PEN 2014: Looking in the Mirror



[Read part one of this dispatch.]


Identifying self-censorship at the individual level is the most difficult to uncover, mostly because it happens on a deeply personal and psychological level, but it is not impossible to discern. The practice may not even be noticed by the individual, the result of a successful indoctrination. I have several friends from Burma, for example, who have time and again explained that when making art they constantly question whether the final product would anger the authorities, and if so, to what degree. The thinking through of the art-making process causes them to question their instincts; the process is ingrained in their psyche. Self-censorship follows them everywhere, even today in the United States where they have been free for years to make whatever art they choose. In China when I asked one bright PhD student about the political prisoners in her country she firmly denied their existence. How does she know, I queried. “Because the government says so,” was her sincere reply.


It was in this regard that Paul Berman politely let intellectuals have it, specifically in regard to a seemingly tacit effort on the part of the Left to pull punches when it comes to critiquing militant Islamic organizations in the Middle East. Leftist intellectuals, he claims, are self-censoring when it comes to arguments about the politics of resistance in this tinderbox of a neighborhood.


Berman is not new to this topic, having tackled it straight on in The Flight of the Intellectuals. At the opening night reading we could hear the echoes of fellow iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, who also delivered a few punches at this very festival on this very stage a few years ago.


In brief, which does no justice to the sharp argument put forth by Berman, the senior editor of The New Republic demanded that intellectuals challenge the fascist, Nazi-inflected arguments and platforms of organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ba’athists in Syria, and elements of the Republic of Iran. Too often these groups are treated with kid gloves (my words), said Berman, dismissing deeper investigation into the driving forces of these anti-Semitic groups by using guarded commentary couched in “anti-imperialist” or “left wing” rhetoric.


Berman took a longer walk than needed to get to his point, drawing the readers in with a seemingly innocuous reference to the Young Goodman Brown character in the eponymous Nathaniel Hawthorne story, in which the protagonist has a religious epiphany and deems everyone around him to be out of their minds, not to mention theologically lost. That’s the edge toward which Berman led us, by the way: the edge is theological. From there his argument goose-stepped to the overly-used claims of Nazism in any argument against fascist practices and ideas, and yet that very tool remains sharp in many peoples’ toolboxes.


Never mind, Berman warns, that these groups so often (and too easily) called “anti-imperialist” have at the cores of their ideological platforms the very Nazi ideas we decry. (This, I admit, I cannot speak to specifically, but the idea intrigues and begs further research.) The assertion: intellectuals who fail to do due diligence in researching the fundamentals of these fundamentalist groups are, in effect, self-censoring.  


Here I was reminded again of Orwell’s critique of the British Left, too reluctant to put forth anti-Russian criticism, but quick to fire barbs at British and German governments. Russia was off limits; intellectuals in his time adopted a “we don’t talk about that; it’s too inconvenient” attitude.


Berman levels similar charges today. Like Young Goodman Brown in Hawthorne’s story, the intellectual who cries foul today, suggests Berman, risks being shamed as “prideful” and ostracized. That sounds like a challenge. 



Islam, Middle East, PEN 2014, Public Intellectual