Chris Hedges: PEN America Self-Destructs

PEN America, once an important defender of rights for writers, editors and artists, has, under the direction of former State Department official Suzanne Nossel, abandoned its mission, destroyed its credibility and provoked a revolt among its members. 

Its refusal to condemn the genocide in Gaza and Israel’s targeted killings of writers, academics and journalists, has seen numerous writers withdraw from the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York and Los Angeles, scheduled for April and May. PEN America has not only failed to denouce the genocide but provides platforms to Israelis who use racist and dehumanizing language to describe Palestinians. It blacklists those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. PEN America functions as a propaganda arm for the Biden administration and Ukrainian government — including the banning of Russian writers from a PEN event last May. It has repeated false accusations against Julian Assange and refused to classify him as a journalist.  

PEN America peddles agitprop. It is our version of the Union of Soviet Writers. The human rights violations by our enemies are heinous crimes and our own, and those of our allies, are ignored or whitewashed. Writers and editors, such as Assange, who expose the lies and crimes of the state, are discredited, while propagandists for U.S. imperialism and the apartheid state Israel – even as it carries out genocide – are fêted.

Angela Flournoy and Kathleen Alcott canceled their participation in PEN’s “New Year, New Books” event in January because of PEN’s invitation to Mayim Bialik who Flournoy explained engages in “dehumanizing anti-Palestinian propaganda and rallying her five million followers to the cause of the Israeli military.” At the Bialik event in Los Angeles in February, Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar was forcibly removed from the room for protesting. 

Alcott wrote in an email to PEN America “..if I squint I can find perhaps two mentions [on PEN America’s twitter feed] of the word Palestine, one in reference to an op-ed in Newsweek which encourages a truly impotent and ahistorical neutrality (as well as, arguably, some internalized Islamophobia).” 

Over 600 writers, including Roxane Gay and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, signed an open letter last month, demanding that “PEN … take an actual stand against an actual genocide.”

PEN America is a sock puppet of the U.S. and Israel. Nossel accepted funding from the Israeli government — which routinely censors and jails Palestinian journalists and writers in Israel and the occupied West Bank and assassinates them and their families in Gaza — for the literary group’s annual World Voices festival in New York. This funding only stopped in 2017 when more than 250 writers, poets and publishers demanded an end to the organization’s partnership with the Israeli government. The signatories included Wallace Shawn, Alice Walker, Eileen Myles, Louise Erdrich, Russell Banks, Cornel West, Junot Díaz and Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

PEN America, like other human rights organizations, has been hijacked by apparatchiks like Nossel and their corporate backers, surrendering its independence and integrity. 

The organization’s tepid attempts to address the revolt — it issued a response filled with banalities such as expressing “our sorrow and anguish at the suffering endured by so many Palestinian civilians in Gaza” — is further evidence of its moral vacuity.

Nossel repeats slanderous tropes used to discredit Assange, the WikiLeaks publisher who faces extradition to the United States to potentially serve a 175-year sentence under the Espionage Act. 

“Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here,” Nossel has said.

Nossel, an attorney, served as a member of the State Department task force formed to deal with the WikiLeaks publications. She is well aware that the issue of whether Assange is a journalist is not immaterial. It is crucial. The U.S. effort to extradite Assange is built around denying him the status of a publisher or a journalist and denying WikiLeaks the status of a press publication. If he is extradited and found guilty, the precedent will criminalize any journalist that possesses or publishes classified material.  

Nossel parrots the U.S. government’s charges against Assange, including that he endangered lives by not redacting documents, hacked into a government computer and meddled in the 2016 elections — charges that are false. PEN America, under her direction, sent out news briefs with headlines such as: “Security Reports Reveal How Assange Turned an Embassy into a Command Post for Election Meddling.” 

PEN America, after heavy pressure, eventually said Assange should not be extradited. Advocating for his extradition was difficult after The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País published a joint statement demanding charges against Assange be dropped. PEN centers around the world have also denounced the extradition proceedings. Nossel, however, was long part of Assange’s lynch mob. 

Nossel said on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC in May 2019 that Assange went “beyond what a mainstream news outlet would do.” She blasted WikiLeaks’ publications as “massive and indiscriminate” and blamed Assange for not redacting names.

Assange, in fact, contacted the State Department to warn them that the complete unredacted cables were on the verge of being published by a third party, urged the State Department to take action and offered to assist them in doing so. It was the U.S. government which ultimately decided to do nothing.

PEN America was once run by writers dedicated to defending those persecuted around the globe — regardless of which government carried out the persecuting. I knew some of these writers, including Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and Russell Banks. They were fierce critics of U.S. militarism, champions of freedom of expression and fiery advocates for the persecuted and the oppressed.

Nossel stands for none of these ideals. She is a former corporate lawyer, listed as a “contributor” to the Federalist Society, who worked for McKinsey & Company and as vice president of U.S. business development for Bertelsmann. Her disastrous one year tenure as the Executive Director of Amnesty International saw her turn the human rights organization into a cheerleader for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May 2012, when NATO held its “Summit Meeting” in Chicago, she sponsored a “Shadow Summit” and dotted the city with bus stop billboards reading “NATO, Keep the Progress Going. Human Rights for Women and Girls in Afghanistan.” That was apparently too much, even for Amnesty International, and she was reportedly pushed out. 

