Before this year, the satirists of Charlie Hebdo were nearly bankrupt in their native France and virtually unheard of in America. Now nine of them are dead, along with a maintenance worker and two police officers, murdered in January by al Qaeda recruits for drawing cartoons deemed blasphemous, and Hebdo is better known than ever, the satirists causing controversy from beyond the grave. Their latest offense is being honored as free-speech heroes. Damn, dead cartoonists still causing problems for everyone.
What’s more venal than your average awards dinner? How about using the occasion to put those dead cartoonists on trial?
PEN America, an organization dedicated to championing free expression, was preparing to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo when six writers affiliated with the group withdrew in protest. You can see the dissenting writers’ reasoning quoted in this New York Times article or, at greater length, in their letters published by The Intercept. It’s worth reading them in their own words, but where their arguments dovetail they amount to this: Charlie Hebdo’s satirists were racist and Islamophobic—no less so because they were killed for their cartoons. To honor them, so the criticism goes, would signal support not only for their right to free expression but also the powerful bigotry that speech served.
Consider this statement to The New York Times from Deborah Eisenberg, one of the writers who backed out of the PEN event.
“What I question is what PEN is hoping to convey by awarding a magazine that has become famous both for the horrible murder of staff members by Muslim extremists and for its denigrating portrayals of Muslims.”
What is PEN trying to prove, Eisenberg wondered. “Charlie Hebdo’s symbolic significance” for her “is unclear here.”
Eisenberg, a fiction writer, and so, by definition, a maker of symbolic meaning, has trouble parsing the symbolism of the award. Is it really so difficult to understand?
Here’s how PEN’s own statement, “Rejecting the Assassin’s Veto,” puts it: “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.”
Cartoons, you’d think it goes without saying, don’t kill anyone. Or, do they? Some writers seem unsure about this.
“I can hardly be alone in considering Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirize Islam to be not merely tasteless and brainless but brainlessly reckless as well,” Eisenberg wrote in a letter to PEN stating her objections to the Hebdo award. Not just brainless, mind you, but reckless as well. You might infer that the cartoonists’ recklessness Eisenberg describes consisted of their continued mockery of Islam even after Islamist fanatics had attacked and threatened them. But there’s another kind of recklessness she seems to be getting at as well.
“To a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized, in large part a devout population that clings to its religion for support,” Eisenberg writes, “Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”
The cartoons must be seen not as gratuitously offensive, but “as intended to cause suffering.” And what suffering does she describe in the “embattled population” she elsewhere likens to tinder struck by the cartoonist’s match? (an odd metaphor considering it’s Hebdo that was bombed and it’s not exactly humanizing comparing Europe’s Muslims to a “dry forest.”)
The Hebdo cartoonists never called for violence against anyone. By their own lights, they were radical leftists, anti-authoritarians and anti-racists. They practiced a style of militant anti-clerical satire that is alien to American culture. As many of the English-speaking insta-experts—whose Hebdo expertise was generated at the moment of rigor mortis—picked up on, the satirists used some grossly racist visual tropes in trying to make their anti-racist point, and sometimes missed the mark.
I am not a radical French anti-clericist and do not share Hebdo’s principles, but I believe in the right to draw cartoons, even ones that give offense. So it's easy for me to unpack the symbolism that confounds Eisenberg.
The symbolism in Eisenberg’s dissent has its own clear meaning. By casting Hebdo’s cartoons as deliberate tools of oppression that further disenfranchised France’s Muslim immigrants, she insinuates the publication into the service of state power.
This has been a common theme in the attacks on Hebdo. The idea that the cartoons acted as an extension of French policy and governmental authority is embedded in the commonly made argument that the cartoonists were “punching down.”
Invoked as a common-sense moral guide, “punching down” stigmatizes attacks by the powerful on the powerless. But too often that common-sense idea is transformed into a maximalist principle that presumes to judge the rightness of any situation by who is up and who is down in the social order, as if these were fixed positions and always easily identified. If cartoonists under death threats are “up” because they are Westerners mocking Islam, what about the two Bangladeshi bloggers killed within a month for publicly espousing their heretical ideas about religion? The dead, of course, stay down.
Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Intercept, takes the idea of Charlie Hebdo as a state agent to its logical ends.
Here’s Greenwald on the awards show:
“This is now a common, and quite potent, tactic: inducing support for highly illiberal western government policy by dressing it up as support for liberal principles. And it highlights the fraud of pretending that celebrations of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are independent of the fact that the particular group they most prominently mock are Muslims, a marginalized, targeted, and largely powerless group in France and the west generally. Nothing is easier than mocking and maligning the group in your society most marginalized and oppressed.”
Indeed. So easy that you only need to keep drawing after the death threats and then be gunned down at your drafting table. Being murdered is the easiest of all!
Notice the elision that makes the scurrilous Hebdo iconoclasts shock troops for positions taken after they were killed by states that showed little interest in them while they were alive. Are governments crassly exploiting Hebdo, as Greenwald suggests? Yes. As Greenwald exploits them by giving the cartoonists power that they never held in life so he can “punch up” at the dead as if it amounted to jabbing at the state.
Granting Charlie Hebdo an award, despite what Greenwald and Eisenberg suggest, does not actually mean much at all, much less complicity in state oppression. It’s a symbolic performance by PEN, a fine organization that does real free-speech work (like helping Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan obtain a visa to speak and debate in America after it was denied based on an “ideological exclusion” provision of the Patriot Act.) The award will not, by itself, redeem the murders of Hebdo’s staff nor enforce the policies of governments. But symbolism, as cartoonists know, has its own power.