Friday, May 1, 2015

Stand or Kneel?

May has arrived and P.E.N. is in crisis. Officially non-political, the international organization of poets, essayists, and novelists is faced with a divide in its ranks. Some members wish to condemn the suppression of free thought, free speech, and free expression imposed by political extremists at work in a member nation. Others would rather not kick the hornet's nest of a growing and very aggressive and violent threat, a threat not only to Western liberal values but also to European Jews. As one prominent member of the group writes, "It is better to remain silent than to show disapproval. If we protest, we shall provoke an international squabble . . . . It is for us to remain neutral and silent."

You might think the controversy involves the upcoming PEN Literary Gala, scheduled for Tuesday, May 5, 2015, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. At that event, PEN America plans to bestow upon the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The award is for Charlie Hebdo's fierce resistance to attempts to deny its writers and artists their freedom of expression, a freedom we recognize as essential to our way of life and inseparable from ourselves as human beings. Editor and cartoonist Stéphane Carbonnier, who went by the nom-de-plume "Charb," led his newspaper in its resistance to oppression, famously vowing, "Je prefere mourir debout que vivre à genoux”--"I would rather die standing than live on my knees." That's a rare expression of courage among Western journalists. Now, with the actions of 145 PEN members, a sizable number of Western and non-Western writers can be included among those who would wish to silence dissent and to deny free expression, an extraordinary irony given their vocation, and a betrayal of everything that they ought to hold sacred. Incredibly, Joyce Carol Oates is among them.

As everyone who follows world events should know by now, Stéphane Charbonnier--along with fellow cartoonists George David Wolinski ("Wolinski"), Jean Cabut ("Cabu"), Philippe Honoré ("Honoré"), and Bernard Verlhac ("Tignous")--were murdered on January 7, 2015, in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. The murderers were Islamists who were themselves killed two days later by French police. At the same time, a coreligionist of the two men murdered four Jews at a kosher supermarket, also located in Paris. Like the Charlie Hebdo murderers, he, met his end at the hands of the police. In the aftermath of the shootings, millions gathered in Paris, claiming in solidarity with the murdered journalists, "Je suis Charlie." Within days, on January 11, world leaders gathered in Paris, where they attended an enormous rally, the largest in France since World War II. Our current president, who had, in a speech of a two years prior, said, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," was conspicuously absent from the event. Instead he sent James Taylor to France to sing to our grieving allies a little song while the King of Ketchup looked on.  

The recriminations began instantly upon the slaughter of the cartoonists. Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights stated as clearly as anyone the opinion that the cartoonists got what was coming to them when he wrote: "Stéphane Charbonnier, the paper's [editorial director], was killed in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn't understand the role he played in his tragic death." (1) Have you got that? Mr. Donahue, and those who share his opinions, is saying that Charbonnier was responsible for his own murder. Giving new meaning to the term "yellow journalism," some newspapers declined to publish the offending images from Charlie Hebdo. British police actually kept track of people who bought the first issue after the attacks, with the implication that buying a copy of Charlie Hebdo makes a person suspect of planned or actual criminality. (2) Perhaps it soon will be a crime to disagree with official state opinion if Ed Miliband becomes prime minister of England.

There was far more support than disapprobation, however. Even some Muslims decried the violence and carried "Je suis Charlie" or even "Je suis Juif" signs. Vladimir Putin, no great friend of human rights, condemned the attacks. So did Julian Assange, who "tweeted" (boy, now we're scared--somebody tweeted something): "The world must now avenge Charlie Hebdo by swiftly publishing all their cartoons." (3) Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, no stranger to controversy, said, "We all have to stand up today, whether we are humorists or not." (4) Not all cartoonists shared that opinion. A cartoon in the local paper where I live, essentially agreeing with Bill Donahue, suggested that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists invited their own murders. Bizarrely, a reader wrote to the paper praising the local cartoonist's "courage" in drawing what he did. In the current state of affairs, and among people of certain political persuasions, up is apparently down and down is apparently up.

More recently, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who may or may not be a member of PEN, fell into line against freedom of expression when he spoke the following words:

Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks. (5)
I have met Garry Trudeau and found him to be a gracious person. His wife, Jane Pauley, is a fellow Hoosier. We in Indiana are proud of her as we are of anyone from our state who has made something of herself. But I find Mr. Trudeau's words preposterous. There is much to refute in what he has said. I will leave it at this: How can the man who has been gunned down, his blood spilled, spattered, and pouring from multiple bullet wounds, possibly be more powerful than the man who has killed him?

Garry Trudeau won a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1975 for his work on the newspaper comic strip Doonesbury. It was the first time that a comic strip had won the award. I don't know if there was any controversy at the time. Political cartoonists may be a little prickly about comic strip cartoonists butting in to their territory. That was certainly the case the next time a comic strip cartoonist, Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County, won the Pulitzer, in 1987. Regardless of whether comic strip cartoonists are deserving of Pulitzer Prizes in cartooning, it comes as no small irony that the 145 PEN writers of today, who seem to share an opinion with Garry Trudeau, find that the five dead cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, who stood alone--alone--against violence and threats of violence, are undeserving of an award for courage. Novelist Peter Carey, a signatory of the PEN letter opposing the award to Charlie Hebdo, echoes the words of Mr. Trudeau: "All this [the controversy over freedom of speech] is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population." (6) Again, apparently, people who murder are powerless, while people who are murdered are powerful. And they only get what is coming to them.

