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America’s Fire Sale: Get Some Free Speech While You Can

Freedom of expression isn’t the tool of the powerful; it’s the tool of the powerless.

Photo collage of Salman Rushdie and thick red and orange lines over text
Tristar Media / Getty; The Atlantic

Two years ago, a friend emailed me: Some writers were composing an open letter to appear in Harper’s; it would address the growing threats to freedom of expression in this country. Did I want to read and possibly sign it? I read it and said to myself, This is going to be a shitstorm of biblical proportions, and wrote to my friend, “In.”

Of course I was in. I have shown up for free expression when it was a major cause of the left, and I show up for it now that it has become a cause of the right. Freedom doesn’t belong to a political party, and it’s not the tool of the powerful; it’s the tool of the powerless.

The letter came out, and in the small, bitter, vengeful worlds of journalism and publishing—we’re a fun crowd—it was a festival of freedom of expression, a gathering of like-minded antagonists from the mighty to the dweeby. Someone named Richard Kim, who was then the enterprise director of HuffPost, tweeted (enterprisingly), “Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel.” (It was the I also got into Cornell of tweets: Of course I think it’s gross, but I want you to know I was asked.)

Later in the week, about 150 writers and academics signed an open letter that appeared on Substack, “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” They expressed a widely held, emerging idea about freedom of expression, which is that it cannot be considered without a coequal consideration of the issue of power. How could the Harper’s signers have a rational discussion about free speech without a consideration of “the marginalized voices [who] have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing”? The Substack writers observed that “Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people—particularly Black and trans people—can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially, and this was the signers’ real concern.”

The letter said that “the intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse” (To the memory hole, Mr. Solzhenitsyn!), and characterized the Harper’s signers as a group of writers that has “never faced serious consequences—only momentary discomfort.”

A week ago, one of Harper’s signers, Salman Rushdie, experienced some of that momentary discomfort when he was nearly eviscerated on a sun-dappled Friday morning at the Chautauqua Institution. Rushdie signed the Harper’s letter, and I wondered why its critics hadn’t allowed themselves a little carve-out where he was concerned, given that (a) he has been the most persecuted writer in the world for the past 30 years, and (b) it would be a bad look if someone tried to collect the $3 million bounty on his head in relative proximity to the “never faced serious consequences” claim.

Soon after the attack, another writer who had signed the Harper’s letter, J. K. Rowling, tweeted out the news about Rushdie, calling it “horrifying,” and in short order received a serious death threat. A Twitter account called @MeerAsifAziz1—which had earlier praised the supreme leader of Iran and posted about the possible destruction of Israel, and that morning had called Rushdie’s attacker a “revolutionary”—replied to Rowling: “Don’t worry you are next.”

@MeerAsifAziz1 does not strike one as the kind of person dedicated to trans rights, so what could he possibly have against Rowling? Gryffindor scarf on back order? Theme-park Butterbeer just nasty? I think the impulse was probably more in line with a union action—whenever writers are being threatened and attacked, you can count on jihadist solidarity.

The most important tweet was posted by PEN America, the organization that, for 100 years, has protected writers’ freedom of expression: “We can think of no comparable incident of a public attack on a literary writer on American soil.” But lately PEN has had to resist pressure from some of its members to abandon its mission. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015, the organization announced that it would be conferring a special award for courage on the survivors. This distressed 250 of its members, who signed a shameful open letter (if you’re a writer and haven’t signed an open letter, you need to call your agent). They said they were not clear—not clear at all—on the “criteria” used in making the decision to confer the prize.

I think the criteria probably had to do with surviving a massacre that left their colleagues’ brains and blood pooled on the office floor, and the day after that announcing they would put out the next week’s issue on time.

The letter chided the decision makers for forgetting that “the inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” I’m a little more concerned with the person holding the knife.

PEN still gave the award to Charlie Hebdo—all honor to them. But some members who’d opposed it made their displeasure known in a stunning way: They didn’t go to the gala. No dinner jacket, no tuna tartare at the Museum of Natural History, no making or enjoying of writerly witticisms. Just a bit of leftover prime beef, microwaved and eaten—to make the sacrifice as bitter as possible—off a TV tray.

One writer who signed the Harper’s letter was not just a member of PEN America; she was—and is—one of its trustees: Jennifer Finney Boylan. But on publication day, she freaked out. With trembling hands, she typed her own ransom note:

I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.

Frederick Douglass said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Boylan’s version: I’ll tell you what I believe if you tell me who else believes it.

Malcolm Gladwell pointed out the absurdity of her position by tweeting, “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.”

Boylan’s having so publicly distanced herself from the letter put her in a bit of a pickle when Rushdie was attacked. How to get in on the action without alluding to her own abandonment of him? She found a way, retweeting the announcement of a PEN event to be held in solidarity with the writer: PEN members would read from his work at an event held on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Above the announcement, she wrote, with apparently zero self-reflection, “Show Up for Salman.”

I did not see her name on the list of writers who were to read from his work at the event, but the announcement said the list was “still in formation.” Boylan often comes to New York for PEN events, and I did wonder if she might go and read from his work; that would have been courageous, and it would certainly cancel out her earlier action.

But this suspenseful interlude was cut short the day before the event, when she tweeted, “I’m off to my cousin’s house in Ireland tomorrow.”

After a few days in the country, she tweeted—in the spirit of merriment, but not, apparently, of self-knowledge—“‘Boylan,’ btw, in Irish, means ‘oath breaker’ or ‘liar.’”

The concept of free speech evolved in the West for 2,000 years, beginning with the Athenians (although not without a few setbacks, such as the death of Socrates). But America was the first country in history to enshrine a formal, legal, and enforceable protection for free expression, ensuring that people have the right to speak no matter who’s pissed off or how powerful they are.

Whenever a society collapses in on itself, free speech is the first thing to go. That’s how you know we’re in the process of closing up shop. Our legal protections remain in place—that’s why so many of us were able to smack the Trump piñata to such effect—but the culture of free speech is eroding every day. Ask an Oberlin student—fresh outta Shaker Heights, coming in hot, with a heart as big as all outdoors and a 3 in AP Bio—to tell you what speech is acceptable, and she’ll tell you that it’s speech that doesn’t hurt the feelings of anyone belonging to a protected class.

And here we are, running out the clock on the American epilogue. The people on the far right are dangerous lunatics and millions on even the center left want to rewrite the genetic code.

If you don’t want to stick around for the fire sale (The Federalist Papers! “Letter From Birmingham Jail”! Everything must go!) and you’re not too eager to get knifed on a Friday morning because of something you said, you might want to look into relocating to one of the other countries shaped by the principles of the American Revolution. They aren’t hard to find. Just go to Google and type in the free world.