Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On the Subject of Censorship: BURN THIS BOOK

Cross-posted with The Environmentalist

Being a proponent of human rights and humanitarian subject matter of any kind, and in particular the reflections or influence of these tenets in the media--whether in literature, journalism, photojournalism, art, film, television, new and social media and beyond--these last weeks in Iran have been inordinately important, even despite the near-tabloid coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. Michael Jackson did touch many people, and for important reasons, and I by no means disparage that. But what I am concerned about is that other important issues are being ignored because of it.

Something that has been truly evident by anything I have written in past months has been the importance of certain freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and now, as evidenced by the events in Iran following their elections, freedom both of assembly and the importance of fair and free elections.

Those who saw the clip which has become viral of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot to death in the streets of Tehran for demonstrating against the election results, perhaps can feel the visceral sense of what it must have meant to be one of those demonstrators, feeling first-hand the heart of the adage we as Americans have come to take for granted: freedom isn't free. As those who have demonstrated are attesting, and something, again, which we may have forgotten, there are times when it demands struggle and sacrifice.

As Frederick Douglass once said from personal knowledge from once having been a slave and as an advocate of suffrage and human rights:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

Nowhere has this been more evident in these past weeks in the news than in Iran, just one of many places around the world struggling for rights, again, which we truly have more often than not taken for granted. Sometimes it takes a situation like that in Iran to revive that sense of humanity in seeing others who are being subjected to violence, fear and tyranny by their own governments. We feel for their struggle. We are outraged by the limits placed on the press and on demonstrators. We are moved to tears by those whose pain is almost palpable. We are rebellious on their behalf by subverting the Iranian government's blocks on mobile and internet access however we can--offering international proxy server addresses or setting our own addresses to Tehran to overload their systems. Any subject at the moment that includes basic human freedoms is now at the forefront of discussion—provided we are not distracted, then, by the media, by something else.

What is also blatantly true is that the power of the media, including by virtue of mobile technology and social media, has never been more relevant, nor more demonstrated. We are now reminded of what it is we had forgotten in terms of basic human tenets, and as some--not all--are finding ironic--using the tools of the modern age to bring such issues back into focus.

However, even older forms of media are making sure that some of these issues remain strongly poignant.

Not too long ago, I received a book to review from the HarperStudo imprint of HarperCollins, titled
BURN THIS BOOK, edited by Toni Morrison and including such writers as John Updike, David Grossman, Francine Prose, Paul Auster, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, and Nadine Gordimer.

The book, which was published in conjunction with PEN American Center, is a collection inspired by a speech given by Morrison at the PEN International Festival dinner in 2008, in which she discussed the idea of censorship of writers and the price paid in certain part of the world when their voices are silenced. Every writer within the pages of
BURN THIS BOOK has been subjected to censorship in one form or another, and each has had to bear the consequences--whether personal, professional, or in terms of being stymied from expressions that should always have been a natural right.

In going through my notes and the pages I had underlined several days ago, one sentence in Toni Morrison's introduction struck hard, and again, because of the current issues in Iran, seemed devastatingly relevant:

... the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow.

Where freedom of the press and freedom of expression are blocked, you can be sure that further rights will soon be systematically obliterated. The press can either be a source of information or propaganda; often times, unfortunately, it is both. But when writers are not allowed to write truth in favor of the promulgation of state-sanctioned or state-dictated information, it can either be tolerated, or when tied to the future of a nation, as with Iran, it can become yet another factor in a deafening rallying cry which may change such a country irretrievably, and hopefully for the better--should the protester's vigilance maintain its intensity until leaders are either forced to listen or are overthrown. Revolution has happened before over such issues, as it did in our own country, and it can happen again in others. There's nothing wrong with Revolution when it's for the right reasons--even our own Founders kept it as an option built into the founding documents of our republic should our own country ever forget itself to the point of no return. This is indeed what we celebrated in the United States last weekend on July 4th.

In
BURN THIS BOOK, there are different ideas expressed in terms of a writer's expression--and I almost wish that the book had been separated between American and international writers. There would be a point to this, as became unfortunately clear, as there is a distinct demarcation between two factions in this work: the writers of North America, and specifically the United States, and the writers from other countries who are included in this collection. I was truly disappointed that with the exception of Morrison, the aforementioned American writers do not have the deep, existential fire of the others--but then I understood why; the others are ones for whom writing has been or could potentially be an inherent--and potentially lethal--exercise in rebellion, having come from areas of conflict, subjugation, and tyranny--where such ideas of censorship come with much higher stakes.

