Notes and Comment Blog


“Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering”

May 7th, 2015 10:40 am | By

In light of the refusal of the anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters to discuss or defend their claims about Charlie, let’s take another look at those claims. Let’s consider what they’re leaving out there, unexplained and unargued.

The letter.

  • An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder.
  • However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting
    expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding
    such expression.
  • 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.
  • by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic,
    anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
  • PEN America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above
    those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose
    courage, even when provocative or discomfiting, has also been fastidiously
    exercised for the good of humanity.

Francine Prose in the Guardian.

  • I wondered what I would do when the crowd around me rose to its feet to applaud an award being given – in my name – to what I felt was an inappropriate recipient.
  • I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said.
  • As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award.
  • Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
  • 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.

That’s their “narrative” and they’re sticking to it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



They said they did not want to bother “the recently bereaved”

May 7th, 2015 10:14 am | By

Boris Kachka gives a rather sneery account of the PEN gala.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two people most sanguine about the ruckus were the honorees, who’ve seen worse. “I’m surrounded by cops, and it’s no problem,” said Gérard Biard, the French satirical paper’s current editor-in-chief. “I began to get used to it,” he added — as he has to the notion that Hebdo traffics in needlessly provocative racist caricatures. “I would like to remind the protesters that the first victims of Islamism are Muslim. We don’t attack Muslims, we defend them. Do they?”

One of the aspects of the issue that the protesters are overlooking is the fact that some Muslims emigrate from majority-Muslim countries because they don’t want to live lives dominated by Islam. Some Muslims leave such countries because they want to escape Islamism.

His colleague Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who was late to the editorial meeting at which eight Hebdo staff members were killed in January, regretted that the missing hosts — including Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachel Kushner, and Teju Cole — had skipped a morning PEN panel where he’d appeared. (They’d declined in an email, saying they did not want to bother “the recently bereaved.”)

Oh, please. That’s insulting, if you like.

Other PEN hosts — especially Art Spiegelman and several other cartoonists he’d drafted to replace the protesters at tables — gave less ground on the ten-day-old debate. “I think of them as the Sanctimonious Six,” said Spiegelman, wearing a Nancy comic tie, of the absent hosts. He detected in them a note of anti-cartoonist bias, especially in the way criticism over the last few days had integrated the Dallas Muhammad-drawing contest that provoked a shooting. “Some of them were derogatory for the medium, talking about them as by nature vulgar,” he said. “Sure, Charlie Hebdo’s drawings are often vulgar when you think of Muhammad with a crescent moon up his ass, but the ideas behind it are rather sophisticated. A lot of the criticism seemed to blur the distinctions between Pamela Geller’s organization,” the Muhammad-drawing contest group, “and Charlie Hebdo, which has been lauded as an anti-racist organization by SOS Racisme” — a French anti-racism NGO.

Quite. The protesters talk as if Charlie Hebdo is allied with and comparable to Pam Geller, which is a crude mistake – yet they refuse to learn otherwise.

The defense offered stood on three legs. SOS Racisme tackled the first one, arguing that the work of Charlie Hebdo was not racist. “We honor their antiracist commitment, which has been consistent throughout their existence,” said Sopo. The previous week’s “polemic” was based on a fundamental “misunderstanding of what Charlie Hebdo means in France. I think it’s very important that we do not kill those who died a second time by raising a polemic.”

The second leg was a defense of secularism. “Secularism is not a bad word,” Biard said in his speech, subtitles flashing behind him, making it feel only more like a high-school lesson on laicité. “Nor is it a French cultural obsession, like smelly cheese or flabby presidents. It’s one of the many conditions for democracy. Secularism protects our freedom of conscience, which is both the right to believe and the right not to believe.”

New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff made the final point. “The attack was targeted on cartoonists, and that wasn’t an accident,” he said. “I do feel that cartoonists, humorists, satirists, and jokers are the marginalized group in the defense of freedom of expression. Often, humor is the second-class citizen in the defense, and I want to say that it’s nice that Charlie Hebdo is up here in the first-class cabin.” Then he named the one thing his cartoons and Hebdo’s have in common: “Not everyone gets the joke.” It echoed Biard’s closing line, like a flashy defense attorney’s last flourish: “Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

Well you can call it flashy and a flourish all you like, but it’s true and it’s about a thing that truly did happen. I myself don’t think it’s a subject that requires an ironic treatment.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Fighting for the right to control misogyny, and direct it back at women

May 7th, 2015 8:32 am | By

Here’s an item. I don’t know what or who the original source is. One of several on tumblr.

I’m a guy, and I need feminism. Not “men’s rights.” Feminism. Here is why.

Everything that MRAs talk about that men can’t do or are socially punished for arise directly and immediately from misogyny. Not “misandry.” Misogyny.

Whether I am expressing my emotions, playing with children, baking, having sex wherein I am penetrated in any way, wearing the wrong color, talking the wrong way, moving the wrong way, being sexually harassed/assaulted, or paying too little attention to looking like I’m not paying attention to how I look, when society punishes me or derides me or marginalizes me for these things, it is happening because they are things women, not men, are expected to do, and our society at large fucking hates women.

Has that sunk in yet?

Men, can you even think of a single goddamn way you have ever been mocked that wasn’t related to something that a misogynist society sees as feminizing? Even when large men are mocked for their bodies, they are referred to as having “man-boobs,” for fucks sake.

How do you expect to improve those things with “men’s rights?” What right are you fighting for? I can tell you what I think you’re fighting for. I think you’re fighting for the right to contain and control misogyny, and direct it back at women, where you think it belongs. You want to maintain your privilege but erase its consequences, and that’s why your movement is farcical; it’s a big fucking feedback loop. How do you expect men to be free from the peripheral effects of misogyny when you refuse to even fucking believe it’s real?

It’s the truth. I sometimes (often) get overwhelmed by despair when I see yet another example of that phenomenon.

I think humans are all bullies, the way we’re all bipedal. We have opposable thumbs and we have an instinctive urge to bully anyone we can. That urge combined with sexual dimorphism gets you just this arrangement, where women are bullied for being women and men are bullied for being like women.

