There is one thing about literary types; when they decide to go off on one, they do it with style. So when a smattering of writers, including Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, decided to protest at the decision of PEN America to offer its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo, they offered a masterclass in how to stay cred while resiling from a cause you purport to defend.
They drew the scorn of Salman Rushdie but we should be grateful. Cant of this calibre is rarely seen. We can all learn from such skill.
Tactic one: Murder is wrong but . . .
Sometimes a single “but” is all it takes. The placement of “but” is a strategic issue because the words preceding it are the ones there for appearances while the words after it reflect the writers’ true opinion.
Teju Cole “buts” with brio: “I am a free speech fundamentalist but I don’t think it is a good use of our head space or moral commitments to lionise Charlie Hebdo in particular.”
Peter Carey, as one would expect, offers a Booker Prize-worthy “but”: “A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he said. Masterful; and the use of “self-righteous” shows Carey is a writer at the top of his game.
Francine Prose was “horrified” by the murders and has “nothing but sympathy” for the victims. Even so, she opines that “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.” You thought the Charlie Hebdo murders were facts. Actually they were merely a narrative for your cultural prejudice.
One last from Ms Prose: “The First Amendment guarantees the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. But we don’t give them an award”. Did you see what she did there with the Nazi analogy? Cunning eh?
Tactic two: Others are more worthy
The Rushdie affair taught Amitava Kumar that “you have to take sides”. So he does, but not his: “I wish I had the triumphant certainty of those who are all gung-ho about the award. I mean, f*** the killers who gunned down the cartoonists.” This is terrific. The use of “triumphant certainty” and “gung-ho” conjure up images of US aggression and depict the award’s supporters as mindless fools. And dropping the f-word is way cool.
And here’s the pay off: “But as I think of the wars unleashed upon whole peoples . . . as well as theocratic rule in the Middle East, you have to ask yourself if one shouldn’t instead be championing those who see the greater violence and who rebel against our own cravenness and complicities.”
Deborah Eisenberg also feels they were not killed in a good enough cause. She would rather honour Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.
For Glenn Greenwald: “It is simply inconceivable that Charlie Hebdo would have been depicted as heroes had their primary targets been groups more favoured and powerful in the west.” I disagree but even if true, how does this make Charlie unworthy?
Tactic Three: You are all evil
To Ms Eisenberg the award “almost looks less like an endorsement of free expression than like an opportunistic exploitation of the horrible murders . . . to justify and glorify offensive material expressing anti-Islamic and nationalist sentiments”. Note the deployment of “almost”. In other words, she doesn’t believe this is PEN’s motive, but suggests it anyway.
Ms Eisenberg also offers the fabulously disingenuous observation “Charlie Hebdo’s symbolic significance is unclear here”.
Really? How intentionally obtuse must you be to struggle to discern the symbolic significance. There are valid criticisms of Charlie Hebdo’s output. Alive, the cartoonists could be viewed through that critical prism but dead, they became more than their work. They are symbols of defiance against those who use violence to stifle free speech. (Martyrs incidentally are often difficult people; it tends to go with the territory). By contrast, the PEN dissenters have shown they are not “free speech fundamentalists”; they are only fundamentalist for opinions they share. In fact, they are free speech relativists. They forget that defending free speech only counts if you also stand up for views you dislike.