Sometimes, however, it takes another country’s struggle to remind us this simple and poignant reality. Such has been demonstrated by the events in Iran over these last couple of weeks, and most recently in China (thankfully still eking out some kind of presence in the media, though for many of us, not nearly enough). But devoid of such reminders, it seems our revolutionary fire is in a persistent state of appeased slumber. As a friend on Facebook wrote several days ago, quoting Franz Kafka: "You are free and that is why you are lost." Some would consider that the inherent argument for subjugation; instead, I see it as suggesting one is lost until he or she understands what it is we have in the first place. Without something to buck against, we do become apathetic enough sometimes to not know who we are.

In this sense, some of the American writers included in
BURN THIS BOOK (which actually came to me in a package filled with promotional matches) might indeed have needed a reminder about the true spirit of what it was they were supposed to be writing about. This was to be a book about censorship. Instead, some of these writers seem as though they were approaching this as they would any writing assignment about writing; expounding upon the creative and personal aspects of being a writer--the inspiration and the literary personality which are indelible in one who in general has the audacity to write down his or her ideas amidst what might somehow be considered personal angst, and the universality of such angst among other writers, some of whom turn to the political.

Where I find this approach troubling in a book of this kind is when the supposed subject matter was ignored or treated with irreverence. Either that, or writing in general is seen as a function of general audacity, one borne of, again, the general rebellion of the "creative soul" amidst the clich├ęd teeming automaton hoards of Western society. And, it is apparent that these authors are speaking from a place of relative literary comfort. They may have had works banned in libraries or schools in the United States and elsewhere, but their trauma is more about wrangling with the Muse or about an inherent internal complexity than it is about issues of human survival and writing as a means of rebelling against any literal existential threat. And even amidst censorship in the United States, when it happens within our borders, we do rouse defiantly from our collective slumber and take it very seriously, leaping quickly to the defense of authors without question--even if we don't like the works under fire. We here in the United States, courtesy of the American Library Association, even have "Banned Books Week."

To exemplify this particular idea of the general personality of a writer, John Updike states in his bland selection, "Why Write?":

The artist's personality has an awkward ambivalence; he is a cave dweller who yet hopes to be pursued into his cave.

This is about the writer and self-consciousness over what he or she writes. Compare this to a passage from "Writing in the Dark" by David Grossman, as translated by Jessica Cohen, in describing the reality of "living in an extreme and violent state of political, military, and religious conflict" (and feeling like Kafka's mouse in "A Little Fable" in which the world is always growing smaller and more narrow).

The stakes are profoundly different:

... The constant--and very real--fear of being hurt, the fear of death, of intolerable loss, or even of "mere" humiliation, leads each of us, the citizens and prisoners of conflict, to dampen our own vitality, our emotional and intellectual range, and cloak ourselves in more and more protective layers until we suffocate.

This comes, Grossman writes, out of self-protection, "a diminished ability and willingness to empathize with all other people in pain."

Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated--both morally and practically--we feel it better not to think or know. Better to hand over the job of thinking and doing and setting moral standards to those who are surely 'in the know.' Better not to feel too much until the crisis ends--at least we'll have suffered a little less, developed a useful dullness, protected ourselves as much as we could with a little indifference, a little repression, a little deliberate blindness, and a large dose of self-anesthetics.

This has been the argument of many suffering under oppression--and the boon of regimes which take advantage of this conflict and its inevitable effects upon its population, to clamp down and "liberate" people from the responsibility of independent thought that might lead to action. When in incredible pain, better to forget--better to "anesthetize" one's self to alleviate suffering, even if it comes at the cost of certain freedoms. To this, the oppressive government will say, "you don't need such freedoms when we will take care of you."

But as is being shown now in Iran among other places in the world where censorship is rampant, when "cloaked" from reality by the State, when that cloak is forcefully removed, and/or when truth is known or somehow suspected, and the population has hit a collective boiling point, the only reasonable reaction is anger, a feeling of betrayal, and a will toward combating the usual propaganda with the forceful imposition of truth--pushing and rebelling until the old system cannot function underneath a mass amount of pressure. Freedom is a human instinct. There is no being that if it knows it is enchained, will not somehow make every attempt to break free until he or she either
is free, disheartened to the point of apathy, or dies.

"In this reality," Grossman writes:

…we author and poets write. In Israel and in Palestine, in Chechnya and in Sudan, in New York, and in the Congo. There are times ... after a few hours of writing, when I look up and think: Now, at this very moment, sits another author, whom I do not know, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or Dublin, who, like me, is engaged in the strange, baseless, wonderful work of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and alienation, indifference, and diminishment.

