Last week, six writers serving as table hosts for the PEN American Center gala withdrew to protest the Freedom of Expression Courage Award given to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Now six new writers, including graphic novel legends Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman, have stepped forward to take their places. Their gesture is more important and appreciated than ever, in light of the anti-free speech attack in Texas on Sunday night.
In addition to Gaiman and Spiegelman, the Associated Press reports Alison Bechdel, George Packer, Azar Mafisi, and Alain Mabanckou will be table hosts, replacing Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, Teju Cole, and Taiye Selasi. Their withdrawal came less than two weeks before the scheduled event, leaving little time for replacements to come forward.
The departing hosts objected to the “cultural intolerance” and “forced secular view” of Charlie Hebdo and argued essentially that Muslims should not be satirized because they are historically disadvantaged. “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,” as Carey put it.
The replacement hosts seem to understand that the governments of civilized nations have an even more potent moral obligation to protect their citizens from murder at the hands of fascist gunmen. “The Charlie Hebdo PEN award is for courage. The courage to work after the 2011 firebombing of the offices, the courage to put out their magazine in the face of murder,” Gaiman told the New York Times. “If we cannot applaud that, then we might as well go home… I’ll be proud to host a table on Tuesday night.”
Gaiman further told the AP he could not understand why “several otherwise well-meaning writers have failed to grasp that you do not have to like what is said to support people’s right to say it.”
He is not one of the six new table hosts, and he only recently became a prose author, but the AP also slips in a memorable statement of support from filmmaker David Cronenberg: “There is a weird, serpentine political correctness being expressed here. I salute PEN and applaud their award to Charlie Hebdo.” You can count on Cronenberg to bring something weird and serpentine into any discussion.
In an interview with Democracy Now shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Art Spiegelman observed that cartooning “has been very effectively and thoroughly defanged in America.” On the contrary, he argued it was the satirists’s job to “make a mess, by God,” empowered by their “mandate to say the unsayable.”
He says this very firmly as a man of the Left (to the point that he is willing to entertain 9/11 conspiracy theories) and a die-hard Obama supporter who somehow also thinks Edward Snowden is “basically under American fatwa.” In other words, you can have some varied political views, pointedly ignore a great deal of what the man you passionately supported for President has been doing for the past seven years, and still understand the absolute importance of free speech.
The Associated Press cites PEN president Andrew Solomon making a vital point that seems to be lost on those protesting the Charlie Hebdo award: it is not an award for the magazine’s content, but rather a recognition of their courage in continuing to speak despite persistent, and sadly credible, threats to silence them with violence, as well as praise for satire as “a valid and valuable form of social criticism.” Islamists may be the most notable current example of a group asserting its superiority by raising itself above satire, but if they succeed, they won’t be the last. (Well, not unless they succeed to a spectacular degree.)
Gaiman is the creator of the superlative Sandman series of horror-fantasy graphic novels for DC Comics, as well as a successful prose-fiction author. Spiegelman created the equally superb Maus graphic novels, telling the story of Holocaust survivors with various animals standing in for the participants.