Earlier this week six writers – Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi – withdrew from the PEN American Center’s annual gala on 5 May in protest against the free speech organization’s decision to give the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. In an email to PEN, Kushner said she was withdrawing because of Charlie Hebdo‘s ‘cultural intolerance’ and its promotion of ‘a kind of forced secular view’. Carey criticised ‘PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population’.
In my original post on the Charlie Hebdo killings back in January, I challenged ‘the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their readiness to betray the progressives within minority communities’ and observed that such pusillanimity both ‘allows Muslim extremists the room to operate’ and ‘helps nurture anti-Muslim sentiment’. That criticism holds for the current controversy, too. I am publishing here a response to the critics of PEN America by Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, which has been published also in The Bookseller. I am also reprinting below an extract from ‘Lost in Translation’, an article by the writer Leigh Phillips, first published in January in the magazine Ricochet, which explains how much of the left gets it so wrong about Charlie Hebdo – and about free speech. Do read the full original version, too. My thanks to both Jo and Leigh for contributing to Pandaemonium – and for helping maintain the defence of free speech.
The Charlie Hebdo principle
The distaste of eminent writers such as Peter Carey at PEN American Center’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo at its gala next month, highlights once again the fundamental inconsistency that underpins attitudes towards free speech. Within days of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ outpouring of solidarity, French police were arresting citizens for glorifying terrorism, while David Cameron’s government was busy pushing a counter terrorism bill through Parliament that would severely curtail universities’ liberty as a forum for freedom of expression. We may be used to the double standards of politicians, but what about writers?
Becoming a member of PEN (one of the oldest human rights organisations in the world, and the largest international community of writers) means pledging ‘to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which [writers] belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible’. That’s a sentiment one would hope any writer might be happy to support and PEN depends, on a regular basis, on its members speaking out and standing up for fellow writers at risk. That’s the source of its influence and moral authority.
One of the writers, Francine Prose, a former PEN President, who decided to withdraw from the gala in protest, was reported as saying that giving an award signified ‘admiration and respect’ for the winner’s work. ‘I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.’ But Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January.
We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture.
On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending. Carey questioned whether it even was a freedom of expression issue; the writer Deborah Eisenberg voiced concerns (as have many others) about Charlie Hebdo’s ‘denigrating portrayals of Muslims’. Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.
Most of the great free speech battles in history have been fought over issues that were not deemed deserving of defence. The subjects of the famous obscenity prosecutions of the 70s in the UK (the Oz trial or Linda Lovelace’s memoir) were seen as publications of no merit. But what was at stake, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, was the principle: the freedom to publish and the freedom to write. A freedom on which all writers depend. Victory in court (in the face of moral outrage) led to greater freedom for publishers and writers. In one of his last interviews, the writer and barrister John Mortimer, who famously defended both the Oz and the Lovelace trials, spoke of the retreat from ‘the abiding principle … that you lived in a country where you could read anything you like’. The growth of the idea that we should at all costs avoid causing offence (and that this may be even more important than defending the right to free speech) continues to undermine that principled protection for freedom of expression.
Salman Rushdie, a notable supporter of English PEN and the PEN American Center, who has excoriated the withdrawal of Carey and others from the gala, was similarly criticised 26 years ago for causing gratuitous offence (by fellow writers) after the fatwa. Roald Dahl even called him a dangerous opportunist. There may be ‘good faith differences of opinion within our community’ as PEN American Center generously acknowledged on Sunday but it’s in the interests of all writers to stand up for the principle.
Lost in translation
The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘obvious racism’, only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.
The best example here is the very widely shared cartoon by the slain editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, of a black woman’s head on a monkey’s body above the phrase Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). The French are aware that the woman in the cartoon is the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, and that the red, white and blue flame in the cartoon is the logo of the Front National, which had recently gotten into hot water for publishing a photograph of a baby monkey and the words ‘At 18 months’ next to a picture of Taubira and the word ‘Now’. The Front National’s slogan is Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a play on the name of their leader, Marine Le Pen. It is obvious to any French person familiar with the political context that the cartoon is mocking the racism of the Front National and indeed Taubira herself, in the wake of the massacre, has mounted repeated defences of Charlie Hebdo.
Another would be the cartoon of pregnant Boko Haram sex slaves under the slogan ‘Hands off our benefits!’ which many English leftists held to be a self-evidently racist commentary on the Muslim ‘demographic threat’, when the cartoon is actually a clunky ‘first-world problems’ commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.
In an extremely widely shared post, Jacob Canfield at The Hooded Utilitarian showcased a series of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and declared, ‘Its staff is white. Its cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally,’ the cartoons they publish are intentionally anti-Islam, and frequently sexist and homophobic.’
