Don’t Sign the PEN Letter Against Charlie Hebdo

Keith Gessen thinks long and hard whether he should sign a letter criticizing PEN for awarding a prize to the Charlie Hebdo editors. Unlike some other people who signed the letter, Gessen doesn't have a problem with the magazine's attacks on Islam. Gessen takes the trouble to read back issues of Charlie Hebdo and concludes that the journal has been consistently anti-racist and, at times, kind of funny. He insists, correctly, that the journal needs to be seen in its distinctly French context.

PEN's Annual Gala, during which the Charlie Hebdo editors will receive their award, is a New York thing. Gessen decides to letter against the award by placing the attacks, and PEN's reaction to them, in an American context. 

My concern was that in its focus on a kind of blank-slate human rights agenda (as opposed to an agenda that focused, for example, on economic rights), PEN was essentially playing along with the larger American geopolitical project. Radically simplified, this project argues that the US, for all its problems, [. . .] is still the “indispensable nation,” the one place that can, for example, set the international human rights agenda, and then go and enforce it. I wanted a more radical American PEN, that would critique not only government surveillance in the US, but American power wherever it manifested itself. 

Gessen argues that Americans classified the Charlie Hebdo attacks as another episode in the US war on terror, just as American armed forces have intervened in foreign wars in the name of human rights–but only when the wars occur in places where the US has strategic interests (like Libya in 2011), and rarely, if ever, in places with little or no strategic interest (like central Africa). Sure, PEN cares about freedom of the press, but only beyond American borders. If you're really worried about freedom of the press, Gessen says, you should worry more about the American government than Islamic fundamentalism. 

Point taken, but Gessen still shouldn't have signed the letter. The boundaries of the war on terror are pretty vague. It's hard to unambiguously place one event within its theater while leaving another outside it. The war on terror is a discursive event, subject to multiple definitions. George Bush's war isn't the same as Barack Obama's or CNN's.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was different because it reminded us that the war on terror , or whatever you want to call it, is a discursive construct subject to constant redefinition. As Gessen himself points out, the attack was defined very differently in France than it was elsewhere. Feeling outrage about the Kouachi brother's murderous rampage doesn't mean one has to subscribe wholesale to the American war on terror, however one might define it, because the war isn't one thing. Furthermore, it doesn't seem contradictory to declare "Je suis Charlie" and deplore the NSA. It's entirely possible that PEN isn't preoccupied with domestic surveilance because we don't have a Charlie Hebdo to goad writers into protesting more forcefully.

Charlie Hebdo got into trouble so that the rest of us didn't have to.

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