Intelligent design? Don’t make me laugh.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Deference to “personal” religion even as religion colonizes public life

May 6th, 2015 5:20 pm | By

Salty Current went to the PEN forum on Charlie Hebdo and challenges to free expression yesterday, and reports on it at her blog.

What she says about the difference between French secularism and US “secularism” is exceptionally useful. Bolding mine.

The conversation covered important differences between US and French law and culture, specifically between secularism as practiced in the US and laïcité in France and between US and French laws surrounding freedom of expression. Critics of the magazine in the US often seem to ignore the difference between US secularism (or “secularism”) and French laïcité. Laïcité as they described goes beyond the separation of church and state – it understands the public sphere and political discourse as a common space in which religion has no role or status, and outside of which religion (for some) is practiced, and respected, privately. In this context, religion is seen as intruding on the public sphere and publicly mocking religious iconography and practices as political targets is acceptable. This can be difficult to understand here in the US because our system is so different in theory and in practice. The US system wasn’t really discussed at the forum, but as I’ve argued many times it’s based on a bogus sort of compromise in which institutionalized religion is (in theory) kept separate from the state, but religious claims and identities suffuse political discourse and public policy, all while people are expected to refrain from criticizing or mocking religion because it’s an allegedly personal and emotional matter. Whatever the problems with laïcité in practice (and Berenson hinted at some, although unfortunately there wasn’t time to return to them), the US system with its tradition and practice of deference to “personal” religion even as religion colonizes public life is ridiculous and anti-democratic.

Thatty that that.

Read it all; it’s outstanding.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



When Muslim students complained about posters

May 6th, 2015 4:20 pm | By

There was a panel on free speech and satire in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders at the University of Minnesota on January 29th. There was also, we now learn from Inside Higher Ed, a debate on the debate later on.

When Muslim students complained about posters that promoted the event, the university investigated their concerns and issued a report that questioned the judgment of those who signed off on the posters. And the university sent an email that some interpreted as an order to remove the posters, although the university disputes this.

The discussion raises questions about how colleges and universities should balance their commitments to academic freedom and free speech with the cultural sensitivities of students and others involved in campus life. And like the recent PEN award protests over a planned tribute to Charlie Hebdo, it’s also a reminder of how controversial the magazine and what it stands for remain, and how the attack continues to reverberate among thinkers across continents.

Or it’s a reminder of what an artificial and absurd pseudo-controversy there is over Charlie Hebdo and how eager some benighted people are to create controversy where no controversy should be.

Hoping to provide a space for dialogue, by the end of the month several professors had organized a panel called “Can One Laugh at Everything? Satire and Free Speech After Charlie.”

The panel included Sack, who reflected on being a cartoonist, and several Minnesota professors. Anthony Winer, a professor of law, offered a comparative study of free speech laws. Jane E. Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law and director of the Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, delivered a talk called, “As Welcome as a Bee Sting: Why We Must Protect ‘Outrageous’ Speech,” while William Beeman, professor and chair of anthropology, talked about figurative representations in the Islamic tradition — including lesser-known historical depictions of Muhammad. Most observant Muslims now consider any kind of physical representation of Muhammad off-limits.

Off-limits where? To whom? According to whom? When? Why?

Observant Muslims can go right ahead and consider any kind of physical representation of Muhammad off-limits to themselves, if they want to, but they do not have the right to impose that silly and childish rule on anyone else. People can decide to swear off dancing if they want to, but they can’t decide that for the rest of us. People can take vows of celibacy if they like, but they can’t take vows of celibacy for other people.

The organizers advertised the panel with a flyer featuring the cover of the Charlie Hebdo edition published immediately after the terrorist attack. In contrast to the magazine’s earlier, at times vulgar depictions of the prophet, the cover shows a bearded man with a turban — almost certainly intended to be but not explicitly labeled as Muhammad — shedding a single tear. The headline is “Tout est pardonné,” or “All is forgiven,” and the man is holding a sign that says, “Je Suis Charlie,” or “I Am Charlie,” a popular pro-magazine protest phrase following the attack. Over the image, the organizers put a red “censored” stamp-like image, which did not originally appear on the Charlie Hebdo cover.

They discussed the possible negative impact of publishing a picture of Muhammad on the flyer, given the prohibition against physical representations. But the organizers decided that doing so was appropriate for the event on free speech, according to a university account, and might also lead to more Muslim students attending. The flyer was published on the various unit sponsors’ websites and elsewhere on campus.

I’m sorry to hear they even discussed it. I’m sorry Colleen Flaherty wrote “given the prohibition against physical representations” without questioning it. I’m sorry this is any kind of issue at all.

Kirtley, the media law scholar, described the event as standing room only, with “lively discussion” that was “not remotely hostile — there was no one complaining and there were quite a few students who self-identified as Muslim.” Audience members and panelists continued to talk informally long after the scheduled end of the event.

So panelists were surprised to learn weeks later that complaints had been filed with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. The complaints were targeted at Chaouat and Prell as organizers, and referred not so much to the event itself as the poster advertising it.

According to a summary of the office’s investigation prepared for John Coleman, dean of the liberal arts, eight people — four students, a retired professor, an adjunct professor and two others from outside the university — contacted equal opportunity personnel to express concern that the flyer “featured a depiction of Muhammad, which they and many other Muslims consider blasphemous and/or insulting.”

There’s the confusion again. It’s not “blasphemous” to anyone who doesn’t buy into the version of Islam that says it is. It’s not just objectively blasphemous, it’s blasphemous only to people who take a very narrow and self-important view of a particular religious taboo. And how is a depiction of Muhammad insulting? And, again, to whom?

It’s all bullshit. It’s touchy, short-fuse, looking-for-grievances bullshit.

Maybe what they really mean is that the poster reminds them of the Charlie Hebdo murders, and that makes them feel not very comfortable about some of their fellow-Muslims, and that’s an uncomfortable sensation. I can sympathize with that; I can imagine it would be. But the right response is not to try to punish people for reminding them.

