Charlie Hebdo

I'm very disappointed in so many writers.

(This is what they mean when they say that you shouldn't meet your heroes)

The PEN International Festival in New York got interesting this week when a number of writers protested the fact that Charlie Hebdo will be given the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award

Among the protestors are a number of writers whose books I would eat before I would ever read.

There are also a number of writers who I think are some of the most thoughtful and talented working in the world today (A list that includes Chris Abani, Sinan Antoon, Russell Banks, Junot Diaz, Geoff Dyer, Deborah Eisenberg, Eve Ensler, Frances FitzGerald, Janet Malcolm, Michael Ondaatje, Luc Sante, Wallace Shawn).

I do think that Charlie Hebdo deserves a courage award and I'm troubled by many of the arguments against the magazine.

First I do want to say that I believe that a lot of the furor is because we are talking about cartoons. A lot of people don't take comics seriously. Many think that the people who make them are too talentless to be real artists and too illiterate to write novels. (Don't get me started on what they think about the people who READ comics...)

I say this because if we were talking about prose, and individuals grabbed a few sentences or paragraphs out of context and presented it as evidence to condemn the creator, these individuals from PEN would be on the front lines explaining why that was wrong. They would say that it can't be taken out of the context of the work and the context of the culture. But they're more than happy to treat comics in a way they would never treat prose.

But I digress...

There are a few comments and arguments being made against CH and I would like to share a few thoughts about it. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a member of PEN, I don't know any of these people. I speak and read French poorly. I speak and read Arabic poorly.

1. PEN should not give out an award to CH. They typically recognize individuals and groups who face attacks from governments. This is something very different. It's an issue that Peter Carey raised and I understand his point, but being threatened with death - whether by a government or organized private group - seems more a question of nuance than a radically different situation and a totally different organization to oppose it

2. Other people risk more and the award should be given to them. There are two ways to read this argument. On the one hand, it's easy to praise Charlie Hebdo and so giving them an award like this is like the media coverage of the attacks where there is a certain amount of self-congradulation. When it involves banquets and galas, well, there has to be someone well known and famous at the event.

Now I will admit, there are people who live in countries where they risk their lives to writes stories or paint pictures or draw cartoons. I do think it is notable that no one says, what about these cartoonists? No, they never name cartoonists (who are killed and jailed and attacked by governments). Cartoonists don't deserve such attention - or at least none are worthy of acknowledgement even if they are beaten and jailed and exiled and killed. That's not to say that the journalists and activists being named don't deserve notice, but the fact that no one is suggesting a more acceptance cartoonist or cartoonists, I think is very telling.

3. The letter mentioned earlier that was sent to PEN by a number of writers makes the point that CH made a point of attacking everyone and having no sacred cows but "in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect."

They're right. They are completely right. This is one thing that I and many of the letter writers agree with completely and whole heartedly.

There is a marked difference between attacking the Catholic faith and the Muslim faith, particularly in France. The difference is not just millions of followers, not just wealth or property, it is also a question of institutional power. It is hard to get a mosque built in many countries (including the United States) and simply having a place of worship is a fairly basic request from an organized religion. Particularly a large one.

I am not a person of faith. I have a lot of respect for those who do and I have seen the way that it offers a great deal to people in the hours of need. I have no desire to mock their faith or their beliefs. But I do draw a distinction between mocking the faith and the life of an ordinary Muslim and much of the humor of CH. I understand that many Muslims are offended by the cartoons of the Prophet. Many cartoons drawn of the prophet in recent years have been purposely offensive. I would not do such a thing out of respect for my friends and acquaintances.

However, I do believe that it is protected speech. The same way that mocking priests or rabbis or ministers is protected. The way it's possible to mock the way that some clergy live much better than their flock. To mock the hypocracies of religion. To mock how offensive it is that religions protect child molesters while lecturing about morality. I see this as something very different from mocking the faith of my friends and relatives. I know that some people disagree.

There are many problems in France with regards to the status of Muslims. I do not however believe that CH has mocked those individual citizens. They have in many cartoons taken aim at the politicians and public figures who seek to exploit the public's fear and anger towards immigrants and Muslims.

4. In her piece in the Guardian explaining her condemnation of the award, Francine Prose, the former President of PEN wrote: "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."

Now to the first point, I feel that in the interest of accuracy I should state that the staff of Charlie Hebdo is not - and was not - just white Europeans. I feel that's important. If one aspect of this conversation is power and erasure, I feel that this is something worth mentioning.

To the second point, I understand, but...it happened.

5. Francine Prose clearly thinks that CH is a racist rag. I think that she is sincere in this belief. She compared the magazine to Neo Nazis. I could cite the many notices the magazine has received for being anti-racist for fighting for equal rights. I could pull links to articles. But the truth is that all of this information is freely available. Prose presumably looked at all this information before making such a provocative statement. I would hope that she wouldn't make such a statement without a deep understanding of the publication and after reading dozens if not hundreds of issues in their entirety because to compare them to Nazis requires a lot of research and supportive evidence. I truly do not know how she could come to this conclusion.

Look, ultimately I'm not a member of PEN. They can give an award to whomever they want. But I think that many of the arguments against Charlie Hebdo are troubling. Truthfully I think some people want to scream, they're stupid cartoons, who cares! I wish they did. It would be easier to have a conversation when people say what they mean. If PEN doesn't want to give awards to cartoonists, that's fine, too. But don't say because France is racist, CH is racist and so that makes them unworthy.

There are serious, troubling issues that face our Muslim brothers and sisters in France. Calling CH racist and comparing them to Neo Nazis is unhelpful and inaccurate and is not helping anyone - any more than some of Salman Rushdie's insults to the protesting writers are. There is important and serious work that needs to be done. It's a serious and important issue. One that we have to fight and work for.

“The Charlie Hebdo PEN award is for courage. The courage to work after the 2011 firebombing of the offices, the courage to put out their magazine in the face of murder,” said Neil Gaiman in an email to The Times. “If we cannot applaud that, then we might as well go home…I’ll be proud to host a table on Tuesday night.”

I stand with Charlie Hebdo because I believe in freedom of speech and because they have crafted important, valuable work and I hope that they will continue to do so. And because we should not be intimidated in doing such work.

I stand with my brothers and sisters in this country, in France and around the world, who are denied opportunities and equal protection under the law because of the color of their skin, because of their faith, because someone considers them in some way shape or form, to be "different," to be "other".

These are not contradictory positions. I'm troubled that anyone thinks otherwise.

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