Reprinted in the L.A. Times

The L. A. Times has published a somewhat more concise version of the post just below about PEN America and Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo and the previous question

Years ago, I served on a jury that had a bit of trouble making up its mind. After we sent the judge a lot of notes asking questions, which seem to have tried his patience, he brought us back into the courtroom to impress upon us a distinction. There are questions of law and there are questions of fact, he said. It wasn’t up to us to decide what was against the law and what wasn’t; the state legislature had already done that. We were only responsible for answering a question of fact. Had the person in the dock actually done what the prosecution accused him of doing?

In practice, of course, questions of law and questions of fact can be quite entangled, even in courtrooms. In the tradition known as jury nullification, juries have sometimes deliberately skewed their answers to questions of fact because they disagree with a legislature’s decisions about law and intend to override them. But the distinction seems useful, even if it’s rarely absolute, and I’d like to suggest that a distinction like it may help in parsing the dispute currently raging over the American freedom-of-expression advocacy group PEN America and the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff and contributors were murdered by Islamic extremists in January, and PEN America is planning to give a Freedom of Expression Courage award to the newspaper at an upcoming gala. Some writers who belong to PEN—six originally, but the number jumped to thirty-five and then to ninety—believe that Charlie Hebdo ought not be honored, because they believe that some of the newspaper’s content was racist and bigoted. It’s with some trepidation that I set out to write about the dispute, because I’ve been friendly for a long time with writers now on both sides of it. I’m also a member of PEN, though up to this point in my life I haven’t been able to afford to attend galas like the one in question, and if I received an invitation to this one, I probably deleted it without paying much attention. (I may never have even received it at all, because I have a habit of unsubscribing from email lists.)

Belatedly and at my own peril, however, here is what I have to contribute: I think that there are two kinds of questions being debated in the matter of PEN and Charlie Hebdo, and that they’re being mixed up with each other in a way that makes it hard for the two sides to see what they’re arguing about. The distinction I’d like to make isn’t between law and fact, because there aren’t any serious questions of law here; in France as in America, legislatures decided long ago that it’s a crime to kill a person for something he said. The distinction I’d like to make is between questions of ethics and questions of fact. I think that the two sides are under the impression that they disagree about ethics, when in fact most of them probably agree. I think, however, that they disagree vehemently about the questions of fact at hand, even though both sides believe that the answers to these questions of fact should be obvious even to casual observers.

Ethics first: Of course it’s wrong to kill a cartoonist for even a racist or bigoted cartoon, but is it right to honor a murdered cartoonist for courage if the cartoon that provoked his murder was racist or bigoted? In such a case, should the cartoonist be considered courageous? Much of the PEN-Charlie Hebdo debate is being conducted as if these are the central questions. But as ethical questions go, they’re pretty sophomoric. If you had asked the debaters a year ago what they thought the answers were, I think you would have got near unanimity in their responses. Yes, technically, a cartoonist killed for a racist or bigoted cartoon was being courageous if he drew it knowing that he might be killed for it. But no, it isn’t right to honor him. We distinguish all the time, and pretty sharply, between courage in what we consider to be a just cause and courage in what we consider to be an unjust one. It probably takes a fair amount of courage, moral as well as physical, for a member of the Westboro Baptist church to show up at a military funeral with a sign proclaiming that God rejoices in the death of American servicemen because he hates America’s toleration of sodomy. And in America, it’s a matter of civic faith that the government should protect the right to hold up such a hateful sign even before such emotionally vulnerable readers. But not very many people I know would want to praise the church member for it.

In the past week, I’ve seen people refer to the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo as “hate speech.” And if it seems to you that cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are racist or bigoted, then you will probably think it’s tone-deaf, complicit, or maybe even outright racist of PEN America to give the newspaper a posthumous award. But if, on the other hand, it seems to you that the cartoons are innocent of malicious bias, you will probably think it’s spineless, if not cowardly, for PEN America to hesitate to give the award. Feelings get hurt when people call one another complicit with racism or spineless in the face of terrorism, and the pitchfork bearers of the village Internet welcome volleys of such accusations with glee. What I’d like to suggest is that the question of ethics, though high voltage, is secondary in this case to a question of fact. I think most people would agree on what to do about PEN and Charlie Hebdo if they could agree on the logically previous question: Were there racist or bigoted cartoons in Charlie Hebdo?

