It’s a terrifying time for democracy, not only in the predictable pockets of repression around the world but right here at home in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
That was the sobering, indeed disturbing, message of Tuesday night’s PEN Literary Gala at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where horror virtuoso Stephen King and dystopian storyteller Margaret Atwood, along with movie star Morgan Freeman, sounded the alarm to a celeb-studded, black-tie crowd of nearly 1,000.
People who write books—and, just as important, people who read them—“are the crucial counterweight to those who are close-minded and mean-spirited,” King told dinner-goers sitting precariously under the museum’s 21,000-pound, 94-foot-long giant blue whale suspended from the ceiling; they included Malcolm Gladwell, Carl Bernstein, Masha Gessen, Walter Mosley, Mona Simpson, Ron Chernow, Robert Caro, Gay Talese, and actors Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“Too many of those are currently in positions of power, their poverty of thought best expressed in that intellectual dead zone known as Twitter, where clear thinking and kindness is too often replaced by schoolyard taunts,” King added. “Not to mention bad spelling and bad grammar.”
Donald Trump hardly needed to be mentioned, although Freeman—in a speech introducing his friend King, the recipient of PEN America’s Literary Service Award—almost inaudibly mumbled the president’s name. For this crowd of well-heeled Manhattanites and belletrists, it could just as well have been “Voldemort.”
“While the United States isn’t putting reporters in prison yet, the tactics of the current administration are dangerous,” Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, warned. “They include attacking and discrediting reporters by name, threatening to punish unfavorable coverage, trying to convince the public that reputable and accountable news outlets cannot be trusted, and branding certain news organizations as the enemies of the American people.”
Atwood, a native of Canada, continued: “The U.S. administration is leading by example: ‘Fake news’ is now an international knee-jerk response by strongmen and dictators seeking to discredit accurate reporting and valid criticism, and to destroy democracy in the process… The systematic effort to drive a rift between access to knowledge and the citizens of a country has a familiar ring to this dystopian novelist.”
Atwood was presenting the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in absentia to two young Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar, 31-year-old Wa Lone and 27-year-old Kyaw Soe Oo, who are jailed on trumped-up charges of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for simply doing their jobs.
Already behind bars for half a year, they are candidates for a 14-year sentence.
“We are now in Insein prison just because we covered the news,” the two journalists wrote in an acceptance speech to the PEN gala, read by Atwood. “We don’t have a desk to write on… Without the truth, we can never solve our country’s problems.
“So, we’d like to ask the government: ‘Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom? Why do soldiers, who are found guilty of murder, get 10 years while we journalists, who exposed the murder, face 14 years in prison? Do you think that’s fair?’
“We only did our work as reporters. We want the people to understand that we never betrayed the country. The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days, and stop us from being able to write news. But we want to tell them right here that they can never hide the truth.”
As the evening drew to a close, Atwood invited the crowd to write messages of support on cards for Wa Lon and Kyaw Soe Oo and take selfies with the cards and post the photos on social media. PEN America staff then would collect the cards, Atwood advised, “and see that they get to Myanmar.”
Freeman, meanwhile, recounted—in that instantly recognizable stentorian voice—that he got to know King after reading the screenplay adaptation of his novella The Shawshank Redemption.
“When I first read the script,” said Freeman, who ultimately starred in the 1994 movie, “I said I would be willing to play any part. Stephen brought compassion and humanity to the forgotten in prison, getting readers and audiences all over the world invested in their future and their freedom…
“Stephen’s portrayal of the yearning for human freedom in Shawshank was so potent that when a Chinese dissident managed a daring prison break a few years back, one of the first things Beijing authorities did was ban the very word Shawshank on social media and internet searches. They knew that Stephen King’s words and story had the force to inspire, a power they were determined to crush.”
When Freeman finally called King to the stage to accept his award, the author of more than 60 novels confided: “That’s the best goddamn introduction I’ve ever had, and probably the best I’ll ever get.”
The 70-year-old King, who these days divides his time between his native Maine and Sarasota, Florida, told of a Sunshine State encounter with a woman with “dark, shoe-leather skin” who accosted him in a Publix supermarket.
“I know who you are,” she said.
“I know who I am, too,” King replied.
“You write those scary books… Some people like those books. But the books I like are uplifting things, like The Shawshank Redemption.”
“I wrote that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
After the laughter died down, King noted the presence in the crowd of several students from Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died—14 students and three staff members—in a mass shooting on Feb. 14.
“I especially want to thank the young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for their fierce advocacy and hard work in the wake of yet another horrific school shooting,” King said. “Not even the most recent,” he added grimly. “They have stood up admirably to the vituperation of this country’s gun extremists, who seem to feel that the occasional blood sacrifice is acceptable in defense of a Second Amendment written at a time when such weapons as the AR-15 and the Bushmaster XM-15 did not exist. So I feel I’m in excellent company.”
The students, including Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes, and Zion Kelly, received the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.