This week, controversy erupted when six writers who were scheduled to be “table hosts” at PEN’s Gala Fundraiser on May 5th pulled out of the event because they didn’t believe that French newspaper Charlie Hebdo should be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. This was first reported in the New York Times, and then Glenn Greenwald posted about it at The Intercept, also including the texts of letters exchanged between some PEN members and PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel.
This morning I was among the first thirty PEN members to sign an open letter on the issue. The circulation of the open letter was reported by Vulture this afternoon, and now there are discussions raging in the comments sections of various articles, on Twitter and Facebook, with people lining up on one side or other of the debate. As this is going on, more writers are adding their names to the open letter.
My spouse James Schamus offered a clarifying comment.
I mourn the terrible murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff.
I stand in solidarity with those who fight against the scourge of intolerance, censorship and bigotry.
I know that the defense of free speech and a free press means defending principles that allow, in practice, for speech that offends and that is often, at its worst, even hateful.
But defending the rights of all to free expression should not require of me the obligation to award, condone, or applaud any particular expression, even expression made by those who have been cruelly and violently silenced.
I will stand beside Charlie Hebdo and all others in the fight to guarantee freedom of expression for all. I will not, however, stand and applaud for Charlie Hebdo, at a gala awards dinner or anywhere else.
I am not Charlie Hebdo.
2 May 2015
The list of signatories has grown to close to 200 by this morning, and the vitriol against the writers who signed is intense. I am dismayed that some people don’t seem to understand the distinction between supporting Charlie Hebdo’s RIGHT to publish what they will and declining to support the granting of this award. Clearly the damn has broken among New Yorkers who no longer want their commitment to free speech to become conflated with crude bigotry.
April 29, 2015