Speak Up: PEN Community Talks Trump Transition
January 19, 2017
The inauguration is here. No more “transition.” Whatever this administration is, whatever it becomes, at noon Friday it’s official. However great or absurd or corrupt or benign; however inept or repressive, our future has arrived.
We can longer take for granted the rights and privileges of our Constitution. We must fight for them. That fight is the price of our freedom.
Give it everything you’ve got.
I was a little boy in the 1960s.
America was burning then, and everywhere was chaos and violence and confusion, protest and counter-protest, our heroes and neighbors murdered in the streets and the traditions and institutions meant to protect us were the very things we feared and distrusted most. Law was a firehose or a police dog or a nightstick. A B-52. No one was safe anywhere. From Dealey Plaza to Saigon to the Ambassador Hotel, from Newark to Watts to Memphis, from Charles Manson to James Earl Ray, America was killing itself.
I say this to remind myself that as bad as things may seem, as bad as things are, they have been worse. Much worse.
And America survived. In large part because smart, brave people like you never stopped fighting on behalf of this nation’s better angels. On the streets or in the legislatures, in the courtrooms and the newsrooms, ordinary folks drew courage from one another and fought and sacrificed and lost as often as they won without ever giving up. Without ever giving in.
America is an idea, and the struggle for possession of that idea is endless. We are once again beset, and under siege on every side, by our own worst impulses and fears. The next generation of Americans must rise to defend what’s best in every one of us.
Here at PEN America we fight for free expression and a free press, for freedom of thought and conscience and for the right to speak our minds even when we’re wrong.
We defend the Constitution because the Constitution defends us.
Freedom of expression is an idea much bigger than any individual. It is a human right, and universal.
Freedom of expression implies and arises from freedom of thought. Those thoughts are a manifestation not only of consciousness, but of conscience. Freedom of expression is therefore evidence in the world not only of an intellect, but of a spirit, a soul. In the United States, it is enshrined as the first and most important guarantee in our Bill of Rights.
That principle is under attack everywhere.
So this weekend we gathered, not in despair, but in defense of that principle; in defense of freedom; in defense of conscience and in defense of one another.
From Berlin to Singapore, from London and Amsterdam to Hong Kong and Taos and Bellingham, we assembled as an act of defiance and of devotion.
The moment you feel most helpless is the time to stand up for what you believe. This is just the beginning. Rise and fight. Join us.
January 11, 2017
We were warned. So a word today about frustration.
My colleagues and I have been writing about this—about the greed and appetite and vulgarity, the foreign entanglements and hometown bankruptcies, the lying and the bullying and the grifting—for decades. In telling the truth, somehow, the press becomes the villain, because it’s always easiest to blame the messenger.
For the last forty years, if you read widely enough, often enough, you knew exactly what to expect. For you, today’s headlines aren’t unimaginable, they are inevitable.
This was opéra bouffe from the beginning. Farce. And the American press knew it. Short some curdling details, in one variation or another, all of this was well and widely known or predicted and published. The information has always been there for those willing to see it.
But a free press can’t save you if you don’t read. And it can’t save you if you refuse the truth. To function, a free press needs an informed readership, a skeptical public willing to confront its own ignorance and selfishness and its own preconceptions.
As does democracy.
What voters didn’t want to see then, they won’t want to see now. But they were warned. And we must warn them still.
So rise. Write. Resist.
January 10, 2017
It’s worth remembering that our right to speak and be heard is in constant tension with power and with politics and with who is doing the speaking and who the hearing.
Meryl Streep has been praised and condemned in equal measure since her Sunday night speech. That phenomenon is a handy example of the value of free expression, in which every idea and every preference is set loose. Lots of folks applauded. Thousands more expressed frustration that an actor was given a platform for her personal politics.
But the U. S. Constitution is non-partisan. It takes no sides. It protects every one of us and guarantees almost every form of speech, including the outright lie. So it is always revealing to see who rises in its defense.
The Great Communicator, and the father of late 20th century American conservatism, for example, was himself an actor who used his celebrity as a soap box from which to speak and be heard. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s own political career was launched by the Free Speech Movement.
Rise. Write. Resist.
January 9, 2017
Our friends over at the Committee to Protect Journalists got a nice shoutout from Meryl Streep last night at the Golden Globes.
“. . . join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
Ms. Streep might have added PEN and the ACLU and a number of other front-line fighters in the coming battle for the Constitution. The truth is under siege by the trolls and cynics and profiteers, and the war on free expression will be a long one. It’s going to take courage and conviction to keep our free press free.
