Over the years I’ve worked with PEN American Center on a number of projects. I interviewed the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin and the scabrous British cartoonist Steve Bell at PEN World Voices; I moderated a panel on Occupy Wall Street with my fellow editors of the Occupy! Gazette; and I participated in an evening in commemoration of the murdered Russian human rights activist Natalia Estermirova and the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the trial of whose (alleged) killers I covered for the New Yorker.
During this time I’ve been both attracted by PEN’s work and concerned by it. Each year PEN World Voices celebrated (but for the most part did not pay the way of) dozens of writers from all over the world. PEN consistently spoke out against the harassment, imprisonment, and murder of writers and journalists. In the US, the PEN Prison project sent writers into prisons to teach writing workshops. These were all worthy things, and PEN had been doing most of them for decades.
My concerns were more difficult to pinpoint, but let me try. One of PEN’s largest annual events (and the occasion for the annual gala) is the World Voices Festival. This is an enormous undertaking that brings together dozens of writers from all over the world. Over the course of a short week, and in a small geographic space, New Yorkers are able to see a remarkable array of talent. And yet it has often felt to me like a grab bag of international writers, the primary criteria for whose inclusion were 1) that they were not directly supportive of any criminal regime and 2) that they were famous. The weeklong festival was a celebration of literature and free expression. But I couldn’t help worrying that it lacked content. What was freedom of expression for? At PEN World Voices you could see a Russian writer speaking out against Putin at one venue, a South African one speaking out against the vestiges of apartheid at another, an Indian writer lamenting Hindu nationalism at a third, but though you sometimes saw them together, the point of the events was never to argue about literature or arrive at a particular truth. The festival’s whole thrust seemed designed to promote consensus about the value of literature as such. Whereas, in my view, literature is all about arguing. It is the public expression of one’s private, subjective experience of the world. Others must have different subjective experiences, by definition. Therefore their ideas about the world, and about literature, should be different. Lacking this kind of directive, PEN World Voices, for all its excellent intentions, always struck me as being somehow anti-literary.
And what did it mean, anyway, for New Yorkers to attend a talk about how Russian journalists are murdered? There was always some new writer from another poor country with a shitty dictatorial government passing through town, and PEN had them all. But what could New Yorkers do with this information? They weren’t, for the most part, citizens of those countries. They couldn’t write Putin a letter. But they could write their Congressional representative a letter to get tougher on Putin. What was the overall effect of PEN programming on the American body politic?
This was my other concern, and it was much broader than PEN. One of the most powerful ideological movements of the past seventy years has been the one that goes by the name of “human rights.” This movement, which emerged largely in response to the horrors of World War II, was part of the background for the struggle for civil rights in this country, and, more explicitly, for the dissident movements in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Like most things during the period of the Cold War, it was subsumed to the needs of that conflict, so that the US claimed it was defending the human rights of the south Vietnamese and the Soviets claimed they were defending the human rights of poor Angolans, in their respective attempts to impose their wills on those nations. In the post–Cold War era, human rights have become more squarely centered in the United States, as the lone power potentially capable of “enforcing” them. The human rights argument, which in recent years has been turned into a policy recommendation under the title “responsibility to protect,” has been the justification for the bombing of Serb positions above Sarajevo, the bombing of Belgrade three years later when Milosevic was going after the Kosovars, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and, after a brief pause for reflection, the intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011.
Some of these interventions were better motivated than others, but they formed a common pattern. Whatever the immediate justifications, the US was much more likely to intervene in a place whose leaders opposed the US than in a place whose leaders were neutral (not to speak of allies); the US was also much more likely to intervene in a place where we believed our strategic interests were involved, than, for example, in central Africa. Finally, the US was much more likely to bomb a place than it was likely to try to rebuild it. What all the humanitarian interventions had in common is that, for all the rhetoric of humanitarianism involved, what they actually involved was using advanced American technology from the air to obliterate human beings on the ground—very often civilians, sometimes even other Americans.
What does all this have to do with PEN? My concern was that in its focus on a kind of blank-slate human rights agenda (as opposed to an agenda that focused, for example, on economic rights), PEN was essentially playing along with the larger American geopolitical project. Radically simplified, this project argues that the US, for all its problems (PEN has spoken out against government surveillance; one of its directors, Larry Siems, compiled The Torture Report, about the CIA torture program post-9/11, and more recently, edited Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary), is still the “indispensable nation,” the one place that can, for example, set the international human rights agenda, and then go and enforce it. I wanted a more radical American PEN, that would critique not only government surveillance in the US, but American power wherever it manifested itself. This is all to say that for me, at least, PEN exists in a broader political context than just a group of writers speaking up for colleagues who have run into trouble abroad.
When twelve staff members and friends of the satirical cartoon newspaper Charlie Hebdo were killed at their offices by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi this past January, several things happened. First, there was an outpouring of grief for the victims. There had been many other attacks on editors and writers in recent memory, but not at this scale and not with such brazenness. The brothers came in, announced that they were from al Qaeda, and started killing.
But in addition to the grief, in America at least there was something else: I would call it an attempt to assimilate the shootings to the ongoing American “War on Terror.” My friend George Packer, writing at the New Yorker website, immediately warned against ascribing the killings by two second-generation Algerian Muslims to the failure of France to integrate people like them, or to the ongoing Western participation in wars in the Middle East. The culprit, Packer wrote, was none of these things, but rather militant modern Islam: “an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.” It’s the same ideology, Packer wrote, “that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001.” And it was: the brothers had even pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. Packer’s language took one back to the days after the September 11 attacks, when Western politicians and intellectuals began gearing up for a long protracted war with “Islamic terror.” That war, obviously, continues.
