression of impoverished Muslims in France or anywhere else. It certainly does not mean supporting a decade and a half of disastrous U.S. military actions that have probably done more than anything else to bring this strain of Islamist extremism into the prominent place it holds on the world stage right now. This is why I’ll be representing Harper’s Magazine at the gala tomorrow night, and why I think the letter’s signatories—several of them Harper’s contributors whom I greatly respect as writers and as people—are wrong to protest the award.

Of course I know that the stakes in this dispute are negligible for most of those involved, myself very much included. Attending a black tie dinner is not an act of political courage—any more than refusing to attend one is. But for the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the stakes were as high as they come, and sometimes it’s clarifying to take a side. When it comes to this award, I’m proud to side with PEN. The open letter notes that PEN might as easily have honored “any number of journalists and whistleblowers” who have risked their lives just as the staff of Charlie Hebdo did, but done so “in service of the greater good.” This statement is disingenuous on two levels. For starters, any time an organization gives an award, there will be members of the organization who think the award would have been better given to someone else, but they rarely take such bold steps to publicly disassociate themselves from the decision. More than this, the letter assumes some prior agreement about what constitutes “the greater good”—just as remarks about “expression that violates the acceptable” assumes prior agreement about what constitutes “the acceptable.” Of course, if such agreement existed, we would not need freedom of expression so badly. But it doesn’t, and so we do, which is what makes PEN’s work worth supporting.

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