The fact that “Charlie Hebdo originally created the image of Muhammad added to the insult, because [the magazine] has previously printed cartoons deliberately mocking Muhammad, including some depicting Muhammad naked and in sexual poses,” the summary continues. “This led some complainants [to] conclude that the [college or cosponsoring academic units] and the professors involved in organizing and promoting the event do not care about Muslims on campus.”

Oh yes? Well I conclude that the complainants don’t care about non-Muslims on campus and elsewhere, even the ones who were slaughtered in a Paris office. I conclude that they don’t even care about the Muslim editor and the Muslim cop who were murdered by the Kouachis.

The office also received a petition signed by about 260 Muslim students, several staff members and about 45 people with no affiliation with the university. The petition says, in part, that the flyer is “very offensive” and has “violated our religious identity and hurt our deeply held religious affiliations for our beloved prophet (peace be upon him). Knowing that these caricatures hurt and are condemned by 1.75 billion Muslims in the world, the university should not have recirculated/reproduced them.”

There speaks the totalizer. They don’t know that the cartoons hurt every single Muslim on earth. (Also 1.75 billion? The number does keep creeping upward.) They don’t know that every single Muslim on earth condemns the cartoons. They don’t know any of that, they’re just bullying. They want to make their religious taboos binding on the whole world. Well fuck that. It will require killing all of us, or killing most of us and enslaving the rest.

Equal opportunity administrators conducted a formal investigation based on the complaint, including interviews with the event organizers. According the investigation summary, organizers “collectively reported that they chose to reprint the Charlie Hebdo image to express a commitment to the future of [the magazine] and to free speech generally, to condemn terror and to show Muhammad expressing love and compassion.” Moreover, organizers said, the image already had been published by news organizations worldwide. They also expressed a belief that “their dissemination of the flyer is protected speech under the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom.”

Ultimately, the office determined that the poster did not violate the university’s antiharassment policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Factoring into the decision was the poster’s relevance to academic subjects and its general commentary on a matter of public concern.

However, the office said in its summary for the dean, the poster had “significant negative repercussions.” And given the “large-scale” global protests against the image in question, “the organizers knew or should have known” that their decision to reprint the image “would offend, insult and alienate some not-insignificant proportion of the university’s Muslim community on the basis of their religious identity,” the office added. It said the hurt was heightened by the fact that the insulting speech came from those with “positional power” at Minnesota.

But the office knows or should know that all people in “the university’s Muslim community” are free to refuse to be offended and insulted and alienated. It’s pretty insulting to assume that a significant proportion of them will be unable to see the matter that reasonably. It’s insulting to assume a large number of them are prickly babies.

Equal opportunity administrators told Coleman that he had the “opportunity to lead in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for Muslim students by adding your own speech to the dialogue advocating for civility and respect by [college] faculty.” The office recommended that Coleman communicate the college’s disapproval of the flyer and “otherwise use your leadership role to repair the damage that the flyer caused to the relationship between [the college] and Muslim students and community members.”

They wanted the dean of liberal arts to issue a formal disapproval of the flyer, in order to soothe the neurotic religious outrage of an unknown number of Muslim students. That’s revolting.

In a brief interview, Chaouat said he feared it was possible that “terror and terrorism actually work when people have a tendency to internalize the fear of retaliation and to self-censor. …This is something that’s happened in France after the January events — there’s been a lot of self-censorship in the aftermath of theCharlieHebdo attacks and I’m afraid we’re on the path here as well.”

He added, “In the name of tolerance and acceptance and diversity, we’re actually lying to ourselves.”

It would be vastly better to just say we’re scared. All this oily “concern” and hand-wringing and coddling is anti-intellectual and illiberal and sick-making.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Guest post: Those who want to limit free expression in the Muslim diaspora

May 6th, 2015 2:47 pm | By

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on “The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege”.

Inconsistent, self-defeating rubbish!

Generally, privilege is linked to the unequal distribution of something positive, something which people would like to have, something which Rawls might have called a primary good or Sen/Nussbaum would have called a capability. In this regard, free expression could indeed be a privilege if it is unequally distributed. However, given its nature as an universally-desirable good, people cannot be blamed for wanting it and using it. Privilege is always a problem of the distribution of a good and not of the good itself. Therefore, CH could only be criticized for their privilege if they exploited it to contribute to the unequal distribution of said privilege – i.e. by suppressing the free expression of others. This is certainly not the case. It might be true that CH had a larger capability of free speech/expression than the French Muslim population. However, the attacks on CH were not motivated by the desire the redistribute free expression – they were motivated by an ideology which fundamentally denies the desirability of free expression. Those who deny other people’s free expression can hardly ask for it themselves.

Furthermore, the author ignores the global context. Free speech in the MENA region is severely (and increasingly) curtailed by authoritarian and/or theocratic state and non-state actors. In fact, Muslims in France have for greater capabilities for free speech and expression than Muslims in Algeria, where thousand of left-wing intellectuals have been slaughtered by the FIS because they refused to be silenced. It is absurd and almost insulting to criticize CHs fight against the theocratic elements in Islam, which want to get rid of free speech, by referring to the limited free expression the Muslim diaspora. Those who want to limit free expression in the Muslim diaspora were the ones who shot.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Just a place where people talked

May 6th, 2015 11:55 am | By

A little more from Joseph Anton, which is an encyclopedia of the kind of bad thinking that’s been going on for the past week. It takes place in France, which is fitting, and mentions a beloved friend of mine.

At the first meeting of the so-called “International Parliament of Writers” in Strasbourg he worried about the name, because they were unelected, but the French shrugged and said that in France un parlement was just a place where people talked. He insisted that the statement they were drafting against Islamist terror should include references to Tahar Djaout, Farag Fouda, Aziz Nesin, Ugur Memeu and the newly embattled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen as well as himself. Susan Sontag swept in, embraced him, and spoke passionately in fluent French, calling him un grand écrivain who represented the crucial secularized culture the Muslim extremists wished to suppress. [p 397]

Plus ça change, eh?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



“The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege”

May 6th, 2015 11:29 am | By

The writer Monica Byrne presents us with an example of well-meaning but confused reasons for objecting to an award’s being given to Charlie Hebdo. The example is interesting because I keep finding the objections and protests under-explained and under-motivated, so I remain curious about what exactly the protesters think they’re protesting.

