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The New Resistance: Inauguration Day

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© Ed Lederman/PEN America

©Ed Lederman/PEN America

An artist’s job is to make people smile, not to make political statements. Apologize to Mike Pence, or stop calling yourselves artists!
   —Donald Trump, tweet in response to the cast of Hamilton’s words to Mike Pence, 19 November 2016

Actually, an artist’s job is to make people think, to reveal beauty, to transform the world, or to reflect the world as it is. An artist’s job is to critique social injustices; an artist’s job is to defend humankind and make us better than we’d be otherwise. An artist has a thousand different jobs. Some hope to make people smile, but that job is hardly the front runner as others prefer to disturb, bewilder, or provoke. And art seldom apologizes. It offers a perspective others may not endorse, but does so unashamedly. It is nuanced but brazen and does not traffic in regret. This unremitting vitality is why so many fascistic regimes have tried to quash art.

The cast of Hamilton addressed Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence from the stage when he attended their show, saying, proudly and respectfully, “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” Their message was amplified rather than diminished when President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted his vociferous objection. In so doing, he activated the delicious irony of censorship: though it may serve to silence dissent, it may likewise magnify it. No one else fascinates so much as those who have been forcibly silenced.

This was made clear at last Sunday’s WRITERS RESIST protest on the steps of the New York Public Library, which was attended by some 2,500 people. As President of PEN America, I spoke at that event. The protest was part of the larger WRITERS RESIST movement spearheaded by Erin Belieu, and sought to gather those of us who live by language to defend it. There are many freedoms under siege by the new administration, but among those, freedom of speech has a particular urgency, because it is the basis for monitoring — and resisting — the infringement of other freedoms. My most recent book, Far and Away, reflects on how writers and artists have kept truth alive in repressive societies: in the USSR, China, South Africa, Rwanda, Libya, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Meeting those brave men and women, I was consistently bewildered by the ascent of darkness in their countries, and impressed by their ability to rise to the occasion of freedom. At this moment in American history, I have been recalling their stories of dignity. We need those lessons at home.

I am a dual U.K./ U.S. national, and in 2016, I voted against Brexit and against Trump and lost both times. The winning tallies — like the election of nationalist governments in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere — represent in part a rejection of human diversity and of the internationalism that has defined Western society since World War II. Each reflects frustration with the forces that have steadily pushed the modern world toward openness. Some Brexit and Trump supporters have been motivated by fear and some by personal economic frustration; others, by incursions on what they see as self-reliance. Voters who were neither racist nor nationalist were not repulsed by those traits in their candidates and advocates. Unsurprisingly, incidents of nationalist and racist hatred have followed each time. In Britain, there was an abrupt escalation in reports to the Hate Crimes Unit after the Brexit ballot and the rate has remained elevated ever since. In the United States, nearly a thousand incidents of hateful harassment were reported in the three weeks after the presidential election.

Freedom is a verb. It is something you live and achieve, that you must relive and achieve again every day. It does not sit static; it is not an estate to be presumed continuous. It takes time and enormous commitment to build freedom, but hard-won freedom can evanesce with alarming rapidity. Nazism, apartheid, Hutu Power, Greater Serbia — each descended abruptly and swept away the justice that had preceded it. In each case, those who would become victims of ethnic violence didn’t believe it was possible on such a scale. We may not be at the brink of such extreme crisis in the U.S. and the U.K. — but we are at the very least in a wave of unprecedented bigotry. If there is to be any effective resistance to its institutionalization, it will come from our sustained openness, the most radical possible act of opposition to governing bodies that would stifle rebellious voices.