First of all, its staff is not all white, not that a small newspaper with a tiny all-Caucasian employee roll is automatically a signifier of racism in any case. Copy editor Moustapha Ourrad, for example, was among those murdered by on Wednesday. Next, the cartoon that Canfield feels is homophobic, of a male Charlie Hebdo writer kissing an imam under the words ‘Love is stronger than hate’, was the cartoon that filled the front cover in 2011 the week after the paper’s offices had been firebombed by Islamists, completely destroying all their equipment, for printing an edition ‘guest edited’ by the Prophet Mohammed to celebrate the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists of the Ennahda party in Tunisia. This was also the time of growing conservative opposition to gay rights, culminating in the country’s massive right-wing Catholic anti-gay-marriage protests of recent years. Five months earlier, the government had crushed legislation to legalize same-sex unions.
In this context, the cartoon can only be seen as expressly anti-homophobic, giving a big, wet, cheeky kiss to the likely homophobic Islamists who had tried to kill them. (One friend told me after I explained the context behind this cartoon that it was still problematic because ‘at a time when Muslims in Western countries are the target of Islamophobic prejudice, we should be sensitive to their religious sensibilities. A cartoon of two men kissing is offensive to them’. To my mind, if there’s anything homophobic going on here, it’s the idea that gays should hide themselves so as not to offend those who maintain a hatred of homosexuals.)
How can we trust these leftists’ critical analyses of other events in foreign lands such as Ukraine, Syria or Mali if it turns out they haven’t done their due diligence as researchers when it comes to the far more accessible French context? These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking. It is an illogical, self-destructive, identity politics mess where all accusations of racism are instantly believed and anyone who raises questions is racist themselves. Accusations of racism (indeed any accusations) must be substantiated by the accuser, not automatically presumed to be true. Automatic presumption of racism without substantiation is not anti-racism; it is cowardice and vanity, as it suggests the individual is more interested in ensuring he or she does not appear racist rather than in actually countering racism.
But this episode is about more than just the willful ignorance of a unilingual left luxuriating in its whipped-up dander; there are deeper worries about how such left and liberal critics are approaching freedom of speech in general. The whole affair is quite the nadir for the identitarian left, an object lesson in how its current tendency toward a censorial, professionally offence-taking prudishness is limiting the left’s advance, cutting us off from how most ordinary people live their lives and navigate prejudice, and a breach with hundreds of years of leftist thought and practice with respect to the enduring question of freedom.
Charlie Hebdo is, above all, a child of the upheaval of May 1968. It was founded in the wake of the publication ban on its predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, after the latter cheekily poked fun at the right-wing president and hero of the Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, upon his death.
It was born a left-wing publication, indeed a far-left publication, brimming with insolence and bile for capitalist, governmental and clerical elites. In the English-speaking world, malheureusement, we don’t really have a tradition of satirical newspapers quite like Charlie Hebdo or its rival Le Canard Enchainé (‘The chained-up duck’), which combine cheeky editorial cartoons with investigative journalism and opinion. The closest approximation would be Private Eye in the United Kingdom. But the format has spread throughout the francophone lands, with imitators in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Africa, both sub-Sahara and the Maghreb.
Charlie also embraces a politics of anti-clericalism — a species of militant secularism that targets priests, monks, nuns, bishops, popes, rabbis and, latterly, imams and mullahs specifically as individuals (believed to be pompous, hypocritical figures preaching a morality that they do not observe themselves) and not just as representatives of a religion — that dates back to the original Jacobins in the French Revolution. Anti-clericalism has also existed in varying forms in Spain, Latin America, Québec, Russia and contemporary Iran.
The targeting of Catholic priests by anarchist revolutionaries during the Spanish Civil War and Orthodox priests by Bolsheviks were two of its most violent expressions. But anti-clericalism never really existed in the same way in the Protestant (and thus anglophone) world due to the break with Rome in the 16th and 17th centuries and Protestantism’s transformation of an individual’s relationship with the church hierarchy and God himself. Related to this, the paper’s style of comedy, gouaille — a bawdy, impertinent, insolent, often obscene humour corrosif — is a part of a Parisian tradition that finds its origins in the time of the French Revolution as well, and which Arthur Goldhammer, the translator of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, explains well: ‘It’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful.’
It’s not witty. If anything, it’s rather juvenile. In mocking the idea that there should be no graven images of Mohammed, one of Charlie’s cartoons was of a naked prophet with a star instead of a bumhole under the slogan ‘A star is born’. It’s puerile, infantile, not infrequently unfunny. It’s fart jokes. It’s whoopie cushions. It’s Monty Python’s masturbation-themed and Vatican-mocking ‘Every sperm is sacred’ sketch.
Leftists must make a distinction between blasphemy and racism. The two are not the same thing. No one has the right not to be offended. This is not an arcane point. After decades of legal abeyance, blasphemy and ‘religious insult’ laws are making a comeback.
Meanwhile, for the most part, Charlie Hebdo’s politics have been progressive. SOS Racisme, the main anti-racist NGO in the country, has partnered with Charlie in the past in campaigns against anti-immigrant politics, such as a joint campaign in 2007 against DNA testing for migrants aiming to be reunited with their families. Following the massacre, the organization offered its support to the newspaper and denounced the attack as an assault on free speech. The editor murdered this week by the Islamist gunmen, Charb, was a long-time member of the French Communist Party, supported the new far left Front de Gauche, opposed the adoption of the proposed neoliberal European constitution in 2005 and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide, the 2014 book by the late, brilliant socialist author Daniel Bensaïd. One of those killed, Bernard Maris, was on the scientific council of ATTAC, the NGO critical of corporate-led globalization, ran for the Greens, was a critic of EU austerity and the eurozone, and wrote for a number of other left-wing publications.