In fairness to Garry Trudeau, the 145 PEN writers, and their muddled ideas, PEN is also fully capable of gobbledygook. Here is part of the organization's response to the controversy: "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." (7) This is by an organization of writers who I believe must pride themselves on their ability to write. The local reader who wrote to the local paper praising the local cartoonist's "courage" could not have said it worse or with less conciseness, clarity, or sense.

I began this essay with a description of a crisis. The crisis of which I write is not actually the current crisis--despite the preceding eight paragraphs--but one that occurred eighty-two years ago this month. From May 25 (or 26) to May 28, 1933, members of the International P.E.N. Club met in Ragusa, Italy (now Dubrovnik, Croatia), for their 11th annual congress. (8) The issue that divided the German-speaking attendees was book-burning. Earlier that month, on May 10, 1933, members of the German Student Union, essentially a Nazi organization, burned in Berlin upwards of 25,000 books by Jewish, liberal, leftist, communist, and pacifist authors. "The book burnings became the central focus of the International PEN Club meeting in Ragusa in May 1933," wrote Donald G. Daviau, who continued:

When the Austrian PEN delegation introduced a resolution condemning the students' action, the German representatives walked out of the meeting in protest, accompanied by the Austrians Grete von Urbanitzky, head of the Austrian group, Felix Salten [source of the quote in the opening paragraph of this essay], the publisher Paul Zsolnay, Egon Caesar Corti[,] who even at this early juncture was a convinced National Socialist, and others. (9)
The political divide between the Austrian writers became a permanent split in June 1933 when a number of pro-Austrian members of the Austrian P.E.N. Club passed a resolution "defending intellectual freedom and condemning the abolition of human rights and the persecution of writers in Nazi Germany." (10) A dozen and a half (or more) writers resigned from the club in protest. "The organization [as a result] was reduced to so few members . . . that it could no longer function." (11) Its successors drifted into Nazism.

In response to the current crisis in PEN, Salman Rushdie has some advice: "What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them." (12) The signatories to the current PEN letter could learn something from the experience of the pro-German, pro-Nazi, or at least not anti-Nazi writers who left the Austrian P.E.N. Club in 1933: Felix Salten, a Jew (and the author of Bambi), was forced to flee Austria and died in exile in Switzerland in 1945. Grete von Urbanitzky, her works prohibited in Nazi Germany in 1941, left that country for France before going into exile in Switzerland. Paul Zsolnay, also a Jew, left Austria in November 1938 for Great Britain (after the Anschluss) and did not return to his homeland until after the war. Even the National Socialist Egon Caesar Corti was denied certain benefits of membership in his party because of the Jewishness of his wife. In other words, the Nazis, in time, went after the men and women who had supported them or refused to denounce them as they were rising to power. I might have read of a similar situation, but I can't remember where.

Totalitarianism was on the rise in the 1930s. That is clear enough in hindsight. The problem of the totalitarian mind was diagnosed as well as by anybody by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements in 1951. We should recognize by now the nature of totalitarianism and its mortal dangers, no one so much as the thinker, the writer, the artist, and the journalist. And yet here we are, threatened once again by totalitarian systems, while the very people who should know better sympathize with, identify with, support, defend, and apologize for those who would wish to impose those systems upon us. The man who pulls the trigger is bad enough, but in the end he may simply be one among the myrmidons of a far worse thing, the man possessed of a murderous idea, even if that idea has every good intention behind it. My question is this: Have we learned nothing?

(1) From USA Today, January 15, 2015, p. 7a, column 4.
(2) See "Police from Several UK Forces Seek Details of Charlie Hebdo Readers" on the website of The Guardian, Feb. 10, 2015.
(3) From USA Today/Indianapolis Star, January 8, 2015, p. 2B, column 3.
(4) Ditto.
(5) From "The Abuse of Satire" by Garry Trudeau on the website of The Atlantic, April 11, 2015.
(6) From "Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo" by Jennifer Schuessler on the website of PEN America, here. Ironically, the subtitle of the website is (in  part) "Free Expression."
(7) From "Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo" by Jennifer Schuessler, the original story in the New York Times, April 26, 2015, here.
(8) The acronym PEN is made two ways: P.E.N. and PEN. It stands for or stood for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, and seems to have been changed somewhere along the line. I have used the first formation for the old controversy and the second for the new controversy.
(9) From "Introduction" by Donald G. Daviau in Major Figures of Austrian Literature: The Interwar Years 1918-1938 (Ariadne Press, 1995), p. 62.
(10) Ditto, p. 63.
(11) Ditto, p. 64.
(12) From "Salman Rushdie Slams Critics of PEN’s Charlie Hebdo Tribute" by Alison Flood and Alan Yuhas in The Guardian, April 27, 2015, here.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment