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Larry McMurtry testimony

Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and Administrative Justice of the House Judiciary Committee

Chairman: Jack Brooks

My name is Larry McMurtry. I am a writer. I have published several novels, including Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, Texasville, Anything for Billy, The Last Picture Show, Somebody’s Darling, Cadillac Jack, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, and Horseman, Pass By. I am a member of the Executive Board of PEN American Center, the international association of poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, novelists, and translators. I am appearing before you as a writer, bookseller, reader, and spokesperson for the 2,300 American writers of PEN.

I am submitting for the record PEN’s statement about the effect of the ideological-exclusion provisions of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act on the free and open exchange of ideas among writers of differing national origins and ideological perspectives. I also would like to make my own comments and answer any questions you may have.

The right to freedom of expression has been the focus of intense and almost worldwide attention and debate in recent months as a result of the crisis of a single writer, Salman Rushdie, and the violent reactions his book has evoked. The threat to this man—and, by extension, to all individuals who work for and believe in the right to express one’s views without fear of persecution—has produced a sharp reexamination of what is meant by freedom of expression and how far we as individuals, as a nation, and as a global civilization are willing to go to recognize and protect this most precious of rights.

Here in the United States we have heard our leaders and representatives in Congress and the White House decry terrorism and proclaim our dedication as a nation to the principle of free expression. But do we honor and protect this principle as vigorously as we should? Do we fully sustain the high standards against which we judge the practices of others?

An objective look at the laws that govern the flow of people and information across our borders reveals some serious shortcomings in this regard. One of the most glaring examples of our failure to consistently and fully protect First Amendment rights is the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act whose ideological-exclusion provisions—still in effect for those who seek to reside here permanently—are an affront to all who cherish the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and association. To a writer whose living depends upon the uninhibited interchange of ideas and experiences, these provisions are especially appalling.

International PEN - the only worldwide association of writers - has survived and thrived, throughout its 68 years of existence because its members, who together represent the sweep of cultural histories and political systems that define the world today, have met, and continue to meet, annually at conferences and congresses held in different countries. Because we are writers, we know that reading one another’s work is vital, but we also know that meeting one another face to face, in free discussion and debate, is vital, too. As readers of foreign books, we respond strongly to the truths inherent in all serious literature; we try hard to remain sensitive to the social and cultural subtleties that are apt to be lost in translation. But when we meet, the dialogue that ensues both expands and clarifies the perceptions and experiences we have in common; with hope and good will we begin to forge common perspectives. Such nourishing exchanges might have once been deemed the luxuries of intellect; cultural feasts, if you will. Today, in a world of truly international dependencies, these meetings are more than luxuries; they are moral imperatives.

The American Center of PEN has been working since the early 1960s on behalf of writers and readers who have become victims of the ideological exclusion provisions (Section 212(a) (28)) of the McCarran-Walter Act. Our involvement has ranged from writing letters of protest on behalf of forbidden writers and holding readings of their work to testifying before congressional committees, filing amicus curiae briefs on behalf of plaintiffs in cases rising from application of the McCarran-Walter Act, and joining in a suit against the Attorney General.

While the history of the McCarran-Walter Act spans three decades, the 1980s brought a dramatic increase in the number of cases brought before us and a corresponding increase in our work on this issue. In the world’s leading democratic model and only country with broad free-speech protection provided in law and ensured by an independent judiciary, it is unacceptable that legislation still exists to circumscribe this protection and exclude from it those with whom a particular administration may have a difference of opinion.

In April 1984, in an effort to bring attention to the growing threat to our First Amendment freedoms posed by the ideological exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, PEN American Center, together with the Fund for Free Expression, sponsored a public reading in New York City. American authors read from the work of their foreign counterparts whose entry into the United States had been made difficult and humiliating¬—or impossible¬—under these provisions: Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Italian playwright Dario Fo, Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, and Uruguayan scholar Angel Raxna. Other writers who have been similarly considered excludable over the past 30 years include Graham Greene (Great Britain), Doris Lessing (Great Britain), Michel Foucault (France), Dennis Brutus (South Africa), Farley Mowat (Canada), Kobo Abe (Japan), Carlos Fuentes (another Nobel Laureate) (Mexico), and Jan Myrdal (Sweden). These men and women are some of the finest literary figures of our time. How shameful it is that they have been deemed unworthy or threatening to the well-being of our country and its citizens.

