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Against Literary Nationalism

Writers in the US must embrace traditions of radical dissent — not American exceptionalism — if they want to resist Trump.

Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection

When Donald Trump claimed victory in November, the US literary world erupted in indignation.

In a widely circulated cri de coeur published the day after the November election, New Yorker editor David Remnick labeled the result “an American tragedy” and called on the public to struggle “honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals.” Later that month, the cast of Hamilton broke the fourth wall to address Vice President–elect Mike Pence and speak on behalf of “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not . . . defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

Not to be outdone, poet Erin Belieu jumpstarted an initiative called Writers Resist that promotes grassroots literary action in defense of the “most basic principles of freedom and justice for all.” PEN America Center answered the call, organizing a star-studded national launch for Writers Resist in New York City on January 15.

So many artists, so full of talent, fired up, speaking truth to power. And yet there’s something wrong with this picture.

Since November, prominent literary figures have repeatedly deployed liberal-nationalist clichés that conveniently elide the republic-cum-empire’s sins in order to proclaim that Trump’s America “isn’t who we are,” that an otherwise justice-promoting, democracy-sowing US of A has been suddenly soiled by Trump. Such rhetoric spreads the dangerous idea that comforting falsehoods can become the foundation for effective resistance.

In his speech at the Writers Resist kickoff, Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, recalled the words of a South African friend who’d lived under apartheid: “What is most shocking is not how shocked you are right now, it is how un-shocked you will be in six months’ time.” Greeted by cheers, Solomon vowed, “I will remain shocked! We will remain shocked!”

That liberal literati in the US were, and remain, singularly un-shocked by so much that was awful pre-Trump is troubling. Neither historical accuracy nor political realism is well served by harping on ideals that are blatantly at odds with the actual deeds of a country Martin Luther King once called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” In 2017, we retain this distinction, with a military budget roughly the same size as the next seven largest combined.

Even some writers whose works acknowledge America’s defects have come out with overly idealistic post-election statements. For example, in a recent New York Times op-ed, Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen evoked a “contest for our American identity,” recommending “storytelling” as the path toward “opening hearts.” But why does opening hearts — a laudable goal, if tritely expressed — require embracing a failing nation-state that, as his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer reminds us, is also a cruel and destructive global empire?

Here and there, prominent writers have sounded a harsher note. In an interview with the Guardian, novelist Paul Beatty explained that he “felt none of the shock or horror that many liberal Americans” had experienced since Election Day. “Maybe I just don’t feel accepted, so I don’t feel hurt. I’m not a patriot. It’s just my home, where I grew up, but hurt, no. I don’t have that parental relationship to the place,” Beatty said, highlighting Trump’s continuity with the United States’ history of racism and xenophobia.

More typical, however, is the patriotic pabulum that appears on PEN America’s #LouderTogether campaign website: “For many at home and around the world, the United States is becoming a locus of fear rather than hope. . . . PEN America’s core mission — the freedom to write — now undergirds the preservation and promotion of every social good that has made our country great.”

PEN America happens to be the largest chapter of a venerable international human rights organization, started in England following World War I in hopes of preventing future war by reaching across borders and eschewing parochial loyalties. So why does #LouderTogether describe PEN America’s mission in the language of American exceptionalism?

A closer look at the politics and leadership of PEN America offers insight into the institutional dynamics that encourage, and in turn feed on, the liberal nationalism rampant in elite US literary circles.

Smart Power

For the past four years, PEN America has been led by Suzanne Nossel, whose résumé includes a stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations under Hillary Clinton. Nossel laid out her view on the US’s role in the world in a 2004 Foreign Affairs essay entitled “Smart Power.” This approach, Nossel wrote, is the best way to “reinvent liberal internationalism for the 21st century,” projecting America’s interests on a global stage with more finesse than force of arms alone can provide. Among the tools of smart power, Nossel listed “diplomacy, foreign aid, and the spread of American values” [emphasis added].

Nossel’s “smart power” is merely a watered-down version of the US government’s manic attempts to draft writers and other cultural figures in support of its foreign policy aims during what is known as the “cultural Cold War.” Starting in the late 1940s, the CIA wheedled, bribed, and pressured prominent writers around the world into becoming foot soldiers in the great battle for “American values” — free expression ironically foremost among them — against communism. These efforts included subsidizing and manipulating a staggering variety of cultural institutions, including the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the magazine Encounter.

