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Charlie Hebdo and PEN: When Free Speech Is Cheaper Than a Gala Dinner for Some

30/04/2015 11:56 | Updated 28 June 2015

"I believe in free speech but" - I have written about this before regarding Charlie Hebdo. Let me see if we can get to the but of the problem regarding some novelists wanting to stay away from a Gala hosted by PEN America, which "promotes literature and freedom of expression and is governed by the PEN Charter and the principles it embodies: unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations."

Author Francine Prose makes clear she respects Charlie Hebdo staff's courage, taking bullets in the head and surviving staff publishing still. But, the byline reads: "The award is for writers and journalists who tell us the truth about the world in which we live, not drawing rude caricatures and mocking religion."

Rude caricatures and mocking religion is telling the truth to the highest power imaginable - a deity. God if seen so high, cannot be made so low by the pen of mere mortals. The arrogance of taking offense on behalf of a supreme deity and his Prophet - though for Peter Carey its "the cultural arrogance of the French nation" which needs taking on. He is doing this by not having dinner at the New York Gala. Skipping a meal - that will teach the French.

Prose states "how difficult people find it to think with any clarity on these issues." Having stated this previously:

... I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.

But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don't give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don't feel that their work has the importance - the necessity - that would deserve such an honor.

Nazis? Not only lacking character but losing the plot ..

A place of work is firebombed in 2011 for containing cartoonists inside that mock religion, and continue working despite the threats. Then gunmen massacre twelve people at the same office in 2015 in an attempt to close down the publication, but the surviving staff rally to keep it going in defiance of religious extremists and in memory of those with bullets in their heads. Maybe, just maybe, an organisation that champions "unhindered transmission of thought" may want to honour their courage.

As PEN point out on their blog:

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.

Francine Prose admires their courage (in case you had forgotten), while she stays away from an event which will need heightened security because people still want to kill Charlie Hebdo staff. She has the audacity to say people are not thinking clearly about the issue. When the shit hits the fan after the bullets fly, there will always be those that want to duck and cover to separate themselves from those targeted for doing what they do - express their opinions. They will call this a form of principle, while those on the frontline fall at the feet of their killers for the free speech others speak of so cheaply.

The arrogance of those staying away is breathtaking. PEN exists to speak out for writers who are persecuted and threatened. As Salman Rushdie said, he hopes no one ever goes after the writers staying away. Still, it is easier to piss on dead cartoonists than to stand up to ISIS who crucify and behead.

Just ask Charlie Hebdo about that. The staff still alive that is. As for the dead, the least you might want to do is have a Gala dinner in the memory of those that died speaking truth to the assassins that did not approve of it.

Article written by John Sargeant originally on Homo economicus' Weblog