Our mission is to advance the cause of literature and reading in our region and to defend free expression everywhere. - PEN New England
The obligation to choose either the left or the right and to be politically correct has replaced independent thinking; if the voice of the writer is not swept into the global chorus, and if he fails to give his allegiance to a political party, he will be marginalized. - Gao Xingjian, “Literature as Testimony: the Search for Truth”
Most of my criticism and satire have been directed unequivocally against academe and its literary established order. It is my contention that, contrary to its assertion, PEN does not defend free expression everywhere and, in fact, manifests with that regard viewpoint discrimination and is not therefore an organization of ethical integrity.
Should one be surprised that a tenured professor, founder of Suffolk University Poetry Center, and former chairman of PEN New England cannot fathom Gao Xingjian’s above statement, to which one ought to add “if he also fails to avoid being critical of the literary established order, he will be marginalized.”
The professor in question is Fred Marchant. And by naming him here I transgress yet another implicit taboo: naming names. Marchant would at first not respond to my criticism. Non-response tends, after all, to be the accepted modus operandi of most academics when criticized by an outsider. However, he found himself forced to respond after I’d contacted the editor of his university’s student newspaper, which interviewed him regarding my criticism and published his and my comments (see http://www.suffolkjournal.net/2012/06/8454/).
“Slone may have a grudge against an organization,” Marchant argued, “but denying a request doesn’t make an organization ‘democracy-adverse,’ these claims are deeply inaccurate and disqualify him as a speaker for us.” Yet PEN New England didn’t “deny” a request. It refused to respond one way or the other. And Marchant knows that. Note how the tactical term “grudge” is used to undermine and otherwise dismiss anything and everything I might have expressed. Note also how Marchant argues all my “claims” to be “deeply inaccurate” without even having examined any of them. How does a professor get away with such shoddy analysis?
Sadly, the student journalist who’d interviewed him did not ask that question. All she did was note: “As Marchant scrolled through the organizations listed, he was baffled to see Pen New England among them.” How could Marchant possibly argue my claims to be “deeply inaccurate” by simply scrolling down a list? And indeed rather than respond cogently to my grievance against PEN New England’s absolute refusal to respond to any of my correspondence, he completely diverts attention away from it: “Pen, which has chapters all around the world, was originally founded during the Cold War to help imprisoned writers express their ideas. Their core ideal is to preserve the freedom to write.”
Yes, “freedom to write,” but of course not at Marchant’s Poetry Center! “We believe in free speech,” he told the student journalist. “Slone’s speech is not censored, he has a platform to say what he wishes on his blog.”
Perhaps not censored, but definitely “marginalized.” The question of course remains intact, despite Marchant’s feeble attempt to eliminate it: why does PEN New England refuse to respond to my correspondence? Why does PEN New England not care at all, for example, that I, a New England writer, was permanently trespassed without warning or possibility of due process from publicly-funded Sturgis Library (Barnstable, MA) for having simply written and disseminated two open letters critical of the library directors in the Clams Library System of Cape Cod? That question remains unanswered.
PEN, as Marchant noted, was founded with a noteworthy purpose. And it does possess a somewhat glorious reputation. But today many of its members and administrators are well-off writers and academics with sinecure, who probably would not have supported PEN’s early purpose of helping writers punished mostly under left-wing fascist, communist regimes.
And what about “marginalized” writers here in America? PEN’s prison-writing program helped prisoners express themselves. But what about others not in prison? PEN, for example, was surely not “advancing the cause” of my literary expression. As mentioned, PEN New England had proven entirely apathetic to my grievances of restricted free expression in New England and elsewhere in America, yet I was a New England poet, writer, and editor. Was my literature too critical and too close to home for those manning the PEN helm, including chancellor-professor poets Frank Bidart and Robert Pinsky of the Academy of American Poets, which had indeed censored and banned me from participating in its online forums (for the censored transcript, see www.theamericandissident.org/orgs/academy_american_poets.html)?
