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Surveillance Revelations Give Creative Writers Pause


For much of this year we've been hearing headlines effectively saying the government is spying on you. Spy agencies like the National Security Agency gather and store phone records, vacuum up emails by the billions, listen in on foreign leaders' telephone conversations and more. Now a nonprofit writers group, the PEN American Center, is exploring whether the fear of surveillance is affecting creative expression.

It's a question our colleague, David Greene, wanted to explore.


Over 500 American writers were part of a survey by PEN, and some said they're worried enough about government surveillance that they've actually begun to censor themselves. This deeply concerns Azar Nafisi. She's the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It's a memoir that deals with living under a repressive government. Nafisi was troubled by an example in the new report of an unnamed American poet who perceives the U.S. government is targeting her because of a poem she wrote about why some young people might want to become jihadists.

Nafisi says if writers are getting freaked out, this is an early sign that all this is having an impact on our culture.

AZAR NAFISI: The whole issue with the writers, with freedom of expression, is that writers are canaries in the mine. What happens to them could happen to the society as a whole.

GREENE: Now, another voice in this conversation is writer David Simon. He's a former police reporter and he's now best known for creating "The Wire," the TV series about cops using wiretaps to catch drug dealers. He senses an overreaction here.

DAVID SIMON: If there are writers who are self-censoring right now, based on the reporting about what the NSA is doing and not doing, I don't think that's entirely empirically justified by anything that's actually gone on.

GREENE: Nafisi and Simon were part of a panel on this topic in Washington, D.C. They dropped by our studios first. Simon said writers should think hard before limiting their own work.

SIMON: They need to self-reflect before they self-censor. You know, a lot of the reporting that has happened about what the NSA is doing and not doing has been hyperbolic, to the point of almost oblivious to generations of telecommunications law, of what is allowed, of what is the Fourth Amendment right to privacy and what is not, what the government has always had the right to do for any investigation.

So I don't see the smoking gun yet. There is very little evidence that this is being misused to try to thwart free speech.

GREENE: Why do you say that you believe the metaphor that Azar brought up, the idea that a canary in a coal mine is like writers and artists?

SIMON: I totally agree with the idea of if the writers fail in their duty to speak their mind, then they are failing their art, they're failing their craft, and they're failing society. At the moment that ideas start to be censored, what people who are expressing ideas and people who value ideas need to do more is continue to express themselves.

This country operates on a pendulum. And we've gone through numerous periods where civil liberties and intellectual thought has been maligned and endangered. But it's a pendulum and we do swing back, you know. I mean we had Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. We've had people thrown out of work and unable to earn a living because of political associations in the time of McCarthy.

Every single time we've swung back from the precipice and we always - I believe we can self-govern. I believe these are issues that have to be addressed. And I believe there's actually a good argument to be had now.

NAFISI: I definitely think that we need to have the discussion. And if people are trying to politicize it from right or left, then we need to have the discussion even more because we should not allow it. That in itself, that politicization of a debate so essential in itself is censorship, you know. And I don't want that to happen.

SIMON: Every problem is about competing interests and the interests are often quite legitimate. Here you have an interest in national security and law enforcement. You also have an interest for civil rights and privacy. Both things can be credibly argued. They must be made to coexist in a democracy. And the core values, the essential values of both things, must be preserved. You've got to roll up your sleeves and get in there and do it.

And so there are places that I'm ready to be very critical of the government. But I'm really disappointed in how hyperbolic and how one-sided the conversation has become.

GREENE: Do you worry that a report like this could be somewhat hyperbolic?

SIMON: If a quarter of the writers are saying they're already self-censoring - based on a dynamic in which you've seen the government not interpose in any significant way - it disappoints me that writers have not shown the courage of their convictions. I think it says a lot about writers - maybe more about writers than about the government.

NAFISI: Of course the government hasn't been very helpful in defending itself. It needs to defend itself. The government is all over the place. And, you know, the first time the news came out, I felt as if they were just caught picking at the cookie jar.


SIMON: Yeah.

NAFISI: And then trying to say: Oh, we didn't do it, you know. So...

GREENE: But do you agree with David Simon that much of this is these writers, who may be censoring themselves, should show courage in their conviction and just write what they want?

NAFISI: Well, I want to be cautious on that because some of - like the point about the poet that we were talking about. If that is right, then I can see that there would be grounds for - not grounds for self-censorship. I mean if writers in China and in Iran and in Saudi Arabia, if bloggers over there are not censoring themselves...


NAFISI: If people are putting their lives on the line for telling the truth over there, our blood is not thicker then theirs, you know. We can certainly manage. So that aspect of it...

SIMON: Just so.

NAFISI: ...I do not agree with.

SIMON: The antidote to somebody being intimidated because they wrote a poem about how jihadis become the jihadis is for there to be, you know, the moment that you hear that somebody is being harassed for that, is for there to be 10 more poems and 10 more essays.

GREENE: That should be the reaction.

SIMON: About jihadis becoming jihadis.


SIMON: That's what writers do. First Amendment rights are only, at their most, essential when you're saying something unpopular. Writers are not only the canary in the coal mine - to go back to where we began this, and I think it's very apt - but I hold them to a higher standard. You know, if they're playing this game and writing about current events and politics, they have a higher standard, I think.

GREENE: Thank you both for coming in to talk about this. We really appreciate it.

NAFISI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: David talked with David Simon, the writer and producer who created the HBO series "The Wire," among other hits. He also spoke with Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.