The president-elect was semi-restrained in his response, saying simply that Ms. Streep was an overrated “Hillary lover,” and he was unsurprised, even as an NBC stakeholder, to come under attack by “liberal movie people.”
Famously liberal movie people like Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch would probably agree about the surprise.
Rise. Write. Resist.
January 6, 2017
A reminder to myself, and to my friends and colleagues.
Our guarantee of free speech and free expression and a free press is no guarantee of common sense. Nor is it a guarantee of accuracy or fairness or love, nor of readership nor income, nor of truth nor honesty nor of good intentions.
Free speech is a weapon cutting in every direction.
At their best, newspapers traffic in facts, while novels and poems are stitched up with truths. Somewhere between the two is our defense of democracy in the Information Age: an inaccurate reporting of the truth in tension with an accurate reporting of the lie.
Because our only weapon against bad speech is better speech. That responsibility begins with us.
Now more than ever, in your art and in your journalism, the job of separating the truth from the lie, the fact from the fiction, the misinformation from the disinformation is yours and mine.
Give your readers what they need.
January 5, 2017
The best defender of the First Amendment is the First Amendment. Use your right to speak to speak out against any assault on your rights.
This is not just a worry for writers and journalists. Every American is at risk. Your rights and freedoms are being eroded – or systematically dismantled – in service of “national security” or “homeland defense.” Or the “sharing economy.”
Even the mainstream press, defender of the status quo and slow to rouse, suddenly understands the need for action.
The Constitution cannot defend itself. We must defend it.
That’s why so many of us will join the protests on January 15. You should, too.
Organize. Write. Resist.
January 4, 2017
The cause-and-effect value of America’s free press was demonstrated swiftly and perfectly yesterday. In just 19 hours start to finish, House Republicans had to walk back their plan to hamstring the independent Congressional ethics office.
All of which came and went on the strength of unbiased, fact-based reporting. Whatever your politics, the immediacy and simplicity of the initial story moved tens of thousands of constituents to action. This is how journalism is meant to work in a Republic.
In an era of infinite opinion and bottomless outrage, of lies and advocacy and propaganda masquerading as news, this kind of declarative, disinterested reporting becomes more important, not less.
Read. Subscribe. Keep journalism and your First Amendment vibrant.
January 3, 2017
“President-elect Trump will boldly use Twitter to
make major policy announcements, incoming press chief says.”
–Associated Press, 1/1/2017
As feckless and inept as White House journalism so often is, it is also an indispensable defender of democracy. Its role is meant to be adversarial, not curatorial, and in a free society questioning and fact-checking the president in real time is its most important function.
The presidential press conference has a history going back 100 years. For better and worse, in good times and bad, every president since Wilson has been held to account by a free press on behalf of a free people.
Journalism and journalists are imperfect, so it isn’t a perfect process. But the greater danger is an unquestioned presidency, a secretive presidency revealed to us only as a series of cheerleading tweets.
Inaccessibility will become a kind of censorship.
So goes morning in America at the end of 2016.
Still, the announcement raised questions and blood pressure nearly everywhere. When did hate speech become so lucrative? In a free society writers must be allowed to write and publishers must be allowed to make unconscionable decisions and craven choices in service of their bottom line. As they always have.
For the rest of us it was a wonderful reminder of our duty to the founding principle of free expression.
It’s easy to fight for your heroes. But to rise in defense of the rights of your enemies is our highest calling.
“Freedom is fundamentally the possibility of standing on a street corner and shouting ‘There is no freedom here!’”
― Yoani Sánchez
I’m a member of the American press, a secularist and a humanist, a believer in science and art and poetry, and in our better angels, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Psalm 120. A song of ascent, it lights up a darkness at the heart of modern things.
In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me.
2 Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.
3 What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
4 Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
5 Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
6 My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
7 I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.
What shall be done unto thee, false tongue, and thine lying lips?
There’s something uncomfortably American about 120, about the wanderer lost on a far frontier, beset on every side by the unpunished, dwelling in war, perpetual war, in a steady state that hates peace, a state of fallen grace.
Look hard enough long enough and I see in it the worst of us, the hardened hearts and fear, the violence and confusion, untruth and ignorance and pain.
Then I pause.