For 30 years, writers of this caliber have been denied normal visas to visit or become permanent residents in the United States because their political beliefs or associations are not in accordance with the politics and ideology of the administration in Washington. Another great and embarrassing irony is that this sort of arbitrary and ideologically motivated legislation when enacted in authoritarian regimes has forced dissident writers to flee their own countries. Many of these writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, and Czeslaw Milosz have sought refuge in the United States and subsequently enriched American letters by their presence among us.

Unfortunately, not all writers fleeing persecution are welcomed with open arms. When Angel Rarna, noted Uruguayan scholar living in exile, applied for a residence visa so he could accept the position of "Distinguished Scholar" offered him by the University of Maryland, he was refused under the 212(a) (28) provision. Rama had never been a communist or terrorist, nor did he ever belong to a political party. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of Rama’s interrogation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service:

INTERROGATOR: You have been quoted as saying . . . that you are a "man of socialist ideas." What, exactly, do you mean by this statement?

RAMA: This means I believe in a regime of social justice, of respect for human rights, of political democracy, and of economic democracy.

INTERROGATOR: How do you differentiate, in your own mind, between socialist and communist ideologies? Are they not merely different degrees of the same politico-economic philosophy? . . . What are your feelings about the doctrine of world communism?

RAMA: The problem with this question . . . is that I do not know what you are referring to as the "doctrine of world communism." I am in disagreement with the regimes found in the Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, etc., and I prefer regimes such as those in Austria and Sweden. The presidents of those countries . . . are socialists.

Rama was still deemed excludable at the time of his death in a plane crash in the spring of 1984.

Rama’s experience with the McCarran-Walter Act is not unique. Pablo Neruda was a member of the Chilean Communist Party. He was also Latin America’s most famous poet-and his work still exercises an influence on contemporary literature worldwide, comparable to that of T. S. Eliot’s. Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and was Chile’s ambassador to France. Could anyone truly think that this great man of letters would have posed a threat to the government or the people of the United States? The celebrated Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was at one time a member of the communist party. He has been welcomed in every democratic capital in the world except this one.

Before the recent October 1988 amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act, many writers and intellectuals who are considered excludable were invited to apply for waivers. But the process of obtaining one is time-consuming and insulting. Some find the waiver process so humiliating they refuse to apply. The English sociologist Torn Bottomore wrote to Sophie Silberberg of the Fund for Free Expression in February 1980, about his second attempt to obtain a visa:

. . . in 1977, having received several interesting invitations, and being under the impression that the immigration laws had been amended, I again applied for a visa. To my surprise, the same issues were raised as in 1951, and I was asked to provide an account of my political affiliations and to apply for a waiver. I consider all this an indignity, and of course I withdrew my application again.

In 1986, when American PEN was to host an International PEN Congress, there was a serious question as to whether such a meeting could in fact take place in this country. PEN members from everywhere in the world had been welcomed for congresses in far less free countries, such as Yugoslavia. But the 212(a) (28) provision of the McCarran-Walter Act could have effectively prevented such a gathering in the United States.

In the end, no writer was denied entry to the U.S. for the 1986 Congress; but ensuring the presence of all participants was an elaborate, expensive, and time-consuming process. Norman Mailer, then-president of American PEN and president of the 48th International Congress, met with State Department officials to explain the extraordinary importance of the Congress for writers and intellectuals around the world and to plead for similarly extraordinary cooperation in waiving the excludability status of some of our most illustrious guests of honor, such as Jorge Amado from Brazil, Kobo Abe from Japan, Stephan Hermlin from the German Democratic Republic, Danilo Kis, a Yugoslav dissident living in Paris. Tracking the foreign participants who were considered excludable was a major task, undertaken with the cooperation of people in the State Department-including a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State-to ensure that waivers would be granted and that they would be expedited through the vast bureaucratic network in time for the opening of the Congress. We also had to persuade these prominent writers to endure the humiliating and sometimes grueling questioning which accompanies the application for such a waiver.

