[Prefatory Note: A slightly modified text of an opinion piece that was published as an editorial on Oct. 21st in TMS (Transcend Media Service). If you unfamiliar with TMS, I highly recommend it. I find it the best source of intelligent and progressive commentary on a wide range of peace and justice related concerns. TMS is circulated on a weekly basis free of charge to subscribers. The weekly selections are expertly and sensitively selected by Antonio C. S. Rosa.]
Only a day after I published ‘In Praise of Kamila Shamsie,’ the Nobel Committee in Stockholm awarded their 2019 Prize in Literature to Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist and playwright widely known for his public support of ultra-nationalist behavior, including even a veiled endorsement of the crimes of Serbian leaders during the Bosnian War. PEN America wasted no time overcoming its institutional reluctance to criticize the literary prizes given by other organizations, issuing this statement of condemnation:
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. PEN America has been committed since the passage of our 1948 PEN Charter to fighting against mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts. Our Charter further commits us to work to ‘dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality.’ We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’ At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”
Yet, this half begs the question—should PEN America mix political sentiments (that I share) with their appraisal of literary achievement? It is a question for which there are no obvious answer better than ‘it depends,’ which is never satisfactory except as an admission of failure.
I read the PEN statement as an expression of their bitter disappointment, but it contained no hint of a suggestion that the Nobel Committee should reconsider, even withdraw the prize, and returning to drawing board in search of a more deserving candidate. When rightest pressures were mounted against the Nelly Sachs Prize awarded a few weeks earlier to Kamila Shamsie for her wonderful Home Fire, the Dortmund prize jury not only reconsidered, but reversed its decision. In the Handke case, the Austrian celebrated author had a history of supporting reactionary views, including chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, quasi-fascist nationalism that is currently posing virulent threats to humane forms of political governance in many countries, as well as creating a distinctly illiberal international order.
In effect, this advocacy of such political behavior should have been abhorrent enough to color Nobel’s committee’s overall assessment of Handke’s qualification for a prize that carries a large enough monetary amount as to enable him to devote additional funds potentially in furtherance of these pernicious political projects. It would seem also relevant to take account of Alfred Nobel’s intention when establishing the prize to do more than celebrate literary excellence, but also to promote cultural ideals of an uplifting character (“en idealisk riktning” – in an ideal direction or direction of an ideal; see Eli Vuillamy, The Guardian,, 2019).
By contrast, in Shamsie’s case her sin was to honor her conscience by supporting the nonviolent BDS-Boycott Divestment Sanctions Campaign that seeks an end to the violation of the basic rights of the Palestinian people. Thirty years ago, BDS was a widely applauded tactic of those championing human rights, credited with mounting pressures on Apartheid South Africa. It was seen as nonviolent yet effective as an expression of solidarity with those seeking to overcome the oppressive policies of a racist regime. It was sometimes criticized as a tactic, but never were its militant activists subject to punitive responses or personally discredited. Yet recently, the image of BDS has been transformed for many ‘good people’ into a disguised, yet virulent form of anti-Semitism, even held by some, responsible for the recent rise in violent anti-Jewish incidents in Western liberal democracies. Such an accusation is absurd and malicious, yet that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. In response to Zionist activism and Israeli propaganda, BDS is increasingly being condemned, even criminalized, or used to justify a variety of punitive moves of extreme disapproval such as this withdrawal of a literary prize.
The African-American superstar Angela Davis received a taste of similar toxic medicine when the Birmingham City Council reacted to community Zionist pressures by retracting a human rights award in 2018 from her birth city recognizing extraordinary lifetime human rights contributions. At least in Birmingham there was a pushback to the pushback, leading the award to be restored and received by Davis. Yet, lots of hurt and damage done in the process. Anyone who cares to examine the realities would know that the BDS Campaign is directed at Israel and has nothing whatsoever to do with hatred or hostility to Jews or the Jewish people. BDS would disappear the day the government of the State of Israel announced its abandonment of apartheid and committed itself to respecting the Palestinian people as their legal, political, and cultural equal. I believe that day will come, maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but it will come as the tides of history will prevail over this last major stronghold of European colonialism.
My conclusion: when Dortmund withdrew the prize from Shamsie it acted shamelessly; when Nobel Committee in Stockholm gave Handke its coveted prize it acted problematically, but arguably sufficiently within its mandate to validate a decision, at least to the extent of not reversing its decision. In this sense, American PEN struck mostly the right note. It would have been pitch perfect in my view had they condemned Handke’s view, and then contrasted their approach with the disgraceful Dortmund capitulation to analogous regressive forces that had prompted their dismissive response to learning that Handke had been given a Nobel Prize.
In this sense, creating moral distance from Dortmund by their silence illustrates the political inadequacy of liberalism as practiced in many Western countries, equivocally acknowledged by a flippant admission—‘progressive except for Palestine, or PEP.’ Maybe PEN America would retort, what Dortmund does is too trivial to matter, but this sidesteps the prestige of this German award that in the past has been given to such prominent literary figures as Milos Kundera, Margaret Atwood, and Nadine Gordimer among others; as well, the prize honors Nelly Sachs, ironically a Jewish poet who literary work against the crimes and wrongs of Nazism, not so dissimilar to opposing the crimes and wrongs of apartheid in our era..
PEN America might have justified crossing the line of customary restraint by calling for more than criticism in this particular instance. It could have asked the literary overseers in Stockholm to reconsider, and revoke their award, and surely, they should have widened their net to take account of Dortmund’s behavior. As Israel’s crimes against humanity are ongoing and severe, the moral and political incorrectness of the unwarranted slur on Kamila Shamsie’s character and reputation is particularly reprehensible. It may be that condemning BDS has become politically correct in Western democracies but objectively viewed such a posture is morally incorrect and will eventually be so judged as will the double standards evident in relation to Handke and Shamsie. I doubt that there was any backlash against the award to Kundera despite his intense anti-Soviet perspective, certainly inconsistent with peace and accommodation during the dangerous days of the Cold War. Double standards, especially by arbiters of political correctness, are themselves politically correct in the worst possible sense of conforming to the political fashions of the moment. This kind of ‘correctness’ sends morally incorrect messages that look away from certain forms of wrongdoing while proclaiming righteous indignation in response to others.
We are left hanging with the title question: When is it ‘politically correct’ to be politically correct? My answer is that it is normally desirable to be politically correct only when it is morally correct to be so. Even such a moral criterion can produce divergent responses. Someone like Handke can produce moral rationalizations about preserving the coherence of national political communities, alleging their dependence on ethnic and religious coherence as well as on the exclusion of strangers who would dilute national traditions and identity. As Dortmund did by implicitly acknowledging that BDS generates ethnic tensions rather than promotes reconciliation and peace.
In other words, we cannot escape from taking responsibility for our decisions and choices, an unavoidable leap into frying pans of uncertainty. To be human and humane is make that leap with eyes as widely open as possible. When we do this, I am confident that more and more of us would see our human species as surviving only if we can feel, think, and act in a cosmopolitan spirit that affirms human equality and exhibits particular solidarity with all who are desperate or vulnerable. If we do this in a forthright way with access to the salient realities, I believe we will be led toward embracing Shamsie’s worldview and rejecting Handke’s. At least that is my abiding faith, my moral compass.