Ill-Informed, Incurious, Intemperate, Ignoble and Ultimately Illiberal

Progressive goon squads side with censors, immune to reason, substantiated by little more than a pointing finger

A person reads on November 1, 2011 in Paris an issue of Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo to be published on November 2, 2011, whose cover features prophet Mohammed. "In order fittingly to celebrate the Islamist Ennahda's win in Tunisia and the NTC (National Transitional Council) president's promise that sharia would be the main source of law in Libya, Charlie Hebdo asked Mohammed to be guest editor," said a statement. AFP PHOTO MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
A person reads on November 1, 2011 in Paris an issue of Satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo to be published on November 2, 2011, whose cover features prophet Mohammed. (Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Well, it’s over. Charliegate—no, let’s call it Galagate, since neither Charlie Hebdo nor PEN should have to prolong their association with the knee-high-to-a-scandal that’s obsessed the literary world for the past couple of weeks—ended with a round of thoroughly unsurprising encomiums bestowed upon the embattled French satirical newspaper at PEN’s annual literary gala, held in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life. Gérard Biard, Charlie’s editor-in-chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, its film critic, were presented with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award before an audience of 800, which gave them a standing ovation every bit as predictable as the rain of accolades that fell from the podium. Outside the museum, according to the Times, “A lone protester held a handwritten sign: ‘Free speech does not deserve death/Abusive speech does not deserve an award,’” but if any of the hosts or guests seated under the whale remained in their seats (as some had suggested was a more appropriate form of dissent), their numbers were so small that at least one guest wasn’t able to see any. This seems a fitting final image for such a sad-sack affair, in which ominous but vague accusations were leveled at Charlie Hebdo, only to be repulsed by an International Brigade that went after the newspaper’s opponents with a barrage of rather more informed defenses that, though commendable (if increasingly contemptuous of American “provincialism”), were also pretty obvious, while the genuinely contentious issues about freedom of expression hinted at by the dispute remained unexamined or minimized. Tout est pardonné, as Mohammed might say. Now pass the champagne.

Andrew Solomon, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard, Suzanne Nossel, and Charlie Hebdo film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret attend the PEN American Center Literary Gala at American Museum of Natural History on May 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Jesse Kornbluth).

Earlier in the day, at a PEN World Voices Festival panel entitled “Charlie Hebdo and Challenges to Freedom of Expression,” Biard and Thoret were, as guests on American soil, given what might be called their First Amendment rights-by-extension, but denied their Sixth Amendment right to confront their accusers, which is to say that they were allowed to explain—in a refreshingly down-to-earth and thoroughly undefensive manner—how their newspaper attacks rather than abets racism, and targets “the political use of religion” rather than believers. They were, however, only able to deliver this message to an audience of about a hundred or so festival-goers (plus half again as many reporters and security guards), because, although PEN had invited at least some of the 200-plus PEN members who signed an April 26 letter “dissociat[ing]” themselves from the courage award, the dissenters opted for another note instead. This message read, in full: “The colleagues of Biard and Thoret were victims of an inexcusable crime, and they deserve to be treated with the respect one offers to people who are recently bereaved, whatever one might think about their work. We think the panel on Tuesday should be one in which an audience has the opportunity to get to know Biard and Thoret and to hear their view of Charlie Hebdo, and we don’t think you need to try to find someone to speak in opposition to them.” As an expression of “respect” this seemed a little mistimed, coming as it did after the dissenters had spent the better part of two weeks making hay comparing Charlie Hebdo to the Nazi publication Der Stürmer and likening its cartoons of Muslims to Nazi caricatures of Jews and suggesting that giving it a commendation for courage was like giving the National Book Award to Mein Kampf and…well, you get the point. We’ll call you a Nazi behind your back, not quite four months after eight of your colleagues were shot dead, but we won’t call you a Nazi to your face because we don’t want to upset you in your delicate state. In the matter of basic human decency—not to mention courage—point to Charlie.