When people in France, in their mourning, declared “Je suis Charlie,” they were expressing grief, an identification with the victims of horrific violence. But what were people expressing when they said “Je suis Charlie” in the US? It was a tragedy. But what did it mean to identify with those particular victims, at this particular time? I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that “Je suis Charlie” was a way for people to re-pledge their commitment to the War on Terror that had been announced by the United States in 2001. For this reason, despite sharing everyone’s horror, and despite, as one of the editors of a magazine, being able to imagine all too well how easily someone could come into our offices and shoot us, if they felt like it—nonetheless, in the American context, I did not feel like I wanted to be Charlie, not in the sense in which it was being used in January of this year.
This to me was the background of the letter that I saw last week, protesting against awarding a prize for courage to the editors of Charlie Hebdo at the PEN Annual Gala this month. The letter worried that the award would go further than was necessary to defend the right of the cartoonists to their speech; it would actively celebrate that speech. And given that that speech was sometimes directed at Muslims, and given that the men who killed the cartoonists claimed to be doing so in the name of Islam (“we have avenged the Prophet!” they said as they left), it did not seem right, in this place and at this time, to encourage such speech. The cartoons, the letter argued, “were characterized as satire and ‘equal opportunity offense,’ and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.”
Watching the debate unfold over the past week (as a sharper continuation of the debate that took place in January), I’ve learned a lot about Charlie Hebdo. The editors were committed leftists who participated in anti-racist campaigns; they visited prisons and spoke out against poor conditions; they directed most of their ire at the Front National, the noxious French radical right party. The infamous Charlie cover with Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, France’s first black justice minister, depicted as a monkey, borrowed its imagery from an FN poster, and was meant to mock the FN. And if Charlie Hebdo made fun of Muslims—also the target of the ire of the Front National—they made fun of Catholics much more. Furthermore, in reading more about Charlie Hebdo, I’ve seen more of their cartoons, and I have to say, some of them are pretty funny. I liked the November, 2011, issue where the prophet Mohammed comes in as a guest editor-in-chief. (In his editorial column, the Prophet celebrates the electoral victory of the Islamic party in Tunisia, and scoffs at the notion that they will leave their convictions at the door to the statehouse. “’Hello, we’re the Bolsheviks, and if you vote for us, we promise not to talk about communism.’ Come on!” At the end of the column, Mohammed gives a shout-out to “Sarkozy and BHL” for their help in deposing Qaddafi and opening Libya up to Islam.)
And yet I keep thinking of the piece we published on Charlie Hebdo back in January by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a young black writer from New Jersey who’s been living in Paris since 2009. Williams compared his own experience in Paris to that of James Baldwin in the 1950s, and found that not too much had changed. There were still, he writes, reminders of France’s colonial past everywhere one looked, and French people, it seemed, did not always want to look. “To my mind,” Williams went on,
in addition to the French tradition of anti-authoritarian satiric wit, this is also very much a part of the context of our current crisis, whether we want to talk about it now or not: France has a violent, racist, and unexorcised past. There is no self-respecting way for me to identify with these objects that I sometimes see, just as there is no self-respecting way for me to hear the still-in-use French word for ghostwriter—nègre (literally an unacknowledged, unpaid laborer: a nigger)—without flinching; and there is no self-respecting way for me to gaze on that hideous Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting France’s first black Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, as a monkey.
The response to arguments like Williams’s have been that if only he understood the context of the cartoons, he would realize that they were meant to be a mockery of racism. But Williams was writing from the French context. It was precisely the French context that made Williams feel like he was being insulted and left out.
I can imagine another objection being raised here: Williams’s subjective experience of the cartoon is not in doubt, but actually he is projecting an American standard, his own American experience, onto a French work. To an American eye, the cartoon of the black justice minister as a monkey is plainly offensive. To a French one, it is something else.
For the sake of this debate, I am willing to accept this argument, as well as the assurances of numerous French commentators that, in fact, Charlie Hebdo in the French context was progressive and anti-racist.
But the PEN Gala is not taking place in France. It is taking place in Manhattan; the tickets start at $1,250; it is a fundraising and recruitment tool for PEN. The organization has every right to hold such a gala—it needs the money. But it is not a private event of mourning or commemoration. It is a public event, with public, political meanings.
We’ve been asked to take note of the French context in discussing Charlie Hebdo, but here is a little bit about the American context in which much of this debate is taking place. We continue to prosecute a vicious, endless war on terror; people are endlessly being killed, jailed, and harassed in the name of this war. On the day I received the PEN letter, protesters in Baltimore were in their second week of speaking out against the brutal murder of yet another unarmed young black man. Visitors to the city all described a landscape of crushing poverty.
To me, the most serious problems facing our country are income inequality, strongly correlated with race. Freedom of speech is far behind; Islamic terrorism even further. And yet even if free speech seemed to you the basis of all other freedoms, you would still, I hope, acknowledge that the greatest threat to it comes not from fringe religious extremists, but from the US government. As James C. Goodale—the First Amendment lawyer for whom the PEN award slated to be given to Charlie Hebdo is named—wrote in the Times a few years ago, the current administration has only been exceeded by Nixon’s in its abuse of the freedom of the press.
I took the letter protesting the award to Charlie Hebdo to be an expression of concern about 1) racism and 2) the war on terror, over and above all else. The authors of the letter were encouraging PEN to be more thoughtful and more radical. I was grateful for the opportunity to join them.