La cultura como antídoto contra el autoritarismo, con Suzanne Nossel

7 de marzo de 2024 - 28 min escuchar

Suzanne Nossel, Directora General de PEN America, se une a los copresentadores de Doorstep, Nick Gvosdev y Tatiana Serafin, para debatir cómo influye la cultura en la batalla mundial entre democracias y autocracias. ¿Qué papel desempeñan los escritores, artistas y académicos en la geopolítica y la diplomacia mundial? ¿Cómo pueden las instituciones nacionales e internacionales desarrollar programas más sólidos para proteger las voces de los creadores? ¿Qué perdemos si no lo hacemos?

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NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming in a moment Suzanne Nossel, who is currently the chief executive officer of PEN America, the leading human rights and free expression organization, and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.

She is joining us to speak about narratives, Nick. Ahead of tonight’s address to the nation from President Biden, what narratives are you looking for?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The challenge the president will face tonight is that he has had competing narratives over the last three years about what he thinks the role of the United States is in the world and what type of America he wants to see emerge. It is tying those narratives together that is proving to be the challenge, where we have gone from “foreign policy for the middle class” to “climate as the existential challenge” that the United States and the nations of the world must face back to traditional geopolitics, then the question is, Russia or China as the proximate threat, back to rejuvenating the sources of American democracy and rejuvenating the American economy.

The challenge he has in the State of the Union is putting all that back together into a coherent narrative. The problem is that State of the Union addresses often become laundry lists, either of set policy achievements or “Here’s my checklist of things I would like to see happen and the laws I want Congress to pass,” and there may not be a single narrative. As we are seeing, the White House staff is having difficulties sometimes putting all of these things into one single coherent package.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let’s go to Suzanne now.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Suzanne, on a pivotal day. We have many things happening: Biden is speaking tonight, we have International Women’s Day tomorrow, so many things to talk about.

I want to start off with, because what drew me to have you here is your recent piece in Foreign Affairs magazine, “The Real Culture Wars: How Art Shapes the Contest Between Democracy and Autocracy,” and your discussion that “culture creators are part of the infantry of anti-authoritarianism.” I think talking about this is so important. You write that “culture is not a sideshow to geopolitics but rather a central arena with sweeping implications for international relations.” I think we do not often talk about this, especially in the news cycle today, when everything is about guns, guns, guns, so I wonder if you can walk us through your thoughts when you were writing this article and the main point of it as expressed in Foreign Affairs.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: I would say this idea was sparked by the work that we do at PEN America with our partners at PEN Ukraine. We had worked over years to build up a PEN organization in Ukraine, and when the war started it was just extraordinary to see how they activated. They have been delivering books across the country, programming literary events and festivals, supporting writers, including writers who are on the frontlines and who are still managing to publish, trying to sustain the publishing industry in Ukraine, which is beleaguered now, and traveling internationally to get Ukrainian voices onto a global stage, making the case for the war effort and the survival of Ukraine as an independent nation, from the perspective of authors and thinkers. It has been so powerful to witness that it got me thinking about the role of culture in pushback against authoritarianism.

Of course, I well knew that from the authoritarian perspective this has become a central tool if we look at what Xi Jinping is doing globally, whether it is the Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses or for a time trying to influence Hollywood filmmaking and the portrayal of China in that context, or working to influence the media diet of Chinese diaspora communities across the country, so many different multipronged efforts to burnish China’s image, to control the narrative, and to suppress cultural influences that are regarded as hostile. You see similar patterns in Russia.

The question I wanted to ask is: Clearly the authoritarians realize that culture is a central battleground, but are democracies missing out on this part of the picture?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I completely agree with you. I am taking it from extending your analysis to the news and the news diets of the younger generation. I teach aspiring journalists, and it is interesting to see where they get their news, and it is all through a cultural context, whether it be celebrities, fashion designers, or books. Their first point of contact with the world and the globe happens to be through culture and not through traditional news media. They maybe come to them second, so the narratives are really coming through culture.

