The PEN Pod: Reckoning and Reconciliation after the Trump Era 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 talked about the activism we’ve all had to take up over the past four years, the priority issues the Biden-Harris administration should aim to resolve, and the importance of looking back at the Trump era in order to resolve the trauma we experienced from it. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 12:44 mark).
I think we’re all eager to move forward, but I’m hoping you could take a minute to just reflect on the past four years and particularly on the fight for free expression and free speech that PEN America has waged under President Trump.
These four years have been long, and just thinking back to exactly four years ago, we began with our Writers Resist event on the steps of the New York Public Library. We had a crowd of about 3,000 or 4,000 people who came together for an extraordinary roster of speakers, songs, and spoken word, and then we marched down Fifth Avenue and presented a big, fat petition on the First Amendment at Trump Tower. It was at that moment that the battle was drawn—I think our whole constituency recognized that we were going to be in this in a different way and at a different level. That was right before the Women’s March and the airport protest, and all of us had to build up this new muscle memory of what it meant to be a street activist here in America, which was something that we really hadn’t seen that much of in the recent decades. I think that has become a much bigger part of all of our lives.
“All of us had to build up this new muscle memory of what it meant to be a street activist here in America, which was something that we really hadn’t seen that much of in the recent decades. I think that has become a much bigger part of all of our lives. For us as an organization, it was clear from the campaign and the results on election night in 2016 that all the threats that we were accustomed to combating around the world now were here, at our own doorstep, and that would demand a different level of mobilization and activity.”
For us as an organization, it was clear from the campaign and the results on election night in 2016 that all the threats that we were accustomed to combating around the world now were here, at our own doorstep, and that would demand a different level of mobilization and activity. So we raised the money and opened up our Washington office, and we made an overture to what was then a separate PEN organization in Los Angeles, merged, and brought ourselves together as a national organization. We also stood up PEN Across America, with activities in dozens of cities, and now six chapter organizations across the country. We became much more of an activist and campaigning organization—far more emphasis on petitioning and social media.
We look pretty different than we did four years ago, and what we’re seeing now is that we offer this very unique voice that looks at free expression issues from a principled standpoint, but also from an enlightened standpoint, where part of our mission has always been going back to the PEN charter to combat hatreds and fight for free expression for all. We take that very seriously, and that work has deepened dramatically with the expansion of, for example, our Prison and Justice Writing program over the last several years. So we exit the Trump era a transformed organization—one with a real sense of mission going forward and a sense of the enormous complexity of the challenges we confront, whether it’s the local news work that we’ve taken on, our work on disinformation and online harassment, or the really thorny questions that we’ve talked about here in terms of online content moderation. I’ve felt for the last four years that we have our work cut out for us, and that remains true today.
We’re two days into the Biden-Harris administration, and on our website we’ve listed out all the ways that, building on that legacy from the last four years, we’re now pushing the administration to act on free expression in the first 100 days. What are our top priorities, and where do you think we’re going to have to exert the most pressure on the White House?
It’s a pretty comprehensive list. Some of the things are a low-hanging fruit, and there are efforts and areas that are more complex and that don’t have as much political momentum. We’ve already seen some important progress—the rescinding of the Muslim ban and of this ridiculous executive order of the Trump Administration on combatting race and sex stereotyping, which was the inversion of what it purported to be. Michael Pack at the U.S. Agency for Global Media tendered his resignation under pressure, and that began the process of trying to rebuild that organization after a period of ideological, all-out warfare. So some early progress on some of our priorities has been made—a reassuringly calming, fact-based briefing by the White House spokesperson Jen Psaki signaling a new tone at the White House toward the press corps. We still are in the midst of a lawsuit against the White House for threats and acts of retaliation against the media, but we have some hope that this administration will disavow that approach.
“Disinformation and free expression issues are important—a really complex, thorny set of issues in terms of how the platforms now continue to crack down in the wake of the banning of Trump from Twitter. I think that for a lot of us it feels like a real reprieve, but it leaves in its wake huge questions about the unfettered power and discretion that lies in the hands of those companies, and how disinformation can be combated without impairing freedom of speech.”
