French Satire Experts

05.05.15 4:13 AM ET

America’s Literary Elite Takes a Bold Stand Against Dead Journalists

Hitler. Goebbels. Hebdo. Really? Can the PEN members boycotting Tuesday’s Courage Award for the slain French satirists really not tell the difference between racism and mocking racism?

On January 7, Jean-Baptiste Thoret was ambling toward the office, late for an editorial meeting—he's a French film critic, after all—when 12 of his colleagues at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were being cut to ribbons by AK-47 fire. A fraternal team of semi-literate religious fanatics, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, both Paris-born, casually returned to their getaway car, congratulating themselves for having avenged their aggrieved prophet. As a digestif, an accomplice was across town, preparing to murder Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

When Thoret walks into PEN America’s annual gala at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan on Tuesday night to collect the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, it will doubtless be to whispers that hes the Charlie Hebdo guy who survived because he overslept. But there will surely be those squinting, craning their necks, wondering, is that the racist guy who survived the terror attack in Paris?

Charlie Hebdo's film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, speaks during a press conference at the Freedom house in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2015.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Charlie Hebdo would seem a rather obvious choice for a prize celebrating journalistic courage, considering the newspaper was firebombed  in 2011 for producing cartoons satirizing militant Islam, lived with a heavy—but not heavy enough—security presence, and continued to raise a middle finger to those who threatened its journalists with death. But the award was an obvious choice that annoyed more than 200 PEN members—including Eric Bogosian, Wallace Shawn, Junot Diaz, and Peter Carey—who responded to the honor with a campaign of defamation against the dead. Charlie stood accused of, among other sins, trading in “selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

It was an odd sight; gauche caviar left-wing writers aligning themselves against slain soixante-huitard left-wing cartoonists, all while expressing sympathy with “devout” religious conservatives “humiliated” and “suffering” because of silly drawings from a low-circulation satirical newspaper.

Some PEN members pulled out of the event. At least one publicly threatened to quit. Others said that while they would attend the gala, the still-mourning Thoret would be treated like Elia Kazan at the Academy Awards, with the objectors remaining seated, grim-faced, hands folded in their laps.

Charlie Hebdo—scourge of the post-fascist political party Front National, enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activists, fellow travelers of the French Communist Party, staunch agitators for Palestine—has been accused of racism and employing crude and offensive satire to “punch down” at an aggrieved minority.

So while we can all agree that the right to free speech is indivisible, is Charlie a racist? Click around a bit—no French skills required—and you’ll find out that Charlie is Stormfront with colorful cartoons, a modern Der Stürmer-like tabloid, but one supposedly marinated in the politics of the old-guard left. A day after the attack, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann did a bit of Googling and discovered that those comparing the dead to “white power” activists had something of a point. Two days after the murders, under the crass headline “Unmournable Bodies,” The New Yorker’s Teju Cole provided a confused exegesis on French satire, a subject he has previously avoided discussing. Charlie Hebdo, he wrote, was possessed of a “bullyingly racist agenda” and traded in “violently racist” images.

Elsewhere, the #JeSuisCharlie brigades were admonished for affiliating with an anti-Arab magazine whose “staff was white,” a point not contested by editor Moustapha Ourrad because he had annoyingly just been murdered by religious psychopaths. Nor did Zineb El Rhazoui protest, likely because she was too busy mourning her dead friends and cobbling together the newspaper’s first post-bloodbath issue. Francine Prose, one of the first refuseniks, said PEN’s choice “very conveniently feeds into a larger political narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case,” a point with which the families of slain Hebdo staffers might take issue.

Even those vigorously defending the PEN decision assimilated the racism narrative. Rob Spillman, head of PEN’s membership committee, defended the Charlie Hebdo decision while, just to be safe, dismissing the paper as “gleefully racist.”

There is no need to relitigate the main points in Charlie Hebdo’s defense. The context of those cartoons stupidly flagged as bigoted has been explained by a number of baffled French observers. And ask yourself: Should you trust the judgments of newly minted French satire experts, most of whom don’t speak French and have never held a copy of the newspaper? Or should you trust Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS-Racisme, France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization, who made the obvious point that Charlie Hebdo was the “most anti-racist newspaper” in the country? Those accusing his murdered friends of supporting the very things they so passionately opposed, Sopo said, were either motivated by “stupidity or intellectual dishonesty...Every week in Charlie Hebdoevery week—half of it was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

Indeed, the assumption, repeated ad nauseam since January, that the newspaper was “obsessed” with Islam was effectively rubbished by two French academics writing in Le Monde, who pointed out that in the last decade only seven of 523 covers Hebdo covers dealt with Islam. Twenty-one attacked Christianity. Having extensively reviewed the paper’s political content, they delivered a straightforward verdict: Charlie Hebdo was “undeniably an anti-racist” publication. And barely mentioned by either critics or supporters of the PEN decision was the small detail that when the shooting began, the Charlie Hebdo staff members were discussing their participation in an upcoming anti-racism conference.