How can you tell a racist cartoon from one that merely references racial stereotypes? It’s a delicate question to raise, because debate on it has been inhibited in many quarters by the notion that it ought to be obvious when a message is racist or bigoted, and that those who fail to recognize racism or bigotry as soon as they come across it are either pretending ignorance or revealing a fault in their inner moral compass. The bulletproof answers aren’t “Yes” or “No,” but “Of course it is” or “Of course it isn’t.”

The facts on the ground don’t, however, conform to this polarity. In America’s cultural ecosystem, for example, we tend to grant a fair amount of license to moviemakers and stand-up comedians to deploy racist and bigoted stereotypes. (My sense is that in America, editorial cartoonists are on a somewhat tighter leash—more on that in a minute.) The tacit permission depends in some cases on a sense conveyed to the audience that the comedian’s underlying impulse is to bring a stereotype out into the open so as to defuse or discharge it. Audiences also tend to give a pass if the stereotype in question is relatively new to it, at least in its details, and seems to have been captured by the comedian through affectionate and intimate observation, as if it amounted to something like reportage. Audiences usually grant greater leeway to a moviemaker or comic who belongs to the race, religion, or sexual orientation that he’s mocking. (It’s not clear that Kant would approve of this greater leeway. How much difference should the identity of the comedian make on the justness of an audience’s enjoyment of a racial, religious, or sexual stereotype?) In a limited number of cases, like that of Quentin Tarantino, it almost seems that license is granted merely on account of the almost palpable quote marks that appear around the deployed stereotypes and the cleverness with which the moviemaker riffs on them.

In other words, it may be obvious at a glance whether an image or a phrase refers to a racial, religious, or sexual stereotype, but to determine whether a message or a work of art is racist or bigoted, a viewer has to consider the current politics and recent history of issues associated with the identity being stereotyped, as well as previous uses of the image or phrase in other works and messages, and has to make a subjective assessment of the intentions of the comedian or moviemaker. And even then, different observers may come to different conclusions. Often they do.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were captioned in French, and they depended for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons. First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad Magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste. But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being. In America the waves that flooded us were a little different.

By this point, I’ve probably tipped my hand, and I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I don’t happen to think Charlie Hebdo is racist or bigoted, and I think that some of the American writers who have condemned it must have had the subtitles off while they were trying to make a determination that can be tricky to make even about an American message designed for American consumption. More than three million French citizens rallied in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo a few days after the January murders. Were those marchers complicit with racism or bigotry at the newspaper, or unwilling or unable to recognize them? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s a debate worth having about whether the French policy of laïcité is a sufficiently merciful and flexible way for a democracy to handle the separation of church and state, but I strongly doubt that there would have been such a broad outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo in France if it had been a French analog of the Westboro Baptist Church. When it comes to telling whether a French newspaper smells sweet or sour, I think the French are likely to have the more discerning noses.

Still, the French have been known to get things wrong, and some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons do look pretty awful at first glance to an American eye. But even in the worst-looking examples that I’ve seen, the object of the satire always turns out, upon research, to be the racist tropes and ideology that the cartoonist believes are lurking just below the surface of slogans circulated by French rightwing politicians. Or the impious impulses that the cartoonist believes are hidden beneath a cleric’s pious front. A number of websites have been glossing the cartoons for a non-French readers—Explaining Charlie Hebdo is the most comprehensive one so far—and I encourage doubters to take a look.

It’s possible, of course, to see the antiracist message of one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as no more than a cover for an underhanded relishing of the racist imagery deployed in it. Parody usually does participate to some extent in the energy of what it parodies; that is one of the risks it runs. Humor is not pure. It speaks to us through our flaws, as well as speaking to us about them—envies and hates, as well as greeds and lusts—and it can’t exist without the license to work with dark materials.

Instead of ending with a peroration, I’m going to end with a request for empiricism. I don’t think you can know where you stand about PEN and Charlie Hebdo unless you’ve made a judgment about Charlie Hebdo‘s humor, and if you haven’t been living in France in the past few years and following the news there, I don’t think you’ll be able to do that fairly at a glance but will need to take a little time in order to understand its foreign context.

In “Revolver Revue”


I just got my copy of the spring 2015 issue of the Czech literary journal Revolver Revue. They’ve published an interview with me by Veronika Tuckerová, as well as her translation into Czech of an excerpt from my novel Necessary Errors. They illustrated the interview with an old Prague map that I had and with photos that I took in Prague in the early 1990s; it’s a really lovely presentation.