And I remember in this terrible America of my imaginings I have the freedom to think such crackpot thoughts, and write them down and publish them. I have the freedom to speak them, to speak as I will and do as I must, even if I agree only with myself.
That is our greatness. Our singularity. To insult ourselves, to express our patriotic dismay, to tell the truth about ourselves, without fear.
A Republic, if you can keep it. Write. Resist.
Krugman, a Nobel winner and New York Times columnist, argues that ancient Rome descended into authoritarian madness in part because powerful people defied political custom and tradition. Roman senators long put country before politics, but as those norms were abandoned, tyranny overtook the Republic. Krugman argues we’re seeing the same in the here and now.
Mary Beard, legendary Roman historian, counters that political cynicism is nothing new, and that Roman aristocrats paid lip service to these norms without much conviction.
Both remind us how delicate the apparatus of a free society turns out to be.
The idea we’re witnessing the modern collapse of old Rome is powerful and attractive on the opinion pages lately, if imprecise. The history doesn’t quite line up and the parallels aren’t absolute, but the sense of something imminent and dire in America is hard to disagree with, the warnings impossible to ignore.
Our civic, democratic and political norms are under assault on all sides. Including those guaranteed by our Bill of Rights.
Turns out, every freedom arises not only from the law, but also from every one of us, every day, and our willing agreement to believe in certain principles of fairness and tradition and responsibility.
So government is governed by human nature. And human nature is a tension of opposites held in balance. Bigotry, greed, and weakness are in constant opposition to strength and virtue and charity. Seen in this way, the Constitution can be read not only as a guarantee of our freedom, but as a warning and a curb to our fear and ambition.
We are thus forever at war against ourselves.
It’s not a fight we’re sure to win.
In less time than it takes your morning coffee to cool
Language is cut loose from consequence. Truth or untruth; fact or fiction; words are only tactical. Nothing means anything, because everything always means some other thing.
At their worst, politics are the process by which we enshrine our prejudices.
This is certainly true of the First Amendment Defense Act, an Orwellian “anti-discrimination” bill that has nothing to do with the First Amendment, and encourages discrimination while defending intolerance.
This is the language of unmeaning in service of oppression, American sharia written into law by an American Taliban. Expect more of the same from a newly emboldened Congress. It’s going to happen fast.
Be ready to fight.
I’m not here to write about politics. The stakes are too high. We are a nation on the verge of nervous collapse.
Not only are we divided by our politics, we can no longer agree on the terms of our disagreement. At our worst, we share no common reality. Whether we blame the economy for this—or terrorism or racism or the press or technology—doesn’t matter. It will get worse before it gets better.
Because we make and remake America as an act of collective imagination 325 million times a day. If right and wrong are negotiable, if lies and truth are interchangeable, if we no longer share a factual vocabulary, we will no longer be able to summon a common America.
Hold fast to what’s right and good. Hold fast to the truth.
That’s where this fight begins.
On behalf of free expression remind yourself
In the past it was possible to believe things would return to level, to the center. Inertia and indifference and tradition were sufficient correctives to political extremism. No longer. The horizon has tipped too far.
Corruption will be the least of it. Rather, we must rise and fight the systematic dismantling of our Constitutional guarantees to freedom. This is already happening.
We must act. You must act.
Engage. Once awakened, stay woke.
Fight by the rules, but fight.
Call out false equivalency, inaccuracy, euphemism. But if it’s a lie, call it a lie.
Be the hero you’re waiting for.
December 15 is Bill of Rights Day.
It is the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Rise and fight.
The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.
Lying is the message.
This is a siege.
Everything you thought you knew – including your own mind – will come under attack.
Work. Rest. Exercise. Eat right.
Now more than ever we need our strength.
Now more than ever we need our courage.
Now more than ever we need each other.
Read. Rise. Organize. Fight.
On days like this, it’s hard to know what to do. One word is too many, and ten thousand aren’t enough. But on days I can’t think of what to write, I can often think of what to read.
Rise. Organize. Fight.
December 12, 2016
A couple of quick referrals today.
The first is to a smart piece up on Medium by my friend Jay Caspian Kang. Jay is one of the best young writers and thinkers I know. While the world might feel like it’s changing to some of us, falling away beneath our feet, Jay reminds us in an open letter that for young writers of color things will be as they have been – but worse. The return to a white, male, bow-tie-wearing-gotta-hear-both-sides status quo will be swift, stupid and put us all in further peril.
