Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Freedom of Expression

An afternoon walk. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015. It was very warm yesterday in New York and depending on where you were: it was even hot. 84 degrees in midafternoon. But beautiful. Last night at the time of this writing (midnight) it was 71 degrees. Who can complain? Not I.

Rewind. Monday afternoon I had an appointment with a writer on East 46th Street and Second Avenue. When it was finished I thought I’d walk over to First Avenue and take a bus uptown (and save some money). I got over to First Avenue and 46th, which is where the United Nations is, and I discover that the entire avenue from the high 30s to the low 50s is closed to all  traffic and the avenue is lined with police cars.

Looking south from 48th Street and First Avenue (both upper and lower) toward the UN.
The same view from three blocks north.
President Obama is at the UN. The avenue was closed so that he could emerge safely and be driven away.

This happens every time any President comes to town. So I was rather sanguine about it despite the annoyance of not being able to get home quickly. I figured I’d walk until I got up into the mid-50s and then find a cab.

But when I got to 53rd Street, we were not allowed to cross the street also. Because that would be the President’s route (53rd Street going west) and whenever (whenever!!) he got there, it had to be open. I told myself that under the circumstances, I’d at least get the chance to get a fair close glimpse of the Man as he passed by in his limousine.

So I waited around and waited around – another 20 minutes went by – and finally gave up on his showing up. I walked back over to Second Avenue, figuring I’d get a taxi there. Ha! Traffic was entirely gridlocked because the side streets were all closed.

This is what is now called Security in New York. I understand the “need.” I also understand that it has somehow grown to be an industry, a bureaucracy really, all in the name of keeping one person safe from the nameless, faceless threat which it seems the entire population of the planet is facing these days. Everyone except the leaders who are sheltered from the possible storm as best as best can be. It’s not the President’s fault, incidentally, not any of them from Lyndon Johnson on. Because it started with the assassination of JFK and just grew and grew and grew.

Finally, while I was waiting at Second Avenue for the Presidential entourage to speed by, it happened. A corps of motorcycle police. Followed by police trucks, then dozens of black SUVs with flashing red lights and blue lights and white lights, and tinted windows so you couldn’t see who was inside and which one was carrying the leader of the land of freedom and liberty, the “people’s” president. For all we knew, he wasn’t even there in any of the cars. That would have been a smart ploy too, no? Because otherwise we have a situation where probably more than a million people are interrupted in their workaday movement so that one man can safely cross a street in Manhattan. This is both necessary and absurd in the natural order of things.
Finally the Presidential motorcade crosses 53rd Street at approximately 4 p.m.
And so it was. About forty-five minutes from when I began my slow journey up to 83rd Street, President Obama left the UN and went to another part of the city where the hundreds of thousands of citizens had to stop everything – if they were out on the street or in a car or a bus – and wait for the Man to attend his official function, do what he had to do, and move on. Then we could breathe again.

The bad news is that the President of this great country of ours now must be shielded even from the view of The People so that we can’t even see him; and actually can’t know if he’s really there. This is blamed on Security and Fear. And for good reason; they feed off each other, don’t they?

Which leads me to last night. 
At the American Museum of Natural History PEN America held its annual black tie PEN Literary Gala. I’ve been attending this for a number of years, guest of James and Toni Goodale who have been active PEN members for longer than I’ve been attending.

This is the ultimate literary gathering/ gala/philanthropy in the New York world, including some of the most prominent writers in the world today.
These ladies were staffers directing guests to their tables. I didn't have my identifying invitation (there was a lot of security getting into the museum) and the lady on left was joking with me, suggesting I should be photographed. I said I hate to be photographed (true). She said: I do too, and then the lady on the right said she did too. Then I pulled out my camera and said, well it's all over now; and we had a good laugh.
They were honoring Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House; playwright/author Tom Stoppard; Irina Balakhonova, founder of the Russian children’s book publishing house Samokat; the staff of Charlie Hebdo with the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award; and the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award to Khadija Ismayilova. Ms. Ismayilova is an Azerbaijian journalist whose hard-hitting investigations revealed corruption at the highest level of power in Azerbaijian. Jail (which is where  Ms. Ismayilova is and has been for the past year). Fear. And Security. For Mr. Big and his Big Boys.
Gérard Biard, editor of Charlie Hebdo, James Goodale, Toni Goodale, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret of Charlie Hebdo.
Andrew Solomon, Gérard Biard, Suzanne Nossel, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret.
Francoise Mouly, Art Spiegelman, Gérard Biard, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, and Salman Rushdie.
Art Spiegelman, Gérard Biard, Bob Mankoff, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret.
This year’s gala had the biggest crowd in the Milstein Hall of Oceans (with the blue whale hanging above us). They raised $1.4 million which may be a record. It’s a bit of a glittery crowd too  – or what’s left of it – mixed with many famous writers, editors, publishers, business people; and right (as in “good”) thinking men and women who know how to read and are glad of it.

