BOB GARFIELD: Pan-American Center, a writer’s organization, released a report last week titled, “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives US Writers to Self-Censor.” Of the 500-plus members surveyed, 28 percent said they've curtailed or avoided social media activities; 24 percent have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations; 13 percent have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints. The gathering sense of nervousness is nerve-racking in itself. What does freedom of expression really mean if our thinkers are constantly looking over their shoulders?
But at least one commentator draws a different lesson from the report. LA Times book critic David Ulin wrote a piece telling writers to just grow a pair and get busy.
DAVID ULIN: Given the value of free expression of ideas to what we do for a living, writers should be on the frontline or pushing back against surveillance, rather than allowing it to sort of stifle their own expression.
BOB GARFIELD: You invoked some pretty big names in the history of American dissidents, right at the top of the list being Thomas Paine. How does he figure in?
DAVID ULIN: You could make the argument that Common Sense is the most important book ever published in the United States, or even before the United States, because it’s really the spark plug from which the Declaration of Independence grew, from which the independence movement really jelled. Paine had to publish that book anonymously in January of 1776 because it was considered treasonous by the British authorities and, if they had caught up with him, he would have been likely to have been put to death. He, to me, has always been a role model of what the engaged writer ought to be.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well.
DAVID ULIN: Uncle Tom's Cabin, when it came out in the 1850s, really helped catalyze the abolitionist movement. She was a writer who saw her role not only as a creative role but also as a social role. And I think that this is something that has been a long tradition in American literature, in American letters. We have often had writers who have considered themselves either public figures or public commentators. I think of a writer like Norman Mailer, I think of a writer like Joan Didion, I think of a contemporary writer like Jonathan Lethem, writers who are engaged in the process of the culture. And I think that that’s a really important role for writers to fulfill.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, got that. I also took note of your concerns about NSA surveillance and the government’s overstepping in the name of national security. And yet, you cannot read your piece but to come away with the idea that you believe really the onus is on the writers to say what they have to say, irrespective of the political or intelligence conditions that they’re living in.
DAVID ULIN: In the piece, I talk about Václav Havel and his notion of the second culture, which he developed when he was living behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. And the basic idea is that freedom doesn’t come from without, it comes from within, and that by behaving as if one is free, one becomes free. So in Havel’s case, you know, you vote in the elections, even though you know they’re a sham. You write what you're going to write, you put on the plays that you want to put on, even though you know that they could create trouble for you. In Havel’s case, it involved prison time, at various points.
The key there is they only own you if they own your mind. You have a choice, I think, of either backing away or engaging. And I've always considered writing to be an act or an art of engagement.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I should say that the PEN study seems to get less to what authors write than the way they speak on the phone, the way they communicate by email, the way they behave in social media. Do you think it demonstrates implicitly that similar cautions and pulled punches are going on in the writing itself?
DAVID ULIN: The PEN study quotes some specific writers saying, I backed away from certain kinds of projects because I was concerned about what kind of red flag words might come up, in terms of Google searches, and so forth. I think there is a need for people, not just writers, but all of us, to be aware that when we’re using social media, when we’re using email, that we are, in a very real sense, publishing; we are having a public conversation.
I'm not surprised at all that the NSA is trying to gather as much information about us as it can through monitoring digital transmissions and digital technology. That’s what the NSA is designed to do. But I do think that caution breeds caution and that one of the things that great writing requires is a little bit of a sense of recklessness on a writer’s part. You really have to be willing to go for it and to push the boundaries of your idea, of your story, of your characters, of your revelation. Once you get into a territory where caution becomes the common currency, then I think people just generally back away from things that they might feel are risky, whereas they might not otherwise.
BOB GARFIELD: When you saw the PEN numbers –
DAVID ULIN: Mm-hmm?
BOB GARFIELD: - did you go a-ha, a-ha, this corroborates this since I've had that the writing that I'm seeing, the books that are crossing my desk have been, in the aggregate, halfhearted, fearful or weak?
DAVID ULIN: There are all sorts of books that come across one’s desk. A lot of the books that I’m seeing are as rigorous and courageous and provocative as any books that I’ve been seeing over the years. I also think this is relatively new. You know, the NSA revelations are fairly recent. It takes a long time for books to get written. It takes a long time for books to get to market. If there is an effect, I don't know that we would see it at the moment. But, to answer your question, no, I have not seen any kind of noticeable drop-off in books that are provocative, daring, exciting, etc.
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BOB GARFIELD: Well, here’s hoping. David, thank you very much.
DAVID ULIN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: David Ulin is book critic for the Los Angeles Times.
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