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A ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cover (photo by Mona Okiddo-Eberhardt/Flickr)

This year’s annual PEN American Center gala will be short at least six attendees, the Associated Press reported: the celebrated writers Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, and Francine Prose, all of whom were supposed to serve as hosts for the event, have withdrawn, citing discomfort with the organization’s plan to honor French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Twelve writers, cartoonists, and editors were killed in a brutal massacre at the magazine’s headquarters this January, and the publication will receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN gala in May. Prose, Cole, and the rest of the protestors have criticized Charlie Hebdo for its depictions of Islam, arguing that its mockery of the religion amounts to a slap in the face for France’s marginalized Muslim population.

As AP and the Times point out, the present controversy over the gala reflects the broader debate that flamed up in the wake of the original attacks on the magazine’s offices. While much of the literary community expressed support for Charlie Hebdo, others called the mainstream glorification of the publication into question, pointing to its perceived racism. But many of the loudest participants in the ensuing discussion seemed fairly divorced from the French context — many weren’t French speakers, and some hadn’t even heard of Charlie Hebdo prior to the tragedy, much less read it. My news and Twitter feeds were littered with takes that seemed to materialize out of nowhere: as soon as it was fashionable to have an opinion, opinions seemed to abound.

Although I am a French speaker, I am not familiar enough with Charlie Hebdo to comment on its content — and I encourage others to exercise the same caution before too loudly echoing the sentiment of the PEN gala protestors. As tempting as it is to pass judgment, and as gratifying as it is to express an indignation that we expect others to share, we should exercise epistemic humility in the face of cultures that we don’t fully understand. France has a long history of political satire—and a satirical culture that differs markedly from our own.

It’s important to criticize racism in all its manifestations, and France’s treatment of its Muslim denizens leaves much to be desired. But satire is a fragile, subtle medium. Cultural context is often all that separates bigotry from biting commentary; it’s difficult enough to successfully parse irony in our native tongues.

It’s possible that all six of the writers who have withdrawn from the PEN gala have done their research, and, if so, I commend them for taking an informed stance. As Deborah Eisenberg wrote in her elegant letters to the head of PEN America: “Freedom of expression … is a very broad designation. Anything at all can be expressed, and just because something is expressed doesn’t ensure that it has either virtue or meaning.” Her point is well taken. But as online discussions tend to devolve into name calling — a phenomenon much discussed in the wake of the recent publication of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed — it’s important to emulate Eisenberg’s thoughtfulness rather than the outraged masses on Twitter. The best posture for those of us who have seen only a few Charlie Hebdo drawings — which is to say, most of the rest of us — is one of healthy skepticism towards the general discourse surrounding the affair.

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Becca Rothfeld

Becca Rothfeld is assistant literary editor of The New Republic and a contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Daily News’ literary blog, The Baffler, and...

30 replies on “Six Authors Withdraw from PEN Gala in Protest of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Honor”

  1. First it’s Jon Ronson, not Ron Jonson. Second, what about this example seems ‘fragile and subtle?’ Satire in general is so? Subtle and fragile are the opposites of what I think of in terms of satire, from ancient Roman writers (have you read Catullus?) to Shakespeare’s riffs and Chaucer, and Cervantes, and Swift. Finally, and most to the point, you plead for withholding judgment in the face of not knowing the French culture. What sensitivity in defense of a publication…which would not dream of stopping and understanding Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or anything else they target. Do you not cringe at the irony? I am in absolute favor of freedom of speech, which is not at all tied to the quality of that speech. In the case of Hebdo, I deplore with much greater degrees of magnitude the murders than I do the Hebdo content…but I hold my nose in this defense when looking at what they actually do w/that freedom.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the mistake—fixing that now. As for your argument, the author can better speak to it than me, but I think the point about satire being subtle is that takes a lot of knowledge of context to understand it; you have to know very well the thing being satirized to understand the satire (which yes, is often not particularly subtle).

  2. Charlie Hebdo has routinely been viciously racist and in particular anti arab, as well as pro Imperialist. Their racism extended of course to demonizing east Europeans as well (especially Serbs). Broadly speaking one can call it satire, but satire does not always fully absolve this sort of malignant racism and Islamophobia.

  3. steppxxxxz As someone who has been subscribed to the newspaper for years et en tant que résidente française, I’m not sure what you are basing your judgement on.

    What I like about Charlie Hebdo, and something most newspapers avoid, is they attack, without mercy or apologises, hypocrisy and corruption. Because it’s confrontational, most people feel uncomfortable with it. But in France, it’s a relief to see hypocrites receive a strong dose of satire.

