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PEN, the organization of writers, decided to give a Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo—that is, to those of its staff who were not massacred by the Islamist Kouachi brothers on Jan. 7. So, of course hell broke loose.

In its own words, PEN wished to “honor Charlie Hebdo for their refusal to retreat when confronted with threats of violence … coupled with their magnanimity in the face of tragedy.” In a longer statement, the organization declared:

It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all. In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.

On the face of it, the Goodale Award would seem the ideal honor for Charlie Hebdo.

The idea is to reward virtue and convey respect. It not a Pulitzer, National Book Award, or PEN/Faulkner award for fine writing. It is an award for character. As PEN said: “Only a handful of people are willing to put themselves in peril to build a world in which we are all free to say what we believe.” Their statement does not endorse propositions, or styles, or theories of the wrongheadness of Islam or any other religion whose pronouncements and taboos Charlie Hebdo has, since its inception, chortled about as it casts enemies into outer darkness.

No, the reward is not for nuance and certainly not for inoffensiveness. The reward celebrates virtue. In particular, it commends “refusal to retreat,” “dauntlessness,” and “magnanimity.” Refusal to retreat means insistence on defying what some have called the assassin’s veto. Dauntlessness means continuing to publish after a firebombing of their headquarters in 2011, and then again after this year’s mass murders. Dauntlessness merged with magnanimity when Charlie launched its post-massacre career with a touching cover portrayal of Mohammad shedding a tear, saying, “All is forgiven,” as he holds up a sign declaring “I am Charlie.”

No stranger to dauntlessness, James Goodale himself was the Times chief lawyer who, in 1971, convinced publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger to publish the Pentagon Papers. When the Nixon administration went to the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the Times from proceeding, Goodale headed the legal team that won the case, which has a marvelous title: New York Times Co. v. United States. Talk about courage, talk about freedom of expression.

But these days, darts are flying. A letter of dissociation signed by a good number of well-known writers, including Russell Banks, Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Wallace Shawn, declares that

there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

One wonders how the signatories know that the Mohammad cartoons are “intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” Intended? Might they not be intended, rather, to challenge an interpretation of Islam that bans depictions of the Prophet, and thereby to offer Muslims (or anyone else) an opportunity to rethink what their faith requires of them? As PEN plausibly said,

were the Hebdo cartoonists not satirical in their genesis and intent, their content and images might offend most or all of us. But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits—no matter the purpose, intent, or import of the expression.

In fact, the head of France’s premier anti-racist organization, SOS-Racisme says: “Charlie Hebdo is the greatest anti-racist weekly in the country,” and goes on to call it “scandalous … an insult to the memory and the struggle of the people we have lost,” which led no less an expert on willful misreading than Salman Rushdie to tweet: “Now that the leading anti-racist group SOS-Racisme has called CH ‘the greatest anti-racist weekly’, will PEN protestors admit their error?”

As for the claim of satire’s effects, how do the signatories of the letter know what they are or have been or will be? The literature on “mass communications effects” is vast, tangled, and contradictory. There are short-term effects, mid-term effects, and long-term effects. The publication of the Pentagon Papers affected Daniel Ellsberg, who released them to the Times and other papers, in one way, and Richard Nixon in another way. There are different effects on different folks. In the eighth century CE, Byzantine Christians practiced iconoclasm. Christians got over it. Perhaps Muslims will do the equivalent some day, and thank Charlie Hebdo.

But for now, offensiveness is Charlie Hebdo’s métier. The magazine has long been savage and impious, in the Rabelaisian tradition. Sometimes it is, to my taste,  puerile. Sometimes it makes me queasy. So what? Satirical magazines aren’t tranquillizers. The magazine scathes dogmatists and haters. Some French speakers tell us that the charge of racism misreads cartoons that are, in fact, intended to mock racists. (In the spirit of the PEN protest, one might even claim that these are “intended” misreadings.) The immigrant-hating Le Pen dynasty incurs Charlie’s particular wrath. Nor has Charlie sucked up, as it were, to Catholic cardinals, who it depicted once as forming a buggering circle, or to Jesus, whom it has depicted buggering God, and in turn being buggered by the Holy Spirit. (For examples, click here.)

Humor is famously parochial. After living in Paris for one year of my life, I can’t claim to have mastered the inflections of French satire. A lot of it doesn’t translate, at least not transparently. I understand why some find some of its depictions racist, even as I understand why some people (not only African-American) condemn Huckleberry Finn for its use of the word “nigger,” but to understand a culturally clueless error is not to be convinced.

Moreover, it may look commendable that the protest letter attempts a general argument, but it’s a general argument that doesn’t hold up. If equality of power and prestige are to be held out as qualifications for legitimate satire, who issues the certificates, and on what grounds? When Muslims, or Catholics, or Jews disagree, who gets veto privileges? After all, some victims are also victimizers. Victimization comes in more flavors than Ben & Jerry’s. How many jurors must decide who qualifies as a victim in one case or the other? Must the criterion be “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of evidence”? Must all satirical cartoons be held in pretrial detention?

Congratulations to PEN for the courage to honor courage.

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