Obviously there are significant differences between covert government intervention in the cultural sphere and PEN America hiring a sometime-government official with a blueprint for “reinventing liberal internationalism for the 21st century.” Yet Nossel, like the CIA of old, has eagerly exploited ostensibly independent writers’ cultural capital to promote Brand America under the banner of free expression. In an interview with NYN Media, she described her organization’s division of labor: “[T]he excellence of our members gives us the authority to speak out [on issues involving free expression] . . . with their stature as sort of the foundation for our credibility.”

Curiously, most of the literati have not noticed the glaring contradiction between Nossel’s nationalist agenda and PEN’s stated mission. Public scrutiny of this conflict has tended to come, instead, from journalists and progressive activists.

For example, John V. Walsh and Coleen Rowley saw the decision to hire Nossel as “an embodiment of the ongoing, and all too successful, cooption of the Human Rights movement by the U.S. government.” Chris Hedges, former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, resigned from PEN, declaring that the appointment served to “promote imperial projects.”

With its professional staffing and access to PEN International’s networks, PEN America is ideally positioned to promote the national brand with programs like its World Voices Festival of International Literature, which takes place in New York City each spring.

Under Nossel, World Voices has sparked at least one notable controversy thanks to free expression’s new political slant. In 2015, following the bloody attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the festival featured an award ceremony honoring the surviving editors. Over two hundred writers, including Teju Cole, Junot Díaz, Deborah Eisenberg, and Michael Ondaatje, signed a letter protesting the decision. While decrying the abhorrent attack, they argued that the magazine’s crude mockery of Muslims, a beleaguered minority in French society, made it an unsuitable candidate for PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

Weighing in on the protesters’ side, journalist Glenn Greenwald denounced “the role played by former Obama officials in human rights and other organizations designed to function as adversaries to the government,” groups that thereby “become co-opted and converted into the opposite of what they claim.”

This January, at the PEN-sponsored kickoff for Writers Resist, the implications of writers’ willingness to conflate Obama-era nationalism with free expression became clear. On the steps of the New York Public Library, a series of notable writers read from their own and others’ work — but not before the crowd of thousands had dutifully applauded a young girl’s rendition of the national anthem.

The reverence accorded to bombs bursting in air set the stage for an afternoon that only occasionally evoked traditions of radical literary dissent. The organizers decided to featured no less than four poems from previous inaugurals, starting with Robert Frost’s elegant apologia for settler colonialism, “The Gift Outright.” PEN president Andrew Solomon said that “our focus at PEN used to be on the violations of free speech that take place abroad,” but, he added, “the freedoms we hoped to bestow on others are now under explicit siege here at home,” his language reeking of imperial condescension.

The kickoff repeatedly evoked a national pride that, while rattled by Donald Trump, still sees the United States as a shining city on a hill. These statements contrasted starkly with message conveyed by posters bearing portraits of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. “Your silence will not protect you,” read a captioning quote from Lorde, as if the event didn’t warn of a return to the phenomenon Frances Stonor Saunders describes in her book The Cultural Cold War: “The tradition of radical dissenter, where intellectuals took it upon themselves to probe myths, interrogate institutional prerogative, and disturb the complacency of power, was suspended in favor of supporting ‘the American proposition.’”

Multicultural Camelot

In 1997, poet Adrienne Rich turned down President Bill Clinton’s offer of the National Medal for the Arts, explaining that “the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. . . . [O]ver the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country. . . . [A]rt . . . means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power.”

In the twenty years since Rich spoke out, the injustices she pointed to have intensified. Indeed, anyone who thinks that “cynical policies” disappeared under Obama should review his remarks to the nation’s top financial executives in March 2009, when the purveyor of “hope and change” tried to reassure the fat cats: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks. . . . I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

Those who value “justice for all” cannot look at the actually existing United States — the barbarous inequalities it fosters at home, the imperial violence it passes off as foreign policy — without concluding that “the American proposition” is bunk. This is not, of course, to give up on fighting for justice; it is merely to eschew the veneration of a history of abuses.