    Some people will say they go too far. But when you are denouncing people of power what other arms do you have to combat abuse than shocking, brutally honest satire?

    Charlie Hebdo are unforgiving when it comes to hypocrisy, whether it be in the Catholic Church or with Muslim leaders (they have done great investigations on the opacity and murky finances of all major religions in France, for example). It’s a shame the writers who feel it necessary to protest and withdraw from this gala in protest don’t sit down with a year’s worth Of Charlie newspapers to understand what it is exactly that they are unhappy with. Maybe they should watch the excellent documentary “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” by Daniel Leconte to better understand the newspaper.

    Yes, Charlie Hebdo can be very crude with their denunciations, no matter whether it is political or religious corruption in Serbia or France . But that’s what makes them necessary. Why shouldn’t those who abuse power be taken to task?

    What is strange is that people are more upset about the satire Charlie Hebdo uses to denounce corruption, hypocrisy and double standards, than about the actual corruption and hypocrisy and double standards.

    Anyways, I just feel like more people like to talk about Charlie Hebdo without even having read it, because the only articles I’ve read on the Serbs in Charlie Hebdo were about war criminals that were never prosecuted and political and economic corruption. How’s that racist?

    1. Noonie – I admit to being one of those who never heard of Charlie Hebdo until the murders. After that I Googled as much as I could find about their content/cartoons so did the best I could which, I am aware, doesn’t compare to someone like you who is very familiar with the mag and its content over time. And I am fully onboard with the idea of denouncing corruption, hypocrisy et al by the powerful and influential.

      However, it is one thing to expose corrupt leaders – political or religious. It is another thing to use, in the case of Muslims, their holiest figure of whom it is against the rule of the Koran to depict, in order to make a point. And then to depict that figure in a grotesque and obscene way (as they have done). This doesn’t target a particular Iman or Sheik or King or even a particular sect of block, eg: fundamentalists like ISIS, who many would say are corrupting the meaning of Islam, it targets all Muslims. The fact that the figure is also drawn as this sly hook-nosed stereotype reminds me of Nazi depictions of Jews in the run-up to WWII. And, ironically – considering your defense – Muslims are not a powerful minority in France.

      Yes, free speech etc., but as others have pointed out, free speech can also be used to bully and insult. This is where I believe CH crossed the line. That doesn’t mean they deserved to be murdered but, IMO, it does mean the magazine doesn’t deserve to be honored in this way. I applaud those writers who have recused themselves. The cartoonists as CH need to be a bit more inventive and a lot less lazy in their satirical drawings.

      1. Muslims throughout history have depicted the Prophet Mohamed (commissioned by Muslim leaders, so I guess they were unaware of the rule in the Koran you are referring to) in paintings and drawings, so Charlie Hebdo aren’t doing anything new in that regard.

        The problem is blasphemy laws, which make religions, like no other institutions on Earth, above criticism and ridicule.

        And just for your information, of 523 Charlie Hebdo covers from 2005 to 2015, 65% depicted politicians (Sarkozy, Hollande and Bayrou although more often targets of Charlie than the Prophet Muhammad or any other Muslim leaders defended the newspaper in a free speech lawsuit), 16% referenced social and economic subjects, 8% sports and 7% religion. Of those 38 covers dedicated to religion 21 focused on Christianity, 10 on all or a mixture of religions and ONLY 7 on Islam.

        I’m a little surprised you would make the connection between Nazi propaganda that focused all their depictions on Jews (and whose aim was to dehumanise the Jewish population) and Charlie Hebdo who largely make fun of French and European politicians.

        Why isn’t anyone calling Charlie Hebdo anti-politician? Or anti-sports? Why is all the focus on the smallest percentage of covers?

        As for the crooked nose, I am guessing you are referring to the drawing of the Prophet with a bomb in his headscarf, which has been often criticised for his crooked nose and evil appearance (and used in the freedom of speech case against Charlie Hebdo). That wasn’t a cartoon by the Charlie staff, but a reprint from drawings published by a Danish magazine. You’d have to ask the artist why he portrayed the Prophet in that manner.

        So while you plead the cartoonists of Charlie (most of which have been murdered and can’t read your comment) to be more inventive and less lazy with their drawings, maybe you should be less lazy with your research and more inventive in your arguments.