The paper has no set editorial line per se, and its journalists frequently disagree publicly, but among the favourite targets of its cartoons and journalism are the far right and other partisans of anti-immigrant politics, corporate malfeasance, banker shenanigans, cuts to public health care, tax havens, and the arms industry. A scoop in Charlie from last November, for example, revealed threatening text-message extortion of an assistant of a right-wing senator already indicted in an investigation into municipal vote buying. The paper is a furious opponent of the Israeli government’s regular assaults on Gaza. It defended Roma against government round-up and deportation. Charlie Hebdo is part of the ‘mental furniture’ of the left in France.
As Charb wrote in Le Monde in 2013, ‘It’s no secret: the current editorial team is split between supporters of the left, the far left, anarchism and environmentalism. Not everyone votes, but we all popped the champagne when [conservative president] Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in May 2012.’
Of course, nothing stops one from being racist and otherwise left-wing, just as there are sexist animal rights campaigners and homophobic trade unionists. But describing Charlie as a ‘racist publication’ makes readers think that the paper is akin to the house journal of the National Front.
Charlie, like many organizations, is a jumble of good and bad politics. In the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the editor at the time, Philippe Val, like Christopher Hitchens, took a ‘clash of civilizations’ turn that infused the paper. If the mockery of imams was just in keeping with the anti-clerical tradition, and obscene cartoons also targeted the Catholic hierarchy, there now seemed to be an undue emphasis on Islam. It also — like many on the French left, even anti-war campaigners — backs the contemporary ideology of laïcité. Strictly translated, laïcité is the French for secularism, but the translation doesn’t do it justice. It’s a sort of state-enforced anti-religionism rather than a simple government neutrality in the face of different faiths as exists in the US (but not in Canada), but typically focused overwhelmingly on Islam.
They are right, those who say it is hypocritical to be raising the banner of freedom of expression today if one did not raise it in the face of the headscarf and burqa bans. (Formally, in 2004, it was the wearing of ‘conspicuous religious symbols in schools’ that was restricted and, in 2010, face coverings in public, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas, were outlawed, but everyone knows who was being targeted). But the obverse of this is also correct: If you opposed the headscarf and burqa bans, then today you must rally to the defence of freedom of expression with respect to Charlie Hebdo.
There is hypocrisy elsewhere as well. If Charlie typically rested unbothered by accusations of Islamophobia, its famed fearlessness reached its limit when cartoonist Maurice Sinet (nom de plume Siné) faced accusations of anti-Semitism. In 2008, Siné wrote in a column about rumours that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was to convert to Judaism prior to marrying the heiress of household appliance multinational Darty, joking, ‘He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad’. He was prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, as the sentence allegedly linked Jewishness with financial success, although the judge dismissed the case. Siné was in any case fired by Val, a decision that was defended by a series of right-wing intellectuals and attacked by their left-wing counterparts as a betrayal of free speech.
As a result of Philippe Val’s post-9/11 Hitchensian tubthumping, as we in English might describe his stance, a number of journalists felt they could not in conscience continue to work for the newspaper and quit, publicly criticizing the paper. Many people who claim to ‘criticize everything’ actually don’t criticize everything equally, and in fact do single out certain racialized minority groups for unique opprobrium and so genuinely are prejudiced in some way. Many of the current wave of New Atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher are examples of this: they claim to be criticizing all religions, but in fact reserve special criticism for Islam.
However, there is a difference between a left-wing newspaper gone rotten and a racist publication. For all of Hitchens’ support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I couldn’t at any point suggest he was a racist.
I offer all this history as background, as additional context that has been ignored by the ‘je ne suis pas Charlie’ critics. But I’ll go further: It shouldn’t even matter.
Even if Charlie Hebdo were a racist publication, the murders would still be an assault on freedom of speech, and leftists should still rise up with all the indignation that so many French people have righteously displayed. Not because, as elites have it, the Paris massacre is an attack on ‘Western values’, values that plainly do not exist outside of hackneyed, hypocritical bromide, but because freedom of speech is a leftwing issue. Indeed, it is the most important issue we should concern ourselves with. Everything else we ever do depends on this foundational freedom.
The left would do well to remind itself that freedom of speech is not a pick-and-choose buffet dinner. Throughout our history, from Robespierre to Stalin, every time we have spurned this freedom as a bourgeois bagatelle, as a trinket to be set aside for the sake of solving allegedly more worrying social injustices, disaster has swiftly struck.
Freedom of speech is no liberal bauble. It is the first freedom, upon which all other liberties depend.
Longue vie à Charlie Hebdo.
The cover image is from a cartoon about Charlie Hebdo by Marshall Ramsey in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, 8 January 2015.