These pernicious provisions continue to be applied. One example of note is the ongoing saga of Margaret Randall. Born and raised in the United States, she married a Mexican and subsequently took Mexican citizenship so that she could work in that country. Randall is now remarried to an American; the petitions for her permanent residency in the U.S. submitted by her husband and adult son rightfully entitle her to an immigrant visa. But the INS is pressing for her deportation: It cites her work-essays, poetry, journal entries, compilations of oral histories-which contain criticism of some United States policies, or depict women and artists of countries not in favor with the present administration. The INS translates these opinions and portraits into Communist Party membership and advocation of world communism. Even if the INS could prove the former or provide a definition of the latter, neither of these conditions should be grounds for exclusion. In any case, as Randall does not advocate violence or the overthrow of the U.S. government by force, engage in violent or threatening activities, or otherwise pose a physical threat to society, it is absurd to pursue her case with such vigor.

Today, in May 1989, her status remains unresolved. In February 1988 Randall’s appeal was pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals when Congress amended the McCarran-Walter Act to forbid the use of ideology as grounds for visa denial and deportation. The BIA was told that a favorable decision should be rendered in Randall’s case in accordance with this legislation. However, in October 1988 the Board had not yet acted on her case when Congress replaced the temporary amendment with another which disallowed ideological exclusion of visitors but reinstated the provision for applicants for permanent residence. Based on this legislation a decision in favor of deportation is once again a possibility. Randall’s lawyers have petitioned the Supreme Court on her behalf. Are the writings of a single individual so potent and threatening that they warrant this gross and misplaced expenditure of time, energy and money to have this individual removed from the land of her birth?

The McCarran-Walter Act abridges the rights of American writers to engage in face to face discussion and confrontation with foreign colleagues; it violates the right of citizens to hear the speakers of their choice and make their own decisions about the ideas with which they are presented; it deters foreign writers and others who hold controversial views from visiting the United States, and-finally and perhaps most perniciously-it prevents those who wish to make the United States their new home from adding their often great gifts to the mix of our cultural life.

Suppose the McCarran-Walter Act had been in effect before World War II, when a stream of intellectually and artistically gifted writers, musicians, filmmakers, and thinkers poured out of Europe to make their homes here. Many of them were from countries with complex political histories; many of them had led politically complex lives, as commonly happened then and commonly happens now. The whimsies of McCarran-Walter would surely have turned some of them back; we might have lost the gifts of such people as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Max Ophuls, Bela Bartok, Fritz Lang, Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, Erik Erikson, Herbert Marcuse, and Hannah Arendt, to name only a few of the distinguished immigrants who arrived here then. Is it not folly-moral as well as cultural-to risk losing even one immigrant of this caliber to this capricious Act?

In addition to the deleterious effects of this Act on the First Amendment rights of individuals, the very existence of ideologically-based legislation undermines the effectiveness and moral authority of American organizations such as PEN that are dedicated to promoting free and open communication "within all nations" and "between all nations" as they work to fulfill this mandate and aid writers who are persecuted regardless of national origin. How can we presume to be the "leaders of the free world" and criticize the more egregious practices of other governments when we fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves - that serve as a model for the internationally recognized human rights standards against which all nations are judged?

We believe that the ideological-exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act serve no useful purpose and cause inexcusable damage to individual rights and to the ability of the United States to champion the cause of individual liberties around the world. As writers and U.S. citizens we urge the elimination of those provisions so that we can fully enjoy the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms which are our birthright.

We thank you for the opportunity to present our views to this Committee.

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