She titles her post “The PENAmerican award I wish I could give tonight.” Ok, but wishing you could give a different award is nowhere near a reason for protesting one actually being given, especially under these particular circumstances.

If you missed the news, here’s a summary: PENAmerican, an organization dedicated to free speech in arts and literature, is awarding French magazine Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression courage award,” for continuing to print after their entire editorial board was assassinated by extremists. Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content—and the conspicuous attention the assassinations received all over the world, even as journalists are killed daily by their own governments in the countries whose presidents showed up for “solidarity marches” in Paris—several writers (including Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner) resigned from being table hosts at the awards gala. Salman Rushdie excoriated them in The Guardian. Other writers have stepped up to take their places.

“Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content” with no elaboration on what that nature is conveys the impression that Charlie Hebdo’s content is self-evidently pernicious in some way. The part about conspicuous attention just dangles there, unexplained. How is that any kind of explanation for what follows?

However, she says she gets both sides.

But here’s the thing I wish PENAmerican would get: claims to “freedom of expression” are a mark of privilege in places where oppressed populations are struggling merely to be allowed to live as themselves. For them, freedom of expression is a myth. The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege bestowed on one segment of the French population and denied to another.

Well of course it is (except for the word “bestowed”). That’s always the case. It’s a privilege to have readers, it’s a privilege to write or draw for a satirical publication, it’s a privilege to sell copies. But what follows from that? That we should just stop having any writers and cartoonists, magazines and newspapers and books? Should we all be restricted to Twitter?

But you know what, even if we were all restricted to Twitter, privilege would still emerge, because some people would be more interesting or amusing than others.

Obviously an award to writers or cartoonists is not an award to factory workers or domestics. Maybe awards are a bad idea in general. There are plenty of arguments for that idea; I’m pretty sure I’ve made some of them at various times, especially around the Oscars and the “Super Bowl.” But that’s not a reason to withdraw from one award out of many, especially when the people being awarded are survivors of a bloody massacre during an editorial meeting about an anti-racism campaign.

It’s far easier, and far more lazy, to recognize The Organization That Had a Very High-Profile Awful Thing happen to them, than to, say, recognize that the entire Muslim population of France continues to live in the place they call home despite constant state-sanctioned hostility to their rights to life, livelihood, religion, and yes, freedom of expression.

Is it? How much effort was it for Byrne to type that sentence? Not much.

This is, frankly, just more Dear Muslima, albeit for very different reasons and aimed at a very different kind of people. It’s another fallacy of relative privation. There are all sorts of awful things happening all over the planet – Nepal, Nigeria, Syria, North Korea, take your pick – that PEN wasn’t talking about last night because it was talking about other things. But we are allowed to do different things, as our talents and interests suggest. We need writers and cartoonists too, along with aid workers and activists. And in any case Charlie Hebdo is on the side of the marginal and despised, so there’s even less reason to single them out for having privilege “bestowed” on them by fuck knows who.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



They don’t want us to write and draw, we must write and draw

May 6th, 2015 10:35 am | By

Highlights from #PENgala and the award to Charlie.

Neil Gaiman ‏@neilhimself 16 hours ago
Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo editor in chief, gets a standing ovation at the #PENgala. This was how his speech ended.

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BGrueskin ‏@BGrueskin 16 hours ago
“Fear is the most powerful weapon they have. We must disarm them” #CharlieHebdo #PENgala

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Joel Simon @Joelcpj
Moving to see #CharlieHebdo honored at #PENgala

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(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Judicious use of “controversial” plus scare quotes

May 6th, 2015 10:05 am | By

The Guardian’s report on the PEN gala and the award to Charlie Hebdo is – predictably – much nastier than the Times’s. The Guardian throws them under the bus in the first sentence.

Charlie Hebdo magazine received a controversial freedom of expression award from American PEN on Tuesday night despite the vocal opposition of many of its own high-profile members.

That’s not only nasty, it’s bad writing – it sounds as if “members” of Charlie Hebdo vocally opposed the award. Hacks. But let’s focus on the nasty – they have to inform us instantly that the award is “controversial” and that many important people were vocally opposed. They have to load the dice, poison the well, frame the story.

Accepting the award, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard said that the magazine’s shocking and sometimes offensive content helped combat extremists who would limit free speech. “Fear is the most powerful weapon they have,” he said. “Being here tonight we contribute to disarming them.”

Nicely done, Guardian.

The decision to honour Charlie Hebdo has bitterly divided the literary community, with over 200 members of PEN signing a letter that said: “there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.”

The magazine’s critics, including Peter Carey, Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner, who led a boycott of Tuesday’s event, said it that used racist stereotypes against the most marginalised members of French society, an accusation the editors reject.

But the Guardian, it wants you to know, doesn’t.

Biard and Congolese author Alain Mabanckou told the audience that Charlie Hebdo was and always had been “anti-racist”, a reply to the criticism that the magazine portrayed French racial and religious minorities in a stereotypical way. “Charlie Hebdo has fought all forms of racism since its inception,” Biard said.

Mabanckou also argued that the magazine was simply received in France differently than in the US, and that misunderstandings had resulted from “cross-cultural exchanges: we all belong to one family and we’re all committed to freedom of expression”.

I wonder what the scare-quotes on “anti-racist” are for. To nudge us into thinking they’re lying, perhaps?

Mostly, gala guests defended the award on principle – a point that the dissenting writers also believe in, if not to the same degree. All agreed that writers, artists and people everywhere should be able to speak freely, even when that their words may shock or offend. PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel reiterated this point, and called for all members and writers to “move on together in defence of freedom of expression”.

And the Guardian sincerely hopes that we will be left with the impression that the protesters were and are right, that Charlie Hebdo really is racist, and that the only reasonable defense of the award is based on the principle of free speech regardless of content.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Ovation, standing

May 6th, 2015 9:14 am | By

Good; that’s exactly what I was hoping for – a loud standing ovation. The New York Times reports that’s what Charlie got.

