PEN America has canceled its literary festival after pro-Palestine zealots criticized the nonprofit for refusing to denounce Israel's 'genocide'.
‘Real freedom of expression is too scary; we’d rather hide in a crowd whose keffiyeh-masked members all shout the same thing.’ (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Lionel Shriver: PEN America Rewards Cowardice

We live in a world where an organization established for the defense of free speech is expected to openly advocate for Hamas.

Another day, another opportunity for huffy, hypocritical “progressive” posturing. PEN America has now been forced to cancel its World Voices literary festival in New York and L.A., on the heels of also canceling its 2024 awards ceremony. Too many authors had withdrawn from both events to make going ahead with staging either practicable. The reason for so many writers flouncing from these programs? PEN’s failure to publicly denounce Israel’s “genocide” in Gaza. But you had probably guessed the point of indignation already, because as of October 2023, the Anglosphere’s far left has neatly pivoted from the infantilization of black people to the Palestinian cause with the coordinated grace of a synchronized swimmer.

To clarify: the purpose of PEN is to defend freedom of speech and to protect writers from political oppression and persecution. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that a significant cadre of its membership would seek to stifle freedom of speech and engage in political oppression and persecution. Or: we’re all for free speech so long as you say what we tell you. These folks are athletes. It requires considerable intellectual acrobatics for Writers Against the War on Gaza to regard the shutting down of events to advance free expression as “a win for free expression.” Presumably, the fact that a number of withdrawals from both occasions were motivated by fear of being attacked by a mob of pro-Palestinian zealots is also “a win for free expression.” PEN itself stated its concern “about any circumstance in which writers tell us they feel shut down, or that speaking their minds bears too much risk.”

PEN is, by its nature, a big tent. It represents not only Muslim writers but Jewish ones too, some of whom might just support the existence of Israel, might just regard Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza as justified, and might just find alliance with genuinely genocidal terrorists whose unembarrassed aim is to wipe Israel and the Jewish people off the map as a teeny tiny bit obnoxious. While one PEN member decries the nonprofit’s “both-sidesing,” the truth is that PEN has no business taking a position on this issue whatsoever.

Unfortunately, the left has successfully installed the expectation that, regardless of their established purpose, all institutions—companies, museums, theaters, universities, charities, you name it—must proclaim their fealty to the “right” (which is to say left) position on a host of inflammatory issues of the day. This hyper-politicization of entities that ought sensibly to remain politically neutral has been systematically debauching everything from the UK’s National Trust to its NHS, from Anheuser-Busch to the Chicago Art Museum. First, all such outfits were required to fly Black Lives Matter flags, then garishly incoherent Pride flags, and now these banners have all to be swapped out for Palestinian flags, never mind what constituency or customer base might be alienated by this gratuitously partisan branding. Thus, an organization established for the defense of free speech of every sort—including the overtly Zionist kind—is necessarily obliged to openly advocate for Hamas, a murderous, cheerfully antisemitic cult whose interest in free speech on its home turf would fit in a thimble.

Of course, PEN’s membership has form when it comes to hypocrisy. In 2015, under armed security, PEN awarded its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Six writers withdrew from participating in the proceedings to protest the magazine’s ostensibly offensive printing of cartoons that depicted Muhammad. Yet funnily enough, what your average normal person found offensive was the vicious massacre of 12 of the publication’s employees, most of them journalists, for neglecting to adhere to one religion’s hysterical blasphemy laws in a secular country that famously celebrates liberté. Yet over 200 writers—including, to my astonishment, the likes of Joyce Carol Oates—signed an open letter to PEN criticizing the Charlie Hebdo award. For these authors, defense of free speech, promotion of tolerance, and opposition to violent political oppression—the very purpose of PEN—counted for nothing when weighed against any injury to the delicate feelings of fundamentalist Muslims.

Much has been written about the unholy, and in some ways, hilarious alliance developing between the progressive left and Islam (Lesbians for Palestine, etc.). But for Western writers to embrace a restrictive, prescriptive, and stifling culture isn’t merely ironic or comical; it’s self-defeating. One needn’t consult a professor of Middle Eastern studies to conclude that these fair-weather friends in Gaza may welcome useful idiocy, but the permissive ethos of the Anglo left is diametrically at odds with despotic Islamic theology. Moreover, for American writers to express increasingly shrill and little-disguised hostility to Jews is to disavow a substantial chunk of the country’s distinguished literary canon: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Elie Wiesel just for starters.

But then, the past 15 years have demonstrated with depressing clarity that writers, along with artists of every stripe, aren’t special. Although our occupation is more at risk from censorship than most, we’re all too capable of perversely embracing suppressive viewpoints that violate our own interest. We’re paid not only to write but to think, yet we don’t think; we listen keenly for whatever tune is playing in our fellow travelers’ AirPods and whistle along. Apparently, we’re no more creative than the average bear, and as soon as the memo goes out, we’ll chant along with the kiddies camped at Columbia University, “from the river to the sea!” whatever that means. We’ll obediently switch out one cause for another whenever we’re told, as nimbly as using “find and replace” in Microsoft Word.

We’re cowards, conformists, and copycats. Real freedom of expression is too scary; we’d rather hide in a crowd whose keffiyeh-masked members all shout the same thing. PEN has a laudable history of advocating for writers who’ve been persecuted for their opinions in repressive polities—polities much like the contemporary United States. But too many of its members would have the nonprofit corrupt its global mission to protect free speech across the board so long as they can bully its leadership into pointless partisan posturing for progressives’ acrid flavor of the month.

Lionel Shriver is an author, journalist, and columnist for The Spectator. Her new book, Mania, is published by the Borough Press. This piece originally appeared in UnHerd.

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