In April, at an event called Resist and Reimagine, PEN America invited Hillary Clintonto deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture. The former secretary of state, chosen by America’s pre-eminent literary organisation for her “human rights accomplishments”, engaged in a Q&A afterwards with Nigerian American novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Admirers of Adichie’s writings may have hoped that she would hold Clinton to account for her ruinous human rights record: her vociferous support for all the wars the United States has fought since 2001, costing almost $5tn, according to a recent report from Brown University, and causing the death of more than a third of a million people in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. During Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the United States expanded its disastrous war on terror in Africa, most notably in Libya, Mali and Somalia. But Adichie wasn’t expressing her own anguish at this despoiling of several African countries as she sat down with the former presidential candidate and said: “When I said hello to Mrs Clinton backstage, I had to try very hard not to get emotional.”
Adichie, instead, proceeded to read from an article she had wanted to title “Why is Hillary Clinton so Widely Loved?”. She suggested Clinton rewrite her Twitter bio to read “would have made a damn good president” and asked questions such as: “I sense a kind of fundamental optimism about you … are you an optimist? I want to ask whether you are aware of how much of an inspiration you are?” In her mind, Adichie confessed, she called Clinton “Auntie” as she said she spent “a lot of time” being “very protective” of her.
At no point did Adichie ask about Clinton’s vote in support of the Iraq war; her promise to “obliterate” Iran; her desire to protect Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who she called, along with his notoriously corrupt wife “friends of my family”; her championing of the catastrophic intervention in Libya (on the day Muammar Gaddafi was killed, after he had first been sodomised with a sword, Clinton pumped her fists and cheered “We came, we saw, he died”) or the billions of dollars of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia she sanctioned as secretary of state, including fighter jets presently being used by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to starve Yemen into submission. Clinton’s recent comments urging Europe to curb immigration fits perfectly with her political record: as first lady in 1996 she supported her husband’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act, which set the foundation for America’s aggressive deportation system.
It is disquieting then to learn that Adichie has been drafted in to interview another first lady, Michelle Obama, at London’s Southbank in December. Obama, unlike Clinton, was never a serving member of government, never presided over unjust wars or illegal occupations, and cannot be held accountable for her husband’s policies. She now moves in the depoliticised world of celebrity in which it is possible for her to call George W Bush, the warmongering Republican notorious for his callous treatment of African Americans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her “partner in crime” (even after he lobbied for the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, whom multiple women have accused of sexual misconduct, to the supreme court).
It is possible only in the same depoliticised world of celebrity for Adichie to feel, as she has written, “protective”’ towards Michelle Obama and applaud “her dresses and work outs. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long, slender fingers.” Presumably, the Southbank event will also include the standard jabs at Donald Trump, the most obvious of today’s targets.
One of the tragedies of the Trump era has been how American liberals have co-opted and utterly ruined the word “resistance” so that it now applies to neo-con interventionist hawks, former CIA directors and anyone who has ever tweeted against the 45th president. In this new nexus of celebrity, power and consumerism, Madeleine Albright, who claimed that the death of a half-million children in Iraq in the 1990s was “worth it”, can be hailed as a principled anti-fascist fighter; and Sheryl Sandberg can be celebrated as a feminist even as she fawned over Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu supremacist prime minister, under whose watch hundreds of women were raped, or hacked or burnt to death in 2002 when he was Gujarat’s chief minister.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative to insist that writers resist power at all times. Writers from the global south have long been burdened with the expectation that they respond to every terrorist atrocity in their countries, and denounce their governments and large numbers of their fellow citizens. They can only be amazed at how quickly even left-leaning writers in the west defer to brute authority and rush to place a human face over it. Dave Eggers, for instance, wrote recently in the New York Times that it was “crucial to note the White House’s support for the arts has never been partisan”, and even George W Bush was “culturally … open-minded and active”.
Many writers embraced by the western establishment not only regularly fail to confront the colossal and constant violence inflicted by the west; they often celebrate and endorse it. John Updike supported the bombing of Vietnam, Salman Rushdie said a year after the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that “America did in Afghanistan what had to be done and did it well”; and Martin Amis said in 2006 that “there’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation … Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”
Such cheerleading of the west’s murderous racism and imperialism perplexes writers from the non-western world. Most of them write from a position of marginality and, often, physical vulnerability – even when they are relatively privileged by virtue of writing in English and publishing internationally. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the great Pakistani poet who was imprisoned, held in solitary confinement, and eventually exiled, was in no position to feel protective of politicians. In 1979, after Pakistan’s CIA-backed dictator General Zia ul-Haq imposed martial law and brutalised the nation by publicly flogging activists and putting his enemies to death, Faiz, wrote Hum Dekhenge (We Will See): “We will see/It is certain that we too will see/The day that has been promised/When the enormous mountains of tyranny/blows away like cotton…and on the heads of our rulers/when lightning will strike.” Iqbal Bano, a Pakistani singer, sang the banned poem before 50,000 people in Lahore at the height of Zia’s repression in 1985 and was swiftly forbidden from appearing on television or giving concerts. For many writers in the non-western world, this is what resistance means, to speak when words are met with lethal blows.
The noble cause of resistance is poorly served when literary novelists assume the roles once occupied by late-night TV hosts, talking up celebrities. One can only hope that in her second stint onstage with a first lady, Adichie will appear not as a moderator for power but as a witness of its ravages.