Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Supporting the PEN Six

If you've been following the news or been on Twitter recently, there's a good chance you've heard about the PEN Charlie Hebdo controversy, but in case you haven't, I'll summarize briefly. PEN American Center, a literary society, decided to award its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo; in response, six writers decided to withdraw as literary hosts from the organization's gala this May. The writers have written out their rationales and made them public; their arguments basically hinge on the magazine's ugly portrayal of Muslims, which, as I've noted, a journalist who used to work with Charlie excoriated them for (well before the massacre happened).

Teju Cole, one of the six writers (Chester Higgins Jr./
The New York Times)

These writers, in my view, made the right decision. The award should not go to Charlie Hebdo. I've heard the argument that since the award is for "courage," it doesn't matter if you don't like Charlie's content. I'm gonna go ahead and call bullshit on that one. Saying something is courageous always implies at least some appreciation for the action being taken, which is why we don't describe the 9/11 hijackers as courageous men even though they knowingly sacrificed their lives for their cause. As has been pointed out, no one would be all right with this award being given to a KKK or neo-Nazi publication that had continued to put out its vile material in spite of threats or violence from its opponents. Am I saying that Charlie Hebdo is the equivalent of the KKK or the Nazis? No. But I think a lot of their content, as their former associate Olivier Cyran has criticized them for, has only contributing to the horrifically Islamophobic climate in France. That deserves no award, regardless of how willing they were to continue in their work in the face of violence and threats.

There is a group of people I would like to applaud for their courage, though, because I think they have done and said some important things: the writers withdrawing from the gala in protest, the PEN six, as they've been called. These are people who have the integrity to refuse to go along with the uncritical deification that's happened to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. From what I've read of their comments, I've been pleased with how well the problems with Charlie's content has been noted. We can, as the writers have said, think that a horrible injustice was committed when the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed, but that doesn't mean we have to view their work as deserving of praise. Alas, as human history shows again and again, being killed is often enough to get a person forever viewed as, in Marilyn Manson's poetic words, "a martyr and a lamb of God."

It was against this unjustified glorification of these "martyrs" and secular saints that these six writers laudably stood up, even though they had to know in the process they were throwing themselves into the New Atheist viper pit where not just their decision but their character and integrity would be shamelessly attacked, which is exactly what's happened. We've had Salman Rushdie, for instance, childishly attacking them as "pussies" and Sam Harris saying they should be ashamed.

Their arguments have been distorted by those who claim they've equated or compared Charlie Hebdo with the Nazis. And, unlike the Charlie Hebdo journalists (if one can be generous enough to call them that), they've suffered this not as a result of mocking and denigrating a group of people, but just for voicing their own opinions and acting on their own principles. Once again, the New Atheist movement and its leaders have shown their own vile, fascistic intolerance of anyone who deviates from the acceptable viewpoint—an intolerance they claim ad nauseam to be victims of, with "PC liberals" as the supposed aggressors.

But, even as the sanctification of the Charlie Hebdo "journalists" goes on and those who speak against it are spat at by the likes of Harris and Rushdie, those who, like myself, find the scene deplorable can at least take some comfort in the fact that there are people willing to stand up against it. The PEN six deserve to be applauded for their actions. We can hope that, at some point in the future, that will be universally recognized. Until then, at least we have our dissidents.

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