Politics & Policy

The Anti-Charlie Hebdo Fifth Column

(Pascal Le Segretain/Getty)
The writers objecting to PEN America’s award would prefer that the magazine had targeted a different religion.

If there is any group of people on the planet that should feel solidarity with the slain editors of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it is writers.

Appropriately enough, the writers group PEN America is giving its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French publication now synonymous with martyrdom to free speech. Yet the award has become controversial, attacked by a group of writers who presume to lecture murder victims on not provoking their murderers.

These dissenters are an unabashed fifth column undermining PEN America’s devotion to free expression so as to carve out a safe space for Islam from the barbed speech inherent to a free society. They oppose the killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists — thanks, guys — but otherwise agree with the jihadis that the publication was out of bounds.

“A hideous crime was committed,” novelist Peter Carey generously concedes, “but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

This is like saying, to use the example of another PEN awardee, the jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, “Sure, it’s a terrible miscarriage of justice for Ismayilova to be behind bars, but should we really get all huffy about it?”

These dissenters are an unabashed fifth column undermining PEN America’s devotion to free expression so as to carve out a safe space for Islam from the barbed speech inherent to a free society.

Obviously, if you are going to have an organization committed to fighting for free speech, you should be “self-righteous,” to use Carey’s phrase, about violations of free speech, especially when journalists are gunned down for things they draw and write.

The root of the objection to honoring Charlie Hebdo is that the magazine’s staff was massacred by the wrong kind of terrorists for attacking the wrong religion. If the publication’s equal-opportunity offenders had been assaulted by right-wing extremists for their savage mockery of anti-immigrant politicians, or opponents of gay marriage or Catholicism, surely the dissenting writers would be all for recognizing Charlie Hebdo.

As short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg argued in a long letter to the executive director of PEN, satirizing Catholicism is fine because it “has represented centuries of authoritarian repressiveness and the abuse of power.” Islam in modern Europe, in contrast, “has represented a few decades of powerlessness and disenfranchisement.” This is a version of Garry Trudeau’s argument that Charlie Hebdo was “punching downward” against the defenseless, when satire should punch up against the powerful.

This is a bizarre notion of power. The weapon of choice of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists was the pen; the weapon of choice of their assailants was the firearm. Charlie Hebdo was indeed punching up against violent forces that had succeeded in cowing the less courageous. Radical Islam compels fear and forces self-censorship in a way no other religion has done in the West in a very long time.

So what if Charlie Hebdo was courageous, Eisenberg asks. Its journalists wasted their courage on “a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism.” What they did was like jumping from a roof, or having sex with a wild boar.

These acts, though, are utterly pointless. Charlie Hebdo had a clear, specific rationale — refusing to submit to rules of expression set out by illiberal fanatics. If Charlie Hebdo’s “campaign” were truly so obsolete, all of its journalists would be alive today to hear the morally obtuse scolding from Deborah Eisenberg and her compatriots.

Eisenberg has it easy. No one will ever come try to kill her over “The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor,” “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” or any of her other stories. She gets to compare Charlie Hebdo to Der Stürmer from a nice perch at the School of Arts at Columbia University, where the most courage anyone will ever have to demonstrate is reading fiction without the appropriate trigger warnings.

The martyred editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, famously said, “I prefer to die standing than live on my knees.” The PEN dissenters believe he belonged on his knees.

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