PEN Members Forget Purpose of Free Speech

With every passing day I feel more like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski: I feel like opening my office window and bellowing, “Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a s*** about the rules?” The rule in question, of course, is the First Amendment, specifically its protection of the freedom of speech. In this cheap, cowardly, and superficial age, even key members of an organization dedicated to its defense have thrown it under the bus.

PEN was founded to defend free expression.

That is what it had intended to do when it decided to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to two members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who were not murdered in January’s jihad massacre at its offices: Editor in Chief Gerard Biard, and staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret.

But six PEN members -- writers Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi -- took umbrage. Sniffed Carey:

A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this 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.

“Cultural arrogance.” The French, you see, and Charlie Hebdo in particular, have manifested “cultural arrogance” by persisting in saying and doing things that offend the sensibilities of Muslims, who in France are “disempowered.”

The idea that the murderers of the cartoonists displayed a good deal of “cultural arrogance” of their own by murdering the cartoonists in the service of Islam’s blasphemy law, to which the cartoonists did not subscribe, doesn’t seem to have entered Casey’s mind. Or if it did, he waved it away -- after all, the poor Muslims in France are “disempowered.”

Deborah Eisenberg, another writer dissatisfied with PEN’s decision of award recipient, was likewise solicitous of Muslim feelings:

What I question is what PEN is hoping to convey by awarding a magazine that has become famous both for the horrible murder of staff members by Muslim extremists and for its denigrating portrayals of Muslims. Charlie Hebdo’s symbolic significance is unclear here.

It was left to someone who should well understand the importance of the freedom of speech, and the necessity for free societies to defend it, to explain that significance. Salman Rushdie declared:

It is quite right that PEN should honour [Charlie Hebdo’s] sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting "buts.”

But aren’t Muslims in France “disempowered"? Rushdie waved aside such nonsense:

This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence. These six writers have made themselves the fellow travellers of that project. Now they will have the dubious satisfaction of watching PEN tear itself apart in public.

That’s right: we will all get to watch an organization devoted to defending the freedom of expression being torn apart by members who are unwilling to put aside Leftist multiculturalist fantasies long enough to defend the freedom of expression.

Carey said that he wrote to PEN’s president “to say that I did not wish to have my name, without my knowledge or prior approval, publicly linked to a political position I did not hold.” That political position was apparently the idea that Islam, like all other belief systems and ideas, can be criticized, found wanting, rejected, and even mocked.

Carey, like many Leftists today, apparently believes that the freedom of expression should only be accorded to those with whom he agrees. The rest can be forcibly silenced, even murdered -- as long as the thugs and murderers are members of a victim class duly recognized by the Left.

What he and the other proponents of self-censorship in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo jihad massacre have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, is that freedom of speech as a legal concept is meant precisely to protect speech that others find offensive. Offense is a subjective judgment, and if the powerful can silence the powerless on the pretext that their speech is offensive, they can establish their tyranny unopposed.