The annual PEN Literary Gala, in which writers, the male half badly dressed in once-a-year tuxedos, assemble under the big whale at the American Museum of Natural History to mutter about their advances and applaud their imprisoned confreres, has always had its comic aspects. Glamour and guys (or gals) who write are not two subjects that are often congruent. The tuxes sag, the chicken congeals, the novelist’s weary eyes turn toward the clock at ten. That this event should become the scene of a high-profile public squabble seems absurd. And yet the PEN gala feels essential, and for one reason above all: the writers are there to stand up for some other writers who can’t be there because some bad guy has locked them up for writing something that the bad guy didn’t like. The principle involved is that the free expression of ideas, including insulting ideas, is part of what writing is. If people aren’t free to insult authority in some distant country, then we aren’t entirely free here. This does seem like a good principle to banquet upon.
This commonality has been disrupted this year by the decision of the PENAmerican Center to honor the murdered cartoonists of France’s Charlie Hebdo, gunned down in mid-morning last January by two heavily armed religious fanatics, with its Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Six literary “table hosts”—writers who sit with guests—have declined to attend in light of the award. Other table hosts have publicly chided the missing for going missing. (I should say that I am one of those hosts; The New Yorker is also part of the Benefit Committee, and our cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, will be onstage with the Charlie Hebdo editors.) Salman Rushdie, who speaks with some sad authority on such issues, was succinct, calling them “six authors in search of character.”
Two things, at least, need to be said. First, that the naysayers, some of whom this PEN member counts as very good friends, all doubtless intend to be on the side of the angels—that is, on the side of open society and free expression. They have an argument to make. It is, as best I can understand it, of what Louis C.K. memorably calls the “of course … but maybe” variety. Of course it was wrong for the cartoonists to be murdered. But maybe they should have seen how threatening their work was to other oppressed minorities, in this case Muslims in France? Of course we deeply mourn their deaths. But maybe we could find someone better to honor than those inclined to print cartoons of Muhammad sodomizing his followers? We can regret their deaths without honoring their views—which some find bigoted or, at least, to use the word of the decade, insensitive.
This badly misunderstands the actual views, history, and practices of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Their work, as I’ve written, was not for those who like subtlety and suavity in their satire—it was not entirely to my own taste—but they were still radically democratic and egalitarian in their views, with their one passionate dislike being, simply, the hypocrisies of any organized religion. Few groups in recent French history have been more passionately “minoritarian”—more marginalized or on the outs with the political establishment, more vitriolic in their mockery of power, more courageous in ridiculing people of far greater influence and power. They were always punching up at idols and authorities. No one in France has, for example, been more relentlessly, courageously contemptuous of the extreme right-wing Le Pens, père et fille.
But let’s imagine, for a moment, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists weren’t very good guys. Surely even bad guys should be safe from fanatics with machine guns. The crucial distinction is not between those we like and those we don’t (Solzhenitsyn hardly followed a checklist from the West Village Democrats club) but between acts of imagination and acts of violence. The imagination sees and draws and describes many things—pornographic, erotic, satiric, and blasphemous—that are uncomfortable or ugly. But they are not actually happening. The imagination is a place where hypotheses and conditionals rule, and where part of the fun, and most of the point, lies in saying the unsayable in order to test the truths of what’s most often said. When the Charlie cartoonists made Muhammad look foolish, they were not saying that Muslims were evil—they were questioning the entire business of turning a person into a prophet. Not to get this is not to get why they were cartoonists.
Their doubters, it seems, believe that this activity of imagination was wrong or condemnable. They believe, instead, in a kind of communal protection—that the comfort of communities is more important than the public criticism of ideas. It’s a legitimate thought, one with a history of its own. It just doesn’t seem to be a thought worth inspiring a boycott by a self-defined cosmopolitan community of writers. If literature has any social function, after all, it is premised on the belief that, in the long run, the most comfortable community is going to be the one that knows the most about itself. Criticism is always going to be uncomfortable for somebody. There is something to be said for group solidarity over unhindered expression. But writers are the last people on earth who ought to be saying it. (Writers ought always to be a little on the outside; that’s one reason they look so awkward when they come together as a group.)
Well, easy to say, the doubters would likely go on. But surely if some partisans had gone in and gunned down, say, the staff of the hideously anti-Semitic cartoon-heavy journal Der Stürmer back in the nineteen-thirties, well, one might have condemned the violence, but would one have honored those cartoonists? The right response here is that cartoons are not magic Rorschachblots. They speak just as lucidly as epigrams, and the actual content of Julius Streicher’s hideous cartoons of Jews was clear: they were not mocking Judaism; they were threatening the lives of Jewish people. “Your religion is ridiculous” is as different a message as can be from “You are a degenerated race, you want to rape our daughters and steal our goods, and we will do away with you.” An insult to an ideology is not the same as a threat made to a people. Nor does one in any sense, logical or historical, flow from the other—a truth we know exactly because the people most inclined to say that a religion is ridiculous are those who were brought up practicing it.
It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people. The idea that we should be free to do our work and offer our views without extending a frightened veto to those who threaten to harm us isn’t just part of what we mean by free expression. It’s what free expression is. The Charlie Hebdostaff kept working in the face of death threats, and scorning an effort to honor that courage gives too much authority to those who want that veto. The killers were not speaking for an offended community and explaining why, after all, someone might easily miss the point of the cartoons. They were responding to an insult with murder. The honored cartoonists, in turn, are not markers in an abstract game of sensitivities. They were elderly artists whose last view in life was of a masked man with a machine gun. If that is not horror, then nothing is horror. If that is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. If writers won’t honor their courage, then what courage can we honor?
And so, with all that can be said about the absurdity of trying to honor the aggressively impious with the rituals of liberal piety, the language of heroism does still belong to and with the martyred cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Liberal civilizations, open societies, try to stretch as broadly as they can, to be as tolerant as life allows. But they have limits. The real social contract at the heart of liberal civilization is simple: in exchange for the freedom to be as insulting as you want about other people’s ideas, you have to give up the possibility of assaulting other people’s persons. By all means, mock and belittle, sneer and be sour. We all expect no less. But you cannot knife or shoot someone, or even threaten to do these things. If you do, you stand outside the contract, and you are no longer a citizen of our city. And those who you do knife or shoot are our martyrs to the open society, and they are to be honored as such: they are carrying the flag of freedom, whose device isn’t noble, nor ever needs to be, but is more often a ridiculous caricature of an overrated ideologue, a mocking picture of a prophet.
How can we tell insults to ideology from threats to people? Well, as I’ve written before, that is why we have critics, courts, and laws. Hell, it’s why we have writers. It’s the work they do. And it’s the reason why they gather at galas, where they can argue with each other and look ridiculous, just as they ought to.