Ever since Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, and then finished their murder spree by targeting and killing Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris, it was clear a certain sector of the politically correct left was uncomfortable with the identity of the victims. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau and writer Teju Cole, among others, didn’t like linking the cause of free speech with offensive material, which free-speech laws and norms exist to protect in the first place. (Popular speech needs no bodyguard.) Some, like the historian Karen Armstrong, preferred to excuse anti-Semitic extremism as an expected reaction to disagreeable Israeli policies. And now the liberal backlash against Charlie Hebdo has taken a new, dispiriting turn.

As the New York Times reports, the PEN American Center had decided to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo at its May 5 event. Organizers have now been taken aback by the sudden reaction of six of the event’s “literary hosts” just a couple weeks before the dinner. Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn their participation.

Of these, Cole was perhaps the least surprising. And the general lack of coherence among this cohort has been interesting not least because it’s shown how difficult a task they have made for themselves in seeking to make those who murder writers and Jews for the crime of free expression the real underdogs. (David Frum’s piece on this in the Atlantic is essential reading.)

But it also tells you something about the liberal crackup. Glenn Greenwald posted correspondence and statements of those involved in the controversy, and Cole’s is particularly noteworthy for what it says about dogmatic leftists’ inability to make their worldview make sense. In part, Cole said:

I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular. L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.

I would rather honor Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning, who have also paid steeply for their courage, but whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s. I would like an acknowledgement of the Kenyan students who were murdered for no greater crime than being college students. And, if we are talking about free speech, I would rather PEN shed more light on the awful effects of governmental spying in the US, and the general issue of surveillance.

A couple things jump out. First of all, you knew you were in for trouble when Cole began a sentence with “I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but… .” Second, does the fact that Charlie Hebdo’s work was of a less elevated literary quality than that of Salman Rushdie mean the former cannot lay claim to the transgression of “blasphemy”? For his part, Rushdie himself correctly points out that Cole et al. have no idea what they’re talking about:

“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,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Indeed. Liberals have apparently graduated from telling Muslims what is and isn’t truly Islamic to telling Muslims (and their victims) what is and isn’t blasphemy. According to the left, blasphemy is not a religious term so much as it just shouldn’t be applied to people who draw yucky pictures. This is, to say the least, a standard that bodes poorly for those who truly do support free speech. Where are their allies going to come from if not from free-speech organizations?

And there’s also something quite hilarious in the don’t-worry-Rushdie-you’re-still-good defensiveness in the anti-Charlie Hebdo group. That may be true today, but for how long will it continue to be true? At what point will the left finally throw Rushdie under that bus? Because that moment is coming, and I suspect everyone knows it.

The other word that jumped out at me from Cole’s statement was “progressive.” He’d rather honor, he said, someone “whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie’s.” So now to be a martyr for free speech you have to not only be a blasphemer without falling into the ever-changing and elastic category of racism, but you also must be “much more progressive” than a lowbrow satirical French publication.

Salman Rushdie is on the right side of the line–for now. But that line is moving, and not in the direction of free speech.

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