The writer’s group PEN surveyed its membership recently to ask if revelations of NSA surveillance has had a “chilling affect” on their writing. I listened to an NPR story about the PEN report this morning; the transcript is not yet online, but you can hear David Green’s report here (the transcript will appear there later today). Sixteen percent of the over 500 US writers surveyed say they have avoided writing about potentially risky topics because of the NSA revelations, and 11 percent have considered doing so.
On Morning Edition, the writer David Simon called b.s. on this response, saying that his fellow writers are being hysterical. I couldn’t agree more. They only wish they were important enough for the NSA to monitor. The fact is, the government really doesn’t give a rat’s rear end about American writers. They don’t have to; writers don’t threaten the government, not in the way Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn threatened their governments. I wish it weren’t so, but the truth is, most American writers are irrelevant to politics and public life today. The government doesn’t much care what writers have to say because the public doesn’t much care what writers have to say. It is the fondest wish of many writers to be taken seriously enough to be the victims of McCarthyite surveillance.
On the radio this morning, novelist Azar Nafisi, taking the opposite side from Simon, said that artists are often the canary in the cultural coal mine — the point here being that if writers are censoring themselves out of fear of the government, then the rest of us should be worried. Sorry, I don’t buy it — and I say that as a writer who has been alarmed by the NSA revelations, who has written critically about the NSA, and who works for a magazine that has been quite critical of the NSA and the national security state. I think it’s probably true that journalists have been specially targeted by the NSA, in a way that should alarm free-speech defenders. But novelists? Come on. Walker Percy had their number when he once essayed:
My own suspicion is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn, who get sent to the Gulag camps for their writings, keep writing on toilet paper, take on the whole bloody state — and win. The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom — even freedom for atrocities like MacBird! — but, like ninety-five percent of Americans, couldn’t care less what we write. Oh, you lucky Dostoevskys, with your firing squads (imagine shooting an American writer!), exiles, prison camps, nuthouses. True, American writers are often regarded as nuts but as harmless ones. So the exile has to be self-imposed — which has its drawbacks. One goes storming off, holes up in Montmartre or Algiers, cursing McCarthyism, racism, TV, shopping centers, consumerism, and no one pays the slightest attention. Months, years, later, one saunters back, hands in pockets, eyes averted — but no one is looking now either.
In its report, PEN writes:
Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution.
Please. Such self-important drama. I could be wrong here, but I think that anything not written by a contemporary American writer because he is afraid of the NSA is not something society will suffer from not having. If fear of the NSA prevents, say, Alice Walker from bloviating about cultural politics, well, that’s a point in the NSA’s favor.
Besides which, if you are so afraid of the NSA that you don’t write a book or give a speech on something that matters to you as a writer, the most useful thing someone can say to you is: Nut up.
UPDATE: In fact, if you think about it, who is more at risk of having her writing career damaged by something she was written: an American writer who publishes a book or article highly critical of the US national security establishment, or an American writer who publishes a book or article highly critical of gay rights, or progressive feminist and racial orthodoxies? Would your career be more in danger as a writer for defending Edward Snowden, or Pope Benedict XVI?