Free Speech Culture Warriors of the World, Unite

Jacob SilvermanApril 29, 2015
Salman Rushdie slammed the writers who think that Charlie Hebdo does not deserve a PEN award. / David Shankbone

Salman Rushdie scolded writers who are protesting a PEN America award for Charlie Hebdo—they’re “horribly wrong,” he said. / David Shankbone

It can be hard keeping track of all the awards that PEN America gives out. The organization, devoted to promoting freedom of expression, offers some two dozen, for translations, essays, novels, plays, and seemingly, every single other literary form. (There are two awards for sportswriting.)

Last year, PEN announced a new accolade—the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Digital Freedom Award—and handed it to Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter.

This year, there has been some rebranding. Now the award is called the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, and at next week’s PEN Literary Gala, it will be bestowed on Charlie Hebdo.

The decision to honor the surviving staff members of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine decimated in January by a murderous attack, has riven PEN America. Six “table hosts” for the gala have withdrawn their support; Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi will no longer attend.

Salman Rushdie, who last year received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award in recognition of his “unparalleled courage,” blasted the dissenters, telling the New York Times, “I hope nobody ever comes after them.” (“Just 6 pussies,” he tweeted.)

Awards lend themselves to sanctimony and grandstanding, to an inflated sense of occasion. That’s why we have the old-fashioned stage hook and the Academy’s infamous wrap-up music; things can get ugly at the podium.

And literary awards are a special kind of hell. The Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard so detested awards (though they surely helped support him) that he wrote an entire book of complaint, My Prizes: An Accounting. In it, he observed that prizes cause people to talk “endlessly about those we consider great.” What’s worse, we “hitch our own pitiful existence and inadequacies to these great ones with all our efforts and our clamor.”

Bernhard may as well have been surveying the drama of this week.

To critique Charlie Hebdo, especially after the unconscionable suffering its staff has gone through, is to criticize free speech itself, or so we’ve heard this week, again and again. Supporters have been busy quoting or misquoting Voltaire—that great anti-Semite and brutalist Enlightenment thinker—and his bumper-sticker axiom, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

And yet no one, least of all PEN, seems clear on exactly what this new award is for. Is it to recognize Charlie Hebdo’s courage in continuing to publish after twelve people were murdered? Or is it to validate Charlie Hebdo’s satire, which, with its blunt, mostly unfunny caricatures, re-appropriates anti-Semitic tropes in order to lampoon a disempowered French Muslim minority?

The same people who say that jihadists “hate us for our freedom” now act as if the right to offend is similarly under threat. They put on their best Orwell faces and, like Bernhard warned, create a great clamor in order to link their own humdrum existences with some larger struggle.

But if anyone has imperiled free speech in France, it is the French government. To see as much, you need only look at PEN’s own page announcing the award. In France, PEN reminds us, words that are deemed in “defense of terrorism” can land someone in prison for seven years. France bars its citizens from wearing religious symbols (crosses, kipot, turbans) in schools, and women cannot wear burqas or niqabs in public.

The horrors of jihadist violence notwithstanding, the real threats to speech remain governmental. This is as true in the United States, which has lately taken to imprisoning whistleblowers and spying on journalists with gusto, as it is in France, with its regressive speech laws and mass surveillance. Western freedoms are under attack, say the chest-thumping militarists—right before they infringe on those same freedoms.

The first tragedy of Charlie Hebdo is the murder of its staffers and of the French police officer who died defending them. But the second, lesser, more belated tragedy is that the whole affair has been drafted as a crude political symbol. The “Je Suis Charlie mantra” is only a touch more sophisticated than George W. Bush’s you’re-with-us-or-the-terrorists Manichaeism.

Salman Rushdie, it would seem, has been similarly drafted. He was targeted by extremists for publishing a novel. But that experience has pushed him into an uncomfortable role as a lead culture warrior, fighting alongside some rather unsavory right-wing fellow travelers. Call it Ayaan Hirsi Ali Syndrome.

So what should PEN do? Here it’s worth turning to Teju Cole, who told The Intercept:

I would rather honor Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s. I would like an acknowledgement of the Kenyan students who were murdered for no greater crime than being college students. And, if we are talking about free speech, I would rather PEN shed more light on the awful effects of governmental spying in the US, and the general issue of surveillance.

Snowden and Manning are certainly under-decorated, and it would be a bold move to honor them. (It would also be zeitgeisty, something that PEN, with last year’s choice of Dick Costolo, seems to value.) Or, as fellow gala abstainer Francine Prose pointed out on The Brian Lehrer Show yesterday, PEN might acknowledge the many journalists murdered in Russia and Mexico, the latter as indirect consequence of our own drug policies.

On the whole, all this hubbub is better than the alternative—overwrought thanks and lofty bromides about the power of art. But our awards culture has little to offer beyond pageantry. Thomas Bernhard, in resigning from one cultural organization he belonged to, wondered if it “was founded merely for the self-image of its preening members . . . to indulge in self-adulation” at luxurious dinners. At next week’s PEN Gala, those who can afford one of the $1,250 tickets may come to a similar conclusion.