SEPTEMBER 11, 2013

Someone is listening to us.

Of course, tonight, in this theatre, a thousand of you are listening.  And that is a good thing for literature and for free expression.

But out there, beyond this room literally millions of people are being employed around the world to make nonsense of our concepts of the individual’s right to have private conversations and private information.

We spent 200 years putting our rights as citizens in place.  Free speech at the centre of them.  Over the last dozen years we have allowed them to be gradually vaporized while we raise scarcely a complaint.

Over the last dozen years security has become the justification for more and more governments to undermine these rights, whether in democracies or dictatorships.  And these governments all agree about priorities:  secrecy.  Surveillance.  The amassing of information on citizens.  The growth of legal tools which nullify the rules of transparent public justice.  The trading of information on citizens by security forces to avoid national laws.

In some ways it is comic.  Dark comedy.  I will use American numbers because we have them, but I doubt that any other country could claim to be doing better.  In 1989 Washington created 6,796,501 secrets.  They have people who keep track.  What could these secrets possibly be?  The number of coffee cups?  Taxi receipts?  The menu for lunch in the Pentagon cafeteria.  By 2009, 54,651,765 new secrets per year.  Inflation would be a polite word.  It is as if we are reading a fantasy novel in which Alice in Wonderland has developed a passionate relationship with Franz Kafka.  

In China, thirty to fifty thousand people are employed as internet police.  Why such a broad statistic?  I suppose an accurate figure would be secret.  A third of PEN International’s cases are now related to the digital world.

These days, whenever we at PEN have delicate conversations by Skype or telephone, we welcome the crowd of listeners who will never be seen by us, but who we know are out there.  We are not naïve! 

What we are living through is a growing pattern of legalized infringements on free expression; of governments using the letter, not the spirit of law; focusing on law, not justice.  Perhaps most troubling, we see the invention of secret courts which allow governments to judge citizens outside of normal rights and procedures; without public transparency.  A return to the habits of the middle ages.  A return to Star Chamber Courts.

And all of this is done in name of security.  

So here we are, PEN International, the world’s only global literary organization, with our tens of thousands of members in over one hundred countries, organized into 146 PEN Centres, with a remarkable experience defending free expression stretching back almost a century.  Here we are, gearing ourselves up for yet another new chapter in the curiously endless assault on the free word.

As in an Icelandic Saga, we arm ourselves with that most dangerous of weapons – the poem, the novel; but also with organized arguments, like those in our Digital Declaration, which is the first of our new style intellectual weapons for fighting back against the encroachments of the security state. 

Words.  That is what we have.  And it makes us, apparently, the most dangerous, the most threatening force in the world today since almost no politicians or soldiers or business leaders are in prison, while 800 of us are.  And many of us are killed or under house arrest. 

It is a great compliment.  A great tribute to the power of the sonnet, the haiku, the ghazal, the ferskeytla.  

I say all of this in one of the world’s most open societies, where people can speak out and so do speak out.

That is a very good reason for PEN to be here.  But we are also here because we believe that the reality of hundreds of languages in danger around the world represents a threat to free expression.  What greater loss of free expression can there be than for a people to lose their language and with it at least part of their culture.  Iceland is one of the great examples of the opposite.  With a language spoken by few and a strong creative tradition – and that is as much a reality today – your culture continues to strengthen.

We thank Icelandic PEN, led by Sjón, for inviting us here and making this possible.  We thank the Reykjavik International Literary Festival for their partnership.  We thank the people of Reykjavik for their welcome, and for letting us walk through their streets to protest the infringements on citizens’ rights in Russia.  We ask all of you to think of our many colleagues in prison, from Liu Xiaobo in China, to Dawit Isaak in Eritrea.  

But think also of the three young writers from South Africa, Mexico and Canada who have emerged from our first New Voices Award.  Young writers around the world came forward to take part.  There is always a winner in a competition.  But we are trying to open doors to the reality of literature, which is continuity.  These three – José Pablo, Claire and Masandé – are part of it.

We all know the tragic 9/11 of a dozen years ago.  But think of that terrible day, forty years ago exactly, the Pinochet Coup.  Yet here we are, with my friend Antonio Skármeta, celebrating the role of language in the return of democracy to Chile. 

Is our belief in language and creativity naïve?  The answer is this.  It is naïve to believe in secrets and security and war as a way of life.  You know the great line repeated in the Njal’s Saga – “The hand’s joy in the blow is brief”.

Or Halldór Laxness: “Books are the nation’s most precious possession, books have preserved the nation’s life …..”

Or the great Chinese writer, Lu Xun: “Do we have freedom of expression?”  If the answer is unclear – and today it is unclear – then “the first step Lu Xun insisted, is to fight for that freedom of expression”.  

You ask, what do we do at PEN.  It’s quite simple.  We follow the advice of Halldór Laxness and Lu Xun.  

Opening Speech At The 79th PEN International Congress In Reykjavik