Among the more complex issues that we raised, one is focused on local journalism where we have documented the scale of this crisis, and it feeds directly into the explosion of disinformation and the tainting effect of disinformation on American politics, our democracy, the insurrection at the Capitol, and so on. Part of what fuels that is this decimation of local news in the absence of credible media sources in communities across the country, and so we’ve called for the creation of a commission that would examine the role of public funding for local news and look broadly at how to address this crisis. We have some support in the Congress and we’re hoping for support from the executive branch for that as well. Another area we focused on is protest and assembly rights—we published a major landmark report back in May. We’ve seen all sorts of problems over the last few months, including state-level restrictions on protest rights that are politically motivated, huge gaps in terms of training and awareness on the part of law enforcement about assembly rights and press freedom rights in the context of policing demonstrations, real questions about both ideological and racial bias in how protest rights are enforced or breached. We think that’s an area that the Justice Department needs to be looking into.
Of course, disinformation and free expression issues are important—a really complex, thorny set of issues in terms of how the platforms now continue to crack down in the wake of the banning of Trump from Twitter. I think that for a lot of us it feels like a real reprieve, but it leaves in its wake huge questions about the unfettered power and discretion that lies in the hands of those companies, and how disinformation can be combated without impairing freedom of speech. It’s not a government impairment necessarily, but nonetheless, we’re seeing the power of a private platform being able to say that the president of the United States isn’t entitled to a voice. Then, we have a series of recommendations that relate to free expression and press freedom—there’s a foreign policy priority and how U.S. leadership in those areas can be rebuilt.
“I think this goes against the American grain in many ways—there is a very strong impulse in this country to look forward. I think Joe Biden, our new president, wants to look forward, and that many others will join him in just wanting to put the Trump era behind us like a nightmare that we’ve now woken up from. At the same time, I do think what we’re confronting on, for example, issues of race is the lingering pain and trauma that persists when there isn’t a full reckoning.”
It’s a good list, and I feel like each day we’ll be able to start analyzing what we can strike off, but also where we’re going to have to do more work. Finally, Suzanne, next week we’re going to convene our annual general meeting—usually, that’s for just our Members, but this year, because we’re all virtual, it’s actually going to be open to the public. It’s going to be about looking back at accountability over the last four years. I wonder why you think it’s important to have this kind of conversation as we turn the page on Trump.
I think this goes against the American grain in many ways—there is a very strong impulse in this country to look forward. I think Joe Biden, our new president, wants to look forward, and that many others will join him in just wanting to put the Trump era behind us like a nightmare that we’ve now woken up from. At the same time, I do think what we’re confronting on, for example, issues of race is the lingering pain and trauma that persists when there isn’t a full reckoning. When it comes to the Trump era, there are a series of things: Part of it is accountability for people who may have committed crimes or undermined our democracy and our institutions. If there isn’t accountability, what are the consequences for that? Does that operate, then, as a kind of license going forward? I think there’s a cultural and storytelling element to this to really understand what happened, what we went through, and what it means. That shapes how, for example, new political figures on the horizon may be seen and perceived. That’s partially the role of writers, artists, playwrights, and others who are active at PEN, and I think we’ll have a critical part to play in how we as a society process all of this.
There’s also the level of concrete lessons learned—do we examine how we got to various phases of the national dilemma that we have just lived through? What kinds of regulations, laws, policies, and systems are necessary to protect ourselves against, for example, nepotism, corruption, self-dealing, and First Amendment violations by the president? We have to confront the fact that our systems were really not all that well-suited to addressing this kind of norm-busting. If it was flat out illegal, a court could stop it, but if it was just abnormal, bizarre, ill-considered, damaging, and dangerous, very often we were left to protest and throw up our hands. So we have to understand in what respects we can now change our methods, approaches, and strategies to better safeguard our institutions and our national reputation against some of these dangers that were never really on the radar, until the last four years.