But why get bogged down in all this niggling detail?

Few of PEN’s critics responded to this counter evidence. When asked on Twitter if he had ever thumbed through a copy of Charlie Hebdo, n+1 editor and what-a-bunch-of-racists petition signatory Keith Gessen admitted that he hadn’t. “Nor would my French be up to it if I did. This is more about PEN than it is about Charlie, and I know lots about PEN. :)” In other words, Gessen has a beef with PEN America—likely about how the recipient was chosen—which necessitated signing a petition branding Charlie Hebdo a racist publication.

Smiley face.

It’s an argument I have heard from other PEN dissidents. But can we stop pretending this debate isn’t entirely ideological? The women of Pussy Riot, famously insensitive to the sensitive and religious, received a similar award last year from PEN—and rightfully so—without a word of complaint. And while it’s reasonable to argue over who is most deserving of an award, one doesn’t often see members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences boycott the Oscar ceremony because The Prince of Tides was nominated for Best Picture. You drunkenly complain about it during the after party.

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(Bizarrely, writer Teju Cole suggested that instead of honoring Charlie Hebdo, PEN might offer an “acknowledgement of the Kenyan students who were murdered for no greater crime than being college students.” It’s worth pointing out that the militant Islamist movement Al-Shabab murdered 147 innocents not because they hate college students but because they were Christians being educated “on Muslim land.” Muslim students were identified by the attackers and left unmolested.)

But one can’t help but get the sense that Charlie critics won’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the newspaper not because it is undeserving—it’s tough to make the case that its journalists lacked courage—but because they can’t muster much sympathy for those who knowingly antagonize Muslims. And those who do should know the consequences. Novelist Deborah Eisenberg, one of PEN’s most vocal and least informed critics, said Hebdo’s brand of satire was “reckless,” like “dropping your lit match into a dry forest.” Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau indulged in his own bit of victim-blaming, saying that “the decision they made” to be satirists, applying religious satire evenly across faiths and denominations, “brought really a world of pain to France.” After the 2011 bomb attack targeting Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office, a Time magazine writer claimed that the newspaper’s editors had “openly begged for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy.”

If these dissents are unconvincing, some prominent PEN refuseniks were willing to go full Godwin, liberally making use of the Nazi analogy.

Here is celebrated novelist and petition signatory Joyce Carol Oates, herself recently denounced for a series infelicitous tweets about Islam, now safely accusing others of Islamophobia and asking former New York Times journalist Deborah Solomon if she would support bestowing a National Book Award on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In her protest letter to PEN, Eisenberg wondered if PEN would grant “the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer and its satirical anti-Semitic cartoons.” (In the same letter, she demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of French hate crime law.)

When Francine Prose was asked by CBC Radio if she was comparing Charlie Hebdo staffers to Nazis, she gave a sputtering, contradictory answer: “Well, I’m not...I’m not...you know, not Nazis. Maybe neo-Nazis. I’m not saying that they’re...that I would compare them to neo-Nazis, but I also think that many of their cartoons are racist.” A few days later, in a conversation with The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, Prose said she “didn’t see a difference” between the anti-Semitic material produced by Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and the sort published in Charlie Hebdo.

Adolf Hitler. Josef Goebbels. Julius Streicher. Stephane Charbonnier. Perhaps those invoking famous Nazis can’t differentiate between spewing eliminationist rhetoric and mocking religious radicals who spread eliminationist rhetoric.

But back once more to SOS-Racisme’s Dominique Sopo. In his 2005 book SOS Antiracisme, Sopo outlined the landscape of ethnic hatred in France while also pointing out that Islamists—a generally racist bunch—often escape scrutiny, having learned “to count on a powerful ally: the post-colonial bad conscience.”

In its letter to PEN, the now 200-strong dissident faction proved Sopo’s point, arguing that “to the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”

PEN’s dissident Fanonists might stay away from Tuesday night’s ceremony, or make a bold stand against the nonexistent racism of 12 dead journalists by refusing to clap for the one who got away, or simply hope that next year’s Courage Award honoree will have been murdered for inoffensive journalism that comports with the bien pensant opinions of America’s literary class.

As for Thoret, after the atrocity visited upon Charlie Hebdo in January, he can manage a room half full of the self-righteously misinformed. His comrades are gone; the newspaper is more popular than ever; and his American critics, he sighs, “don’t really know what they are talking about.”