PEN America: Another free speech org bites the dust

The 1981 TV drama “Skokie” did more than give Hollywood legend Danny Kaye one of his last meaty roles.

The fact-based film showed the American Civil Liberties Union defending the worst free speech possible: Nazis marching in a Chicago hamlet teeming with Holocaust survivors.

It’s easy to defend virtuous speech. Supporting odious speech, the kind that makes decent people wince, is more challenging.

And all the more necessary.

That ACLU is no more. The once fierce free-speech advocate stayed muzzled as Big Tech censorship marched across the West and cancel culture ran roughshod through our institutions. The group now fights for “racial justice” and other hard-left positions.

PEN pals with Hamas?

Will PEN America suffer a similar fate?

Founded in 1922, PEN America exists to “champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” That’s ripped from the organization’s “About Us” page.

It speaks volumes.

So does this part of its credo, now anathema to the ACLU: “to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”

The Atlantic’s blockbuster investigation into PEN America reveals an institution on the brink of collapse. The body’s unwillingness to become a pro-Palestinian mouthpiece, down to declaring Israel’s counter-attack on Hamas following the Oct. 7 atrocities a “genocide,” has left it scrambling to survive.

PEN America just canceled its annual World Voices Festival, which will, according to the Atlantic, “encourage cross-cultural conversation and champion embattled artists.”

Too many artists pulled out of the event, decrying PEN’s unwillingness to politicize the organization against Israel’s military assault.

The group’s annual literary awards previously got canceled, too, after almost half the nominees withdrew their names due to similar outrage.

Those critics want even more concessions. They demand the group’s CEO, president, and board resign for refusing to embrace the pro-Palestinian cause.

The Atlantic article found an unsurprising reason for the recent hostility toward free expression: Its advocates tend to identify as conservative. And that’s not going over well with Team PEN.

‘Book ban’ bamboozle

Former PEN America leadership I’ve spoken to echoes this, wondering if the right’s relentless focus on threats to free speech unwittingly politicized the issue, creating the current confusion about PEN’s purpose.

It’s likely PEN America will limp along, even less impassioned about free speech than before, or just call it a day. In recent years, the group rallied against so-called book bans, ignoring how many protests involve graphic sexual content aimed at young students.

To its credit, PEN America did warn about the rise of “sensitivity readers” censoring classic works by Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming.

Today’s artistic community leans aggressively to the left, and the modern left no longer considers free speech worth defending. It’s attacked as either “disinformation” or “hate speech,” political labels meant to censor unwoke views.

Consider the general apathy following the Twitter files revelations, in which conservative speech and contrarian views were censored by the social media giant.

Today’s left injects politics into every part of the culture, from sports to academia. Is it any wonder to see a Drag Queen Story Hour reader demand kids chant “free Palestine”?

It was only a matter of time before it targeted PEN America.

Message to censors: ‘You’re FIREd’

There is some hope on the cultural front, however.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has stepped up in a serious fashion in recent years. The apolitical group, formed in 1999, uses its clout and legal firepower to defend speech, protect professors unfairly fired for their views, and more.

The group’s media-savvy mien matters. FIRE’s “So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast” tackles challenging issues in a forum where debate still reigns supreme.

Group president and CEO Greg Lukianoff recently appeared in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a powerful documentary based on the 2015 book he co-authored with Jonathan Haidt. The film exposes the toxic woke elements that have taken hold across academia.

And we’re seeing the fruits of that now at embattled Columbia University and elsewhere.

Will PEN America screw up the courage to stick to its founding principles and fight back against its far-left foes? The Vegas odds don’t look promising on that front.

Which means it will soon join the ACLU in virtue-signaling irrelevance.

In that case, let’s hope that FIRE manages to continue the struggle against true censorship. A struggle all but abandoned by a PEN no longer mightier than the horde.

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