          1. Charlie Hebdo is an indepenently owned (unlike Le Figaro which is owned by the arms dealer Serge Dassault) newspaper that is outside the mainstream and not one of the most widely read or distributed journals in France. It’s crazy to think it has any power to sway French public opinion or be responsible for encouraging military interventions anywhere (which it often denounced).

            Yes world leaders used the Charlie murders to hypocritically defend free speech, but what politician doesn’t have a self serving agenda? That’s out of Charlie’s control.

            It’s also pretty ridiculous of this writer to compare ISIS to Charlie Hebdo. Really? He claims that if ISIS published Christian satire while simultaneously killing Christians it would be an apt comparison to Charlie’s cartoons making fun of the Prophet Mohammed’s reactions to jihadists…..the important difference is that Charlie doesn’t have an army of men out killing Muslim people under the Charlie Hebdo banner.

            And if an Iranian newspaper wanted to “be like Charlie” and ridicule and satirise the Jewish prophet Abraham, like the Prophet Mohammed has been, then yes they should. Why shouldn’t religious figures be made fun of? There are cartoons depicting God every week in the New Yorker.

            If the Iranian newspaper compares cartoons making fun of fanatics who kill in the name of Allah to the Holocaust. Really? I’d say making fun of the Holocaust would be as funny as making fun of the Armenian genocide or the Rwandan genocide….but that’s just me.

        1. I am not just talking about CH covers. There have been an inordinate number of CH caricatures of Mohammad depicted in revolting and, in some cases, sexually explicit ways. I am not saying “hands off religion” – as a matter of fact, I am a card-carrying atheist – but satire needs to be careful not to cross the line into offensiveness and straight-up bullying.

          The hooked-nosed caricature wasn’t just that single one from Denmark. BTW, it is irrelevant whether that particular cartoon was a reprint or not – once CH published it, it became theirs. As far as my reference to pre-war Nazi depictions of Jews – caricature has been used throughout history not just to pull up the powerful and corrupt as you describe, but also used by the powerful to demonize and brutalize the powerless.

          In any case, I am sorry that people lost their lives over silly caricatures and bad satire. The fact is, the policies of CH and their bull-headed self-righteousness put their staff in harm’s way. Perhaps the staff agreed to this risk – it appears so since this was not the first time the magazine was targeted. Also, FYI, we are all now aware of the French double standard when it comes to free speech.

          1. “Inordinate”? Once again it’s obvious you haven’t been reading the newspaper, since most of Charlie’s content is political, not about religion. Yet the very small number of Caricatures on Muslim subjects (7 covers in ten years!) constitutes bullying to you? Why aren’t you upset that Charlie “bullied” Sarkozy or Marine Le Pen which appear much more frequently in their newspaper than the Prophet Mohamed?

            And it wasn’t bull headed selfrighteousness or “bad satire” that put them in harm’s way, it was bullets from a machine gun. How offensive. It’s like saying a woman should haven’t put herself in harm’s way after walking several times down a street in a skirt where some men whistled at her and be surprised she got raped.

            Those terrorists could have sued Charlie if they thought it was offensive, or drawn cartoons that were funnier aimed at Charlie, or started their own newspaper (there is government help to do so) or done a million other smarter things, but they chose not to.

            You might think France has a double standard when it comes to free speech, but Charlie didn’t make the laws and didn’t enforce them, they were just excersising their rights. The terrorists could have done the same.

            so while you admit to never having read an issue, you self righteously lambast the paper for being rasict and insensitive to Muslim culture. The thing you don’t understand is they were insensitive to everyone who promoted or were used to promote violence and abuse. If you find that offensive don’t read it (right you already don’t).

            As for the Danish cartoons, I don’t know if you saw those either but, some were funny and poignant (a line up of jihadists standing on a cloud waiting to enter hevean but told to stop coming because they’d run out of virgins) and some were too much for my taste (Mohamed with a bomb on his head) but I also get uncomfortable when I hear Louis CK do stand up about child molesters. Sometimes humour hits it’s mark, sometimes it’s offensive, sometimes it falls flat, but every subject is fair game – Sarkozy, Jesus and Mohammed.

            The double standard that is flagrant is that if it’s cartoons about Mohammed people get very upset, call them rascist but when it’s Jesus or Le Pen or even homosexuals, another minority Charlie’s made fun of, no one sends death threats or calls for boycotts. That’s a bit of a double standard,which is probably why Charlie did so few caricatures about Mohamed in the end.