The problem with PEN today is its deep roots in Academe. The office of PEN New England, for example, was located at Lesley University and now at MIT. In the name of “free expression everywhere,” one had to wonder, given the known abhorrence of university business-minded administrators and most professors to open no-holds-barred debate and criticism, to what extent such expression might be restricted with their regard. To see just how anti-free speech many of America’s colleges and universities are, examine the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In fact, Pinsky’s own employer, Boston University, has a deplorable free-speech record (see http://thefire.org/spotlight/search/?schoolname=boston+university&spotlight=search) and, as far as I know, Pinsky has been doing nothing at all to rectify that situation.
My raising such the academic-connection question to Karen Wulf, Executive Director of PEN New England, was in itself obviously unacceptable. Her silence proved the point. In fact, questioning and challenging PEN, in general, was unacceptable and simply not done, at least not by writers of the established order. What truly irked me was PEN’s self-glorifying and egregiously hypocritical statement: “defending free expression everywhere.”
Indeed, with such a statement, how could PEN possibly justify its complete lack of response to my correspondence? The answer to that question was perhaps a simple one. In all likelihood, politically-correct academics, entirely intolerant to criticism of the left, controlled organizations like PEN, the Academy of American Poets, American Library Association, National Endowment for the Arts, state cultural councils, publicly-funded libraries, and the ACLU. As for the latter, Wendy Kaminer’s Worst Instincts constitutes a more than convincing denunciation. It is likely that what Kaminer state’s regarding the ACLU sadly applies to PEN:
None dare call it censorship. Liberal advocates of banning "hate speech" or other forms of incivility tend to regard censorship as a conservative vice, despite their own embrace of it. They assert their respect for free speech by denning it narrowly: "Free speech doesn't include hate speech" or the right to "offend," they insist nonsensically—as if we'd need free speech guarantees to protect the right not to offend. Restraints on speech are also cloaked in the therapeutic rhetoric of tolerance, sensitivity, psychic safety, or civility. Appropriately, perhaps, the liberal romance with censorship is a love that dare not speak its name.
PEN council members acted as censors (viewpoint discriminators) or, at best, subtle supporters of censorship. Of course, council members would not call it censorship, preferring any number of euphemisms. I’d love to get their opinion here, but they simply refused to respond with that regard. Likely, they behaved in the same manner as the staff of the New York Times, perceiving censorship as “we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.” “Moderation decisions” sounds a lot better than censorial ones. “By screening submissions, we have created a space where readers can exchange intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information,” noted the Times. In other words, anything arbitrarily deemed not to be “intelligent and informed commentary” would simply be censored, uh, moderated. From that, one might extrapolate to PEN. After all, how could “intelligent and informed commentary” be critical of PEN, its literary luminaries, and other apparatchik administrators? Why else would PEN New England not respond to my correspondence?
Having just read an article by Chinese dissident Ma Jian, I thought of PEN and decided to write an open letter to about a dozen or so staff members and post it on my blog site in the hope that perhaps one or several would actually respond, and not in the polite bureaucratic non-response sense, but in the sense of sincere appreciation for vigorous debate, cornerstone of a thriving democracy. How wrong I was to be hopeful! Not one of them deigned to address my concerns and criticisms—the very same silence I I’d usually received when I’d criticized academics.
My disillusion with PEN began sometime after my invitation to the Festival International de la Poésie de Trois-Rivières (Québec, Canada) in 2001, where, as a rare dissident poet I was asked to present a poem by a dead dissident poet in the context of the PEN reading segment of the Festival. Thus, I chose a poem by Kenule Saro-Wiwa, translated it into French, and read it. To test the waters of democracy—perhaps that should be the principle “job” of a poet and academic—, during the Festival, I also composed and read highly critical poems regarding the Festival’s organizers, especially Gaston Bellemare, who, for example, had expressly prohibited, to my utter amazement, invited poets from debating poetry at the Festival.
