PEN American Center’s report “Chilling Effects,” officially released Tuesday morning, offers some disturbing data about the effect of government surveillance on free expression and self-censorship in the literary world. Of more than 520 American writers surveyed, 16% have avoided writing or speaking on what they consider controversial topics, and 11% “have considered doing so.”
The percentages are even higher when it comes to phone or email conversations and social media, which is increasingly part of the writers’ toolbox.
But while I have no doubt that surveillance by the National Security Agency and other entities has cast a chill on free expression, or that our communications are routinely monitored, the real issue raised by “Chilling Effects” has to do with courage. What, in other words, is the matter with these writers?
Literature, after all, is supposed to be a risky business. It asks us to dig in, to think about what we really feel and have experienced, to explore the complexities, the nuances, the gray areas, what we long for, what we dread.
The most important writers have often been the troublemakers: Walt Whitman, William S. Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Swift. These authors were not curtailing their material out of fear of being targeted; they were saying what they had to say, political or otherwise, challenging the pieties, the kneejerk verities, by which we would otherwise still be defined.
I think of Thomas Paine, who, in 1776, had to publish “Common Sense” anonymously, so insurrectionary was its argument. Or Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” played an essential role in the abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War. And then, there’s Radclyffe Hall, John Rechy, Paul Monette, whose books helped bring gay culture into the mainstream of contemporary life.
“We are all Salman Rushdie; we are all Anne Frank,” Monette told me a few years before he died of AIDS in February 1995. “It’s not so much that we bear the burden of history as we are the vessels of history. And we must make sure that their eloquence is not forgotten, and somehow achieve an eloquence fine enough to reach our own people, and to tell the future who we are.”
Vessels of history, yes; that’s one of the key benefits books offer, the ability to talk across generations, to see the progress of our perceptions, our ideas. How do they do this? By putting us directly into the minds of their creators, exposing us to their beliefs, their emotions, the way they experience the world.
It’s a marvelous thing, but revolutionary also, for at its heart resides the acknowledgment that no two people approach their lives in exactly the same way. Once you understand this, it’s only a small leap to the idea that everything is relative, that the status quo, all our received notions of what constitutes propriety, is neither right nor wrong, but just a single path.
That’s why censorship is so insidious — because it breaks the faith of free expression. And no censorship is more troubling than self-censorship because it makes us complicit in the very thing that we, as writers, are most supposed to stand against.
I’m not saying that books can’t be dangerous; indeed, this is part of their appeal. As a kid, I was drawn to literature for precisely this reason: because it opened me up to a way of thinking, a way of feeling, that I might not otherwise have encountered, occasionally at great cost to myself.
Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t bad books, venal books, books that speak to the worst in us, that play off our prejudices and our fears. “Mein Kampf,” “The Turner Diaries,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” all do these things — and yet, I would defend their right to exist, and even to be read, because that is what free expression requires.
“You cannot eliminate an idea by suppressing it,” Henry Miller once observed, “and the idea which is linked with this issue is one of freedom to read what one chooses. Freedom, in other words, to read what is bad for one as well as what is good for one — or, what is simply innocuous. How can you guard against evil, in short, if one does not know what evil is?”
Given all this, American writers have two choices: We can avoid or we can engage.
We can be like the PEN respondent who admits, “I was considering researching a book about civil defense preparedness during the Cold War … But as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on?”
Or we can take the example of William T. Vollmann, who in the face of harassment by the FBI (which thought, at one point, that he might be the Unabomber), sued for his records under the Freedom of Information Act and then reported on it for Harper’s magazine.
I’ve written before about Vaclav Havel, and his notion of “second culture,” in which freedom is a function of our willingness to behave as if we are free. It’s an important concept because it suggests that, in the end, it is we who are responsible for preserving our rights.
Here we see the most chilling aspect of the PEN report: Not the surveillance, treacherous as it is, but that some writers, at least, already appear willing to capitulate.