I'm not saying the PEN festival doesn't feature some good writers, some worthy writers from around the world. And I'm not criticizing those writers for taking part. Nor am I denouncing those who attend. There are so few such opportunities for writers from other countries to get their work read in this country, and so few opportunities in this country to be exposed to the work of those writing in other languages.
So what's my beef? Well, to start with, here's what I wrote here a few years ago:
It's just that, on balance, it [the PEN World Voices Festival] does not in fact offer anything close to what its title advertises: the voices of the world. Which would be the voices of workers and the oppressed. PEN is a construct of the bourgeois literary establishment devoted to promoting bourgeois literary values. It will never provide a platform for a revolutionary literary voice; in fact it often propagandizes against such voices, for instance those in Cuba. So while the glit-lit crowd wines, dines and opines, let's the rest of us march -- and write -- and organize -- in solidarity with the real world's voices ... on May Day.In fact, if there were the slightest smidgen of an orientation toward the workers and oppressed, the organizers would not schedule this event to conflict with May Day, which is the workers' holiday in every country of the world. Which would you rather do, shmooze with the gliterati or march with the workers?
Let's be clear. PEN is no more a left organization, no more a force for fairness and freedom, than is Amnesty International. Both are adjuncts of the U.S. imperialist ruling class. Both loyally stand with U.S. imperialism against any and every country that defends its own sovereignty as against the force of U.S. imperialism (Iran, Syria, Libya before the U.S. destroyed it, Venezuela) and especially against any and every country that makes a revolution and tries to build socialism.
In fact, this is not mere commentary, not merely my crazy communist take on things. It is fact, fact in the person of PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. She took the helms in January. Before that, she was executive director of none other than Amnesty International. And before that? Why, she worked at the State Department! She was deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations. She's been a major advocate of the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, of the Israeli war against Palestine, of the U.S. bombing and invasion of Libya. On and on. It's a continuum. See how this works?
So. Let's take this a step further, as a heckler apparently did last night at one of the PEN festival's opening events with Salman Rushdie at the podium. Leave aside PEN's anticommunist and pro-imperialist work regarding other countries. What about the U.S.? I'm hearing reports that last night this heckler repeatedly characterized PEN as a tool of the U.S. government and challenged PEN and Rushdie to acknowledge the heroism of Bradley Manning. The heckler certainly raised a good point. Where is the award to a true hero right here? It's within PEN's purview--Manning didn't write anything, but he provided documents, he shared information, he exposed the most horrific murderous wrongs done by a monstrous anti-human government--isn't that the sort of thing PEN is supposedly set up to celebrate and defend?
And what about Mumia Abu-Jamal? I understand that PEN allowed him membership--but where is its spirited organized active embrace of the struggle to free him? Why isn't Mumia the keynote speaker, the main honoree? Why isn't the case of this brilliant journalist and author imprisoned for his activism--um, isn't that there description almost exactly what PEN claims to be all about--why isn't Mumia's case, a case of monstrous injustice right here in this country, a centerpiece of PEN's work?
Well, because the sort of thing PEN is actually all about takes center stage tonight at its one-thousand-dollar-a-head gala. The guest of honor who will be presented with the PEN Literary Service Award is none other than racist misogynist extraordinaire Philip Roth, who will "reflect on his lifetime of literary endeavor and his personal involvement in promoting freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe, a story that he has never told publicly." Oh goody! It sounds like Philip Roth worked on behalf of U.S. imperialism to undermine the workers' states and bring about the counterrevolutions that have transformed the former socialist countries into such fabulous bastions of the good life that standards of living have plummeted; life expectancy has dropped and infant mortality skyrocketed; unemployment, homelessness and poverty are now the rule of the day; and women are trafficked. How did he do it? Via the National Endowment for the Humanities? Voice of America? Directly on the CIA payroll? All of the above, or via some other more subterranean route? Those thousand-dollar-a-plate attendees will no doubt lap it up, whatever the story is. What courage, they'll applaud, what dedication, what a paragon, a champion of literary freedom!
What an anti-communist anti-worker anti-woman racist champion of the status quo. Thus spake PEN.