Friday, May 03, 2013

Department of Free Speech

Is it brave to tell someone to shut the fuck up when you're a celebrity standing on a stage and they're a nameless person sitting in the audience?

Or, more to the point: Is it wrong for the head of a free speech organization, a man who gives lectures on censorship, to tell a protester to shut the fuck up at a public event?

Photo: Anonymous

This was the question on my mind as I read about what happened at the opening event of this year's PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, whose main theme is bravery.

According to the account on the PEN Live Tumblr:
This is how the Opening Night Reading to PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union started on Monday: Salman Rushdie walked on stage and said super eloquent things like, “The other meaning of courage is real artistic risk ... When we try and find new ways of saying things.”
Then, a belligerent man with an anti-government sign yelled out, “You were for the war in Iraq!” He holds up his smartphone, “I have it right here in front of me! A war based on lies that killed a million people!” This guy was annoying everyone at the event.
Rushdie’s calm, English-accented response: “The only lies being told here are by you, sir. As president of this organization, I led this organization against that war, so you can shut the fuck up. It doesn’t matter how you shout, sir. It doesn’t make what you say correct. That is the technique of the bully throughout history—to try and shout other people down.”
With those words, and Rushdie’s cold-eyed stare hardened by assassination attempts and emboldened with knighthood, the man shut the fuck up. We continued on with the reading. It was an intense night, but in a good way.
The protester was wrong—if by "you" he meant Rushdie. Writing in the Washington Post in November 2002, Rushdie questioned the reluctance of "antiwar liberals" to recognize that "Saddam Hussein and his ruthless gang of cronies from his home village of Tikrit are homicidal criminals, and their Iraq is a living hell." But he cited several reasons why the U.S. war on Iraq was not justified and why he "remained unconvinced by President Bush's Iraqi grand design." He restated this position in a letter to the Guardian in 2007, adding that "as president of PEN American Center, I led that organisation in a number of campaigns against the Bush administration's policies."

If by "you" the protester meant PEN, the answer's a little murkier. A search of the word "Iraq" on the PEN American Center website turns up 16 pages of results—including "Rushdie mobilizes American writers against Bush," "Pamuk: Iraq war is the shame of US and West," "Resolution on the United States of America" (from the 2003 International PEN Assembly, censuring U.S. crackdowns on freedom of the press in connection with the war in Iraq), and "Sara Paretsky: Refusing to allow pressure to silence a critical voice"—but a search of press releases from Sept. 11, 2001, to March 19, 2003 (the date the U.S. invaded Iraq) returns no statement on the subject by the organization as such. Extending the search to Dec. 31, 2003, reveals "PEN protests Ashcroft comments on librarians, urges repeal of Patriot Act." That's it.

Of course there's a difference between being for a war and not being against it, but it seems to me both Rushdie and the protester could be found guilty of exaggerating their claims. (And again, there's the issue of power differential: Can an ordinary person speaking from the floor to the president of a national organization standing on stage honestly be accused of "bullying"?)

What I suspect, although the author of the PEN Live dispatch doesn't mention it, is the protester probably meant to direct his condemnation at neither Rushdie nor PEN, but a woman named Suzanne Nossel. [Note: At the time I wrote this, I had not yet received the photograph above. Now that I have it, it's clear the protester was referring to Nossel, not Rushdie. AZ, 5/4/13]

In January the PEN American Center named Nossel as its new executive director. She comes to the job with some baggage, having lasted barely a year as executive director at Amnesty International USA, resigning in the wake of barbed accusations that Amnesty was guilty of "shilling for US wars."

These charges stemmed primarily from an incident during Nossel's tenure last spring, when Amnesty placed ads on bus shelters in Chicago during the May 20–21 NATO Summit there, congratulating the military alliance for its contribution to human rights for women and girls in Afghanistan:


Simultaneous with the NATO event, Amnesty USA held a "Shadow Summit for Afghan Women's Rights," featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and speakers from the Afghan Women's Network and Women for Afghan Women, among others.

