The PEN American Center, the U.S. branch of the international organization that bills itself as "the world's leading international literary and human rights organization," will award the cartoonists of the Paris-based publication Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award Tuesday evening. The cartoonists are being rewarded for "their dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech," PEN American's president, Andrew Solomon, and executive director, Suzanne Nossel, wrote in an op-ed in Saturday's New York Times.
But celebration of the overtly racist, sexist and anti-Muslim cartoons has drawn the ire of the international literary world. More than 200 PEN members, including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Díaz, signed a letter protesting the award, contending that "there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression." Former PEN president Francine Prose, along with writers Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Teju Cole, had already withdrawn from Tuesday's gala — award-winning writers whom misogynist Salman Rushie deemed "pussies."
Punching down: Awarding Charlie Hebdo cartoonists with a major literary award for freedom of speech is not just some niche literary controversy; it's evidence of Western white culture's misguided understanding of freedom in relation to denigrating minority cultures. Fear of "censorship" does not give anyone, especially Charlie Hebdo's old white French male cartoonists and editors, carte blanche to remain culturally ignorant, promote that ignorance in garish cartoons, and then win a damn award for it.
Charlie Hebdo is false satire; it punches down at the powerless by mocking others' identities, cultures and beliefs. The magazine's cartoons derive humor from, as Cole rightly asserts in a January New Yorker article, "obscene and racist speech."
Worthy of accolades? It's juvenile at best, racist at worst. This "humor" magazine portrays black people as monkeys and calls the Quran "shit." These cartoons are not satire; rather, they are obvious xenophobic barbs contributing to the endless violence faced by the Muslim community in France. At least 54 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported throughout France in the week following the attack on the magazine's office.
Charlie Hebdo is being honored for its "courage" — "The courage to work after the 2011 firebombing of the offices, the courage to put out their magazine in the face of murder," Neil Gaiman, who will co-table host tomorrow night's event, alongside Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, said in an email to the New York Times. But is the magazine exhibiting courage, or cowardice? Charlie Hebdo's endgame — to be a stalwart of "freedom of expression" — is a dubious one. But this is the rationale historically employed by white men to take what they want — freely "expressing themselves" by stealing land, and raping women.
Art should not be censored. The ethical fault in this case lies with PEN, the "human rights" literary organization, rather than Charlie Hebdo. These cartoons hardly qualify as art; PEN's fault lies in its estimation of them as offering the world something. Because the right to make art — even crappy, racist cartoon form — is different from the promotion and celebration of that art. And PEN, and the advocates screaming "Je Suis Charlie," need to sincerely ask themselves what is the (political) purpose of these cartoons, especially in these politically-tense times, and especially in the spirit of championing human rights, as PEN claims it does.
Correction: May 5, 2015
An earlier version of this article stated that the cartoon "Family Reunification in the Mediterranean" was created by "Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Ali Dilem." The cartoon was not published by Charlie Hebdo, but rather by Liberté, an Algerian newspaper. The cartoon and a description of it have been removed.