Let’s give the dissenters their due. From the start they’ve declared their unwavering support for absolute freedom of expression, however offensive—god knows the French government won’t do that—and claimed the primary focus of their criticism is PEN itself, which they feel erred in bestowing this particular award on this particular publication. There’s something to this. As Glenn Greenwald has (rather exhaustively) pointed out, the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo was co-opted even before its victims were buried. Millions of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tinder users posted #JeSuisCharlie selfies, their grim expressions suggesting that they, too, were risking their lives in defiance of Islamist terrorism; while in Paris, on January 12, some of the world’s most maligned dictators linked arms with some of the world’s worst transgressors against freedom of expression and posed for one of the most politically incongruent photo ops since Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin rubbed elbows at Yalta. That this bit of political theater was opportunistic, if not simply a sham, offended many on the left, not least Charlie’s surviving staff. “We’re speaking about the memory of Charb, Tignous, Cabu, Honoré, Wolinski,” said the cartoonist Luz, who drew the January 14 “Tout Est Pardonné” cover. “They would all have abhorred that kind of attitude.” At the Tuesday morning event, Biard and Thonet shrugged off the notion that they were heroes, and suggested that in a few months the world will have put Charlie out of its consciousness. Certainly their prediction was reflected in the event’s attendance: 5.7 million people demonstrated in support of the newspaper on January 12; by May 5, a mere hundred could muster themselves out of bed to actually meet two of its contributors.

To the best of my knowledge, the offenses of which Charlie Hebdo stands accused number five: Charlie Hebdo is nationalistic. It is racist. It is both obsessed with Islam and Islamophobic. It is—that shibboleth of leftwing piety—culturally insensitive to the plight of an oppressed minority. And, finally, it brought the Jan. 7 attack on itself

The dissenters also argued that elevating Charlie above all the other victims of Islamist terrorism reinforces the notion that most terrorism is Islamist in origin, and that most of the victims of Islamism are white and/or European, when neither of these prejudices is backed by facts, as any number of reports has shown, including one commissioned by Europol, the EU’s law-enforcement agency, and another by the US government’s National Counterterrorism Center. If you want to reward someone for standing up to Islamism, the dissenters suggested, better to single out the Syrian or Sudanese or Iraqi or Afghan or Iranian writer who, in far more dire circumstances than even Charlie Hebdo faces, documents the ongoing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and other non-white, non-European victims of Islamic extremism. Raif Badawi, the imprisoned Saudi blogger facing 1000 lashes for the crime of insulting Islam, was suggested as an alternative, along with Avijit Roy, the Bangladeshi-American writer hacked to death by presumed Islamists. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were also mentioned, as were Mexican and Russian journalists who have incurred their governments’ ire.

These arguments are commendable, as far as they go. They’re also wilfully naive and beside the point. PEN does plenty of valuable, indeed urgent political work on behalf of freedom of expression, but its literary gala is a fundraiser, which is to say, another piece of political theater, one whose goal isn’t freedom or justice but money—in this case, $1250 a ticket. From that point of view, Charlie Hebdo was a no-brainer, not just because the narrative by which the newspaper came to American attention fed into bourgeois assumptions about Islamism and the Fourth Estate, but also because live guests are a bigger draw than dead or imprisoned ones. (Oh, and because eight Charlie staffers were executed for speaking out against religious extremism.) And although I don’t doubt the dissenters were serious when they said there were more deserving candidates for a courage award, I don’t think anyone believes this was their primary focus in protesting PEN’s choice. Because the dissenters didn’t stop with merely questioning the selection of Charlie Hebdo: in a March 26 letter to PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, the writer Deborah Eisenberg declared CH to be “spectacularly offensive,” “not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless,” “parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial,” and “pitiful, foolish, and immensely destructive” (this last was said about Charlie’s “more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism,” which claim would seem to have been refuted by the attack itself). Eisenberg’s invective ran to 3000 words over the course of two letters, but was eventually winnowed down to a single-page document dated April 26 which, by May 5, had been signed by more than 200 PEN members, who proceeded to get the word out via social media, blogs, opinion pieces, and print and radio interviews in which Charlie Hebdo was vilified as a publication that, far from being a virtuous paragon of free expression, was in fact nothing more than an outlet for hate speech. This, then, was no mere fraternal dispute. It was an all-out campaign to destroy Charlie Hebdo’s reputation.