Le Nouvelliste, the local daily, refused to print my alternative viewpoints. Le Devoir censored, uh, moderated, my online comments regarding the hagiographic piece it published on Bellemare years later. My poems were also highly critical of the invited poets, who’d chosen money and networking opportunities over speaking truth to power. Present were 150 publicly-remunerated poets. Sadly, for freedom of expression in Quebec, I ended up “marginalized” and would never again be invited back to the publicly-funded Festival. Several years later I wrote Peter Meyer, Director of Literary Programs, PEN Literary Awards, mentioning, amongst other things, the Festival and my thoughts on PEN:
Of course the ineluctable problem with your awards is that a poet, essayist, and/or editor might not even be known to you and yours because of the near impossibility of publication and distribution of highly dissident works here in the USA. As you are aware, the publishing industry tends to largely reward diversionary writing, as do the nation's public libraries (e.g., Harry Potter). The small radical press tends to prefer publishing orthodox liberal works. I abhor orthodox anything. The literary journal that I have been publishing and editing for over eight years now is stuck in its microscopic niche and can be found in only three libraries across the nation. Of course, you've never heard of it. My fear with Pen Club is that it is now an old organization and run by tenured-academic types who would never consider my work because it is highly critical of them. In America (and no doubt elsewhere), Academe rejects any outside criticism of itself. […] So, why should I become a member of YOUR club?
Meyer did not respond, but one of his underlings did:
Many thanks for your message. I believe you are referring to the Nora Magid Award. This award is given only via internal nomination by a PEN member. In general, the guidelines [sic] and requirements for all our awards are on our web site: www.pen.org. Best wishes, Andrew
“Internal nomination”! Certainly, that’s an effective way of keeping criticism at bay. In 2004, I wrote PEN (John Morrone) regarding its “international work with writers, especially those who are enduring state-sponsored censorship.”
Well, I sure as hell think I'm being censored in America by the whole Academic/Literary Industrial Complex, which, no doubt, supports PEN. Isn't that odd? The Complex tends to reject/censor automatically any poetry, essay or novel that criticizes it. Having just read The Oak and the Calf, I cannot help but perceive evident parallels between Solzhenitsyn's banging his head against the brick wall of the Soviet Academic/Literary Industrial Complex and my personal experience here in America. What thinkest thou?
Needless to say, Morrone did not respond. On another occasion, I wrote PEN America to, amongst other things, denounce the Festival International de la Poesie de Trois-Rivieres. It responded with hollow empathy:
In general, we at the PEN America Center have no involvment [sic] with events that take place in Canada. It sounds like your experience has been unfortuanate [sic].
It also responded regarding my query on becoming a member: “Regrading [sic] your query about joining PEN, currently membership is by nomination (either internal or external) and is entirely voluntary.”
So, how to get nominated? Brown-nose an academic writer like Robert Pinsky? How not to be nominated? Be openly critical and exercise “free expression” regarding PEN and/or its academic-writer members like Frank Bidart? Closed-circuit clubs were indeed strange.
In 2005, being uninsured, I looked up health insurance on the Internet and again examined PEN Club membership, since it offered insurance to members. But it was expensive. As usual, I’d signed as editor of The American Dissident. As usual, PEN expressed no interest whatsoever with that regard (i.e., dissidence in America). Several years later—I was quite persistent—, I wrote PEN Quebec to denounce the Festival International de la Poesie. Martel, its president didn’t respond. I then composed the following poem and sent it to him.
Poème pour M. Emile Martel, Président
du Pen Club, Québec Centre
et pour mettre au défi
pour parler librement
et pour s’exprimer ainsi
et le stylo
pour dénoncer le
pour son silence
et sa complicité—
vive l’autocratie littéraire !
il était une fois
que j’étais debout là
pour lire d’intrépides vers
contre la flaccidité
—par les gérants
j’étais debout là
pour lire contre leur autocratie
et ce serait la dernière fois
qu’ils m'y inviteraient
or, les gérants du Pen
des années après
continuent à fréquenter
ce Festival International
comme si rien ne l’était
comme si les gérants
Again, Martel didn’t respond. So, I wrote him a final email, which of course met with the same deafening SILENCE.