The outcry—both over the poster and at the inclusion of Albright, an advocate for the use of U.S. military force to stop atrocities and advance democracy—was loud enough that Amnesty felt obliged to respond. In a blog post titled "We Get It," AI USA's director of policy admitted that the poster was "confusing," but defended it, explaining:
The shadow summit — and the poster — is directed at NATO, not to praise it, but to remind the leaders who will be discussing Afghanistan’s future this weekend about what is really at stake if women’s rights to security, political participation and justice are traded away or compromised.
We were thinking about the hard won gains Afghan women have made since the fall of the Taliban. Ten years ago, Afghanistan had one of the worst human rights records in the world in terms of women’s and girls’ rights. The Taliban banned women from working, going to school or even leaving home without a male relative.
Today, three million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20 percent of university graduates. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined. Ten percent of all prosecutors and judges are women, compared to none under the Taliban regime. This is what we meant by progress: the gains Afghan women have struggled to achieve over the past decade. [. . .]
As a matter of policy, Amnesty doesn’t take a position for or against NATO. We didn’t call for the bombing of Afghanistan — in fact, readers who were members or following our work when the bombing started in 2001 will remember that our message was “justice not revenge” and that we went into crisis response mode out of concern for the impact on civilians.
And we’re not calling for NATO to remain in the country. [emphasis in original]
Sahar Saba, former spokesperson for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), founded in 1977 and supported by Amnesty in the past, argued that Amnesty was overstating the gains achieved by Afghan women since NATO entered the country in 2001 and that it was misleading to compare the current status of women with the situation under the Taliban.

Jodie Evans, a cofounder of Code Pink: Women for Peace, led a campaign asking the Amnesty board for Nossel's resignation. She attended the Shadow Summit in Chicago and during a Q&A session asked Nossel about the posters, as well as about reports that Nossel had let go staff from Amnesty's campaign to end the U.S. use of torture and close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. According to Evans,
Nossel said the signs [about NATO in Afghanistan] were a mistake but the intent was to talk about how the women were better off and to tell NATO they needed to keep the women safe. I replied that her messaging was still off, and that telling the audience of supporters of Amnesty that war is good for women was a horrible lie.
I'm conscious of the need not to go too far astray here, but it's important to acknowledge that the debate about whether it's possible to promote human rights by military means—a matter of life and death most of all for the people on the receiving end of U.S. firepower—is as current now as ever, and Nossel, because of the jobs she has held and the statements she's made, both in print and in person, is right in the thick of it.


Nossel became a target for antiwar activists already in 2012, when she was hired as head of Amnesty USA. In contrast to her predecessor, Larry Cox—a lifelong activist with deep grassroots connections, whose involvement with Amnesty dated back to 1976—Nossel came to the job with a management background in both human rights (COO at Human Rights Watch) and corporate media (Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal and Bertelsmann), as well as a two-year stint in the State Department under Hillary Clinton, serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

The most trenchant criticism of Nossel has centered on her statements concerning U.S. foreign policy, beginning with an article she wrote for the establishment journal Foreign Affairs while at Bertelsmann, in 2004, titled "Smart Power." There is nothing terribly new about her argument, which can be boiled down to the idea that the United States, since the end of the Cold War, can no longer rely on military might alone to ensure its preeminent global standing: "trade, diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values" are equally valuable tools.

(The first person to put forward this position in U.S. policy circles was actually Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard University, in a 1990 book titled Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power [his main argument is also summarized in this 1990 article for Foreign Policy]. The term Nye used was "soft power," not "smart power," but Nye, notably, was less interested in propping up U.S. hegemony than in "meet[ing] the challenges of transnational interdependence.")