People are not talking about that. Everything is still very much thought of as, Well, we’re going to control it from the top down, yet all of this is bubbling from the bottom up with what people are trying to read or something they are affiliated with. I wonder what we can do to elevate this conversation.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: I think that is right. Something I have thought of is this yawning and growing democratic deficit and the fact that Freedom House’s indicators seem to be on a steady decline. Why are we falling short in our efforts to shore up faltering democracies and to push back against authoritarianism?

There is so much emphasis on institutions, there is a lot of emphasis on voting and elections, and all of that is extremely important, but I also think it goes deeper. What is clear is that those efforts are not sufficient and that if you cannot plug in at the level of culture—what is influencing people, how their values are being shaped, what their perceptions are of their own government and of foreign governments, what they value, what they believe is indigenously theirs, what freedom represents, what their exposure is to the possibility of freedom of expression and creative freedom. Ultimately, in terms of making the case for what it means to live in a free society and why it is appealing, we are going to have to plumb to these deeper levels, and I think it is going to be cultural forces rather than straight-up argumentation, news, or policy pronouncements that allow us to do that.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That gets me thinking, Suzanne, about the role that culture plays, cultural products, cultural exports, and if we are moving back into thinking of culture as part of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. During the Cold War Western culture went hand in hand that people behind the Iron Curtain maybe did not read de Tocqueville or John Locke, but they were anxious for the Western cultural exports from fashion to music to everything else.

Do you still see that with the leading, particularly American, cultural exporters around the world? Are they making that link that the cultural products that they are producing—and I am thinking of singers, artists, and others—are intrinsically linked to being and living in a free and open society?

Conversely, are you seeing any authoritarian cultural exports that you see are resonating, say, in the United States, whether it is musicians, films, video games, or other cultural exports, from an authoritarian side that are influencing young Americans, young Europeans, young Latin Americans, and the like?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: I think what happened during the Cold War was that there was this heavy emphasis—and I talk about it in the piece—on the export of American and Western culture and the notion that culture was a battleground and a deep engagement with all kinds of artistic institutions and literary and scholarly magazines. Even with an organization like PEN there was a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1960s that we uncovered—I don’t think it was a secret—when we did some archival research for our centenary to discover that the CIA was enmeshed—and it was not just us but also The Paris Review and all of these different institutions—and there was an awakening to the danger and hypocrisy of that, the idea that these institutions were being discredited, and the notion that this heavy hand of government, government playing a role in shaping those cultural institutions, organizations, and narratives went counter to the liberal premise of “let a thousand flowers bloom” culturally and that culture is an arena for openness, that people can test boundaries, and that there is no imposed monoculture coming from above.

There was a real turnabout and a recognition that these tactics suddenly looked very heavy handed. Some of them were shadowy, and it was hard to see who was behind what might come across as an authentic initiative but perhaps was not.

I think what that led to was a kind of dialing back of the approach where it became softer, gentler, and less targeted with more academic exchanges and touring and traveling artists and musicians around the world just to build goodwill but without this express purpose of pushing back against other forces.

There is plenty of American and Western cultural influence globally, particularly because our technology companies are so dominant. The moderation of social media remains to a very large extent dictated by Silicon Valley. That is changing a bit now with the adoption of new rules in Europe that exert a heavier hand over that, but there is plenty of American cultural influence, also in television, entertainment, and music.

I do not think that most cultural producers see themselves as playing a role of being a purveyor of American ideals. I think that is discredited. It seems intrusive. There is much more recognition that people around the world need to arrive at their own ideas.

In the piece what I emphasize is not a return to what I see as an outdated approach of pushing, if you will, American or Western culture internationally but rather looking at Indigenous, authentic, cultural voices and forces like a PEN Ukraine—and I give other examples in the piece—that can be elevated, supported, and protected to demonstrate in a very natural, organic, and I think persuasive way that having these independent entities and creators in a society, allowing them to do their work, hearing what they have to say, and letting them test the boundaries is in itself a powerful antidote to authoritarianism.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You mention a couple of other things in your piece, such as shoring up some UN efforts to support artist exchanges in the model of what the UN Human Rights Council does for human rights defenders. In a time where the United Nations is not looking so great, how can we pivot and give them a bigger voice in some of this work?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: That is something we have thought about for a while because of our work at PEN America with writers and artists, that they are not a category of people recognized as deserving of special protection in a human rights context. You have special protections that have been extended to human rights defenders, as you mentioned, but also to journalists, recognizing the crucial role of a free press as an underpinning of free societies, of democracy, and of a rights-respecting environment.

