National Post Barbara Kay: Michael Ondaatje and the PEN Six get it horribly wrong

National Post - Monday April 27th, 2015

Mark van Manen/Postmedia News
Novelist Michael Ondaatje

PEN international, a non-political organization now represented in 150 countries, was founded in 1921. Its mandate is to promote literature and support freedom of expression. PEN Canada joined up in 1926 and today boasts a membership of more than a 1,000 writers and supporters, including cultural luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul, Charles Foran and David Cronenberg.

PEN does good work, advocating for imprisoned writers in repressive regimes like Iran and Turkey and, through their Canadian Issues Committee, monitoring legislation that might violate the Canadian Charter with regard to freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech means the freedom to offend, even deeply offend, anyone or any group whose words or actions are offensive to the speaker.

On May 5, at a New York gala scheduled to coincide with PEN’s annual World Voices Festival, which attracts many international writers, PEN American Center will award its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in front of some 800 writers, publishers and supporters. The award will be accepted by Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, absent on the fatal January day when 12 staff members were massacred by Islamic jihadists, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a staff member whose late arrival saved his life.

As a response to that decision, six writers are boycotting the gala, including Canada’s Michael Ondaatje, who had been scheduled to serve as a host. Rachel Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with the magazine’s “cultural intolerance”; novelist Peter Carey complained of 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.” Others reinforced the general focus on  “disenfranchised” Muslims, even though, as many observers have pointed out, Charlie Hebdo’s admittedly vicious satires did not spare any religious groups.

PEN president  Andrew Solomon said he knew the issue would be controversial, but confessed himself taken aback both by the vehemence of the criticism and its timing, only two weeks before the gala, even though the award had been announced on March 17. Defending the award, Solomon quite properly renounced the accusation by withdrawee Francine Prose that the award signified “admiration and respect” for Charlie Hebdo’s work, stating, “[PEN] does not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.” Exactly.

Good for PEN. Giving the award to Charlie Hebdo is a courageous and meaningful affirmation of the principle for which the organization stands. There is a risk of violence attached to any gesture that offends certain Muslims’ sensibilities. All the more reason to make it clear that the real right to mock or criticize any individual or group who exhibit the classic sins satire was invented to attack – hypocrisy, arrogance, despotism, inhumanity, irrationality – will always be privileged in a free society over the fabricated right not to be insulted.

Nobody knows that better than Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses motivated a fatwa against him that to this day precludes anything resembling a normal life. Rushdie considers his old friends Ondaatje and Carey to be “horribly wrong” in their stance: “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.”

Charlie Hebdo stands for more than the courage to publish its own satire. It was one of the few publications to support the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 after the eruption of violence in the Muhammed cartoons affair, republishing them in 2006, for which they paid a heavy price in lawsuits, threats and a 2011 office firebombing. Like many other media spokespeople, PEN Canada was equivocal on the cartoons. As President Constance Rooke wrote at the time, “PEN Canada supports the right of a free press to publish these cartoons, but also believes that a wise consideration of ‘voluntary restraint’ would have led to better decisions.” In other words, PEN Canada supports your right to free speech, as long as you don’t deeply offend anyone.

The good news in this story is that only six “horribly wrong” writers withdrew from the event, and that PEN American Center unequivocally rejected their criticism. Let us hope, at this moment in history, when freedom of speech in the West is imperiled as never before in living memory, that all PEN affiliates, including PEN Canada, take the lesson that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend, even deeply offend, anyone or any group whose words or actions are offensive to the speaker.