Nossel casts herself as a Democrat, a "progressive" who wishes to "wrest . . . back from Republican policymakers" the tarnished doctrine of liberal internationalism, which argues that liberal states should intervene in other states to pursue liberal objectives. "Progressives," she writes in Foreign Affairs,
must therefore advance a foreign policy that renders more effective the fight against terrorism but that also goes well beyond it—focusing on the smart use of power to promote U.S. interests through a stable grid of allies, institutions, and norms. They must define an agenda that marshals all available sources of power and then apply it in bold yet practical ways to counter threats and capture opportunities. Such an approach would reassure an uneasy American public, unite a fractious government bureaucracy, and rally the world behind U.S. goals.
For Nossel, human rights are more of an instrument than an end, a means to advancing U.S. interests: "Policymakers must pragmatically seek out opportunities for action where idealism and realism intersect and pursue their goals in ways that reinforce, rather than deplete, U.S. power."

Most other criticism of Nossel at the time of her appointment as executive director of AI USA focused on her statements regarding Israel (which she was accused of defending at the expense of Palestinians' rights) and her stance vis-à-vis Iran (which she has argued Israel should attack preemptively).

This is not an exhaustive account of Nossel's credentials—far from it—and to be fair, Nossel has taken positions on other issues, and other countries, that are not at all controversial and have therefore gone unremarked. She's also the founder of a blog called Democracy Arsenal, a solidly liberal-Democrat forum that is entirely unexceptional in the range of opinion of its contributors.

The truth is, Nossel is squarely in the mainstream of present-day Democratic foreign policy thinking.

Journalist and author Chris Hedges, who until recently most people knew mainly from his bylines in the New York Times, sprang more openly into the public eye in 2011, thanks to his engagement in Occupy Wall Street. Since then, he's become one of the go-to talking heads of the left, with a weekly column on Truthdig and regular appearances in the media and at public events.


In protest against the PEN American Center's hiring of Nossel, in April Hedges announced he was "resigning" from PEN and had turned down the organization's invitation to appear in this year's edition of the PEN World Voices Festival. In a follow-up to his announcement, "The Hijacking of Human Rights," he bludgeons Nossel, the U.S. government, and most of this country's largest human rights organizations for "buying into the false creed that U.S. military force can be deployed to promote human rights."

Nossel supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: It's true. Hedges goes too far, though, in calling her "one of the most fervent cheerleaders for the Iraq War," claiming she "embraced the administration's policy, whether that's drone attacks, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the curtailment of civil liberties, had not spoken out against torture." Given that she was in the State Department for only two years (2009–11), and in a relatively low-profile position, I think his rhetoric is overblown.

The growing convergence of human rights and humanitarian aims with those of U.S. foreign policy—as documented and scrutinized in David Rieff's must-read A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis—is cause for great concern, and in Nossel these tendencies collide, but she, personally, is not responsible for them. The rising pitch of invective against her ("feminist for imperialism," "US imperial lackey," "war hawk") is out of proportion to her role in the matter.

But it is right to ask whether Nossel is an appropriate person to run the second-oldest human rights organization in the United States. (The PEN American Center was founded in 1922. The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920. By the way, the PEN American Center claims that PEN International, founded in 1921, is the world's oldest human rights organization, but some quick web research reveals that that distinction rightly belongs to Anti-Slavery International, founded as the Anti-Slavery Society in 1839. PEN International itself, interestingly, does not make that claim.)

And it is right to point out, as Chris Hedges does, that on the U.S. government's treatment of whistleblower Bradley Manning, the PEN American Center, whose charter declares "that the necessary advance of the world toward a more highly organized political and economic order renders free criticism of governments, administrations, and institutions imperative," has remained silent (as has PEN International).

Should Suzanne Nossel be replaced? I think so. I'm a member of PEN, and I believe we can do better. I also think the PEN American Center should join the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union in standing up for Bradley Manning's constitutional rights.

According to a source who was at the Monday event, when the protester shouted "What about Bradley Manning?" Rushdie replied that PEN was working on it. Maybe. There's no evidence of it yet. Until there is, Salman Rushdie should watch his mouth.