It is our view that writers, scholars, and artists play a similar role, that they are the vessels for that freedom and that they are deserving of similar kinds of protections through the system that these other categories already receive, and we are working now in the UN system to try to bring about that recognition and enshrinement in international norms that would afford artists and writers greater protection.

The United Nations is always a bone of contestation. In my whole career I think it has been considered in many ways a flawed institution, but it is variegated. There is a lot to it, and I always have had the view that we ought to take advantage of that which is useful and try to strengthen the elements that can make a positive difference.

When it comes to these normative elements, for journalists it does make a difference. It gets international institutions more involved. There is so much more discussion of press freedom and journalism now than there used to be as far as what protections journalists need, holding governments accountable when they infringe on the rights of journalists, and looking at the angle of the effect on journalists in a conflict like Ukraine or right now Israel and Gaza. It trains the spotlight. I think the UN normative mechanisms are part of how that happens.

Then there are very practical things like networks and funding support that come through the recognition of these categories where it becomes easier for individuals to access the forms of support that they need to continue to carry out their work.

There is also a civil society dimension where organizations grow up to buttress and bolster those who are seen as worthy of protection. It has a way of driving forward recognition of a particular category, and I think it is very well deserved and overdue when it comes to culture makers.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the other recommendations you have is that U.S. embassies abroad and the U.S. Agency for International Development work along these same lines. It is so interesting because I think in general if Americans think of embassies—if they think of them—they think of them as places where you get a visa stamped. They do not think of them traditionally, which is part of their role, as cultural influencers. I wonder what you are seeing now because there has been some tumult in the State Department over the last five years with ambassadorships not being filled. Is that still an area of opportunity with some of the tumult and now uncertainty with the election?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: It is a fair question. There was a lot of damage done to the State Department and the diplomatic corps as an institution, and the process of undoing that damage I think has turned out to be more difficult and protracted than anyone maybe expected, and it is still very much underway.

Nonetheless, the embassies are engaged in culture. At the simplest level they underwrite bringing U.S. cultural figures around the world to participate in events and bring a U.S. voice and perspective. They all have cultural attachés. That is a whole system that exists. I think we can be taking advantage of it.

Recognizing that local cultural figures—I think the best ambassadors honestly know this and build relationships with influential people in the society from all kinds of different angles, recognizing the complexity and that it is not just about engaging with diplomatic counterparts. I think it is something that again can be more of a point of emphasis.

One of my motivations in writing the piece was to connect these dots and hopefully elevate the attention being afforded to these relationships and to these influencers within societies.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Building on that and this notion of supporting networks and, as you said, embassies support cultural activities, there’s the question of who pays and who comes up with the resources. Someone might say: “Taylor Swift does a pretty good job of both mobilizing interest in foreign affairs among her fan base in the United States. She is a cultural phenomenon that countries bid for now—‘Hey, we want to be part of The Eras Tour.’” How do we deal with those who say: “We will just let the market handle it. The market will send out its demand signals, cultural creators and influencers will respond to market signals and so on,” bringing it back to, what is the U.S. interest as a society for doing this rather than just ceding it to the market, which arguably we have been doing for at least several decades, just letting the market handle cultural transmission? Where do you see the role of consciously embracing this coming in?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: I do not talk in the piece about investing in the promotion of American cultural icons or products globally. I think the market does take care of that. The amount of money that is involved in the financial incentives at a government level is something we should not be trying to compete with.

What I talk about in the piece is a role engaging with and supporting local cultural voices, creators, thinkers, and people who emblemize in the eyes of populations on the frontlines of these authoritarian struggles the idea of independence of thought, the idea of bravery, challenging conventional wisdom or authority, and visions for new and different futures that the government may not want you to see but could be reflected in a piece of theatre or novel.

