An attack on free expression has come from one of the most unlikely places. A recent Times headline read "Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo," (NYT, 4/26/15). Salman Rushdie, who was the object of a fatwa for The Satanic Verses: A Novel, was not part of the protest. Peter Carey, the novelist was one of the group which included Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje. The Times quoted Peter Carey thusly,
"A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? 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."
Isn't this a little like allowing the schoolyard bully to terrorize his classmates by saying that he has a troubled home life? One of the few good things about the French is the high esteem in which the hold free expression. There's probably no other country on earth where all shades of the political spectrum adhere to a similar veneration for free speech. Yes the French can be arrogant, impossible and even as racially insensitive as liberal American members of organizations of PEN who camouflage their prejudices by signing self-congratulatory petitions against the oppression of have-nots while lacking countervailing sensitivity to the protecting the rights of the haves -- like themselves. But how can they not stand tall for Charlie Hebdo which is after all an equal opportunity employer lambasting both Islam and its most virulent critics. Indeed on January 7, the day of the massacre, Michel Houellebecq, who famously termed Islam "the stupidest religion," was pilloried on the cover of the magazine.
(This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}