There’s something unsettling about a black-tie event honoring the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Look at the assembled tuxedoes at last night’s PEN gala, listen to the earnest speeches given, and a certain irony ought to be apparent along with some unease.
Not because they don’t deserve the honor or in deference to the obscene charge of bigotry leveled against Hebdo after its staff was gunned down in January in a jihadist plot that targeted the cartoonists for their depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.
The claim that the French satirical rag was racist made by writers who caused a controversy backing out of the event hardly bothered with Hebdo’s actual work and political principles before hauling up the dead cartoonists to put them on trial, as The Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan pointed out.
No, the trouble starts when one imagines what the Hebdo cartoonists, whose work giddily defiled pomposity and dogma, would have made of last night’s gala if they weren’t dead enough to be its honorees.
To commend their courage only in their epitaphs ignores the work they did while they were alive. I’m not suggesting this is easy to negotiate or that their courage shouldn’t be honored but…if the Hebdo cartoonists were profane because the truth they wanted to express required it and freedom lies in excess, you’d like to see them given a Viking funeral, or the cartoonist’s equivalent, rather than become respectable enough to be applauded at a black-tie dinner.
Maybe I’m overly sentimental or overly sensitive. But the sensitivity to Hebdo’s legacy, in which I have no personal stake, is a defense. It comes from seeing Hebdo’s critics try to rewrite the lives of the scurrilous anti-authoritarian cartoonists into crypto imperialists, and claim that their art, because it criticized Muslim dogma along with other religious beliefs, amounted to propaganda in a state-run war on Muslims.
Surely Charlie Hebdo’s writers, artists and editors would have appreciated the support from Dominique Sopo, the leader of a French anti-racist organization SOS Racisme. In an unannounced appearance, Sopo countered the casual libel of Hebdo as a racist publication. "It is very important that we do not kill those who died a second time," he said. “Remember that Charlie Hebdo stands for anti-hatred.”
A huge cheer went up in the audience, according to a writer who attended the event, when the playwright Tom Stoppard said, "PEN exists to support all writers facing persecution, not some writers facing persecution."
Perhaps the incorrigible satirists, who were nevertheless deadly serious about their political beliefs, would have resisted skewering an event honoring free speech out of solidarity with its message. Or they might have attended in borrowed tuxedoes, bided their time quietly and beat a quick exit midway through after pissing in the soup. We can’t know now what nine of them would have done. Enough to form their own jury, they were killed for their cartoons.
Standing on stage in New York last night, guarded by a phalanx of NYPD tactical units outside the evening’s venue, Charlie Hebdo’s surviving editor Gerard Biard accepted PEN’s award. Alongside him was the French film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret. The two of them received a standing ovation from the crowd.
A tweet from New Yorker writer Phillip Gouervitch, who attended the gala, records Biard saying, "suddenly we became a global symbol... I can tell you this: it's pretty hard to deal with this." Which calls to mind one Hebdo cartoonist’s reaction to the sudden proclamations of support in the wake of his colleagues’ murder: “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends.”
But that Hebdo cartoonist, Bernard Holtrop, suppressed his gag reflex long enough to add that, the hollowness of some support notwithstanding, “if people are protesting to defend Freedom of Speech, naturally that’s a good thing.”
There was at least one joke about new subscribers, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who might not have cared for earlier sketches, like the one showing the holy trinity in an orgy, but who signed on after January’s attack turned Hebdo journalists into free speech heroes.
The night opened with PEN’s president Andrew Solomon defending Charlie Hebdo and addressing the controversy that attended choosing them for a courage award. “Charlie Hebdo's mission of satirizing sacred targets endured,” Solomon said, despite the publication having been attacked in the past, including having its offices firebombed.
The question of how to honor the artists of Charlie Hebdo, without scrubbing off what made them courageous enough to deserve it, reminds me of a story about the American film director Sam Fuller.
Rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth, Fuller was a hard-bitten man who’d gone to work when he was 12 and then, as an infantryman in World War II survived invasions of Africa and Sicily before landing at Normandy.
When he got back from the war, Fuller became a screenwriter and director specializing in pulpy low-budget genre pictures that smuggled social messages, particularly about racism, into their hard-boiled plots. As legend has it, Fuller was presented with a humanitarian award for his 1963 picture “Shock Corridor,” which he accepted by saying, “this isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film. It’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
Even for Americans taking their first glance at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons it’s clear they weren’t drawn to win awards for courage or any other virtue that might be praised in a church or statehouse. Like Fuller they wanted to make scandalous art true to their beliefs. It’s a shame they had to win an award for it.