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The Protest Over an Award Given to 'Charlie Hebdo' Shows the Line Between Defending and Celebrating

PEN American Center pissed off some of its own members by bestowing an award to the famously irreverent French magazine, and the resulting debate led to Salman Rushdie calling six authors "pussies."

by James Yeh
Apr 29 2015, 1:00pm

Salman Rushdie, who called six authors "pussies" because of their protest against the honoring of 'Charlie Hebdo' at an awards dinner. Photo © Ed Lederman/PEN American Center

On Monday, the New York Times reported that six prominent writers—Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatjte, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi—were withdrawing from their roles at an upcoming gala organized by PEN American Center, the international literary and human rights organization, in protest of an "Freedom of Expression Courage" award to be given to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president and author of the fatwa-inspiring novel The Satanic Verses, rebuked the authors in quotes he gave to the Timesas well as on Twitter, where he dismissed them as "just 6 pussies."

"If PEN as a free-speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures," he told the Times, "then frankly the organization is not worth the name."

What's interesting here is the slippery conflation of defense and celebration. Rushdie is certainly not alone in calling out the six protesters. In his corner are Jeri Laber, founder of international watchdog Human Rights Watch, along with New Yorker writers George Packer and Adam Gopnik. Novelist Hari Kunzru, who weighed in the day of the Hebdo attack that left 12 people dead, had this to say Monday:

But, other literary figures asked on social media, when did "vigorously defending" somebody become synonymous with giving that somebody an award at a posh $1,250-a-seat event? As sci-fi novelist Saladin Ahmed tweeted:

Tin House editor Rob Spillman, chair of the PEN Membership committee, posted a public note on his Facebook wall Monday in which he conceded that the Hebdo cartoons were "gleefully racist and insensitive" and agreeing with Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who said this month that "by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech."

Spillman asked, "Do we only defend artful satirists?" He continued:

Do we only defend the artists we agree with, like Salman Rushdie and Pussy Riot? Unfortunately and unequivocally, no. If you believe in free speech, you must defend free speech. PEN is not celebrating the work of Charlie Hebdo at their gala. They are celebrating Hebdo's right to free expression, for which twelve of their colleagues were gunned down. Voltaire holds true: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

I find Spillman's take mostly convincing, but again, we're faced with the troublingly blurry lines between defending something's right to exist and praising it. Everyone involved in this debate agrees that PEN should be guarding freedom of speech regardless of its content. After all, the six objecting writers remain PEN members themselves. But are gleefully racist scribbles, or their artists, ever the cause for jubilation?

Related: An exclusive interview with surviving 'Charlie Hebdo' cartoonist Luz

Glenn Greenwald has done valuable work in unpacking the complexities and many contradictions of this issue. I recommend reading his article in full on the Intercept, but it's worth highlighting these two passages in particular:

Some of the most repressive regimes on the planet sent officials to participate in the Paris "Free Speech" rally, and France itself began almost immediately arresting and prosecuting people for expressing unpopular, verboten political viewpoints and then undertaking a series of official censorship acts, including the blocking of websites disliked by its government. The French government perpetrated these acts of censorship, and continues to do so, with almost no objections from those who flamboyantly paraded around as free speech fanatics during Charlie Hebdo Week.

[...]

It is simply inconceivable that Charlie Hebdo would have been depicted as heroes had their primary targets been groups more favored and powerful in the West (indeed, a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist was fired by the magazine in 2009 for mocking Judaism: where were all the newfound free speech crusaders then?). As the objecting PEN writers note, one can regard the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists as repugnant, vile, and dangerous (as any decent person does) while simultaneously scorning the Muslim-bashing focus of their "satire."

Additionally, Greenwald published important if lengthy correspondence between writer Deborah Eisenberg and PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel.

In her initial letter to Nossel, Eisenberg asked:

In short: is there not a difference—a critical difference—between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression?

In responding, Nossel maintained that Hebdo "broke taboos, raised questions, and sparked debates that expanded the expression and the exchange of ideas." She added that it is the Hebdo's cartoonists showing a "powerful commitment to free expression no matter the costs" that PEN wishes to honor. Nossel also mentioned the spike in PEN memberships expressing solidarity with the organization's mission, including anonymous testimonials such as this one:

While I have long written about freedom of speech issues, the recent massacre of staffers at Charlie Hebdo was a real wake-up call. I figured that purchasing an overseas subscription to the newspaper (in spite of my shaky French) and joining PEN were the least I could do.

(Hebdo, it's worth noting, also experienced a surge in subscriptions after the massacre, as reported by VICE News.) Nossel concludes:

We are honoring Charlie Hebdo not because of the material you find offensive, but because of their fearless defense of their right to express themselves, a defense that has made our spines stiffen here at PEN and throughout the free expression community as we recognize the depth of our obligation to stand firm in the force of powerful and dangerous interests.

In her response, Eisenberg allowed that Hebdo is "undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction."

However, she cautioned:

Ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.

The idea of dissent pops up again with Teju Cole. In a statement to Intercept, Cole, who published one of the most lucid essays on Hebdo back in January, identified himself as "a free-speech fundamentalist." He went on to say:

I support Rushdie 100 percent, but I don't want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow "supporting the terrorists," or somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.

Another of the dissenters, Francine Prose, a former president of the PEN American Center, weighed in Tuesday morning with an essay in the Guardian titled, "I Admire Charlie Hebdo's Courage. But It Does Not Deserve a PEN Award":

As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don't give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don't feel that their work has the importance—the necessity—that would deserve such an honor.

Prose cites "writers and whistleblowers" Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Lydia Cacho as worthier candidates, before continuing:

Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.

In the midst of the debate, one thing that hasn't gotten much press is how, back on January 7, the day of the Hebdo attack, hundreds of writers across the world—including Carey, Cole, and Prose—signed this PEN open letter in no uncertain terms condemning the murders of the publication's staffers.

From the letter:

Today's effort to silence criticism by murdering the artists and writers who voice it must be met with a far wider movement to defend the right to dissent, which forms the spine of free expression.

The answer to hateful or nasty or just plain stupid speech, most free speech advocates agree, is more speech. Like it or not, Charlie Hebdo is allowed to print cartoons skewering Muslims in ways that people find racist, those people are allowed to call the cartoons out for being offensive, organizations can bestow awards upon the cartoonists who drew them, supporters of those organizations can make gestures of protest, and famous authors can call those supporters pussies. All this noise means the system is working.

Who gets the award for that?

The PEN American Center Gala takes place on May 5 at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

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