    2. boy, lets be clear……..nobody said anyone deserved to die. So do try to read more carefully Mr Grayson. And you’re being jewish is irrelevant. Obviously. Here is what daniel pryor wrote after the attacks. ” Supporters of free speech and of Charlie Hebdo‘s content get noticed, but reasonable peoples’ reactions are similar to those against PETA — “I hate them and they make me really angry.” This is exacerbated by the various strawmen that such uncritical free speech advocates accuse their critics of. Criticise them and you are “against free speech” or “making excuses for the Hebdo murderers.” These obvious falsehoods are juvenile and lazy. This kind of support for free speech is damaging perceptions of free speech itself. It also fuels the fire of extremely prevalent Islamophobic attitudes in France. It’s not the state’s job to forcibly censor Charlie Hebdo, but we as individuals ought to condemn it nonetheless.”

  4. These comments are a little annoying since no one here seems to speak or read French, which means no one has read a Charlie Hebdo cover to cover. So what exactly are you debating?

    If you are going to make an argument against it, at least make direct references to content in the newspaper, not second degree things you read in other magazines or what you think you understand of the cartoons. French satirists often make play on words, so if you don’t speak French or know the cultural references you will miss the layers of jokes.

    How about everyone read a years worth of Charlie before judging, condemning and denouncing it.

      1. the context by the way is that of a French electoral left which all but unanimously supported the provocative, repressive ban on the hijab — Charlie Hebdo supported this lunactic law, as have all the parties in the Front de Gauche — and is rife with racism and greatly out of step with the antiimperialist French working class, eg PIR

  5. “I am not familiar enough with Charlie Hebdo to comment on its content”–wait, didn’t you just write a review of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” after reading only the first 100 pages? Editors, please — step in here anytime…

    1. Unless you’re a longtime reader or observer of Hebdo I don’t think you should be cherry picking and basing your critique on a few pieces. Most (actually the vast majority of ) critiques are coming from people who are not familiar with the work or the French satirical tradition. Context is everything. Unlike other publications, we tell writers to be clear. You seem to be frustrated with Becca’s honesty. I find it refreshing when a writer reveals the exact nature of their context and conveys that for the reader to decide.

      1. I am not at all frustrated with this (very talented) writer’s “honesty” with regard to the Charlie Hebdo situation; I’m frustrated with the fact that she’s using the “context” of critical commentary around Knausgaard to critique his work without having read it. That’s not honest; it’s lazy, and my hunch is that it, like this piece, is probably more about making a name for oneself (and one’s employer) by presenting a sure-to-be-noticed contrarian point of view. A journalistic piece about the critics, writers, and artists who are falling all over themselves praising Knausgaard could be interesting; an opinion piece about how that response must mean he is a subpar writer is specious.

        1. While the piece started to be about Knausgaard, she wanted to reflect on the type of literature it is and the gender associations with it. I can see how you would be miffed. I hope she will revisit the work and report back on how her opinion evolves but I certainly can’t force her to do that (just encourage her). She’s a rather seasoned writer on literature (particularly for someone so young), so I trust her to form an opinion based on those larger patterns she is seeing.

          1. Fair enough: It’s important to encourage emerging writers to follow their instincts; I just think it would serve her and Hyperallergic better to make sure she reads more than a handful of pages before offering a critique—positive or negative—of the work.

      2. I ve in Paris for several years. I read French. Well enough, better than i speak it. Just for the record. I think probably Mr Vartanian, you dont know who does or does not read French.

          1. “. Most (actually the vast majority of ) critiques are coming from people who are not familiar with the work or the French satirical tradition” — that was what you wrote above. I m just clarifying my familitary with said tradition and the language.

          2. I dont argue the statement. I was clarifying. But…i suppose one could say the US media willfully distorts most stories. My issue is that where once I was quite proud to have received an award from PEN-West, today I would turn it down. I feel art should be in a sense…or one of the things it should do, is serve as the conscience of society. An organization now run by a former Clinton strategist and state dept bureaucrat needs to examined, especially when one sees in the Charlie Hebdo fete, a furthering of state dept narratives about the Muslim world etc. There is a conflation of vicious killing….without separating out the fact CH was in fact horribly racist. People can debate that, fine. Killing is bad. But so is racism. To me its quite clear that it was and is racist. And it feels opportunistic and a bit manipulative at this point to plan this affair.. Again i would refer to Hedges article on why he resigned. I believe far more than six, by the way, are protesting this affair.

  6. We may not agree with the content…but their right to freedom of expression must be defended by us all. By debate we can ridicule & lampoon them…not gun them down while at work like vermin

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