Further:

I have a distant ally who does not know me, and together we are weaving this shapeless web, which nonetheless has immense power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute and to bring about tikkun--"repair"--in the deepest, kabbalistic sense of the word.

Compare this sensibility of a man grappling with writing truth--with being a representative voice--trying to achieve something which in certain ways might seem wholly impossible when faced with the realities of his world--one which is marked by violence—with one for whom violence appears only on television or in a violent urban area with which such an author has little contact. For the former, the implications are enormous, as is his sense of responsibility. This is a hell of a lot different than grappling with the proverbial Muse that refuses to come out of his cave—the avatar of the writer him or herself—whose primary struggle is one of what the Romantic poets would have considered the solipsism, or “self-consciousness” that keeps a poet or artist from seeing the Sublime. Death is not the threat; writer’s block is, or the self-consciousness that comes from writing about what is primarily personal amidst the peace of his or her immediate outside world.

Let me be clear, however—I have great respect for anyone who grapples with the Muse, as well as with the personal—including when the personal is difficult, for various reasons, to express. That has been a struggle which has been documented throughout time and from many different traditions—literary, artistic religious, etc.. But there is a context for that struggle in which it makes perfect sense and it has its place. A book about the kind of censorship that can come with death if challenged makes the stakes inordinately higher. This is why, with all due respect for Toni Morrison as the editor of this book, and my love of much her work, work which has been challenged for its harrowing nature at times by critics as much as lauded for its truth, I wish she had kept in mind her own speech before the PEN International audience, choosing works here not for the notoriety of the writers, which it seems was true in some cases, but giving such space for a whole group of writers—perhaps some more unknown—whose rebel fire could further have been unleashed for all to see. That would have been a book that would have, if you’ll forgive me for continuing the metaphor, burned the proverbial house down.

Some may believe I’m being hard on many of the revered American writers in this book, but my purpose here is to demonstrate, again, that either works could have been chosen differently (and not just for their name value on the book cover), and/or to perhaps prod American writers to better hearken back to our own history and better remember where we came from, if only to re-ignite that particular revolutionary fire. That revolutionary fire is worth it, because, as some of these writers, primarily those from other parts of the world, suggest, it is the only thing that will provoke lasting change. And in this world, there is no question that change is needed.

Below are some passages, one from each essay, as an example of what can be found within the book in question. Again, some here are about censorship; others are not. In some, primarily those of the Americans, I had to actively seek the essay for a suitable passage, or at least one in the general realm of the proposed subject matter. In others, there was a wealth of passages from which to choose. Those are ones in which I could feel the passion and an almost palpable defiance which can only come from harrowing experience, and these voices were markedly different from the others. By virtue of what I have chosen, and even in the voice of the writer, what is passionate and what is perfunctory can perhaps be sensed. But as always, it is up to the individual reader to judge what he or she believes, and others may find charm and/or undoubted writing skill appropriate where I perhaps would have preferred something more deeply relevant.

From “Peril” – Toni Morrison (American), the speech given before the audience at the PEN International Festival dinner, and the inspiration for this book:

Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing or disturbing the public.

From “Why Write?” – John Updike (American) answers his own question with a worthy examination of his personal reasons for writing, but which had little to do with censorship:

Pascal says, “When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within himself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours.” The writer’s strength is not his own; he is a conduit who so positions himself that the world at his back flows through to the readers on the other side of the page. To keep this conduit scoured is his laborious task; to be, in the act of writing, anonymous, the end of his quest for fame.

From “Writing in the Dark” – David Grossman (Israeli) (translated by Jessica Cohen) is driven by the idea of expression during conflict toward the force of change, the result of the prevention of that expression, and the inherent value of liberty as a fundamental aspect of the human experience:

I can tell you about the void that slowly emerges between the individual and the violent, chaotic state that encompasses practically every aspect of his life. …This void does not remain empty. It quickly fills with apathy, cynicism, and above all despair—the despair that can fuel a distorted reality for many years, sometimes generations. The despair that one will never manage to change the situation, never redeem it. And the deepest despair of all—the despair of human beings, of what the distorted situation ultimately exposes in each of us.

From “Out from Under the Cloud of Unknowing” – Francine Prose (American) in a rather pithy essay written in the form of a rather irreverent list, rather than addressing censorship, juxtaposes the very general idea of the political with the role of the artistic:

Maybe that is the problem that politics has with art. It’s the problem of mystery, which politics (constructed in a narrow sense) doesn’t like, or perhaps, more accurately, doesn’t feel comfortable with. …The polemicist, or the theorist, or the strategist would have trouble with the stance that Chekhov indentified as basic for the artist. That is, the notion that writers must admit they understand nothing of life, that nothing in this world makes sense, so all a writer can do is try to describe it.

