Six writers — Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, and Taiye Selasi — will withdraw as literary hosts from the PEN American Center’s annual gala in response to the organization’s decision to recognize Charlie Hebdo with the James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. But instead of recognizing the power of their gesture, PEN has met these writers with a pose of incredulity and a statement written in the language of a GOP primary.
Yesterday, in response to the withdrawal, PEN released a statement rejecting the “assassin’s veto” as a global phenomenon and assuring its members that it will not “demand uniformity of opinion” — ignoring that such a demand would nullify the organization’s expressed purpose. The statement continued by cynically justifying the award in terms of a rise in new memberships. “In the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks,” the statement says, “we saw a spike in PEN new memberships from writers, many of whom wrote eloquently about being inspired by the attacks to defend free speech more intently.”
On the issue of Charlie Hebdo, PEN has rehearsed a pronounced obliviousness predicated on readerly negligence. “I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors,” PEN president Andrew Solomon told the New York Times. Yet the position of some of these authors on Charlie Hebdo was a known entity. Just two days after the shooting, Teju Cole published “Unmournable Bodies” at The New Yorker, where he made his case in no uncertain terms:
The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion.
Cole’s essay was part of a broad response cautioning against the symbolic weight shifted to Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the shootings. Similarly, in Pankaj Mishra’s impassioned plea for a new enlightenment at the Guardian, the author contends that we should negotiate a “new common space” where we “retrieve the Enlightenment, as much as religion, from its fundamentalists” — including Charlie Hebdo:
Many other writers have rejected a binary of us-versus-them that elevates a vicious crime into a cosmic war between secular Enlightenment and religious barbarism. There is a specific context to the rise of jihadism in Europe, which involves Muslims from Europe’s former colonies making an arduous transition to secular modernity, and often colliding with its entrenched intellectual as well as political hierarchies: the opposition, for instance, between secularism and religion which was actually invented in Enlightenment Europe.
Although it likely does not intend as much, PEN’s award endorses this Enlightenment fundamentalism. Or it is at least a know-nothing intervention into fraught political territory on the level of the French Embassy’s recent decision to host Monique Canto-Sperber, a notorious censor who lectures on freedom of expression. Both moves ignore the current political reality in France, where the display of public support for Charlie Hebdo has been converted into substantial electoral victories for the xenophobic National Front.
We should also question whether an award to Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression” is the response demanded by the shootings. The concept of freedom of expression regulates the relation between a citizen and her state, as philosopher Jacques Ranciere has recently pointed out. But the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a terrible affront to a different principle — one that says people should live together peaceably and respectfully, free of murderous violence. The conflation of these ideas has justified a rightward shift in European politics, one that PEN has so far refused to acknowledge. Nor does the organization seem to recognize the degree to which universalist values are now wielded against disenfranchised communities in France. “The Front National no longer has to say that immigrants want our jobs or that they are thugs,” writes Ranciere. “It suffices to proclaim that they are not laïques, that they do not share our values, that they are communalist…
The great universalist values – laïcité, common rules for everyone, equality among men and women – have become the instrument of a distinction between ‘us’ (we who adhere to these values) and ‘them’, who do not. The FN can keep its powder dry, as xenophobic arguments are in any case being provided by the ‘republicans’ of the most honourable pretensions.
There is no doubt that PEN’s “pretensions” are honorable, but it’s hard to deny that the spirit behind this revealed itself this morning, when Salman Rushdie referred to the withdrawing authors as “Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.” In using the language of a brute, of an Enlightenment fundamentalist, Rushdie seems to have signaled his own Pirandellian break with the world. Let’s hope that PEN does not follow him down this path to unreality.