PEN & the illiberal boycott of Charlie Hebdo.

In explaining away his decision – along with five other writers – to boycott the PEN American Center Gala after PEN planned a tribute and a Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo on May 5th, Peter Carey said:

“‘PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population’.”

– The wonderful thing about Carey expressing himself here, is that he’s not likely to be killed for it.

Carey has decided that free expression has a specific task if it is to be considered for recognition; a ‘moral obligation‘ to champion those who Carey considers to be disempowered (this apparently doesn’t cover those most disempowered, who were murdered for a cartoon) anything short of that, deserves no award for free expression… even if it ends in death. On this, of course Carey is wrong. It is determined by the individual what it is they consider to be the ‘moral obligation‘ behind their expression, not Peter Carey, hence the word ‘free’.

In my view – and I suspect I differ from Carey on this – there is a significant ‘moral obligation‘ in challenging, mocking, & criticising any idea or dogma that can result in death for doing so. Across the World blasphemy laws continue to chain the lips of millions, whilst persecuting those brave enough to fight back. The freedom for a large portion of the World to speak, is so violently restricted by the religious sensibilities of others. Following the massacre in Paris, media outlets across the World refused to show the image that Charlie Hebdo staff were killed for printing. Thus, protecting free expression became a secondary concern to protecting a single religion. And so in short; any concept that brings with it the opposite of liberty, must be challenged, because to protect it, is to empower it. There is a distinct bravery – whether you like the content or not – in not only satirising ideas that result in threats to your life, but also continuing to do so after the most violent attempts are made to silence you. To disagree with presenting a Free Expression & Courage award to a publication that endured a massacre to silence it, is bizarre to me. But to boycott it, is to abandon the principle upon which PEN was established, and so it’s probably best if Peter Carey wasn’t there. He absolutely shouldn’t be.

Further, Carey is also wrong in attempting to redefine the parameters in which Hebdo operates. He insisted that PEN was ‘blind‘ to France not recognising its obligation to a disempowered section of the population. Whether right or wrong, it – by association, and the subject – implies Charlie Hebdo focuses on that ‘disempowered’ section also. On the contrary, Hebdo is not simply dedicated to satirising Islam (though even if it were, that would be fine…. ‘Life of Brian’ satirised Christianity without having to mention the ‘cultural arrogance’ of the nation in which it was conceived). Hebdo is famed for satirising a variety of power structures. For example, here:

– And here:

Hollande copy
– And here:

– Indeed, Hebdo has satirised the French government, the German Chancellor, the Papacy, the Front National, the UN, the US, Christianity, and plenty of other power bases. And so it seems to me that Carey – in his dishonest representation of what Hebdo does – is simply uncomfortable with Islam being subjected to that same form of criticism. He – like far too many calling themselves liberal – appear to consider Islam a victim that requires protecting, wrongly conflating Muslims as human beings, with Islam as an idea. In doing so, they not only disempower a basic concept of liberty that isn’t afforded to much of the World, but they empower a single religious idea above all others, implying that it is different, and should therefore be treated differently. This is exceptionally dangerous.

Carey’s thoughts were echoed by former President of PEN – and also not happy at the recognition Hebdo is receiving – Francine Prose. Prose article in the Guardian was one long confusion between content she disapproves of, and the principle of free expression itself. For example, she explains:

“Perhaps my sense of this will be clearer if I mention the sort of writers and whistleblowers whom I think would be appropriate candidates: Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, the journalists who have risked (and in some cases lost) their lives to report on the wars in the Middle East.”

– Journalists who have ‘risked their lives‘ is a hugely inappropriate comment, given that the award is going to a publication whose journalists actually lost their lives in a massive terrorist attack intended to silence them. After insisting she admires the bravery of Hebdo, and is fine with blasphemy, Prose said:

“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.”

– By doing this, Prose is presenting a deeply illiberal principle. She sets a sort of bar to be surpassed before she’d consider the expression worthy of an award. A confused bar at that, given that Manning and Snowden aren’t actually journalists. Prose seems to imply that challenging an idea that results in death for those expressing the challenge (and continuing to, even after a massacre), if it targets religion, through satire, does not ‘need to be said‘. That exercising of a form of expression denied to millions, even though you might die for it, does not reach the bar she sets. To dismiss satire of religion so easily, is to dismiss the real danger to human lives risked by satirising religion. For Prose, it seems an unimportant topic, if you want to be considered a ‘writer or journalist who tells the truth‘. In reality, anchoring moral principles to a single time and place – or, ‘religion’ as it’s popularly referred – has been and continues to be one of the greatest barriers to individual liberty the World has known.

Prose ends with:

“The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”

– I don’t know what this has to do with honouring people killed for their right to express, because this is not at all a narrative PEN is advocating. Two further things strike me about this comment; Firstly, I would argue that attempt to protect Islam from free expression of critics, feeds the extremist narrative across the World that Islam is a privileged concept, which in turn, is the basis upon which blasphemy laws are conceived, and cartoonists are murdered. It therefore has the opposite effect of what liberals are perhaps trying to achieve. It is wrong to say that Prose sides with extremists on this (as some have said), but her position certainly feeds their deluded sense of privilege. Secondly, Prose’s ending seems like a bit of an irrelevant Chomsky-esque after thought. And a hideously wrong one at that, given that Mustapha Ourrad – the copyeditor with Charlie Hebdo, and one of the victims of the massacre – was born in Algeria, and that Georges Wolinski – a cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo, and one of the victims of the massacre – was born in Tunisia. PEN is not dedicating an award to cultural prejudices that harm the civil rights of Muslims. Nor is it commenting on Western foreign policy. To conflate anti-Muslim hate, with challenging religious narratives that can result in death, is a huge manipulation. PEN is dedicated – as any liberal should be – to open and free expression and enquiry, in which no dogma is considered sacred. Human beings deserve rights & protections… Ideas don’t.

4 Responses to PEN & the illiberal boycott of Charlie Hebdo.

  1. K P Spong says:

    “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders –white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.”
    Jesus H Jones!

  2. Have to wonder, then, where Carey, Prose et al are on the many prizes and honours bestowed on Malala Yousafzai since surviving being shot for upsetting Islamist fascists.

  3. Serge Guimond says:

    Was this reason referring to a “disempowered segment of the population” pasted from the book of Emmanuel Todd to be relased shortly? Odly enough, to make sense of the most important peaceful march in French history, the one that occurred on January 11, Todd talks about an enormous “false consciousness” on the part of these million marchers who were defending the right to criticize a “personnage central d’un groupe faible et discriminé” – a central figure of a group that is disempowered and discriminated against”. Coinkidinky?

  4. ptholome says:

    Though millions of french people don’t agree with Charly Hebdo publications, they agree with the right they have to publish them. The expression freedom is too important in France to permit the assassins to win.

    So thanks for your article.

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