A Profession Of Fear
I haven’t been moved much at all about all the recent news about government spying. You know, the NSA playing canasta with all our emails and the State Department eavesdropping on the belching and scratching of selected world leaders.
I suppose that’s because I’ve studied so much of the second half of the 20th Century in general and the the 1960s in particular. For that matter, I could have been studying the Jacobean Era of British history (the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth centuries) and felt the same way about things.
Those in power have been spying on those without it since humans first started discussing things sotto voce. And governments have been prying into each others’ affairs forever.
Information is the most valuable currency human beings possess. If you’re thinking there was some grand and wonderful time when powerful people folded their hands and played nice in regard to keeping their noses out of other people’s business then you are a far, far more trusting soul than I am.
Others, though, are up in arms over Guardian newspaper and Wikileaks scoops, as well as the revelations made by former spook Edward Snowden who, if you’ll recall, is now hiding away safely in that very model of openness and candor, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The PEN American Center recently released a report that a significant number of writers in this holy land are feeling more than queasy about what they commit to paper or the LCD screen. Some, in fact, are beginning to censor themselves. US spying efforts, the report claims, “…are having a tangible and chilling effect on writers….”
The report opens with this graphic:
Really? Honestly? PEN American Center says it surveyed more than 520 member writers to come to this conclusion. That means some 170 of that 520 who earn their daily bread by flinging words around and are so dedicated to the vocation that they pay annual PEN membership dues have been made bunny-rabbit scared by the possibility that some grown up frat boys in the FBI or CIA are giggling over their sex messaging as we speak.
Writers are the people we depend on for information about secret wars and industrial poisonings. They tell us about sweetheart deals, legislative payoffs, and clandestine entanglements.
Who else could tell us about the Koch Brothers or ALEC or even the fabulous new DePaul University basketball arena being built with a huge infusion of city funds while Chicago public schools are being closed left and right?
TV news doesn’t do this for us, it being too busy worrying about Miley Cyrus’s tongue and where it’s been.
This Doesn’t Take Guts
Going head to head with the big boys in power takes guts. Your state legislator isn’t going to hire you to be his publicist after you’ve made a name for yourself whistling fouls on statehouse malfeasances. Corporate vice presidents of communications might look askance at applications for copywriting positions submitted by card-carrying muckrackers.
We expect guts from our print reporters and other writers.
Now PEN American Center tells us fully one-third of them lacks said viscera.
Here’s my advice to all those writers who confess that US spying is making them quake in their boots: Quit.
Yup. Get out of the business. We don’t need you. Go get a job running the new employee orientation program at some hospital. Sell some real estate. Manage a dentist’s office. Do something. But don’t tell me you’re a writer. Because you’re not.
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell once wrote, “Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. ‘Why no,’ dead-panned Red. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open up your veins, and bleed.'”
Smith, by the way, was a sports columnist. Writing, even for those in the gossip and sports rackets, takes courage. You’re exposing yourself, something you’re taught not to do from the moment you step into your kindergarten classroom.
My guess is the 170 or so writers who told PEN American Center how jittery they are over government lick-spittlers’ prying never really subjected themselves to the vital process of exposing themselves through their written words.
So I suggest to writers whose teeth are chattering because some computer geeks are accumulating email metadata that they ought to find a gig that doesn’t keep them awake at night.