The distinguished author Andrew Solomon is the new president of PEN and he opened the evening. This was followed by the presentations. Which included modest and charming words from the beautiful Glenn Close who introduced Tom Stoppard.

There were brief interruptions for the dinner portion and then the awards resumed with the Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, and then the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Glenn Close introducing playwright Tom Stoppard, one of the evening's honorees.
The playwright honoree Tom Stoppard.
Charlie Hebdo film critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoret giving his acceptance speech.
So it was an evening of speeches, few of which were brief. I’ve seen many audiences/gala guests fall off into roaring table conversation when the speeches extend beyond five minutes -- a vast verbal miasma, oblivious to any single speaker up there on the podium. Last night was not the case. People were listening. The subject is growing more intense for all of us.

The point of the evening was that the freedom to write, to express opinion is a natural right for all us human beings. We all know this but also often lose contact with its reality. The point of last night’s gathering, was to address that reality for all of us.
Gérard Biard, editor of Charlie Hebdo, giving his acceptance speech.
There was much said to think about for all of us. But Gérard Biard, the editor of Charlie Hebdo spoke eloquently about that reality and cast its light on the world we are now living in. His words sum up the tone of the evening eloquently and to the point:

First of all I would like to apologize for my very imperfect, even quite poor English, unworthy of this assembly. I first had in mind to do this speech in French, but I thought twice and decided to do it in English, even if it makes me look like an illiterate. It's my first time in New York. I didn't want to spoil it with French arrogance. Besides, it gives me an excellent excuse to make it short.

One more clarification. I absolutely swear to you, I did not use one of these absurd internet translators, which make you look like a man from the future, speaking a language not yet invented. All the words you are about to hear, even the inappropriate ones, especially the inappropriate ones, are mine.

Now it's time to be as little more serious. Jean-Baptiste and I are very proud to be here and to receive this prestigious award. Thank you so much.

I would like to say a few words about us, about Charlie Hebdo.

Before the 7th of January, we were a team of journalists, columnists and cartoonists. Producing a little satirical newspaper most parts of the world ignored – except when the prophet Mohammed jumped out of news – a little newspaper with less than twenty thousand readers and only eight thousand subscribers.

Our concern was finding a way to survive and to go on while facing continual accusations of being provocative and offensive – but it's the function of satire, being provocative and offensive, is it not? We even were portrayed as racists, although Charlie Hebdo has always fought all forms of racism since the very beginning.

Suddenly, in one half an hour of blood-splattered violence, we became a global symbol, the incarnation of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. We became acclaimed heroes. I can tell you this: it's pretty hard to deal with it. Because, before this slaughter, we felt quite alone. And because our job is not to be a symbol, it is to write and draw, to give our readers, each week, a newspaper full of laughter and thought.

We can't be the only ones to symbolize values that belong to everyone. Besides, it's dangerous. It's dangerous for us, because we are in the front line, and it's dangerous for democracy. Each citizen of the world must adopt these values and stand up for them, against political and religious obscurantism.

The more we are, the weaker they are. Fear is the most powerful weapon they have. We must disarm them. They don't want us to write and draw, we must write and draw. They don't want us to think and laugh, we must think and laugh. They don't want us to debate, we must debate. Being here today, we contribute to disarming them.

One more word about one of the values we stand for and we particularly cherish at Charlie Hebdo: secularism. It's not an F word. Nor is it a French cultural exception like smelly cheese or flabby presidents. It's one of the many conditions for democracy. Secularism protects our freedom of conscience which is both the right to believe and the right to not believe.

More important, secularism keeps religion away from political power. Because the law of God, claiming itself as unquestionable and unchanging, cannot be part of political debate. In a democracy, all laws are discussed and may be changed. We must remember one thing: countries where religious minorities are discriminated against and persecuted are often religious states.

Each day, the news shows us what religion can do when it deals in politics.

I will conclude with a few precision (sic) about the prophet Mohammed and blasphemy. In France, as well as in many other democratic countries, blasphemy is not a crime or an offense. Religious ideas, symbols, practices, and leaders, are no more than ideas, symbols, practices, and leaders.

Just like others ideas, symbols, practices and leaders, they can be mocked and challenged. Mocking the prophet or an imam is not insulting all Muslims. What about atheist Muslims? What about Muslims who blaspheme? All believers blaspheme. What about Muslims who prefer to live in a democratic and secular state rather than in a religious dictatorship? I think they are many.

I perfectly understand that a believer can be shocked by a satirical cartoon about Mohammed, Jesus, Moses or even the Pope. But growing up to be a citizen, is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking.

Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.