HALL OF SHAME: Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo

Kushner-anti-freedom-of-speech

Novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala

Jennifer Schuessler writes: The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.

“In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s ‘cultural intolerance’ and promotion of ‘a kind of forced secular view’…”

The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.

“By attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”

— Disgraced, formerly relevant, pro-censorship cartoonist Garry Trudeau

In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.

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“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by 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.”

— Pro-censorship Francophone author Peter Carey

Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.

[Read the full text here, at the New York Times]

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.

“We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice. But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”

— Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN

He added, “All this is complicated by 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.”

Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said on Sunday that the six writers were the only ones that he knew of among the dinner’s several dozen literary hosts who had reconsidered their participation in the gala, which occurs during the group’s annual World Voices Festival, a weeklong event that brings dozens of writers from around the globe to New York City.

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Mr. Solomon said he knew the award to Charlie Hebdo might be controversial, but added he was surprised less by the criticism itself than by the vehemence of some of it, as well by the timing — less than two weeks before the gala, a major fund-raiser that draws a star-studded crowd of more than 800 writers, publishers and supporters.

“There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”

— Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, in a letter sent to the PEN board

“We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice,” he said. “But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”

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“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

— Salman Rushdie, former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel The Satanic Verses

The withdrawals reflect the debate over Charlie Hebdo that erupted immediately after the attack, with some questioning whether casting the victims as free-speech heroes ignored what some saw as the magazine’s particular glee in beating up on France’s vulnerable Muslim minority. Read the rest of this entry »


The New Economy of Letters

Much of the best intellectual work is being done by journalists, not scholars, says Jill Lepore. Why? Journalists write for money

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

By Jill Lepore

A quarter century has passed since Russell Jacoby coined the term “public intellectuals” in a book meant to mark their extinction. In The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published in 1987, Jacoby defined public intellectuals as “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” The term was new, he explained, but there had been public intellectuals for centuries: “The greatest minds from Galileo to Freud have not been content with private discoveries; they sought, and found, a public.” Since the 1960s, their numbers, never high, had been plummeting. Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson were born in 1895, Walter Lippmann in 1889. By 1987, Wilson and Lippmann were dead and Mumford was in decline. Where, Jacoby wanted to know, were the young Mumfords and Lippmanns and Wilsons? There were none.

Read the rest of this entry »