Last month, the PEN America Center announced its intention to honor Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based satirical weekly, with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala to be held in New York City on May 5. In recent days, six members of the organization—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—have withdrawn from the gala in protest over what they see as a misguided decision. These writers, along with more than two dozen others, put their names to a letter released this afternoon in which they ask to be disassociated from the award. By honoring Charlie Hebdo, the letter states, “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” Justin E. H. Smith addressed the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the response of the Anglo-American left, in “The Joke,” an essay published in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Justin E. H. Smith in Harper's:
In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks I stalked Paris as if lost, dazed and despondent not only at the senselessness and irreversibility of murder but also at the great gap that had appeared between me and so many people I consider friends and equals: educated, cultivated, sensitive people, defenders of the oppressed and marginalized. Righteous folk.
I heard from them countless variations on the banality that “violence is always wrong.” How did I know that this judgment, though perfectly true in itself, was only a banality, the expression of a sentiment that had little to do with pacifism? By the clockwork predictability of the “but” that always followed.
But racist cartoons, in the preferred formulation of much of today’s online left, are “not okay.” But offending other people’s faith is “not okay.” The judgment came from my academic peers in the established Western left and my students in the up-and-coming Western left, as well as from the archconservative Catholic League, the Putin regime, and the Putinite puppet regime of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Five cartoonists had just been killed by a death squad, and many on the left and the right seemed uncertain about which party had committed the greater offense.
Some, it’s true, gave a halfhearted defense of free speech: “We defend their right to express themselves, but we do not defend the offensive content.” Many explained their lack of solidarity with the cartoonists as a matter of personal taste. They had no problem with offensive humor in general, but personally, they explained, Charlie Hebdo’s “just not my cup of tea.” In context it was perfectly clear that this judgment of taste, this polite refusal of tea, was also a moral distancing, a political washing of hands.