One of the programs run by the PEN American Center aims to “defend writers and protect free expression in the United States and around the world.” So it makes sense that this year’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award will be given to the staff (or what remains of it) of Charlie Hebdo.
That decision has caused several authors to withdraw from the group’s upcoming gala:
In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, [Rachel] Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.
[Peter] Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.
Yes. Abso-fucking-lutely. While the government wasn’t shutting down the magazine, the nature of the terrorist attack forces us to consider how we value speech we may not necessarily agree with. You would hope writers of all stripes would understand that. I disagree that the magazine ethos was one of “cultural intolerance” — they attacked bad ideas wherever they saw them, including religion — but that’s irrelevant here. If you can’t support a magazine’s right to unpopular speech in the wake of a massacre, what does free speech really mean to you?
At least Salman Rushdie, a former PEN President, had the good sense to say the obvious:
… [Michael] Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Rushdie said something similar in a speech earlier this year not long after the tragedy:
The moment somebody says, “Yes, I believe in free speech, but…” I stop listening… the moment you limit free speech, it’s not free speech.
If the cowardly authors disliked Charlie Hebdo‘s humor, so be it. To honor them doesn’t mean they always got it right or that their humor wasn’t sometimes misguided. But the cartoonists had incredible courage, willing to tackle a subject like Islam that most public figures would avoid.
I’m stunned that the authors have more criticism for the dead cartoonists than the terrorists who murdered them. That’s exactly the sort of mentality that Charlie Hebdo‘s staff fought against before their lives were cut short.
(Image via Wikipedia)