Nossel at PEN America, however, has successfully hollowed out the organization and crowned herself with the ludicrous title of CEO of PEN America, emblematic of the soulless corporatism she embodies. 

A 2004 Foreign Affairs article by Nossel titled “Smart Power: Reclaiming Liberal Internationalism” calls for “liberal internationalism” and an “assertive leadership” by the U.S. that is “diplomatic, economic, and not least, military [my italics] — to advance a broad array of goals: self-determination, human rights, free trade, the rule of law, economic development, and the quarantine and elimination of dictators and weapons of mass destruction.”

withdrew from a scheduled speaking event at the 2013 World Voices Festival in New York and resigned from PEN America – which that same year had given me its First Amendment Award – to protest Nossel’s appointment. PEN Canada offered me membership, which I accepted. I wrote in my resignation letter:

The suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the plight of those caught up in our imperial wars in countries such as Iraq are not abstractions to me. Nossel’s relentless championing of preemptive war — which under international law is illegal — as a State Department official along with her callous disregard for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and her refusal as a government official to denounce the use of torture and use of extra-judicial killings, makes her utterly unfit to lead any human rights organization.

The current letter, now signed by more than 1,300 writers, notes that “Palestine’s poets, scholars, novelists and journalists and essayists have risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their families, to share their words with the world. Yet PEN America appears unwilling to stand with them firmly against the powers that have oppressed and dispossessed them for the last 75 years.”

The writers charge that “PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere.” 

PEN America refuses to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. 

“This failure is particularly striking in light of the extraordinary toll this catastrophe has taken in the cultural sphere,” the writers say. “Israel has killed, and at times deliberately targeted and assassinated journalists, poets, novelists, and writers of all kinds. It has destroyed almost all forms of cultural infrastructure that support the practice of literature, art, intellectual exchange, and free speech through the bombing and demolition of universities, cultural centers, museums, libraries, and printing presses. By disrupting access to digital communication, Israel has also been blocking Palestinians from sharing what they have witnessed and experienced and telling the truth of what is happening to them. Everyone who uses the power of the pen and free speech to appeal to the conscience of the world is at risk.”

Israel, the letter notes, “has killed nearly one hundred journalists and media workers, more than in the two-decade war in Afghanistan, and more than in the deadliest year of the Iraq War. Israel has also killed nearly one hundred academics and writers.”

PEN America “took four and half months to utter the word ‘ceasefire,’ then only with a vague ‘hope’ for one that is ‘mutually agreed,’ rather than a clear call.” 

“Equally concerning is PEN America’s history of condemning authors who choose to honor the Palestinian call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli institutions complicit in their oppression, accusing them of impeding ‘the free flow of ideas,’” the letter continues. “It seems to us that this violates several principles at the heart of PEN’s mission. To begin with, the idea that BDS, which does not boycott individual writers or scholars, can impede the ‘free flow of ideas’ in Israel-Palestine assumes that such a thing exists there. In fact, it is a cruel fantasy so long as Palestinians live under a rule reliant on racial segregation and the implementation of ethnic hierarchies, siege and collective punishment, the very conditions BDS seeks to end.”

The banning of writers who support BDS “contributes to a neo-McCarthyite environment in North America and Europe, in which the growing support for BDS is increasingly criminalized.” Opposition to BDS , the letter points out, “overlooks the long and proud history of the boycott as an effective, nonviolent tool of collective liberation. Just as boycott was a principal tool used to successfully end political apartheid in South Africa, so it should be accepted that some are free to adopt it as a vital tool in the nonviolent resistance movement against Israeli impunity today.”

The writers responded to PEN America’s recently posted statements expressing concern about various incidents in Gaza by asking “Where are the actions that flow from these stated concerns?” 

They note that “PEN America has not launched any substantial coordinated support or issued any reports highlighting the scale and scope of the attacks on writers in Gaza, or on Palestinian speech and culture more broadly. PEN America has done very little to mobilize or inspire its many members — quite unlike recent PEN America campaigns opposing the war in Ukraine and its impact on culture, or PEN International’s ‘Day of the Dead’ honoring journalists killed in Latin America.”

The writers also say they are “dismayed that there has been no apology to the Palestinian writer Randa Jarrar for the shocking act of dragging her out of an event featuring an anti-Palestinian and pro-war Hollywood actor as Jarrar read out the names of murdered Palestinian writers.”

Palestinian writers, the letter reads, “have found themselves in the insulting position of having to fight PEN America to loudly call for the U.S.-funded bombs to stop falling. They have been forced to point out, over and over again, that if the current onslaught was directed against any other people, there would have been clear condemnations of the crimes, as well as support for all forms of nonviolent resistance against oppression, alongside events focused on the artists who are the most vulnerable in the world.”

PEN America may continue to exist, indeed its obsequiousness to governmental and corporate power will probably assure its funding, but it is a hollow brand used to justify the crimes and lies of the U.S. government and Israel. 

The best writers in the Soviet Union refused to join the Union of Soviet Writers or were expelled. Those left were propagandists, third rate writers and careerists. PEN America is fast becoming its doppelgänger.  

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