The PEN/Hebdo Protest, and What Speculative Literature Has To Say About It

This past Sunday, six writers withdrew from PEN American's May 5 gala to protest the organization's decision to honor the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the target of a violent extremist attack in January, with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. By Wednesday, 35 writers had signed a letter of protest connected to the gala boycott, and as of today the letter's signatories have grown to 145. The protest centers around Charlie Hebdo's ugly racial caricatures of Muslims, Arabs, and other groups:

By honoring Charlie Hebdo, the letter said, “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Vulture has a good rundown of the major voices in the debate, including Salman Rushdie, a past PEN president and vocal defender of the award; Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner, who seem to be spearheading the protest; and other writers like Porochista Khakpour, who objected to the PEN honor but questioned the value in boycotting an exclusive New York gala.

Two obvious things to get out of the way upfront:

Rachel Kushner,  photo by  Haemmerli

Rachel Kushner, 
photo by Haemmerli

1. All of the writers involved are outrageously talented, principled, vocal people whom I admire enormously. If Rachel Kushner called me up and asked me to sign a letter--well, I'm not saying I'd do it automatically, but I'd probably prattle inanely about what I was reading and ask which boys in fourth period she thought were rad.

2. Everyone agrees artists should not be murdered over their art and the January attack was An Inexcusable and Cowardly Act.

Now, you'd think one could separate the content of the anti-Islamic Charlie Hebdo cartoons--many of which I found so racist, they literally nauseated me--from a solemn acknowledgment these human beings were killed to silence their speech. But it isn't a stable resolution. Rushdie took to Twitter to claim Charlie Hebdo was an anti-racist organization (Q_Q), which shouldn't matter under the above distinction. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald argues that the post-attack celebration of Charlie Hebdo "was largely about glorifying anti-Muslim sentiment; free expression was the pretext." As solid and rational as it sounds to divorce the content of speech from its protection, in practice, nothing is so clean.  

Ray Bradbury's   Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Speculative fiction has, of course, a venerable canon of texts about the evils of suppressing free expression, from 1984 to The Handmaid's Tale. The sub-genre of one righteous individual (usually a white man) defying a totalitarian state that fears his authentic self is arguably not even a "sub-genre," but the science fiction genre itself. There's even an award for this sort of specu-libertarian writing, the Prometheus Award; past winners and finalists include Robert Heinlein (no frickin' duh), Neal Stephenson, J.K. Rowling, Alan Moore, and yes, Margaret Atwood.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, whether the 145 PEN protesters' views were also represented in speculative classics. Does every book agree with, say, Fahrenheit 451, that it's inherently dangerous to see danger in the spread of an idea? Even when it's an idea that can turn a "parking dispute" in Chapel Hill, NC into triple murder?

In The Lord of the Rings, the palantírs are Middle Earth's Internet--they just help people communicate with each other!--but a corrupting force that must be handled with utmost care. In The Silver Chair, the Lady of the Green Kirtle's speech against the existence of a Narnia is a dangerous idea for Narnians even to entertain. False prophets like Randall Flagg in The Stand, Nathan Holn in The Postman, maybe shouldn't be given free reign to build their followings. Even 1984 expresses a profound ambivalence about speech's power to deceive as much as to reveal.

Nigerian-American author  Teju Cole

Nigerian-American author Teju Cole

More fundamentally, speculative fiction contains an equally venerable canon of post-apocalyptic nightmares in which roving bands maraud at will. These texts suggest an implicit recognition of society's role--hell, government's role--in curbing the individual's authentic self. Think of the rapists in Blindness, or the cannibals in The Road. Without any check on freedom, won't the advantaged prey on the disadvantaged?

Is it significant that Young Adult dystopias like Divergent or The Hunger Games pit the individual (teenager) against a suppressive totalitarian authority, while adult dystopias like The Walking Dead lean toward the horror of social breakdown?

One of speculative literature's lasting virtues is the permission to evaluate our modern moral or social dilemmas at a psychic remove: play politics in Westeros, argue the occupation of Iraq IN SPACE. Maybe we can't go to the PEN gala or not go to the PEN gala together, yet; but we can talk Denethor 'til the Ents come home.