Should Charlie Hebdo get an award?

PEN wants to give Charlie Hebdo its “freedom of expression courage” award.  This has provoked an outcry from many writers. PEN isn’t backing down, saying that they reject the “assassin’s veto”.

My son lives in the Middle East, and he was baffled by the “Je Suis Charlie” thing.  Why isn’t the West protesting the many courageous Muslim bloggers and journalists being persecuted by autocratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere?  Well, fair enough, I’m happy if they get awards too.  But I’m a part of the West, and free speech is one of the things the West does right.  As a writer, that matters to me.

Nowadays, the “most helpful” review of my novel Senator on Barnes & Noble is a one-star review complaining that it used the Lord’s name in vain multiple times at the beginning, so the anonymous reviewer read no further.  Again, fair enough.  Readers who don’t approve of using the Lord’s name in vain have been warned.  But nowadays I could easily imagine a world where offending religious people like my anonymous reviewer would be illegal (especially in Europe); or, where corporations like Barnes & Noble would decline to sell books that contained certain words or phrases deemed offensive to a religion.  (Does Barnes & Noble sell books that contain imagines of Mohammed?  I have no idea.)

I have this sense that conventional liberalism has lots its way over this issue–or at least, it’s too vexing an issue for liberals to respond to it coherently.  What happens when two core liberal values–diversity and freedom of speech–collide?  When blacks on campus claim they are the victims of hate speech?  When Muslims claim they have been scapegoated for the actions of a few crazy terrorists?  Do we have to parse all of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to determine if the magazine is worthy of an award?

Here’s a paragraph from the PEN statement that I like very much:

The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. 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.

Good for them.

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5 thoughts on “Should Charlie Hebdo get an award?

  1. Completely agree. There’s a fine op-ed piece in the Times today defending the award. Apparently PEN is also honoring an Azerbaijani journalist who is in jail for exposing corruption.

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    • I’m sure the reviewer picked it up when it was B&N’s “Free Fridays” selection, so he didn’t think about it a lot before downloading. This results in a lot of bad reviews, in my experience — same thing happened with Dover Beach. My feeling is, if you’re worried about swearing in a book, Jesus fucking Christ, you should read the goddamn preview before you download the fucking book. But others may feel differently. It’s a free country.

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