Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to stir up trouble and lose readers

Basically the minute you move into politics, it is a danger zone and you will be alienating somebody, though, in fairness, attempting to remain neutral will alienate a handful of people who want you (the author) to take a stand and don't like wishy-washy people.

Ok, so the Monty Ponty splunge scene is about being indecisive, not quite the same as being wishy-washy, but pretty close some days.  If you've never seen it, go check it out. What inspired lunacy.

I know I have occasionally gone out on a limb and written a few things that will probably cost me readers (maybe not now but down the line), but sometimes, knowing all this, you do take a stand when something strikes you as particularly important.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the aftermath is incredibly sad and yet it has been interesting watching the most liberal voices in the literary establishment decide if they really do mean free speech means offensive speech is allowable or not.  Where do they stand exactly?  Quite a number have decided that they don't believe in unlimited free speech if it is offensive.  I find that sad, but not really that surprising.  Most people, when push comes to shove, don't believe in freedoms without exceptions. (I certainly don't believe that about other rights in the Bill of Rights, and I don't believe the First Amendment gives one the right to libel or slander others, and only a very small number of First Amendment absolutists hold with that position.  I'm not entirely sure where I fall on someone who uses truly offensive speech to attempt to hurt others in a fairly private setting -- here I am thinking of the creeps from the Westboro Baptist Church.)  At any rate, Europeans in general are generally more accepting of restrictions on free speech to avoid offending people (and certainly questioning the Holocaust is verboten, often rising to the level of a crime in some countries, which seems a bit excessive).  On a jazz board I frequent, I ultimately blocked one European who felt that he had the moral right to prevent everybody else from listening to Gilad Atzmon performing due to Atzmon's political beliefs.  It wasn't enough that he could carry out a personal boycott, but he should make that decision for others.

I think Canadians kind of fall in the middle of the spectrum, with slightly more believing in freedom of expression than believing that one shouldn't hurt others' feelings, though in point of fact, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly does not give precedence to freedom of speech, but rather wants to "balance" this freedom against other things and generally frowns upon people mocking others' religions rather than "respecting" those beliefs.  I consider this a flaw, but I suppose not a deal-breaker.  (For instance, I am certainly not shedding any tears that Canada has basically banned all members of WBC from entering the country.)

At any rate, there are a number of well-meaning, but, in my opinion, misguided writers who are protesting PEN giving a special Freedom of Expression Courage award to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo next week.  A few of them claim that it just isn't kosher to satirize the powerless (their view of Muslims in France) whereas a smaller group explicitly say that religion should never be mocked.  I generally disagree with the first stance and completely disagree with the second stance, and have no respect for anyone who holds this position (and that certainly includes the current Pope), since it would basically lead to the complete annulment of the Enlightenment (not that we aren't heading in that direction anyway).  Anyway, these various authors have signed an open letter against the award and they have decided to withdraw from the awards dinner, and, who knows, a few might even withdraw from PEN altogether.  Salman Rushdie has been right on the money when he called them 6 Authors in Search of a Bit of Character.  There are quite a number of columns on this controversy in the Guardian, and this is probably the one I got the most from.

At any rate, more writers* joined the ranks of the demurrers (or, frankly, the appeasers):
Chris Abani
Russell Banks
Peter Carey
Teju Cole
Junot Díaz
Deborah Eisenberg
Eve Ensler
Nell Freudenberger
Keith Gessen
Francisco Goldman
Edward Hoagland
Nancy Kricorian
Amitava Kumar
Rachel Kushner
Zachary Lazar
Patrick McGrath
Rick Moody
Lorrie Moore
Joyce Carol Oates
Michael Ondaatje
Raj Patel
Francine Prose
Sarah Schulman
Taiye Selasi
Kamila Shamsie
Wallace Shawn
Charles Simic
Rebecca Solnit
Linda Spalding
Scott Spencer
Chase Twichell
Eliot Weinberger
Jon Wiener
Dave Zirin

I'm really disappointed to see a few writers I used to admire on this list, including Kamila Shamsie, Charles Simic and particularly Michael Ondaatje.  They have their right to their opinion (that the Charlie Hebdo staff weren't deserving of an award), but they will also live with the consequences and potentially lost readership.  I will never have as much respect for them as I once did.  I haven't yet decided if I will completely drop them off my reading list, but I might.  (If only I hadn't recently bought The Cat's Table or wanted to reread In the Skin of a Lion it would be an easier decision.  However, I will definitely no longer read Junot Díaz or Lorrie Moore, who kind of rubbed me the wrong way even before.)  As for the others, I may still read some of their work selectively, but I'll always remember how tentative and qualified their support for true freedom of expression really is.  Of course, the stakes for them are quite low (losing readers like me), but my stakes are even lower (losing an even fewer number of e-readers) if I tee off readers who don't support artists and writers who openly mock religion. I would like to hear Margaret Atwood (Vice-President of PEN International) weigh in on this and specifically on Ondaatje, since I suspect she will take a somewhat grey position (in what is largely a black and white debate) and yet still side with those who are offering the award.  She may ultimately need to make some sort of statement, since she will definitely be asked about it one of these days.

Actually, this is also related to another tempest in a teapot, though one that doesn't seem to have really been reported back in the States much, and that is Toni Morrison has basically gotten so fed up with the many, many deaths of Black people at the hands of the police in recent months that she has sort of lost her mind.  She has said, on record, that “There are two things I want to see in life. One is a white kid shot in the back by a cop. Never happened. The second thing I want to see: a record of any white man in the entire history of the world who has been convicted of raping a black woman. Just one.”  Aside from being completely inflammatory, these things have happened, even if they aren't widely reported.  I'm sorry to say that she seemed no different from the race hustlers that were so much a part of the problem in the 80s and 90s, and I lost a lot of respect for her.  I won't boycott her work, but I simply won't be as open to her later work, since I think she is coming from a place that is unhealthy and more than a little exclusionary.  Literary figures often have feet of clay when you examine them closely, but I was still saddened when I read that quote and realized I would never think about her in quite the same way.

* I guess it isn't surprising, but it is to me demoralizing that more liberal writers have joined the ranks of the PEN dissenters, encouraged by Glenn Greenwald of all people!  They are up to 204 now, and while it is tempting to call them all out, frankly, most of them I had never heard of, so I might as well keep it that way.  I did recognize Eric Bogosian and Michael Cunningham, oh, and Joshua Ferris.  I remember reading Then We Came to the End, which has one of the characters sort of snap and only then ends up sent off to become a sniper in one of the Gulf Wars (ironic that).  I guess I won't be reading his latest novel after all.  I suppose passions will die down and something else will take center stage (particularly in a violence-ridden culture like the US), but I will not forget that these writers do not believe in truly celebrating free speech and I will never respect them as much going forward and for the most part I will be forgoing/ignoring their work.

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