The PEN Pod: On Authoritarianism, Abortion Restrictions, and Protecting the Freedom to Learn
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 spoke with Suzanne about how the U.S. can do more to support democracy, the free speech implications of Texas’s new abortion law, and how book bans are part of a larger trend to police the freedom to learn. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 13:51 mark).
On How the U.S. Can Support Democracy Worldwide
“[My article] is focused on exiles, on people who have had to flee their countries. Over the last month, we’ve been dealing with scores of Afghan writers and artists who are desperate to exit that country, whose freedom to express themselves, to publish, to display their art is under grave threat. We know there are scores of intellectuals, thinkers who are landing here in the United States and around the world and having to set up new lives.
“There are similar phenomena underway for Myanmar, from Hong Kong, from Belarus, from Russia. And so, we’ve started doing a lot more thinking at PEN America about how to address these exiled communities. They are people who deserve our support, who’ve been working as human rights defenders inside their countries, who now are faced with the loss of their livelihood—in some cases, trapped without asylum or humanitarian visas.
“They also are a potentially potent force for the future of human rights and democracy. Historically, it has been exiled writers and artists and poets who have done the ideation that it takes to think about how to get beyond an authoritarian present to a democratic future, offering narratives that humanize populations around the world, that captivate audiences, that inspire people within authoritarian environments to rise up, to defend their liberties, to challenge authority. And these forces can be catalytic.”
“I wrote a piece a few months ago about the long arm of authoritarianism, and the tactics that governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and others are using to go after their critics even after they’ve sought refuge abroad, to send the message to dissidents at home that ‘Even if you run, you can’t hide. We will find you and menace you wherever you are.’”
On the Free Speech Implications of Texas’s New Abortion Law
“It’s so outrageous and censorious—empowering, deputizing citizens in these vigilante legal actions to go after not just doctors and medical providers, but anybody who is offering information or support or discourse about abortion, or advocating for abortion rights. It’s an effort to muzzle and silence those who are standing up for fundamental rights or talking about serious medical conditions. To me, it’s just evidence of the really disturbing hypocrisy that we’re seeing on free speech issues coming from the right, where we’ve always had the premise of free speech ‘for me and not for thee,’ and people being far more motivated to defend free expression rights when it comes to ideas and viewpoints with which they disagree.
“But now, it’s evolved into a readiness to just use the power of government overtly to slap down speech that people disagree with and without concern about the principle, without concern about the constitutionality, and really running roughshod over the protections that undergird our democracy, which is open discourse and the ability to express yourself. So there will be many legal challenges to this Texas abortion law, but I think that the free speech and First Amendment angle is a crucial one, because it would be terrible to see this become a precedent, to shut down speech on all sorts of topics that are unpopular.”
On the Increasing Trend of Suppressing the Freedom to Learn via Book Bans
“This notion that children and young people need to be protected from pernicious ideas, and a fear that has been kindled over the last few years in our country, that people are losing control over the narrative that their children are being taught, that there are ideas infiltrating in from the outside—we see something similar in the work that we’re doing on efforts to ban the teaching of not just critical race theory, but all sorts of ideas, notions, and viewpoints having to do with racism and diversity in schools. There’s this kind of hunkering down and efforts to shut out alternative perspectives. We know that the books that are most banned are ones that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, LGBTQ+ identities. Ultimately, it’s just a profoundly anti-intellectual approach of trying to put certain stories off-limits, to deny children the fruits of their own curiosity, to put a tape across the mouths of teachers and librarians, whose job it is to expose children to things they’re going to encounter in the real world, to demystify the unfamiliar, to stimulate empathy through narratives about people unlike themselves.
“We fight back very hard. When push comes to shove and we do write to a school system or a librarian and say, ‘This is outrageous to take this book out of bounds,’ there is still in this country, I’m heartened to say, oftentimes, a recognition when you shine the harsh spotlight, that these tactics are fundamentally un-American. And I hope that ultimately will prevail in Leander, TX, but for now, it’s a real battle underway.”