To the best of my knowledge, the offenses of which Charlie Hebdo stands accused number five: Charlie Hebdo is nationalistic. It is racist. It is both obsessed with Islam and Islamophobic. It is—that shibboleth of leftwing piety—culturally insensitive to the plight of an oppressed minority. And, finally, it brought the Jan. 7 attack on itself, its cartoons of Mohammed the equivalent of demonstrating your right to smoke—Eisenberg again—“by dropping your lit match into a dry forest.” Of these five charges, the first four have been refuted so thoroughly that the only thing still wanting is an apology, while the last is irrefutable—and unconscionable. Islamist organizations have long promised to go after any publication that prints an image of Mohammed, let alone makes fun of him. Charlie Hebdo’s offices had already been firebombed in 2011 after its cover featured what would seem to have been an innocuous image of Mohammed, who declared “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” (I say “seem,” since this is presumably one of the images whose “big noses” reminded Francine Prose of Goebbels’s handiwork.) It’s undeniable, then, that any publication choosing to run these kinds of images risks the lives of its staff, and as a consequence the criteria by which it decides to publish or not publish are far more complex than mere questions of free expression. But Charlie Hebdo, a tiny newspaper, would seem to have negotiated this quagmire as well as can be done. The sense one gets from interviews with the survivors and the friends and families of the victims is that the paper’s empolyees were aware of the risks and felt it necessary to publish anyway, and while it might not be the choice you or I would make, to blame them for their own deaths is the equivalent of blaming a woman who walks through a park at night for her rape. But that’s what the PEN dissenters are doing. In fact, what they’re doing is worse: they’re suggesting the rape victim went into the park to look for a rapist, and made sure to wear a short skirt. That Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Mohammed might have been seen as political images not simply defying Islamic extremism, but resisting it, or even attempting to counter it, seems not to have been an idea worth considering by the dissenters. In their view, the cartoons were printed for no other reason than to insult Muslims and goad Islamists to commit yet another atrocity. In the extremity of this view, the rhetoric is only one or two verses (pick your holy book) from saying that Charlie Hebdo reaped what it sowed.

As such outrageous charges suggest, the dissenters’ accusations have from the beginning been ill-reasoned and, indeed, immune to reason, substantiated by little more than a pointing finger: “Look at that nose! Can’t you read that caption?” (Indeed, many of the dissenters seemed unable to read them; hence their failure to understand what the cartoons were actually communicating.) Their reactions were instead based on a surface reading of what we now know to be a selective minority of images that appeared in Charlie Hebdo, and the negative reaction of many viewers to these images had been a part of the narrative at least since Teju Cole’s essay, “Unmournable Bodies,” appeared in the New Yorker on Jan. 9. Many readers of “Unmournable Bodies,” myself included, felt that Mr. Cole was the one among us who’d dared to give voice to the uneasiness we felt when we saw the images that were popping up in our social media feeds, such as the cartoon in which Christiane Taubira, France’s Minister of Justice, is depicted as a monkey. Yet even as Mr. Cole’s essay appeared, dozens of writers familiar with Charlie Hebdo were rushing to elucidate the newspaper’s tactics to the non-Francophone world, and it soon became clear that initial impressions were misleading, and that Charlie Hebdo, as Ed Berenson succinctly put it at Tuesday’s panel, “mobilizes antisemitic or racist stereotypes to criticize those stereotypes.”

Pakistani demonstrators burn a French flag during a protest against the printing of satirical sketches of the Prophet Muhammad by French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Quetta on January 16, 2014. (Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani demonstrators burn a French flag during a protest against the printing of satirical sketches of the Prophet Muhammad by French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Quetta on January 16, 2014. (Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ms. Taubira, it should be noted, is not simply the black subject of a “racist” image, but was also a major force behind a French law that retroactively categorizes slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, and has also campaigned for reparations for the descendants of French slaves in the Caribbean, which is to say, she is not merely a victim of racism, but an educated and politicized black woman from a French colony who has devoted her life to making France acknowledge and redress its racist history. Yet even after she delivered a hagiographic eulogy at the funeral of Tignous, the cartoonist who drew the image that so incensed Cole and others (“He constantly sought…the drawing that makes people laugh but not only that; the drawing that makes people think but not only that; the drawing, too, that makes people ashamed of having laughed over a solemn fact or situation”), and even after the French anti-racism organization SOS Racisme denossescribed Charlie Hebdo as “the greatest anti-racist weekly” in France, and even after the handful of writers defending Charlie Hebdo had grown to dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, explaining everything from the French tradition of laïcité to the anti-nationalist, anti-racist, pro-immigrant agenda of image after image, we still had Eliot Weinberger writing in the pages of the London Review of Books on April 28: “We have been told that Charlie is actually anti-racist. When they portray the minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey, or the pregnant sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens, they are not satirising black people, but white people who vilify black people. It’s a fine distinction, no doubt lost on anyone who is not white.”

