The PEN Pod: On Saudi Arabia’s Crimes and a Potential Trump Memoir with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about the egregious human rights record of Saudi Arabia—hosting this year’s G20 summit—and the mission of PEN America’s counter-summit to expose these atrocities, how publishing houses should treat the possibility of a memoir by President Trump, as well as the hope for the end to hate speech and crimes with a new administration. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 11:09 mark).
This weekend, Saudi Arabia is playing virtual host to the G20 summit. Today, PEN America and a group of partners are holding a counter-summit to highlight the kingdom’s human rights abuses. What’s the thinking behind this counter-summit, and how can we use it to put pressure on the Saudi government?
Look, any government that hosts one of these international fora—big meetings of leaders—even this one that is taking place virtually, is marking prestige. They are the convener, they are the host, they get an opportunity to showcase their own leaders—people from their society—and it’s a chance to grandstand on the international stage. So, we felt very strongly that if Saudi Arabia was going to be stepping into the spotlight in this way, it was extremely important that the leaders attending and those observing see a bigger picture. It’s the one that the government and Riyadh would never show you, which is this truly horrific human rights record and track record of hostility and harshness toward dissenters.
“We’ve convened an extraordinary group of politicians, civic leaders, and a whole coalition of nongovernmental organizations from around the world who are standing together to widen the aperture, force the world to reckon with Saudi Arabia’s really egregious record, and ensure that—as the story of this summit is reported on by the international media—the issue of human rights not be swept under the rug, but rather be very much part and parcel of the tale.”
We have this signature case that we’ve been working on for a year and a half of three women, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, who have been in prison for expressing their views on women’s rights—in Loujain’s case, being at the forefront of the campaign for women to be allowed to drive. The right to drive—it’s unfathomable that this is even in question, but of course, Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily retrograde society when it comes to women’s rights. Here, at this G20 summit, they have actually done this virtual roundtable of their own “women’s empowerment.” It’s just farcical. So, they have all their speakers lined up, and we’re saying, “You need to hear the full story.”
We’ve convened an extraordinary group of politicians, civic leaders, and a whole coalition of nongovernmental organizations from around the world who are standing together to widen the aperture, force the world to reckon with Saudi Arabia’s really egregious record, and ensure that—as the story of this summit is reported on by the international media—the issue of human rights not be swept under the rug, but rather be very much part and parcel of the tale. There was a report a few weeks ago that Saudi Arabia was thinking about releasing some of the dissidents on the eve of the summit to burnish their reputation, self-servingly, but that would have been a positive step. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and we want them to feel the heat—and I think they will.
Let’s move over to President Trump. There was news of a potential Trump memoir this week. The New York Times reports it could fetch millions and lead to a bidding war among publishers, but we’ve also seen publishers take a lot of heat in the last year alone for publishing works by folks that you might disagree with. In particular, here’s the president, who we know is a superspreader of disinformation—he has lied about all kinds of things. How should publishers respond to this potential windfall, but also this potential superspreader book?
It’s a good question. As PEN America, we support publication and distribution of the widest possible range of ideas, so we would never be in the position of urging boycott of a book or suggesting that a particular book shouldn’t be published. We believe, by and large, it should be up to readers what they choose to engage with. We also don’t substitute our judgment for that of publishers to dictate who does and doesn’t deserve a book contract. We might have our own views on whether this is a book we’d want to read or see in print, but we wouldn’t attempt to impose them. I do think that’s an important principle.
“Being behind a book means believing that it’s an important narrative, that it has value and worth. I think the publishers need to think very carefully about how they’re going to navigate their responsibility to truth, trust, and fact-based discourse in the context of bringing a book like this to market.”
Even if you might feel great about shunning a particular book, the notion that other writers from a publishing house mobilize to object to a contract being extended to someone on the basis of their views or their reputation being controversial could be a troubling one, over time. If you look historically at different moments, there were all sorts of people whose views were considered beyond the pale, and yet moved into the mainstream. They’re nothing like Trump—Trump’s not going to be one of those people—but the same principle that a person who is objectionable should not have the opportunity for a voice could be used to exclude those who, I think, a lot of us believe form an important part of our discourse.
I do think, though, that publishers—as they contemplate this—need to reckon with some of the very same issues that media outlets and journalists have been wrestling with over the past few years, which is, what do you do about the avalanche of falsehoods that tend to just spew forth from the president’s mouth and, I’m sure, from his pen? If we know anything about him, this is going to be an unbelievably self-serving account. He seems capable of reckoning with no narrative other than one of his own heroism and perfection, at the expense of facts, truth, and reason. So, the questions of fact-checking—is he going to submit to that? What will the publishing house do if he puts forward a counterfactual account of events? Will they let that stand? Who’s going to be editing this volume? We’ve seen the social media companies engaging in all sorts of fact-checking and contextualization, but it’s a little hard to imagine that in the context of book publishing.
One thing we’ve realized, while reckoning with some of these cases in recent years, is that there is a kind of implied endorsement—the publisher has to be behind a book. Being behind a book means believing that it’s an important narrative, that it has value and worth. I think the publishers need to think very carefully about how they’re going to navigate their responsibility to truth, trust, and fact-based discourse in the context of bringing a book like this to market.
“He is the president of the United States for the next 60 days, and it is finally coming to an end. As with the virus, there is an increasing talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, and when it comes to hate speech, I hope that’s true as well. His presence and bully pulpit from which he has done untold bullying—once he’s deprived of it, you have a very different tone set at the White House. I think there is some hope of being able to reverse these disturbing trends, in terms of both hateful speech and hate crimes.”
Let’s stay with the president. This week, the FBI reported that hate crimes in the United States rose to their highest levels in more than a decade, in 2019. One expert said that it is, in fact, partially Trump’s own speech that could be driving that trend. I think these types of correlations often lead people to think they need to do more to rein in hate speech. How do you see it?
I think that President Trump has unleashed the dark sides of our society. In many respects, his own vitriol and invective, his targeting of vulnerable groups and calling Mexicans rapists, his misogyny, and his racism has created an enabling environment for the forces of hatred. We see that in the spike in online harassment, and we see it in this steady increase in hate crimes across the country. It has led many people—understandably, but wrongly—to call into question the viability of the First Amendment and to say, “Look, if all this hatred is running loose throughout our society, don’t we need to do something? Shouldn’t we pair back the protections for free speech in front of the Constitution?”
I think that falls under the rubric of hard cases making bad law. When you have somebody who is the disinformation- and hate-speech-spreader-in-chief, the impulse to want to rein them in, I think, is understandable. But the restraints we have, particularly on government encroachments on free speech, should stand. If you think about it, it’s really paradoxical to believe that increased government policing of hateful speech would somehow rein in Trump. He is the president of the United States for the next 60 days, and it is finally coming to an end. As with the virus, there is an increasing talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, and when it comes to hate speech, I hope that’s true as well. His presence and bully pulpit from which he has done untold bullying—once he’s deprived of it, you have a very different tone set at the White House. I think there is some hope of being able to reverse these disturbing trends, in terms of both hateful speech and hate crimes.