T’es-tu mort ou vivant ? Comment restes-tu muet devant mes accusations vis-à-vis de Gaston Bellemare et la façon autocratique qu’il gère son Festival International à Trois-Rivières ? En 2001, j’y ai été invité et ai lu des poèmes de Saro-Wiwa dans le contexte du Pen Club. Si j’avais su, j’aurais lu le poème que je t’ai envoyé il y a déjà quelques mois. Mais pourquoi vous acceptez nonchalamment la situation corrompue là ou le débat est même défendu ? Réponds-moi au nom de la démocratie et du débat vigoureux, sa pierre angulaire ! Ou est-ce que t’es simple fonctionnaire culturel ? Est-ce possible au Pen Club ?
Eventually, I also queried PEN America about obtaining a grant for The American Dissident, but received no response with that regard.
How about giving me a small grant so that I might propagate my literary journal? You will note that my journal is certainly more in line with PEN’s purpose of “defending free expression everywhere,” than previous grantee "Honorees" Askold Melnyczuk (Agni), Herbert Liebowitz (Parnassus), Wendy Lesser (Threepenny Review), Stanley W. Lindberg (Georgia Review), and Peter Stitt (Gettysburg Review). In fact, none of those journals would permit my criticism in their precious pages. Thank you for your attention.
PEN also published a literary journal, PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, which was named one of the Ten Best New Magazines by Library Journal, which refuses to even review The American Dissident. With that regard, one of its reviewers, Steve Black, wrote:
LJ has me review periodicals that are new or that have been recently redesigned or renamed. It doesn't seem that American Dissent [sic] falls into those 2 categories, but you're welcome to send a sample to my editor [i.e., Anna Katterjohn, Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review] and ask her to consider it, anyway.
So I wrote Katterjohn. But she never responded. The circle was indeed a vicious one. Work form PEN’s journal had been selected for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize, whereas I wrote and published essays (and sketched cartoons) highly critical of both of the latter. In any event and to no avail, I challenged PEN’s literary journal.
"Members only" and "high literary standards and taste" stinks of academe! It sure does not reflect the stereotype of Pen Club as an organization devoted to the First Amendment and writers ostracized and otherwise persecuted for exercising it. You need to better reflect that noble raison d'etre in your literary journal. You need to reserve a section in that journal for American writers who have been ostracized (by academic and pseudo-academic journals and publishers) for exercising their First Amendment rights AND duties. Otherwise, what is the point of your literary journal if not to simply echo unoriginally the large bulk of academic lit journals flooding the nation with diversionary high-brow oligarchic entertainment? Pen Club is now on my website... in a negative light.
In 2008 and 2009, I wrote Karen Wulf, Executive Director of PEN New England, regarding a number of newer concerns, including:
1. the outright censorship of my comments by moderators of the Academy of American Poets and banning of my participation in its forums;
2. the new regulation by the Concord Cultural Council prohibiting public funding to any project it deemed of a “political nature,” enacted because of my “free expression” political grant proposals;
3. the prohibiting of my flyers at the Concord Visitors Center by the Concord Chamber of Commerce;
4. the prohibiting of my teaching a course on dissident writers at the Concord Poetry Center because, well, I chose to express myself freely; and
5. the prohibiting of my flyers at Walden Pond State Reservation and my protest by its entrance against the absence of “free expression.”
