Last year PEN Center America gave an award to the staff of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, some of whom were murdered in an attack by terrorists enraged by mockery of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims. The award inspired some but also created a backlash among many members of the free-speech group who considered much of the magazine’s work bigoted or otherwise toxic.
In the year since, the worlds of academia, literature and comedy have been roiled with heated discussion about “political correctness.” Does it exist, is it really that bad and does it cause well-meaning people to avoid saying important things?
On Wednesday night, PEN Center USA — the Los Angeles branch of the group, representing writers west of the Mississippi — celebrated free speech its own way. This meant a greater emphasis on glamour than in most recent years, a strong presence of Hollywood talent and, it turned out, a pretty unambiguous statement in favor of free expression and against political correctness. If the writers, journalists and others seated at the three dozen or so tables at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel objected to a hard line for free speech, they kept it to themselves.
The awards started out on a pretty bold note, with actor Sean Penn giving an award to outspoken television host Bill Maher. A reasonably restrained Penn favored alliterative praise, calling Maher “a challenging citizen of allegiance” and someone who shows “the searing skepticism of citizenship.” Maher, he said, “never gives us a break, and he never gives us bullshit.” The “Real Time” host, he said, is “entirely unafflicted by the curse of people pleasing.”
When Maher accepted the group’s First Amendment Award, he lived up to his billing, pivoting from the praise to denunciations of Donald Trump (“a vile nincompoop . . . a Dorito-colored douchebag”) as well as what he called “the tyranny of social justice warriors.”
Maher turned to one of his favorite subjects: the way liberals and progressives step around the violence of Islamic fanatics. He dove directly into the Charlie Hebdo controversy, saying he was “shocked and disgusted” by the way some writers responded. “If you can’t condemn the murderers instead of the murdered,” he said, you should not belong to a free-speech organization. “You can’t be a prude at the nudist colony.”
Co-hosts (and spouses) comedian David Cross and actress and writer Amber Tamblyn offered mostly light-hearted banter between serious speeches by authors and journalists. One of those came from Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who spent 18 months in an Iranian prison cell, who spoke about the importance of remembering “all those journalists who’ve been killed, disappeared or otherwise silenced.”
Perhaps the most surprising speech of the night came from Winona Ryder, the Gen X icon who is experiencing a career revival because of her role in Netflix series “Stranger Things.” The petite, intense actress spoke about the way the Nixon administration went after psychologist and drug experimenter Timothy Leary and her father, a bohemian intellectual who served as Leary’s archivist. It was this same crew, she said, that assisted 1973’s CIA-backed coup of Chile, which deposed democratically elected president Salvador Allende, who killed himself, and led to the arrival of the brutal Augusto Pinochet. (“Who’s this guy?” Ryder said of Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state in the administration of President Richard Nixon. “Why isn’t he in jail?”)
Ryder told the story by way of introducing Isabel Allende, a cousin of the Chilean leader and the author of novels like “The House of the Spirits.” Allende did not shy from the theme of the evening. “Let me tell you that self-censorship can be worse than censorship. That’s how terrorism works,” she said. “I am fed up with the politically correct bullshit!”