1939 All Over Again
Eighty-three years ago, writers and fascists held separate gatherings in NY to discuss the future. The writers lost.
Screenshot from the documentary “A Night at the Garden,” directed by Marshall Curry (2017)
Depending on my mood and the prevailing political circumstances, the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” has always seemed to me either slightly optimistic, completely naïve or totally delusional.
At the same time, writing remains essential. Ideas can be transformational. Facts, at least to some people, can be powerful things.
On Friday, May 13, I took over the Pen America Twitter account for three hours and live-tweeted an event they were hosting at the United Nations.
Billed as an “Emergency Conference of Writers,” the event echoed a similar gathering of writers that Pen America hosted in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, the same year that American Nazis held a 20,000 person rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
These two Pen America events, 83 years apart, both had a similar goal: to challenge writers to come together and use the power of the written word to combat the growing threat of fascism in the world.
It didn’t work in 1939.
As one speaker at this year’s event said, “writing didn’t stop the Nazis.” But writers did, at least, get to write the history of the Nazis. I grew up in the world in which writers were still admired and Nazis were villains in war movies and British comedy shows.
So writing alone cannot stop evil. But at the same time, it is one of the best weapons we have to keep people informed and educated in ways that, hopefully, inspire good.
At this year’s Pen America event, attended by several dozen writers and artists from around the world, the organization’s CEO Suzanne Nossel set the stage by describing the “cascading crises” that the world is now facing.
Some similarities with 1939 are obvious. Others, like the existential threat of climate change, are worse today than they were then. In America, the Nazi uniforms have been replaced by red hats. In Europe, the aggressor is now Putin not Hitler. Meanwhile, authoritarians have seized power—or threaten to—in many countries. Human rights abuses go unchecked. Journalists are being arrested, jailed or killed with alarming regularity. The planet is on fire. And we’re all too overwhelmed and distracted to look up from our phones to respond to the multiple disasters hurtling towards us.
This year’s Pen America event noted that the role of the writer has changed since 1939. In today’s world of social media and video phones, the definition of “writer” has changed to include creators who use formats that go beyond just words.
But writers remain in the thick of it.
Ukrainian writer Halyna Kruk noted that today it’s no longer possible to be just a writer in Ukraine. Even if you’re trying to document the effects of the war and the trauma being inflicted on the people, you’re also playing another role too—either as a soldier, a volunteer, or a refugee.
One French writer, Walid Rachidi, talked about the fact that one of the gunmen in the 2015 Bataclan attack grew up in the same neighborhood he did, five years his junior. Although Rachidi’s books are sold in Parisian bookstores and reviewed by leading critics, he knew there was a little or no hope that his work would connect with the next kid in his neighborhood. “How do we bridge that gap?” he asked.
A screenwriter from Brazil (whose name I missed) spoke of the need for pop-culture in general, especially in movies and on TV, to show kids more than just a superhero world of endless war-like fighting.
Shehan Karunatilaka, a writer from Sri Lanka, noted that although the protests in his country this year that have not been widely televised, the revolution is being tweeted. Protesters are organizing on social media. “The meme game in Sri Lanka is strong,” he said. “A TikTok dance video can start a revolution.”
Salman Rushdie, a past president of Pen America, and co-creator of the Pen World Voices Festival that helped convene Friday’s event, said: “A poem cannot stop a bullet. A novel can’t defuse a bomb... But we are not helpless... We can sing the truth and name the liars... stories are at the heart of what’s happening... we must work to overturn the false narrative of tyrants... by telling better stories.”
Pen America president Ayad Akhtar concluded the event by noting that the three-hour session had included talk of hope but also of extinction, and had offered ideas for both personal and communal action.
Bringing Pens to a Sword Fight
New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly “live-drew” the event yesterday and wrote here on Substack:
It was very moving to hear all these amazing novelists, poets, non-fiction writers from many countries speak about what concerned them. Ukraine, of course, the rise of extremist governments, dictatorships, increased violence against minorities, poverty, global climate crisis, childrens safety, women’s rights.
It is unclear to me what this accomplished. Some of the speeches opened my eyes to perspectives I had not thought of before. Perhaps that’s the point. But who outside the conference was listening?