Two members of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, took the stage to a thundering standing ovation at PEN American Center’s literary gala on Tuesday night, capping a 10-day debate over free speech, blasphemy and Islamophobia that started in the cozy heart of the New York literary world and spread to social media and op-ed pages worldwide.

Good. I was afraid the misinformed and self-righteous protesters would make enough of a dent that the reception would be shamingly, painfully tepid, which would have been dreadful.

Accepting PEN’s award for “freedom of expression courage,” the magazine’s top editor, Gérard Biard, summed up the publication’s belief in the unfettered right to mock all religions, ideas and belief systems, and leveled a riposte at the Muslim extremists whose attack on Charlie Hebdo in January left 12 people dead.

“Being shocked is part of democratic debate,” said Mr. Biard, who accepted the award with the magazine’s film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret. “Being shot is not.”

Being threatened with being shot is also not.

Outside the museum, about two dozen police officers, some heavily armed, stood on the sidewalks as guests filed in — a reminder not only of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but also the assault on Sunday against a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. A lone protester held a handwritten sign: “Free speech does not deserve death/Abusive speech does not deserve an award.”

Opposing viewpoints were harder to find inside the gala, where some 800 guests mingled with celebrities like Glenn Close, who presented a lifetime achievement prize to the playwright Tom Stoppard.

Salman Rushdie, who had slung some unpublishable insults at the protesters on Twitter, said the affair had been “damaging and divisive” but instructive.

Just the one “unpublishable” insult, I think; the one about pussies, which he later withdrew.

“In the last 10 days, the Anglophone world has been given enough information to understand that Charlie Hebdo is the exact opposite of the racist publication it has been said to be,” he said.

But has a single protester backed away or apologized? Not that I know of.

In a meeting with The New York Times’s editorial board on Thursday, Mr. Biard said that Charlie Hebdo attacked belief systems, including all religions, not groups. He cited the results of a study in the newspaper Le Monde indicating that only seven of roughly 500 Charlie Hebdo covers published from 2005 to 2015 primarily mocked Islam. “We’re not obsessed with Islam,” he said. “We’re dealing with politics, with other religions.”

The gala highlighted the magazine’s anti-racist history. The French-Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou paid tribute to the magazine’s belief that “there were no taboos when it came to exercising free speech.” Dominique Sopo, the president of the French anti-bias group SOS Racisme, flew in from Paris for an unannounced visit.

“It is very important we do not kill those who died a second time by raising a polemic like this,” he said, referring to charges that the magazine was racist. “Remember that Charlie Hebdo stands for anti-hatred.”

It’s beautiful that he was there.

Et voilà: a tweet by Alain Mabanckou:

Alain Mabanckou @amabanckou 11 hours ago
Après le prix décerné à #CharlieHebdo à #NY. @SalmanRushdie au centre. @d_sopo, Pdt de SOS Racisme est venu de Paris.

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Copains! Comrades, colleagues, allies. Standing O.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



PEN Gala

May 5th, 2015 5:04 pm | By

The Pen gala is just about to start. #PENgala.

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Via Twitter

Guus Valk ‏@apjvalk 2m2 minutes ago
PEN-voorzitter Andrew Solomon op #PENgala : “The suppression of controversial ideas does not result in social justice.” #CharlieHebdo

Karin Karlekar ‏@karinkarlekar 4m4 minutes ago
Stirring opening speech by @Andrew_Solomon at @PENamerican #PENgala on behalf of defending #freeexpression at home and abroad.

Tina Susman ‏@tinasusman 5m5 minutes ago
At #PENgala, PEN prez Andrew Solomon opens event with rousing defense of Charlie Hebdo and its “mission of satirizing sacred targets.”

Electric Literature ‏@ElectricLit 7m7 minutes ago
.@Andrew_Solomon addresses “the whale in the room.” “We defend free speech above its content.” #PENgala

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Rachel Zucker ‏@rachzuck 9m9 minutes ago
“Muteness is more toxic than speech.” Andrew Solomon #PENgala

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Liam Stack ‏@liamstack 4m4 minutes ago
Tonight’s @PENamerican Gala raised $1.4 million for the organization, 15% more than ever before. #PenGala #CharlieHebdo

Liam Stack ‏@liamstack 3m3 minutes ago
Tonight’s @PENamerican Gala is the most highly attended one ever. There are 250 more guests than in previous years. #CharlieHebdo #PenGala

PENamerican ‏@PENamerican 2m2 minutes ago
“Writers disturb the social oppression that functions like coma on a population.”
―Toni Morrison #PENgala

Neil Gaiman ‏@neilhimself 1m1 minute ago
At the #PENgala. Thrilled to be at the table next to Tom Stoppard. Humbled to hear about writers fighting censorship and oppression.

Lisa Mueller ‏@MuellerLisa6 2m2 minutes ago
Powerful defense of Charlie Hebdo honor by PEN board president @andrew_solomon at
@PENamerican #PENGala

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John McMurtrie ‏@McMurtrieSF 2m2 minutes ago
Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard and critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret with Salman Rushdie at the #PENgala. (AFP/Getty)

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Gus ‏@arlenguillaume 13m13 minutes ago
Le #pengala célèbre la liberté d’expression. w/ Gérard Biard & Jean-Baptiste Thoret. #CharlieHebdo #nyc

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John McMurtrie ‏@McMurtrieSF 25m25 minutes ago
“We defend free speech above its content.” — @Andrew_Solomon w/ Charlie Hebdo’s Gérard Biard at #PENgala (Getty)

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Liam Stack ‏@liamstack 3m3 minutes ago
#PenGala is beginning it’s tribute to #CharlieHebdo

Tina Susman ‏@tinasusman 2m2 minutes ago
Video recounting attack on Charlie Hebdo at #PENgala as magazine’s staff prepares to accept freedom of expression award.

Amie Stepanovich ‏@astepanovich 2m2 minutes ago
The #pengala award to Charlie Hebdo.