So why don’t today’s writers take a stand like Rich? What happened to the radical dissent embodied in figures like James Baldwin, Grace Paley, and June Jordan — or the United Kingdom’s Harold Pinter, who devoted part of his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to delivering a scathing rebuke of America’s imperial crimes?

President Obama surely played a key role, rejuvenating the “American proposition” in the eyes of liberals and former radicals, as evidenced by the flood of eulogies for the outgoing administration. Legal scholar Aziz Rana offers a powerful account of the ideology that underlies this dynamic, arguing that the United States’ “creedal nationalism” depends on a narrative that US history has gradually tended toward liberty and equality for all. Obama skillfully fused his personal story with this creedal justification, tirelessly evoking “the promise of the immigrant nation (open even to the son of an African goatherd), the black fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr. ’s ‘dream,’ and the success story of the hardworking white middle class.”

While Obama’s story appealed to liberals across the board, the president attracted writers in particular, who saw in him a consummately literate commander-in-chief making unprecedented efforts to engage with the nation’s culture-makers. Obama is, of course, a noted author himself; his memoir Dreams from My Father, the central statement of his creedal nationalism, is far better crafted than anything the average politician could come up with. Endearing gestures — like collaborating with novelist Marilynne Robinson on a two-part dialogue in the New York Review of Books — helped cement this image.

In the eyes of many writers, a miracle had occurred: a sitting president was “our sort of person.” Never mind the cognitive dissonance required to reconcile this attractive figure with the POTUS of the hit lists reviewed on “Killer Tuesdays,” the Nobel Peace laureate who bombed seven countries and planned a trillion dollar update of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, the “deporter-in-chief” who expelled more undocumented people than all twentieth-century American presidents combined. By attending to atmospherics rather than facts, writers took comfort in the veneer of decency with which Obama’s presidency coated the ugly realities of American power.

Add to all this the far from negligible circumstance that, under Obama, writers of color, queer writers, and others once grievously marginalized could suddenly feel included in an authentic way. To be sure, this breakthrough came more from the efforts of insurgent writers stretching back decades than from presidential initiatives, and flagrant instances of racism and gender inequity continued to surface in the literary world during the Obama years. Yet the president’s patronage helped amplify hitherto silenced voices.

Like John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, the image of the Obama White House as a citadel of elegance, grace, literary sophistication, and arts patronage was carefully cultivated. We can see this mythmaking at work in New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s worshipful depiction of the outgoing president: “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped . . . by reading and writing as Barack Obama.” We can see it given a high-culture twist in the Harvard Review’s “Renga for Obama,” a collaboration of over two hundred poets that “expresses the profound sense of gratitude we have for a modern political leader who . . . represents the very best of who we are.”

Marilynne Robinson may have reached the pinnacle of this hagiography in her valedictory tribute, a wobbly soufflé of nationalist yearning generously laced with theological portent. Elsewhere, in an interview with Christopher Lydon, she admitted, “I think he [Obama] really is a saintly man.”

Or perhaps Ta-Nehisi Coates attained that summit in “My President Was Black,” which argues for the symbolic value of Obama’s presidency to African Americans despite the substance of his actual policies. It brims with love and premonitory nostalgia for a president described as “a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history” — who, by the way, also boasts “membership in hip-hop’s foundational generation,” displays “obvious brilliance” at the drop of a hat, and “walked on ice and never fell” for two full terms. Coates notably avoids any mention of foreign policy or of how communities of color have fared in material terms since 2008.

There is something touching, almost pathetic, in the ardent longing of a diverse cast of American culture-makers for a president who “gets” them, shares aspects of their identities, values what they value. But it’s also befuddling. I think back to Paul Beatty’s comment: “I don’t have that parental relationship to the place.”

The question American writers of radical conscience face is not whether it’s better to have a president who values diverse literary voices than one who doesn’t. Nor is it whether Obama was a gentler imperialist or more gracious servant of capital than other recent occupants of the Oval Office. And it’s certainly not how to refurbish hoary tropes of American exceptionalism in order to thwart all that’s dangerous and vile in Donald Trump.

Instead, the question is how best to meet the storms of violence, domestic and global, that result from the actual exercise of actually existing American power in all modern administrations. We need to step away from the fatuous discourse of good and bad kings and get on with that urgent agenda.