When the go-to line of argument is a retreat behind a tribal conception of racial identity, it should come as no surprise that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of the PEN dissenters has admitted to misjudging the newspaper, which intransigence seems less characteristic of PEN’s eponymous “poets, essayists, and novelists” than of politicians shilling for re-election. Yet more alarming than the decision to blame Charlie Hebdo for its own attack or the refusal to admit that the newspaper doesn’t have Islam or African welfare queens on its brain is the defense behind which these false claims shelter. Because it doesn’t actually matter, the dissenters told us, if Charlie Hebdo’s editors claim to be anti-racist or pro-immigrant or otherwise leftwing or “equal opportunity offenders.” As Eisenberg wrote in her second letter to Nossel, “Charlie Hebdo’s objectives are entirely beside the point”: “It is the work available to us, not the objectives behind it, which we experience and judge.”

So: never mind that the newspaper has repeatedly claimed that “when we make a cartoon of Mohammed or Jesus, we don’t mock or attack people, we mock instititutions.” Never mind that France’s six-million-strong “Muslim population” (or its sixty-million-strong “non-Muslim population”) is characterized in the same essentialist terms as Ms. Weinberger’s “anyone who is not white”: as a monolithic tribal body, not just unable to reason individually, not just unable to distinguish between criticism of a tiny group of fanatics who murder in the name of Islam and the majority of their law-abiding co-religionists, but unable to think and act as citizens of a democracy. “In an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect,” the PEN dissenters said in their letter of April 26, which, again, culled much of its rhetoric from Ms. Eisenberg’s original correspondence with Ms. Nossel:

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. [my italics]

It’s simply shameful that, thanks to a few pages of ill-informed, incurious, intemperate, ignoble and ultimately illiberal casuistry, some people now think they deserved it.

I have been grappling with this line of reasoning for three or four weeks now, and I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. It is shocking that even a single writer belonging to an organization whose mission is to “to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally” could articulate a position that constitutes an attack on those freedoms of which Big Brother would be proud; that more than two hundred writers should endorse such a position boggles the mind. The idea that an artist’s intentions are “beside the point,” that the only thing that matters is the audience’s reaction—and not even the majority of the audience, but that portion of the audience that might be considered a minority or otherwise marginalized population—is another way of saying that every writer, painter, musician, choreographer, etc., is beholden to consider every possible reaction to his or her work, and to tailor that work so that it offends no one who might come into contact with it, intentionally or otherwise. Is it necessary to say that every work of art ever made would fail that test? Or, rather, that no work of art would ever be produced, because nothing could meet such a standard? Or that no work of art should seek to meet such a standard, because only pabulum would result? If you encountered the same sentences in the Onion you’d probably chuckle knowingly at seeing liberal piety mocked so adroitly. But if this scandal’s taught us anything, it’s that context is indeed paramount, and this ridiculous and untenable position is being proffered in complete seriousness. In fact, it’s all too familiar, another iteration of the scolding left’s neat update on McCarthyism, or Maoism really, in which individuals and organizations are denounced for crimes they don’t even know they’re committing—indeed, their denial is proof of their guilt.

Yet another thing we’ve learned from this controversy is that the easiest way to tarnish your opponents is to call them racists or Nazis. No matter how thoroughly the charge is discredited, the taint will always linger. Deborah Eisenberg and Francine Prose and Joyce Carol Oates are smart people and good writers who’d never make accusations like these without just cause, right? Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi are two of the most respected Americans writing on the subject of race today—and they’re black. There must be something to these charges, no? Well, yes, there is something to these charges. These writers were offended by Charlie Hebdo. But giving offense and being prejudiced aren’t the same thing, and being offended as a black person or woman or Jew or homosexual doesn’t automatically make you the victim of racism, misogyny, antisemitism, or homophobia. It makes you someone with a different sense of aesthetics or propriety from the person who made the statement that offended you. These are fine grounds on which to disagree with someone—indeed, they produce some of the most vital thinking on politics and culture. But a preemptive and, more the point, unfounded resort to the other N-word derails the discussion, often forever.

If, ultimately, we can’t speak as individuals to other individuals, then we don’t actually have free speech. We have what Jean-Baptiste Thoret called “self-consorship,” the refusal to speak our minds not because we’re afraid of being murdered but because we’re afraid of being ostracized by people who should be our allies. In the bluntest possible terms: it is a tragedy that Jean Cabut, Elsa Cayat, Stéphanne Charbonnier, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Maris, Mustapha Ourad, Bernard Verlhac, and Georges Wolinski were killed because they had the courage to stand up to religious extremism. But it’s simply shameful that, thanks to a few pages of ill-informed, incurious, intemperate, ignoble and ultimately illiberal casuistry, some people now think they deserved it.

Dale Peck is the author of Martin and John and several other books, including the just-published Visions and Revisions: Coming of Age in the Age of AIDS.

Ill-Informed, Incurious, Intemperate, Ignoble and Ultimately Illiberal