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BGrueskin ‏@BGrueskin 3m3 minutes ago
From the #PENgala memorializing #CharlieHebdo

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Karin Karlekar ‏@karinkarlekar 3m3 minutes ago
Alain Mabanckou and the head of SOS Racisme present #freeexpression courage award to #CharlieHebdo at @PENamerican #PENgala. Vive la France!

Katie Freeman ‏@foxyhedgehog 4m4 minutes ago
Alain Mabanckou intro’ing Charlie Hebdo award& remembering Bernard Maris: “encouraging us to hold strong in our quest for freedom” #PENgala

Philip Gourevitch ‏@PGourevitch 4m4 minutes ago
Dominique Sopo – president of SOS Racisme makes surprise appearance with @amabanckou at #PenGala in tribute to anti racist #CharlieHebdo

Philip Gourevitch ‏@PGourevitch 3m3 minutes ago
Dominique Sopo addresses #PenGala in French: Charlie Hebdo worked against racism – for immigrants – and it is important to know what it was

Karin Karlekar ‏@karinkarlekar 1m1 minute ago
Dominique Sopa, head of SOS Racisme, delivers stirring defense (en francais) of #CharlieHebdo at @PENamerican #PENgala.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



The United States continues its descent

May 5th, 2015 4:02 pm | By

A press release from Save the Children:

The United States continues its descent in the global rankings of best and worst places for mothers, slipping to 33rd out of 179 surveyed countries, reveals Save the Children’s new report, “State of the World’s Mothers 2015: The Urban Disadvantage.” Norway rose to the top of the list, which was released today, while Somalia remained last for the second year.

32 countries do better than we do.

That could be all right – somebody has to do best, and it’s not written in the stars that it should be the US. But we’re a very rich country, so, really, if we’re that far down the table…we’re doing something wrong. Not that we didn’t already know that.

The report indicates that women in the United States face a 1 in 1,800 risk of maternal death. This is the worst level of risk of any developed country in the world. An American woman is more than 10 times as likely to eventually die in pregnancy or childbirth as a Polish woman. And an American child is just as likely to die as a child in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia.

The worst level of any developed country in the world. Ugh. That’s shaming.

You know what it is. It’s because we rely on poverty. We want poverty; we don’t want to get rid of poverty. Why? Cheap docile labor, that’s why. Profit. We care far more about the ability of a few people to get obscenely rich than we do about the ability of all people to do well enough.

Here are 1-33:

RANK COUNTRY 1 Norway

2 Finland

3 Iceland

4 Denmark

5 Sweden

6 Netherlands

7 Spain

8 Germany

9 Australia 1

0 Belgium

11 Austria

12 Italy

13 Switzerland

14 Singapore

15 Slovenia

16 Portugal

17 New Zealand

18 Israel

19 Greece

20 Canada

21 Luxembourg

22 Ireland

23 France

24 United Kingdom

*25 Belarus

*25 Czech Republic

27 Estonia

*28 Lithuania

*28 Poland

*30 Croatia

*30 Korea, Republic of

32 Japan

33 United States of America

 

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



All of them are traumatised

May 5th, 2015 3:07 pm | By

According to the UN, more than 200 of the girls rescued from Boko Haram are visibly pregnant.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said that 214 of the rescued girls were “visibly pregnant”, according to the International Business Times.

The online magazine said the claims followed reports that women and girls kidnapped by the insurgents were routinely raped and forced to marry their abductors.

Turai Kadir, who helps in the internally displaced people camps in the city, said the former hostages were “not in great condition”. “All of them are traumatised,” she added.

So that’s their lives ruined.

 

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Vive la plume

May 5th, 2015 2:50 pm | By

Tweets from #PENfest

Sascha Freudenheim ‏@SaschaDF 22 hours ago
The inimitable @monaeltahawy at #PENfest, @PENamerican. #Egypt #WomensRights

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Harlem Stage ‏@MyHarlemStage 3 hours ago
Come to “In and Out of Africa” w/ writers from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire & more | May 9 | #PENfest http://bit.ly/1GG1c2v

Reinhard Lamsfuss ‏@rlamsfuss 3 hours ago
SOS Racisme #France called #CharlieHebdo “the greatest anti-racist weekly in the country.” http://ln.is/www.thenation.com/bl/HMx7Y … #PENfest

PENamerican ‏@PENamerican 5 hours ago
“If you make the effort to understand, to really understand what the cartoon is about, you won’t be offended” —Jean-Baptiste Thoret #PENfest

“We have nothing against religion. We fight against the political use of religion. That’s not the same” —Gérard Biard #PENfest #CharlieHebdo

“I must assure you that we don’t eat children and we don’t eat believers. Ever” —Gérard Biard, editor-in-chief of #CharlieHebdo at #PENfest

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Extraordinary people

May 5th, 2015 12:17 pm | By

The Guardian tells us about the people replacing the boycotters at the PEN gala this evening.

Now award-winning fantasy novelist Gaiman, acclaimed cartoonist Bechdel, Maus creator Spiegelman, Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi and American author and journalist George Packer have been named as new hosts at the event, which PEN confirmed would have heightened security. French-Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou, meanwhile, will present the award to Jean-Baptiste Thoret, the Charlie Hebdo member of staff who arrived late to work on 7 January, missing the attack that killed 12 people.

Mabanckou told the Guardian he had decided to present the award because “I’m a big reader of Charlie Hebdo, because I know that it’s not a racist magazine. I decided to do it in memory of all journalists and cartoonists who die because they have the courage to pursue their work. Finally, I decided to do it because among the members of Charlie Hebdo who were massacred in January 2015 was a friend of mine, the economist and journalist Bernard Maris, who was an extraordinary man.”

From what I’ve been able to gather over the last four months, they were all pretty extraordinary.

Gaiman tweeted:I’ll be hosting a table at the PEN event because it’s important.” He told the Associated Press in an email: “I was honoured to be invited to host a table. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are getting an award for courage: They continued putting out their magazine after the offices were firebombed, and the survivors have continued following the murders.”

“They died for their beliefs. The award is for courage that transcends our like or dislike of them,” Nafisi tweeted this weekend. She also wrote: “PEN award to CH is recognition of the writers’ & artists’ rights to ‘disturb the peace,’ regardless of the price”.