At a time when the corporate media continues to fail us and the “system” continues to reward with lucrative book deals those who, having held positions of power, withhold explosive information, it’s more obvious than ever that we need independent journalists, fiction writers, artists, videographers, tweeters, Instagrammers and TikTokers to do whatever they can to fight the forces of fascism.
But that won’t be enough.
As in 1939, relying on pens is a long game. And there’s no guarantee that the people who call themselves “writers” today will have the required permissions to write the history books of tomorrow.
Beyond writing, these times also call for both protests and prosecutions. Protests we’re good at. Prosecutions, not so much.
Despite the proof that January 6th was just the start of an ongoing seditious conspiracy to overthrow the US government, a “rolling coup” designed to impose white minority rule on America, Democrats continue to bring pens to that particular sword fight.
In America, election victories once required building a coalition that reaches 50.1% of the voting population. But like Trump said all along, it’s a rigged system. These days, thanks to the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and assorted voter suppression laws, supported by the conservative extremists who now dominate the supposedly non-political supreme court, Democrats need to do much more than 50.1% to win even a national election.
Technology, which has made life better in many ways, continues to make it worse and many others. As author and LA Times columnist Jean Guerrero noted yesterday, the same surveillance technologies being used by China to persecute the Uyghurs have already eliminated 4th Amendment protections within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border. Education, which can be seen as a steppingstone to economic opportunity, is still being denied to hundreds of millions of girls around the world. In America, books that might help explain the world to minority and LGBTQ+ children are now being cancelled in case they make the children of white Christian racists “uncomfortable.”
Biden said the 2020 election was a “battle for the soul of the nation.” That same battle is now a battle not just for the future of individual rights in America, but also for the future of humanity.
In troubled times, history shows that strongmen can emerge with promises to restore greatness, make the trains run on time, and make the streets safer, all while making “the other” the enemy of “us.”
For people not involved in the political process, it’s easy to be manipulated by propaganda and convinced that the people who are dedicated to creating the problems are the ones who can also solve them. AKA: The current GOP/Fox News game plan.
Returning to power is the goal and by the time the population has figured out the solutions being offered aren’t ones that serve the masses, the party will have taken even more control of what Steve Bannon calls “the election apparatus.”
Between now and November, the onus is on everyone who has a pen, a computer, a smartphone, and a TikTok account to communicate that the fight against fascism must be won now.
There’s no time to waste. In six years’ time, if we’re reaching the end of Trump’s second term (or DeSantis’s first), we the people will not control enough of the techologies—or the “election apparatus”—that we might otherwise use to declare victory over fascism.
The world war against Hitler lasted six years before the Allies declared victory in 1945.
Today’s war against fascism could be lost in November.
Follow The Daily Edge on Twitter, Facebook and—now—Instagram too.
All content to this ad-free email newsletter is free—there’s no paywall. But the support of paid subscribers is always welcome!
Even though PEN didn't avert WWII, it did wonders for preparing the U.S. public to support going to war in Europe instead of only fighting Japan. PEN prepared us to accept staggering challenges -- rationing of food, gasoline and tires. No nylon stockings! So please keep up your good work and don't despair. You are planting seeds and I predict that many more might sprout than those you can see for now. People who never read anything written by those of you in PEN will someday change their minds because of friends and family who do read things by members of PEN.
Also, may I suggest that you might wish to write about the Committee to Protect Journalists? I'm having one of its "Senior Advisors," David Marash, over for dinner tonight. It's the least I can do to thank him for risking his life so many times in war zones, as have so many other journalists, many of whom weren't so lucky. https://cpj.org/about/board-of-directors/#david-marash. Would you like me to beg him to let you interview him? He spent some time in Ukraine reporting during its bad old days.
The similarities between 1939 and today are striking, and likely too-little known. In Finland, 1939 is remembered as the somewhat miraculous repulsion of the Soviet Union. People there are understandably scared. In the stronger comparison, Crimea and eastern Ukraine regions compare with Sudetenland. By this measure, Ukraine compares with 1939 Poland, and we are given no reason to expect that Putin would stop at Ukraine, if the world steps aside there. Putin promised no invasion intention, prior to 24 February 2022, and then invaded. His emissaries variously assure us of no nuclear-weapon risk and of some nuclear-weapon risk. Just as with the Republican/Trump side here in the States, any words by the enemies of Democracy are best ignored. Thanks for presenting this PEN-related comparison to the world in 1939.