Unoriginally for PEN, Wulf chose not to respond at all. As mentioned, several PEN council members, Bidart and Pinsky, were Academy chancellors and had proven entirely indifferent to the Academy’s eradication of my “free expression” on its website in direct contradiction to the policy Bidart and Pinsky were supposed to be upholding as PEN council members. Moreover, Pinsky was the Honorary Chair of the Thoreau Farm Trust’s campaign to preserve the Concord birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, yet didn’t give a damn about Walden Pond’s prohibition of my protest flyers on its grounds. Was the Academy of American Poets feeding PEN money? As for Joan Houlihan, director of the Concord Poetry Center, who teaches English courses at Lesley University, home of PEN New England, she wrote aberrantly that
The idea of your teaching a workshop or a delivering a lecture on the art of literary protest or poetry protest, or simply protest (Concord is where it all started!) occurred to me even before you mentioned it, so, yes, it's something I will consider as we progress (this is only our first event). However, I must say I don't favor having you teach at the center if you protest the reading.
Of course, I chose protest over teaching opportunity. And for that I became persona non grata at the Concord Poetry Center… and PEN New England. It was indeed a small world, as they said. PEN members like Wulf, Pinsky and Bidart, like our corrupt financiers, need to be held accountable. They constitute a blight on democracy in America, especially since they prop themselves up as democracy’s purported defenders. With their regard, how not to think of Ma Jian’s statement: “The idealistic writers who marched through the streets in 1989 are now luminaries of the literary establishment. The Chinese Writers' Association has provided them with villas in the countryside equipped with saunas and gyms, and almost limitless expense accounts.”
Perhaps Wulf, Pinsky, Bidart, and others had never been idealistic and never marched anywhere at all. But the NEA, university and diverse foundations had certainly provided them with villas, etc. Being a harsh critic of poets, writers, editors and academics in America, I now find myself ostracized and unable to find full-time employment as a professor of English. When employed at American colleges and universities, I tended to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson). For that, I now find myself at the end of the employment line. On several occasions, I’d yet criticized another academic PEN-luminary, Virginia Tech’s Nikki Giovanni, for the following racist, PC-statement she made and perhaps continues to make in her classes:
Black students will inevitably run into some white classmates who are troubling because they often say stupid things; ask stupid questions, and expect an answer.
Reverse that statement and find yourself in the PC-jailhouse! Giovanni of course chose to remain silent regarding the satirical cartoon I’d sent her with that regard. Note also that her College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences—and no doubt she had a major influence—sought to threaten freedom of conscience, which is constitutionally protected, via a proposed policy of evaluating a faculty member's worthiness for promotion and tenure with "special attention" to the candidate's "involvement in diversity initiatives.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education challenged that policy: “This emphasis requires faculty to adopt fundamental viewpoints with which they might not agree in order to be eligible for promotion and tenure.” How, one must ask, could PEN embrace a writer like Giovanni who actively seeks to limit the freedom of expression of her own colleagues?
Finally, Ma Jian wrote: “A savvy young Chinese writer who spoke in London recently was asked about his views on the Tiananmen massacre. He said with a self-satisfied smirk that he was asleep in bed when it took place, and that he never joined the marches because he found them exhausting. There is a word in Chinese that describes this attitude: xiaosa. It means imperturbable, detached, nonchalant. This carefree denial of the meaningful role of an artist in society is a blight that inflicts great numbers of China's unofficial cultural elite.”
With that regard, how not to think of America’s OFFICIAL cultural elite (e.g., multimillionaires Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Robert Pinsky, and Gary Snyder), funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and promoted by, amongst others, the Library of Congress, censoring Academy of American Poets, and PEN? Hopefully, Ma Jian would become aware of the hypocrisy here in America before some American university ended up purchasing his soul. Indeed, American universities were quite adept at the art of soul purchasing. Think of Beatniks Ginsberg and Snyder, as well as dissident foreigners Yevtushenko, Wole Soyinka, and Dennis Brutis. It was an easy thing for “internationally acclaimed writers” advertised on PEN America’s website like Soyinka, Gordimer, and Coetzee, to decry the incarceration of writers abroad, but a very difficult one for them to decry the killers of “freedom of expression” who were feeding them, including the universities employing them and, in America, the NEA, Academy of American Poets, and any number of other official cultural organizations dishing out the accolades to them.