If writers and artists don’t disturb the peace, who will? I’m serious. Other people have other jobs to do, they don’t have time to disturb the peace, their bosses don’t want them to disturb the peace.

Other writers including Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Simon Schama, Richard Ford and Sara Paretsky have also offered their support to PEN. The novelist Salman Rushdie, meanwhile, has been a particularly outspoken supporter of PEN’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo, writing in a letter to the free speech organisation that by withdrawing, the six authors had “made themselves the fellow travellers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence”.

And who can dispute him?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



Guest post: By pushing an almost totalitarian narrative of white guilt

May 5th, 2015 11:14 am | By

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on A new way to weasel.

Two things:

(1) It was indeed absurd and cynical how Western governments (and their MENA allies including the KSA) have exploited the CH massacre for empty lip service to free speech. However, this is a common phenomenon which is not limited to CH. We see it anytime when the political agenda allows it: from Raif over Pussy Riot to Liu Xiaobo. This does not mean that those people do not deserve to be honored or are some kind of neoliberal US-imperialist fifth column. Or to inverse the argument: the fact that Edward Snowden is now best friends with Putin – not due to the latter’s universal commitment to free speech but for obvious political reasons – doesn’t mean that Snowden should be accused of enabling Russian, neo-Stalinist nationalism and conservatism.

(2) “By choosing to honor Charlie Hebdo, the victim of Islamic radicals, rather than any of the many worthy dissidents they could have chosen, people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, truly courageous people whose actions and words have placed them at odds with the powerful western nations of the world”. Since Furst likes to speak about narratives, I will provide a counter-narrative: What happened to CH doesn’t really involve American white liberals; however, it involves many progressive people in Muslim majority countries and the Muslim diaspora who are increasingly silenced, marginalized and endangered by the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. This is the reason why – while the white liberal American press tried to play white guilt Olympics – there generally was a lot of solidarity from the left-wing and liberal press in the MENA region, which realized that what happened to CH is also currently happening to them (Zineb El Rhazoui wrote interesting things about this topic and the fact that CH allowed francophone MENA authors to publish things which they could not publish in their home countries). By bringing in Assange and Snowden in contrast, the American liberal tries to make everything about them and their struggles again.

I might go out on a limb, but I think that what we see in the whole CH debate is almost hegemonic white guilt: the American white liberal press holds a lot of power when it comes to influencing the international sociopolitical discourse. And by pushing an almost totalitarian narrative of white guilt – a narrative which vastly overstates the West’s power in today’s geopolitical constellation, which denies the agency of non-Western actors, which essentializes universal social problems (e.g. the role of women in society) to the West and romanticizes non-Western cultures (= a variety of orientalism which tends to be ignored) – it basically suffocates social dissent from the Global South.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



A central tenet

May 5th, 2015 10:51 am | By

CNN ran a solemn backgrounder piece yesterday explaining Why Islam forbids images of Mohammed aka Why images of Mohammed offend Muslims. (It has more than one title, don’t ask me why.)

(CNN) Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: the worship of God alone.

No doubt it does, but so what? A central tenet of Islam may be relevant to Muslims (or it may not; it should be up to them), but it’s not relevant to anyone else. By the same token, a “central tenet” of Catholicism is not relevant to non-Catholics. It’s not even relevant to many Catholics, and it’s certainly not relevant to everyone else. Adherents of religion X don’t get to force the rest of the world to defer to the tenets of X, however central they may be.

So we get to go on being mystified, and disgusted and repelled, by violence over images of Mo, because we get to choose for ourselves which strictly religious taboos we will obey, if any. Other people don’t get to enforce their strictly religious taboos on the whole world.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



A room half full of the self-righteously misinformed

May 5th, 2015 10:18 am | By

From one of the worst piece on Charlie Hebdo and PEN to one of the best: Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast.

On January 7, Jean-Baptiste Thoret was ambling toward the office, late for an editorial meeting—he’s a French film critic, after all—when 12 of his colleagues at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were being cut to ribbons by AK-47 fire. A fraternal team of semi-illiterate religious fanatics, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, both Paris-born, casually returned to their getaway car, congratulating themselves for having avenged their aggrieved prophet. As a digestif, an accomplice was across town, preparing to murder Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

It helps to know how to write, doesn’t it, particularly on this subject. It’s striking how much of the writing of the antis has been leaden and wit-free and clunky, even from people who ordinarily do know how to write. It’s as if the style is forced to match the thought: both must be equally talentless, the way two horses pulling a carriage have to pace together.

Charlie Hebdo would seem a rather obvious choice for a prize celebrating journalistic courage, considering the newspaper was firebombed  in 2011 for producing cartoons satirizing militant Islam, lived with a heavy—but not heavy enough—security presence, and continued to raise a middle finger to those who threatened its journalists with death. But the award was an obvious choice that annoyed more than 200 PEN members—including Eric Bogosian, Wallace Shawn, Junot Diaz, and Peter Carey—who responded to the honor with a campaign of defamation against the dead.

You’d think it would catch in their throats, wouldn’t you. You’d think they would shiver and stop and re-think their positions. You’d think they would quail at giving political support to people who murder cartoonists and Jewish supermarket-shoppers.

Charlie Hebdo—scourge of the post-fascist political party Front National, enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activists, fellow travelers of the French Communist Party, staunch agitators for Palestine—has been accused of racism and employing crude and offensive satire to “punch down” at an aggrieved minority.

Six impossible things before breakfast.

Two days after the murders, under the crass headline “Unmournable Bodies,” The New Yorker’s Teju Cole provided a confused exegesis on French satire, a subject he has previously avoided discussing.Charlie Hebdo, he wrote, was possessed of a “bullyingly racist agenda” and traded in “violently racist” images.

I couldn’t even read that thing in January. I took a look, I cringed, and I couldn’t stand to read it.

Elsewhere, the #JeSuisCharlie brigades were admonished for affiliating with an anti-Arab magazine whose “staff was white,” a point not contested by editor Moustapha Ourrad because he had annoyingly just been murdered by religious psychopaths. Nor did Zineb El Rhazoui protest, likely because she was too busy mourning her dead friends and cobbling together the newspaper’s first post-bloodbath issue. Francine Prose, one of the first refuseniks, said PEN’s choice “very conveniently feeds into a larger political narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case,” a point with which the families of slain Hebdo staffers might take issue.