Right now, the people doing this work at any effective level are almost invariably activists, not creative writers. In “My President Was Black,” Coates summarizes Black Lives Matter cofounder Opal Tometi’s reasons for declining to meet with Obama: “Black Lives Matter sees itself as engaged in a protest against the treatment of black people by the American state, and so Tometi and much of the group’s leadership, concerned about being used for a photo op by the very body they were protesting, opted not to go.”

Writers should follow suit and carry on the tradition of radical dissent embodied by James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich.

Imagine Better Communities

Imagined Communities, historian Benedict Anderson’s famous reflection on the history of nationalism as idea and practice, argues that nations are not naturally existing political objects but evolving symbolic constructs. His approach usefully encourages us to question exactly with whom we want to be in community, reminding us that the nations in which we happen to live are neither inevitable nor eternal containers for our aspirations toward justice and our longing for solidarity.

Throughout this essay, I have argued that “America” is the wrong container for our best aspirations. Those who seek to galvanize progressive resistance in the name of national values paint a picture of a country whose world-class misdeeds somehow fail to count against the presumption of its foundational innocence. This portrayal distorts history and impedes a necessary debate about what is to be done.

Both as citizens and as cultural workers, American writers must renounce the destructive fantasies of creedal nationalism. Instead of seeking to craft liberal versions of patriotic clichés, we must build communities of resistance that include those artists who reject the follies of empire and instead create other modes of connection, more suited to seeking justice. Here’s a brief list of what that might entail.

First, renovate the language. Expose sentimental nationalist rhetoric as the enemy of clear thought and good prose. Shun appeals to “American values” as embarrassing platitudes. Jettison any language that suggests our slave-holding founders wanted justice and equality for all. Cast off the “nation of immigrants” trope, which obscures the sordid histories of settler colonialism and the Middle Passage.

Second, begin reconstructing international solidarity among writers, an especially crucial task given today’s ominous geopolitical currents (think Brexit, Erdoğan, Modi, Le Pen, Wilders). Base this on explicit anti-imperialism and include writers in poor nations, postcolonial nations, nations targeted for settler colonialism, and the undocumented, stateless, and displaced worldwide.

Third, give this solidarity an organizational basis. Perhaps we need an alternative to PEN, on either local or international levels. A “liberated PEN America,” with a truly internationalist bent, might affiliate with PEN International; if this proves impractical, some other network can foster connections based on an acknowledgment that American writers have everything to learn from (and nothing to “bestow” on) the rest of the world.

Fourth, imitating Opal Tometi and Adrienne Rich, practice active dissent. Decline honors and invitations that entangle you in networks of illegitimate power. Publicly call out the complicity of literary institutions with nationalist agendas, whether liberal or reactionary.

Fifth, raise up the voices of writers not in thrall to “the American proposition” — those who, like novelist Rabih Alameddine, recognize, “We are not better than this. We are this.” Explore the possibility that this group may be larger than it appears, that what seems to be an overwhelming consensus in favor of liberal nationalism instead reflects the workings of a new literary establishment — one that boosts greater diversity than the old old boys’ club, but nevertheless relentlessly sidelines radical critique.

Sixth, build a radical political movement to challenge the state’s power and prerogatives. The American writers who, from the 1960s on, most vociferously used their craft to speak truth to power did not do so in a vacuum; vibrant social movements at home and anticolonial liberation struggles worldwide deeply informed their work. This can happen again.

Finally, recognize reading and writing as opportunities to imagine better communities than those evoked by the exhausted imagery of liberal nationalism. Immerse yourself in the transnational feminists writing “borderlands”; reexamine revolutionary texts; return to Négritude and Creolité; embrace indigenous writers’ visions of how to esteem the communities humans form with other living beings and the Earth; revisit the literature of worker solidarity; savor speculative fiction rich with imagined worlds that refuse the frontier themes of mainstream sci-fi; relish the acerbity, wit, and despair of writers who hail from other empires in decline; make friends with the literature of “our America,” José Martí’s term for the fellowship of nations south of US borders.

We must again take up a task that our most prominent literati have shamefully neglected of late. We must imagine, then build, communities geared to sustain a world beyond the follies and crimes of “America.”