They reaped money from public grants, private foundations, and universities and were thus beholding to a certain politesse, taste, and aesthetics and especially to a certain turning of a blind eye. Yet should that define the writers we’re supposed to admire? Why didn’t the likes of Wulf, Pinsky, Giovanni, and Bidart cherish, encourage, and defend vigorous debate, democracy’s cornerstone? “Defending free expression everywhere,” except here or there and especially when it might be offensive or when it might be considered impolite or when it wasn’t in good bourgeois taste or academic aesthetics or when it might be considered un-PC, or should I rather say un-Pinsky? Was that how it worked at PEN? If so, indeed, there was little point at all in any of those elite PEN members to ever respond to my critique. After all, what could Wulf or the others possibly have replied in defense of their purported goal of “defending free expression everywhere”? How much inherent corruption had she witnessed at Lesley University? How much self-censorship had Lesley professors engaged in, willingly or not? How much had Wulf herself engaged in… under the banner, of course, of “free expression everywhere”? Indeed, how could she possibly have responded to my correspondence? Evidently, PEN had been co-opted like the ACLU, digested, and spit out as a partially fraudulent cud by the reigning established order dressed in academic regalia.
The pomp and pretense, not to mention the Orwellian inanity, really did viscerally disgust me. How had writers gotten so bourgeois in America? What monstrous Faustian Pact mill had been churning them out? In the name of free expression and diversity of ideas, my challenges met with silence. My request that PEN New England include The American Dissident on its list of online resources next to Agni, which stood at direct antipodes to it, met with silence and thus was refused. How to shake PEN directors and sous-directors from their well-remunerated stupor?
More recently, as mentioned in the beginning of this essay, PEN New England refused to respond to my grievance, regarding the harsh treatment received from a publicly-funded library for two critical letters to the library directors in the Clams Library System of Cape Cod in a last ditch effort to get just one of them to subscribe to The American Dissident. Also, I tried in vain to make them understand the grotesque hypocrisy of their collection development policy, in particular:
The library’s own policy stipulates “Libraries should challenge censorship […].”
Yet Sturgis Library banned my flyers over a year ago and even rejected a free subscription offer.
The library’s own policy stipulates “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view”.
Yet Sturgis Library banned The American Dissident “point of view” and now even permanently banned me for expressing a point of view in writing.
Not one of those 25 directors responded. Well, one of them did. Lucy Loomis of Sturgis Library called three police officers to have me permanently trespassed without warning or due process. Why would PEN be so indifferent to that? Interestingly, the ACLU of Massachusetts agreed to look into the library action, called the library director, but then refused to explain why it decided not to take the case.
“There is little need for literary censors these days,” noted Ma Jian, regarding Communist China. “The writers have learnt to do a proficient job of censoring themselves.” With that regard, how not to think of America and American writers too? Why does PEN America avoid that egregious reality? In a sense, it seemed to act as a propaganda arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Ivory Tower by pointing always to injustice overseas, while mostly ignoring it here and, especially, in Academe, where many if not most of its council members were employed. It possessed a Freedom to Write and International Programs Director, but not a National Programs Director. PEN needed to open its council, not simply to friends of friends of friends with dubious established-order laurels and prizes, but also to hardcore dissidents apt to question and challenge the council itself.
Several years ago, an earlier version of this essay was sent to PEN New England and PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, both of which did not respond. It was then sent to the Journal of Information Ethics, whose editor informed that the “reviewer was very reluctant to say no” and “anything less assertive is always welcome.”
Go figure, as my ma used to say.
G. Tod Slone is a GFP Editorial Cartoonist – click here for more of his work, his bio and links.
PEN: An Ethical Consideration: Part II