Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor. — Chief Justice William O Douglas
The selector begins, ideally, with a presumption in favor of liberty of thought; the censor does not. The aim of the selector is to promote reading not to inhibit it; to multiply the points of view which will find expression, not limit them; to be a channel for communication, not a bar against it. — Lester Asheim, “Not Censorship but Selection” (Wilson Library Bulletin, 1953)
All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of all censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell. — George Bernard Shaw
Previously I’d written a lengthy essay on my sad experiences with PEN apathy. I sent it to PEN’s own literary journal, PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, for publication consideration. But its editor, M. Mark, did not bother to respond. Then I sent it to The Journal of Information Ethics, which had published some of my essays, but rejected it because: the “reviewer was very reluctant to say no” and “anything less assertive is always welcome.” Global Free Press, however, published it (see www.globalfreepress.org/sections/free-speech/3415-pen-an-ethical-consideration).
In any case, the brouhaha over PEN’s selection of Charlie Hebdo for its Freedom of Expression Courage Award provoked me to write this essay, which I’ve submitted to Mark. Will she respond this time? Doubtfully! First, PEN should be commended for having selected Charlie Hebdo. I certainly commend it. But rather than increase PEN membership, I wish the massacre had instead increased citizen willingness to criticize PEN’s elitist nature and refusal to publish criticism like mine in its literary journal.
Six writers—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi—invited to serve as “literary hosts” decided not to attend the elitist PEN cocktail gala in protest against the award recipient Charlie Hebdo. Contrary to Laura Miller, Salon.com writer… or at least in part. The thinly-veiled reasoning presented by one of the elitist protest writers, former president of PEN America Francine Prose, is indicative:
I admire Charlie Hebdo’s courage. But it does not deserve a PEN award… Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.
So, things that need to be said do NOT include the threat of Islam to democracy and freedom of speech in particular? Prose, since it is at least partly about the latter, does not evoke Sharia law’s prohibition of images of Muhammad, as well as all criticism of Islam. Instead, she dismisses the very important message of clash of civilizations that cost the lives of 10 Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists as “drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.” Yet “crude” is clearly a subjective epithet that serves to deflect from examining the message. And religion must be mocked, especially when it demands submission of intellect or promotes ideas that counter reason and logic. The very term Islam means submission. The massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, unlike Prose, rejected the notion of submission, be it to bourgeois propriety or to the tenets of Sharia law. Another of the elitist protesters, Teju Cole, had dismissed Charlie Hebdo as “racist and Islamophobic provocations.” Criticize Islam and the elitist “literary hosts” would label you racist and Islamophobic, while completely ignoring the facts presented, including the Quran’s call for the extermination of Jews. Ah, but that’s not racist and anti-semitic!
Establishment cartoonist Gary Trudeau had become the first cartoonist to receive Long Island University’s George Polk Award this year because the award was in memory of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Trudeau turned out to be an aberrant choice, who evidently sided with Prose against the cartoonists, chastizing them in his acceptance speech. He argued the dead cartoonists were wrong to mock Islam because doing so was “punching down,” whereas in his viewpoint satire should only “punch up” at the privileged, you know, like the Saudi and Qatari multimillionaire Islamists. Hmm. Nevertheless, stupidity, whether on the part of the privileged or unprivileged, ought to be a valid target of satire. And there’s certainly a lot of stupidity in Islam!
Prior to the PEN and Trudeau brouhahas, as mentioned in my first PEN essay, I was disgusted by PEN’s indifference regarding the punishment of my exercise of freedom of speech by the Academy of American Poets, Festival International de la Poesie de Trois-Rivieres (Canada), Watertown Free Public Library (Watertown, MA), and Sturgis Library (Barnstable, MA). So, I’d decided to depict one of PEN’s cocktail galas for the front cover of issue #28 of The American Dissident and sent it to PEN America’s executive director Suzanne Nossel and PEN New England’s executive director Karen Wulf, both of whom did not respond. Prior to beginning the sketch, however, I’d contacted Nossel with a list of grievances and concerns, especially regarding the literary elitist academic side of PEN, as well as mention of the proposed satirical front cover. She a responded, well, sort of:
George - I am on vacation right now. We are happy to read and absorb your comments, no matter how critical. I am sorry to hear you have found your voice stifled in certain settings and glad to know you've created your own outlet. Best wishes, Suzanne
Yes, so sorry. But that kind of sorry is as vacuous as a politician’s. Does it jive with the charter statement of International PEN?
PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in their country or their community."
Is “sorry” a manifestation of opposition to suppression of freedom of expression? Methinks not!