In that same vein, free speech hero, writer and small forward Sherman Alexie has some thoughts on what happened and why and what happens next. Sharpen your pencils and your thoughts and your tongues. You and I are going to be very busy.
Last, a fast example of how quickly the mechanics of free expression can be changed. The Washington Post has a clear-eyed look at a provision buried in a bill that would further politicize Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America, while untethering them from oversight. Another step closer to a government-sponsored fake press.
We need to be on the phone to Congress this morning. You should have your representatives and senators on speed dial by now. They count every call, so every call counts.
Get to work.
December 9, 2016
I was at a party last night celebrating the spirit of American invention. This was in Washington DC, in the building—in the very room—where Abraham Lincoln held his inauguration dinner.
Here stood some of the great minds of the age, and some of the tycoons and fortune builders, the thinkers and scientists and writers, the poets and politicians, physicists and activists and dreamers already shaping our future. The big room was loud with music and talk.
In the din, a good friend, an artist of renown, held up his phone to me, and on the screen was this:
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
That was Benjamin Franklin’s famous answer, at the very moment of this nation’s birth, to the question of our collective inheritance and responsibility. We have been given history’s greatest and most ingenious gift, freedom.
Including the freedom to squander that gift.
I was both saddened and reassured to see it, angry and glad to see our predicament and our call to action summed up in seven words.
Because every generation must devote itself to the preservation of this original gift, of the right to speak and be heard, of the right to dissent, of the right to succeed or fail, of the right to be left alone.
America’s greatest invention will always be itself.
It is up to us to defend it.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Tweeted on Sunday morning, and followed by this:
“Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!”
Misunderstanding? Misinformation? Disinformation?
Welcome to the Republic of Fiction, into which no truth intrudes, and from which no truth escapes. Does it really matter if a lie is strategic or tactical or pathological? The blurring of fact and fiction at the highest levels of government should terrify every journalist, because it makes our job impossible. It renders the gathering of evidence irrelevant. It undercuts every argument, and eventually flattens debate. In the absence of a national dialogue based on legitimate, fact-based points of view, all that matters is who holds megaphone.
It makes democracy impossible. In this case the fiction might have been meant to divert attention from a weekend’s worth of New York Times stories on the coming tidal wave of corruption, and why it matters. Or it might represent genuine confusion between the real and the imaginary. Or simply reveal hurt feelings.
In any case, tyranny depends upon ignorance. And the quickest way to ignorance is to grant equal weight to every assertion. To believe and then contradict every proposition. In the endless relativity of truth is stasis. Stalemate. Thus to the ruling class, the beginning of tyranny and its endgame is always the same: “Believe me when I say everything you read is a lie. I alone know the truth.”
Up is down. Down is up. Strength is weakness. In the darkest hour it then becomes the responsibility of every artist, every journalist and every poet, every writer everywhere to find and illuminate the truth. And to defend it.
Now more than ever, remember your Orwell.
Just before Thanksgiving, talking haircut Sean Hannity summed up the troubles of the postmodern American press in a single tweet.
“@ politico @ CNN @ NBCNEWS @ CNBC @ msnbc @ nytimes @ ABC @ CBSNEWS Are all biased and Corrupt. “Fake News.” If I were @ realDonaldTrump NO ACCESS!”
A fake journalist at a fake news network points the finger at journalism and cries “Fake!”
This is the funhouse mirror of 21st century American media.
Mr. Hannity works for a television news operation likely to become both a megaphone and a stiletto for the incoming administration. It will do the wet work and dirty work of rumor distribution and character assassination. Earnest, fact-based journalism will be pursued at every anchorperson’s peril. Mr. Hannity’s job will be to service and sell the new government. A parade of right wing flameouts and rising stars will appear as guests on his show to help him do so.
Mr. Hannity takes great care to tell you he is not a journalist. Mr. Hannity is a courtier. A flatterer. He tells the emperor the new outfit looks terrific.
To the rest of us he sells fear and he sells ignorance. And in this era of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, folks are buying.
For most of its history, journalism has been an expression of partisanship. Advocacy. It’s only in the last half-century or so that we’ve come to expect “objectivity”—a professionalized disinterest and dispassion in our news telling. So, just as there have always been rich and powerful publishers selling a particular brand of politics, a specific line of thinking, there have always been fake journalists—and for-profit pamphleteers, cynics and con artists, quislings and hacks and fellow travelers. Mr. Hannity is merely one of these, in an era thick with them.
Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, et al. are today’s update on Father Coughlin. They monetize hate and fear. There has always been a considerable business gulling the suckers and bilking the ignorant. There’s big money to be made keeping people frightened and angry. Cable television and the internet simply expand the fearmonger’s reach.
And for every action an equal and opposite reaction: The rise of fake news will be a bipartisan affair. Expect a great deal more of it on your social media feeds from the diehards and dead enders on the disaffected left in the years ahead.
Ironically it was the rollback of broadcasting’s equal time rules and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in support of a more robust First Amendment in the 1980s that led to our current glut of reactionary foghorns, alarmists and conspiracy cultists. Many of whom seek to muzzle or even destroy a disinterested, fair-minded press in order to line their own pockets.
Mr. Hannity, an actor, will never fight for your right to speak.
But real journalists must fight for his.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
At the end of Tuesday’s belated interview at the New York Times, we read this:
MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, and it’s a really short one, but after all the talk about libel and libel laws, are you committed to the First Amendment, to the Constitution?
TRUMP: Oh, I was hoping he wasn’t going to say that. I think you’ll be happy. I think you’ll be happy. Actually, somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’ I said, ‘You know, I have to start thinking about that.’ So, I, I think you’ll be O.K. I think you’re going to be fine.
SULZBERGER: Well, thank you very much for this. Really appreciate this.
TRUMP: Thank you all, very much, it’s a great honor. I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along. We’re looking for the same thing, and I hope we can all get along well.
“I think you’ll be happy.” This is the newspaper the President-elect has been attacking for decades. “I think you’ll be happy.”
No one, least of all the man who said it, knows what that really means. And, as Stephen Colbert later tweeted, the threat doesn’t end after a single interaction with the New York Times newsroom.
“President Obama will pardon his last turkey tomorrow. But stay tuned for Thanksgiving 2017 when President Trump pardons a journalist.”
Gallows humor. But of all the disaster fantasies and catastrophe scenarios so far predicted, the first and most obvious will be the end of meaning. In fact the ethering of language is already underway.
Seriously, not literally. Literally, not seriously. Think of our President-elect as Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, someone who’ll say whatever he needs to say to be let off the hook when confronted by an adult. Now, more than ever, we need art and journalism that push back against situational “Who me?” ethics like these. And we’re going to need a great deal more than the press club passivity of the big media okey-doke.
The problems for journalists are obvious. How do you cover someone willing to say anything because they believe nothing? What happens to language disconnected from intention and belief? How do you cover an administration that says everything—and then its opposite—with equal conviction?
What do you call someone who doesn’t know he’s lying?
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Reports of the off-the-record meeting between the President-elect and the heads and haircuts of the network news vary wildly. Depending upon which account you read it was a frank and civil exchange of ideas, or it was a firing squad.
The American press has a long tradition of off-the-record interviews with the president. It is part of the job, and part of the necessarily reciprocal nature of operating a democracy.
But the relationship between the press and the president is meant to be adversarial. The risk to us all is too great when corporate media become flatterers in order to maintain access; when self-censorship and shareholder imperatives might lead not only to “normalizing” but to “sanitizing.”
Now more than ever we need our journalism to be courageous and independent, and our journalists vigilant and straight-backed. Because the first casualty of watchdogs into lapdogs will be language. After which, the long slide into Orwellian unmeaning and a government untethered to any truth but its own. A feckless press is no better than a state-run press. Now is the time to stiffen our resolve.
Because by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, corporate journalism will accelerate its own irrelevancy. And eventually, historically, thin-skinned strongmen are all too willing to cut out the middleman. “Donald Trump Cancels New York Times Meeting and Pursues Battles With the Press” reads the headline on the Times website this morning.
“I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing @nytimes when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice” reads the PEOTUS tweet,
“Perhaps a new meeting will be set up with the @nytimes. In the meantime they continue to cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone!” reads the next.
In fact, in this age of social media and direct marketing, why bother to wrestle the national news-gathering apparatus at all?
Instead of a press conference, a sales pitch, a two-and-a-half minute YouTube video. The wooden TelePrompter reading and the sentence fragments as familiar as the hollow slogans and the empty promise of imaginary excellence.
Expect more infomercials.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Maybe what’s surprising is how fast it happens. You wake up one morning in the fight of your life.
“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So that when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. You see, with me, they’re not protected.” – Donald Trump
Jeff MacGregor is a journalist in New York City. He has written for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the New Yorker, and Esquire.