From “The Man, the Men at the Station” – Pico Iyer (British/Indian), writes his account as a tribute to one man whom Iyer met in Burma as an examination of the effect a totalitarian regime—one which favors censorship—has on those who live within its borders, as well as those who come to know those individuals affected:

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was on blacklist in Burma, perhaps because of writing about people like himself, suitably disguised. A colleague had seen my picture up at the airport, as a criminal to be arrested if he ever showed his face. The important thing was that we had contact at last, and a window, a tiny window, had opened again where before there had seemed no hope. …For all the derelictions and brutalities of this government, though, Maung-Maung is still waiting at the station, and we are the only freedom he knows. Without us—the stories we take to him, the stories we bring back from him—there wouldn’t be anything, except years and years of further struggle, and then nothing at all.

From “Notes on Literature and Engagement” – Russell Banks (American) does not address censorship except in passing, as shown below. Instead he addresses the conflict inherent in works which have, in the end, fostered change:

…one hopes for as long as human beings tell stories to themselves and one another, the novelist is at bottom committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything. This is why so many novelists have been censored, imprisoned, exiled, or even killed.

From “Talking to Strangers” – Paul Auster (American) writes about the general importance of storytelling itself:

We grow older, but we do not change. We become more sophisticated, but at bottom we continue to resemble our young selves, eager to listen to the next story and the next. …human beings need stories. They need them almost as desperately as they need food, and however they might be presented—whether on a printed page or a television screen—it would be impossible to imagine life without them.

From “Freedom to Write” – Orhan Pamuk (Turkish) (Translated by Maureen Freely) writes about the personal importance of freedom of expression, in which he first remembers Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller coming to Istanbul to meet with writers and their families who had been imprisoned for what they had written, to better offer them support, and to bring their stories to the rest of the world :

…freedom of expression has its roots in pride and is, in essence, an expression of human dignity. I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free.

From “Notes on Writing and the Nation” – Salman Rushdie (Indian/British), writes about nationalism and the novel, including both political censorship and nationalistic writers who ignore the truth and instead corrupt it:

When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love, often earn the writer a nation’s wrath. The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord. Rags.

From “The Sudden Sharp Memory” – Ed Park (American) aptly chooses the structure of a psychiatric session transcript for his essay describing the reason I am the Cheese has been banned in certain communities:

“I mean it’s stupid, right? Of course it is. But it’s interesting how the book they chose to ban, I am the Cheese, is about forbidden knowledge. What gets covered up, distorted. What we pretend does not exist. Today I read that absence into those gaps between the different narrative sections, and into those silences that blossom in the interview transcripts. It’s like the censors had unconsciously found the perfect mirror to their censorship.”

From “Witness: The Inward Testimony” – Nadine Gormier (South African), in one of her customarily intellectual essay (with footnotes), begins with the effect of 9/11 and describes the importance of writer as witness, and, in certain cases, the self-censorship of events and truths witnessed but unspoken:

The duality of inwardness and the outside world: that is the one essential existential condition of the writer as witness. …I accept, from Proust, a signpost for writers in our context: “The march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—towards the goal of truth.”

Described in the press release for the book as being “a book of essays that would explore the issue and impact of censorship on the world,” some of these essays were relevant to the proposed subject matter, others were not. Again, I just warmly wish more of the essays had the same relevance, depth and gravitas as the few.

But, like what Neda has become to many of the Iranian people, and others like her in many corners of the world, the basic human right of freedom of expression, as BURN THIS BOOK in its best moments suggests, certain human freedoms shall not die, no matter where they are subjugated, as long as there are those who believe in their power, and in the inherent rights of all, they shall remain alive, whether censored or not.

And, with the recent example of Iran, as in other parts of the world, it will take, as Frederick Douglass suggested, the expectation of struggle before change occurs. That expectation should not be something we or anyone else should be afraid of. For we have, as human beings in many instances, met that challenge with ultimate courage. And it is a courage that recognizes truths that go beyond the individual—it is truth which we recognize is a basic aspect of humanity itself. As long as we remember that, no matter how free or free we may not be, we are indeed not lost at all.

_______

K.J. Wetherholt is a former media executive and currently a writer, producer, and Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF). Her book, The Illumination A Novel of the Great War (2006) will be released in paperback next year and is currently being packaged as a feature film out of Europe for future production.

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