As I was close to finishing my own story, The New York Times published a long article last night about the rather intense and fascinating controversy that has erupted inside PEN America, the group long devoted to defending writers’ freedom of expression from attacks by governments. In essence, numerous prominent writers who were to serve as “table heads” or who are long-time PEN members have withdrawn from the group’s annual awards gala and otherwise expressed anger over PEN’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.
The Times story does a good job laying out the events and describing the general controversy, so in lieu of repeating that, I instead want to publish the key correspondence between the writer Deborah Eisenberg and PEN’s Executive Director, former Obama State Department official and Amnesty USA Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, which sparked the controversy; post the full comment given to the Intercept by the writer Teju Cole, who has withdrawn as a table head; and make a few observations of my own. The Intercept has also submitted several questions to Nossel, which I’m also posting, and will prominently post PEN’s responses as soon as they are received. All of those documents are here.
Though the core documents are lengthy, this argument is really worth following because it highlights how ideals of free speech, and the Charlie Hebdo attack itself, were crassly exploited by governments around the world to promote all sorts of agendas having nothing to do with free expression. Indeed, some of the most repressive regimes on the planet sent officials to participate in the Paris “Free Speech” rally, and France itself began almost immediately arresting and prosecuting people for expressing unpopular, verboten political viewpoints and then undertaking a series of official censorship acts, including the blocking of websites disliked by its government. The French government perpetrated these acts of censorship, and continues to do so, with almost no objections from those who flamboyantly paraded around as free speech fanatics during Charlie Hebdo Week.