Clearly, some free expression, although protected by the First Amendment, is simply not condoned or defended by PEN America. It is evident that the academic/literary established order did not approve of free expression that criticized its organizations, icons and firm control over literature in America. It was also oddly evident that PEN America seemed to favor awarding prizes to those attached to that anti-free-expression established-order, including Frank Bidart, who received its poetry prize, and manifested absolute indifference to the Academy of American Poets’ permanent banning of my participation in its forums… when he was an Academy chancellor.
“The PEN Literary Awards bring together writers, editors, and members of the literary community to celebrate the ultimate fruit of free expression: great literature.” But what about those writers and editors NOT of the “literary community”? And how to become a member of that community? Well, the response to that was obvious: play the game of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil PC-expression-only. The “ultimate fruit of free expression” was certainly not academically-approved, promoted, and designated “great literature.” The “ultimate fruit” was rather literature scorned by the elites because it dared criticize the elites. Far more often than not, “great literature” was a subjective—not an objective—term. Far more often than not, that so-called “great literature” was innocuous, hardly at all threatening to the power structure, which designated it “great.” Free expression should not be confused with so-called “great literature.”
The Oak and the Calf was one of the very best books I’d ever read. In it, Solzhenitsyn depicted the literary scene under the Stalinist dictatorship, an odd mirror of today’s literary scene in America, though Americans were rarely arrested and imprisoned for their writing. Instead, they were ostracized into oblivion, that is, if the established order felt offended by the writing. Why did PEN America not focus on that? Why did it not support the few American writers who dared criticize the academics and writers who controlled the literary scene in America, including the pompous chancellors of the Academy of American Poets and the one-percenters of the Poetry Foundation? The answer of course was that PEN had become an integral part of that established order. In essence, the scorners of free expression (academics and literati) had infiltrated and taken control of PEN America… unless, of course, it was always thus. Note that about 150 elitist PEN members have joined the PEN six to protest against the Charlie Hebdo award recipients. Again, how not to compare the scene depicted by Solzhenitsyn with that in America today?
The shrill, vainglorious literature of the establishment—with its dozen fat magazines, its two literary newspapers, its innumerable anthologies, its novels between hard covers, its collected works, its annual prizes, its adaptations for radio of impossibly tedious originals—I had once and for all recognized as unreal, and I did not waste my time or exasperate myself by trying to keep up with it. I knew without looking that there could be nothing of merit in all this. Not because no talent could emerge there—no doubt it sometimes did, but there it perished too. For it was a barren field, that which they sowed. I knew that in such a field nothing could grow to maturity. When they first came to literature they had, all of them—the social novelists, the bombastic playwrights, the civic poets, and needless to say the journalists and critics—joined in an undertaking never, whatever the subject, whatever the issue, to mention the essential truth, the truth that leaps to the eye within no help from literature. This solemn pledge to abstain from truth was called socialist realism. Even writers of love poems, even those lyric poets who had sought sanctuary in nature or in elegant romanticism, were all fatally flawed because they dared not touch the important truths.
Back to Nossel’s vacuous response, what might "read and absorb" really mean in the head of a literary apparatchik? Well, I’d been dealing with PEN's deaf ears for well over a decade, to know that PEN would certainly not absorb what I’d written. Likely PEN personnel were simply far too busy with their cocktail galas of rich-and-famous writers to be bothered contemplating any criticism regarding it, unless of course lodged by rich-and-famous writers like its six “table hosts.” Anyhow, PEN member Salman Rusdie should be commended for manifesting anger against those anti-Charlie protesters. He certainly got it right!
This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well-funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence. These six writers have made themselves the fellow travellers of that project. Very, very bad move.
Finally, rather than put PEN on my to-join list like so many others, I placed my signature instead on Karl “King” Wenclas’ PEN Petition (http://penpetition.blogspot.com) quite a while ago:
WE the undersigned petition PEN American Center in New York to democratize their organization by appointing, as Trustees, not solely writers who are entwined with book companies owned by media monopolies. This includes writers who've dissented against the established U.S. literary mainstream. We ask all writers, from all backgrounds, to sign this Petition, including current PEN members and Trustees, in the interest of realizing the PEN mission, voiced by PEN's Larry Siems, of "bridging intellectual chasms and cultural divides."
PEN was created as an organization to protect and defend dissenting, outcast, and marginalized writers. PEN American Center makes this its mission—except in America itself! In these economic hard times, impoverished writers shut out by the moneyed academies and conglomerates are in worse shape than since the 1930s. Democratizing PEN's board will aid the hope that as a designated charity, PEN's concerns and financial largesse not go to already successful authors like Philip Roth, but to talented writers facing real hardship.
Image Courtesy of chicagotribune.com - Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thore accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage Award by PEN American.
See PEN: An Ethical Consideration: Part I