Leafing through the issue, I learn that my translator is something of a dark horse. In the same issue, Revolver Revue has published a portfolio of elegant, meditative paintings by her. She painted them, in tempera on paper, in the Holešovice neighborhood of Prague in 1990, and the window views and interior scenes are evocative of Giorgio Morandi in their subtlety and quietness.

The first volume of Leander’s diary, now safely archived

In the first chapter of American Sympathy, my 2001 study of the literary representation of affection between men in the antebellum United States, I wrote about two genteel Quakers in late-18th-century Philadelphia who kept diaries recording their romantic friendship. Their names were John Fishbourne Mifflin and James Gibson, and they went by the cognomens of Leander and Lorenzo, respectively. Gibson’s diary and the second volume of Mifflin’s were, and still are, in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (Here’s a link to the catalog entry for the physical diaries, and one page of Leander/Mifflin’s diary has been digitized and is available online here. Rather cleverly, the page that the archivists chose to digitize is the one where Leander/Mifflin begins to describe a rather erotic dream that he had about Lorenzo/Gibson.)

I also had access to the first volume of Leander/Mifflin’s diary, through a photocopy that was loaned to me. This photocopy had been made by a bookseller decades earlier, while appraising a private individual’s collection. For safety’s sake, before returning this photocopy, I made a photocopy for myself. This turned out to be prudent, because the first-generation photocopy that I returned was later lost, and although the person who was thought to be the owner of the original manuscript graciously granted me permission to publish, he later told me that he had never been able to locate the original in his collection. Perhaps the bookseller had been mistaken in his memory of who owned the original. In any case, the second-generation photocopy that I had made became the only copy available to scholars.

Over the years, I sent reproductions of the photocopy to any scholar who asked, including Richard Godbeer, who wrote about the diarists in The Overflowing of Friendship (2013), and Sarah Knott, who wrote about them in Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009), but it made me nervous that I hadn’t made any provision about putting the photocopy into an archive somewhere. When my father-in-law passed away this January, I was reminded of the propriety of taking care of these things sooner rather than later, and at last I emailed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to ask them if they would take custody of the photocopy. I’m happy to report that they said yes, I sent it, and it arrived safely. It doesn’t seem to be in their online catalog yet, but it’s there, if any scholar wants to consult it.

Of course I made a third-generation photocopy for myself, before I put the second-generation one in the mail.

Reading the comments, Romantic-era edition

In a letter to William Wordsworth, dated 11 December 1806, Charles Lamb described the failure of a play that Lamb had written and noticed that he didn’t rate positive and negative feedback equally:

A hundred hisses—damn the word, I write it like kisses—how different—a hundred hisses outweigh a 1000 Claps. The former come more directly from the Heart.

Review of “H Is for Hawk”

“Blood in the Sky,” my review of Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk, appears in the 23 April 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books (subscription required).

Prospect Park in the snow

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

Prospect Park in snow, 21 March 2015

An excerpt of “Necessary Errors” in Czech

Revolver Revue, spring 2015

The spring 2015 issue of the Czech literary journal Revolver Revue prints an interview with me conducted by Veronika Tuckerová, which she has translated into Czech, as well as an excerpt from my novel, which she has also translated. Very happy about this! Tuckerová reviewed the book in an earlier issue of Revolver Revue, and an English translation of her review has been published by the Aspen Institute.

In other news about the novel: the English-language book made an appearance in the 2014 year-end roundup of the film critic Daniel Carlson. An interview with me, translated into Italian, appears on the website Gioia, in the course of which a pretentious reference of mine to “negative capability” is transfigured into a new word, “kidcapability.” And a set of elegant photos of the Italian edition of the book appear on the website Federico Novaro.

Led astray

Laura Miller on Anthony Lane:

Reading this much of a critic’s work will also alert you to his tics. Lane has only one that annoys me: He will cross the street, walk around the block, catch a cross-town bus and wait in line for an hour to make a dopey pun, and unfortunately we are forced to go with him. For the pun-averse this can sometimes feel like engaging in one of those seemingly straightforward conversations that turns out to be the wind-up for an evangelical pitch or an obscene phone call; you wonder if Lane has enticed you through a whole paragraph on “Braveheart” solely so he can hit you with a groaner like “Fast, Pussycat! Kilt! Kilt!”

Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare:

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults . . . A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

A talk in Portland

Reed College and the University of Portland have invited me to give a talk at the end of March in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be giving the same lecture at both places. The title is going to be “The Disenchantment of Literature in the Age of the Hit Counter,” and here are the details:

Both are free and open to the public. Please come!