What I say is that we have to be very thoughtful, deliberate, and specific in how we would support that kind of activity. There are contexts like China, where any kind of Western hand in supporting culture has become difficult to impossible. It discredits and probably imperils anyone who might be on the receiving end.

In a place like Ukraine, though, where the West is providing enormous military support, for a minuscule fraction of that you could do more to underwrite the cultural sector, to enable publishers to continue putting out books, and to bring Ukrainian writers around the world so that they have a chance to engage on an international stage and convey their narrative. There are things you can do that are inexpensive relative to virtually any other form of diplomacy or geopolitical influence making that you can do with culture that are not about promoting again a Western or an American product but rather elevating individuals.

Also, importantly—and I say this in the piece—it cannot be about dictating what they are going to paint, what is the show that they are going to put on, what is their music, what are the themes, what are the lyrics? The whole point is to underscore the idea that freedom is powerful and that these people are also connected to cultural traditions that mean something to the populations where they are from that are deeply resonant and have an authenticity, simply exemplifying the fact that an open culture with all kinds of different creators and voices, products, and ideas flowing, that there is power in that.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In terms of the power of sharing that, I think tech companies, which you alluded to earlier in the conversation, are an important part. I had an exchange student just a couple of months ago, and we were able to connect over Netflix shows and over books. We went to Barnes & Noble, and the book she had wanted from Brazil was here.

It was so fascinating to see that there is this globalization of culture that also I think maybe is not as recognized, that people are sharing information despite the efforts of some tech companies to tamp down information on its platforms with their algorithms. Information sharing is happening globally, and I wonder if, instead of vilifying tech companies—and I know there is a new effort in Congress to regulate them, a vote happening just today—there is some way to push more of this global connection? I am just thinking off the top of my head, but I wonder if you have seen any of that work with tech companies in terms of doing more cross-cultural communication, and—I will throw this in as an aside—how will artificial intelligence (AI) affect that?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: I think they are vehicles for cultural projection and that sophisticated creators all over the world in so many different realms are on social media and finding audiences, and they are not geographically bounded so people are able to connect across differences.

In this universe—you touch on AI—we are increasingly flooded with disinformation. If you look down your feed on Twitter/X, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what to believe, whether it is something that has been completely falsified or just a kind of tendentious narrative that is coming from an angle where you may not know the motives behind what is being said or written. I think in that context as well art and literature take on additional significance because they get at the truth in a different way and in a way that is becoming I think ever more elusive in our information ecosystem. If you want to understand what is happening in the Middle East, you might be better off reading a novel or a work of history than you are trying to wade through your Twitter feed trying to make sense of it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of reading books, I do want to mention some of your efforts against the book bans happening here in the United States and what more we should be doing to talk about that.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: There are authoritarian impulses at work in our own country. I have been surprised as an American to see a surge in book bans. We have documented more than 6,000 book bans over the last couple of years. I find it really startling. We see increasingly a few courts, even conservative courts, waking up to this and saying, “This runs counter to the First Amendment.”

It is a part of a culture war in some communities or by some individuals that cultural change is moving too quickly and that we are embracing different narratives and identities, so it comes to this very fundamental issue that is at work around the globe of who controls the story. Is there a single story that is being told and taught or are there multiple stories? How do we sustain an open educational environment where people can be exposed to a wide variety of ideas and sort through them so that there is no wisdom being dictated from on high? We should be teaching critical thinking skills.

We are working all over the country. We have been the primary organization documenting, naming, and quantifying the problem of book bans, and now we are working with communities across the country and in the courts to push back. The heartening thing is that most Americans do not like book bans. This is not something that people associate with a country that has the world’s highest standard for protection of freedom of speech in the world, so awakening people to what is happening and how they can push back has been very powerful.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We all have books behind us, so we are all in this together.

I want to thank you so much for your time today. I encourage everyone to go out and find “The Real Culture Wars” and read more about PEN America’s work. I appreciate you being with us here today.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Thanks so much for having me.

Carnegie Council para la Ética en los Asuntos Internacionales es una organización independiente y no partidista sin ánimo de lucro. Las opiniones expresadas en este podcast son las de los ponentes y no reflejan necesariamente la posición de Carnegie Council.

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