Katha Pollitt wrote a great piece for the Nation the other day, defending PEN's decision to grant a freedom of expression award to slain cartoonists, Charlie Hebdo, after several prominent writers protested:
I don’t agree that Charlie is racist, and not just because Muslims are not a race. Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.As a counterpoint, her colleague Jon Wiener says that Charlie Hebdo is indeed racist, and while we should defend their right to publish, they shouldn't be given an award:
I’ve been a huge fan of Katha Pollitt for decades. In defending the PEN award in The Nation, it’s clear that she understands the distinction here. But a lot of others don’t. For example, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said “It was right to defend Salman Rushdie when he was under attack and it is right to defend those under attack now.” But we all agree that Charlie Hebdo should be defended. The question is whether their cartoons should be celebrated. The writer Kurt Andersen declared that “this is one of those incidents that makes a clear line, and you’re on either one side or the other.” He means that if you’re against the award, you’re for the murderers. Actually I’m not, and neither is Joyce Carol Oates or Rachel Kushner or Peter Carey or Francine Prose, former president of PEN, all signers of the protest letter.Whether or not Charlie Hebdo is deserving of an award based on the content of their work, I don't think, is the argument we should be having. As for being given a "freedom of expression" award, they're an ideal recipient because it forces that exact conversation.
Like most people, I've seen the cartoons online. I read French at a 101 level, and know less of French culture. I don't think they're funny or even interesting; a lot of them are vulgar and downright cringe worthy, From my understanding as an American and a fan of boundary-pushing satire, their closest étasunien cousin is Mad Magazine mixed with The Onion and drawn by R.Crumb. (With more than a hint of South Park.) A lot of people probably remember the 2008 New Yorker cover that portrayed then-candidate Obama in Muslim garb and Michelle as a black power radical. (It was discussed in the Nick Cohen piece I linked a few days ago.) Most readers of the New Yorker understood it as satire about racism, given that a not-small faction of USians believed those things about the Obamas, but it still made people uncomfortable. (And the people who believe that the Obamas are radicals aren't reading the New Yorker, I guarantee you.) That's what satire does. As with the Obama cover, whether Charlie Hebdo is punching up, punching down, or punching sideways is an important discussion to have but ultimately not the issue here and not PEN's intention. They produced art that some found disgusting, repugnant, and even racist, and they were willing to die for it. If that's not standing up for the ideals behind freedom of expression, I don't know what is.