Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fear and Loathing at the PEN Awards

More than two dozen authors, mostly American,  have signed a petition protesting the American PEN Awards honoring Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Award. Six are boycotting the ceremony altogether.

Why? Because, they state, the French satirical magazine  routinely mocks Muslims,  a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized”.

It's another example of the stubborn misconception of what Charlie Hebdo is and does. This seems to be an English language thing, because British critics of Hebdo are also numerous. Hebdo, as I've written here before, does not mock Muslims. It mocks Islam, the powerful, organized religion, especially its most fanatic extreme. BIG difference there! Hebdo also routinely mocks the Catholic Church. Hebdo is not, not, NOT a rightwing, anti-immigrant publication. It is a leftwing, pro-immigrant publication. Rightwing politics and organized religion are its two most frequent targets. 

But American critics just won't believe that. There is a maddening refusal to understand Hebdo's satire. Translating complicated satire from French is a problem, true, especially when you are ignorant of the political issues being satirized, but what is on display here is politically-correct  groupthink and pure intellectual laziness. It's also, of course, a typical display of bias against cartoons and comix by our leading Literati. Comix are lowbrow. Comix aren't to be taken seriously. It's an attitude those of us who toil away here encounter every fucking day.

“There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression,” the petition reads. 

Yeah. OK. But if you haven't bothered to properly translate the cartoons, or understand their context, how do you know it's unacceptable? This is akin, and I've written this before, to watching The Colbert Report and failing to understand it's a satire and organizing a boycott of this bigoted, rightwing hatemonger. Someone who did that would be proclaimed Moron of the Year. Yet here are our authors doing that very thing with Hebdo!

For example, Joyce Carol Oates, who has been making a fool of herself on Twitter with a stream of racist and sexist tweets,  objects to this cartoon, showing French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, as a monkey. 

“To some, cartoons depicting black women as monkeys are just so offensive we resent ‘award’. But would defend freedom of expression. If we are ‘offended’ we can just look away, not censor. But we are reluctant to give ‘award.’ (Realize others disagree),” Oates writes.

On face value this cartoon is offensive, sure, but, in fact, this cartoon is NOT what it appears to be to English speakers, like most of the Hebdo cartoons. It is, in reality, a lampoon of the far-right National Front Party of Marine Le Pen, which has been making depressing gains in recent French elections. A National Front politician posted a photoshopped picture of Justice Taubira, with the body of a monkey, and then said on French television that Taubira should be "in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government." 

No. Really!

The cartoon, which is mocking that jaw-dropping incident, is drawn as a political poster. It's calling on all far-right creeps to unify under this racist image.  "Ressemble Blue Raciste" translates to "The Racist Blue Gathering," which is a riff on Marine Le Pen's "The Marine Blue Gathering," a legislative coalition of far-right parties in the legislature. So here's the new poster for the Marine Blue Gathering: Justice Taubira as a monkey.

Get it now?

But Oates make no effort to understand the meaning. She sees the visual, wrongly assumes it's a racist slam at a black politician, and recoils. That's what's so frustrating about the criticism of Hebdo, virtually from the day of the murders. So many in the English-speaking intelligensia are just flat-out, factually incorrect in their assumptions about these cartoons. And then they dig in, like we see here with the PEN membership, and refuse to even consider that they are factually incorrect. Or they take a shot at the French, implying that the French are not as racially advanced as we are here. That's rich.

Tough, tasteless satire? Definitely. Would it appear in an American mainstream publication? Ha! No fucking way! But can you imagine if some Tea Party Congressman said this about a black cabinet member?  Think there would be a few cartoons drawn about THAT? They wouldn't be as blunt as this one, because our racial attitudes are far touchier and shaped by a history of slavery and lynchings and racist imagery, but cartoons there would be! France has a different history. We can't shovel our past, and our hang-ups, onto them, especially onto a publication that is for French audiences only. And, quite frankly, Americans should be the LAST people lecturing others on racism. Watch FoxNews lately, or spend any time with the Twitter Trolls ranting about Baltimore and Fergusen?

The cartoon was drawn by Charb, by the way, the editor of Hebdo, who was the first gunned down that awful day in the Hebdo offices.

This is an embarrassing, wrongheaded stance by people who should know better, or, at the very least, should have bothered to DO THEIR DAMN HOMEWORK and properly understand what they're boycotting before climbing atop their moral pedestal.

Beyond the false assumptions, there's something else at work here. Novelist Peter Carey, an Australian who lives in New York City, and who is boycotting the ceremony, writes in the NY Times, "a hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Meaning what, exactly? That, hey, it's just a stupid cartoon magazine. It's not like it's REAL freedom of speech! Uh... lessee, eight people were mowed down by fanatics for what they said and wrote. Yeah, I'd call that a freedom of speech issue worth honoring! Jesus fucking Christ! This is the kind of pompous prick we comix folk run into time and time again. It's slowly, steadily starting to change, but some of these guys are dug in deep. 

Thank God for Salman Rushdie, who knows a little more about the price of free speech than most. He tweeted about the boycotters: "The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character."

For stubbornly ignorant English speakers, here's a helpful website that not only translates Charlie Hebdo's most infamous cartoons, but puts them in context so the satire can be properly understood. This should be required reading for the entire PEN membership, before more of them make total asses of themselves.