“Conveniently” – how I hate that “conveniently.” How I hate the fake knowingness behind that whole sentence.

Should you trust the judgments of newly minted French satire experts, most of whom don’t speak French and have never held a copy of the newspaper? Or should you trust Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS-Racisme, France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization, who made the obvious point that Charlie Hebdo was the “most anti-racist newspaper” in the country? Those accusing his murdered friends of supporting the very things they so passionately opposed, Sopo said, were either motivated by “stupidity or intellectual dishonesty…Every week in Charlie Hebdoevery week—half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

Well, ok, but why wasn’t the award given to Julian Assange? The brave martyr hiding in an embassy to avoid rape charges?

Few of PEN’s critics responded to this counter evidence. When asked on Twitter if he had ever thumbed through a copy of Charlie Hebdo, n+1 editor and what-a-bunch-of-racists petition signatory Keith Gessen admitted that he hadn’t. “Nor would my French be up to it if I did. This is more about PEN than it is about Charlie, and I know lots about PEN. :)” In other words, Gessen has a beef with PEN America—likely about how the recipient was chosen—which necessitated signing a petition branding Charlie Hebdo a racist publication.

Smiley face.

Tee hee.

Novelist Deborah Eisenberg, one of PEN’s most vocal and least informed critics, said Hebdo’s brand of satire was “reckless,” like “dropping your lit match into a dry forest.” Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau indulged in his own bit of victim-blaming, saying that “the decision they made” to be satirists, applying religious satire evenly across faiths and denominations, “brought really a world of pain to France.”

Strange, coming from Garry Trudeau, isn’t it – since he made the decision to be a satirist himself, and hasn’t noticeably deferred to ridiculous taboos. Why would he blame other people for not deferring to ridiculous taboos? I will never understand it.

There’s more, not-to-be-missed stuff. Don’t miss it.

PEN’s dissident Fanonists might stay away from Tuesday night’s ceremony, or make a bold stand against the nonexistent racism of 12 dead journalists by refusing to clap for the one who got away, or simply hope that next year’s Courage Award honoree will have been murdered for inoffensive journalism that comports with the bien pensant opinions of America’s literary class.

As for Thoret, after the atrocity visited upon Charlie Hebdo in January, he can manage a room half full of the self-righteously misinformed. His comrades are gone; the newspaper is more popular than ever; and his American critics, he sighs, “don’t really know what they are talking about.”

But their ignorance isn’t stopping them talking about it. They’re an embarrassment.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)



A new way to weasel

May 5th, 2015 9:22 am | By

Well this is a novel way to crap on Charlie Hebdo – fully seeing what’s wrong with all the cries of “racist!” from people who have no French and no knowledge of French culture and no willingness to listen to people who do – and coldly deciding to crap on Charlie anyway, because bafflegab.

It’s Joshua Furst in The Forward.

When I heard that the writers Deborah Eisenberg, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachael Kushner and Taiye Salasi had publically withdrawn from their roles as table hosts for PEN America’s annual gala in protest over the organization’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo the Freedom of Expression Courage Award, my first reaction was to cringe at the spectacle of a group of writers — many of whom I greatly respect — coming out against a clearly beleaguered, clearly courageous publication simply because they disagreed with its politics.

At the same time, I felt, on some fundamental level, that they were right to be criticizing PEN. That I couldn’t place exactly why troubled me.

But he got to work and managed to come up with something, so now he’s content.

He was annoyed by the presence of a whole slew of illiberal heads of state at the Charlie protest march in Paris. Yes, so was I, but that’s not a reason to crap on Charlie.

There was a “je ne suis pas Charlie” counter-protest, but that troubled him too. But that was then.

The pertinent question now isn’t whether Charlie Hebdo’s politics conform to my own, or even whether I’m offended by the content of their cartoons, but rather, what PEN’s purpose in honoring the journal in this specific way in this specific context is and what this says about PEN.

To answer this question, one must look at the context of the award—not just the attacks but all that’s happened since. One must take into account the competing narratives and symbolic meanings that have accumulated around the magazine, and ask: does PEN want to affirm the over-simplified narrative being peddled by the politicians who gathered in Paris, and if not, how does it recognize the way this narrative has been challenged by the vigorous arguments about class and race that rose out of the wake of the attacks?

So that’s a reason to crap on Charlie, according to Furst. Nope. It isn’t. It could be a reason to write a piece about the award (just as he’s doing, in fact), but it’s not a reason to call Charlie Hebdo racist or compare it to neo-Nazis or to boycott the award.

Was Charlie Hebdo simply the safest, easiest choice to present to this audience? Is PEN a cultural institution here to celebrate the idea of free speech while providing intellectual cover for the preexisting assumptions of our capitalist democracy, or is it an organization meant to rattle and challenge, and yes, fight to protect those whose voices are stifled by political, economic and social repression, both here and abroad?

It’s easy for an American organization to celebrate those who have take stands against America’s enemies. By choosing to honor Charlie Hebdo, the victim of Islamic radicals, rather than any of the many worthy dissidents they could have chosen, people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, truly courageous people whose actions and words have placed them at odds with the powerful western nations of the world, PEN has communicated to their donors that it is on the side of powerful and reinforced the neo-liberal assumptions that allow for unchecked oppression to be perpetuated in our name around the world.

This, to me, is a fundamental betrayal of everything PEN is meant to stand for. And so, despite not agreeing with every word it contained, I felt strongly enough about the central idea of the letter protesting PEN’s choice that I was compelled to sign it.

Furst seems to have overlooked something. The people at Charlie Hebdo were killed. Assange and Snowden are alive. He also seems to be overlooking, or forgetting, the fact that Charlie Hebdo is no fan of capitalism or neo-liberalism.

This is how it’s done, I guess. This is how it was done to Salman in 1989 and after, and it’s how it’s done now. It’s an ugly business.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)