Last night I watched a wonderful German movie called The Lives of Others.
It won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film; it is about a Stasi operative who is assigned to spy on a playwright during the Cold War. It vividly portrays the paranoia the artistic community provoked in the repressive East German regime.
They monitored everyone – but it was their own writers and artists they feared and hated the most.
Why is this?
There is a good reason that writers are persecuted in places like Burma and China and Vietnam; the very same reason that the Nazis made bonfires out of books.
As we saw when we discussed the Stanley Milgram experiments even one single voice of dissent can matter a very great deal. It can stop people just going along with something that is wrong.
This is why repressive governments lock up writers; that’s why the mullahs put a fetwa on Salman Rushdie.
But how does this affect me? you are wondering. I don’t hold extremist views. I just like to write paranormal romance. Or: I just like to read steampunk novels.
But remember Rushdie never meant to start a war with Islam; he was just expressing his own singular point of view about Mohammed. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries ended up on the rack for writing plays that offended Elizabeth; he nearly did himself. Allen Ginsberg never intended to offend public morals. He was just trying to express himself.
Photograph: David Shankbone
The East German Stasi were not afraid of one artist; they were afraid of all of them. If you are reading this, then I assume that you write or you read a lot and if you lived in East Germany in the seventies and eighties they would have been afraid of you.
I am not persuaded that positive change in the world is inspired by religious creed or by political parties. The movements that have made us think differently – the Renaissance, the anti-war movement in the US during the seventies, the feminist movement – were successfully championed by artists and writers, playwrights and songwriters.
The artistic form imposes itself on the subconscious; we can’t get a tune out of our heads; we feel a lump in our throat looking at a painting; we remember a hero from a book and call our dog after them. (My pet parrot was called Hemingway and my first dog was called Scout!)
This is why books are important.
Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in America. Although I don’t live there, it has made me reflect on what I have to feel grateful for. One thing is that in our freer world writers are free to express themselves and not worry that the Stasi is listening in.
It is a precious right, and one that should never be taken for granted, because even in free societies not all ‘freedom lovers’ are actually happy content with the arrangement.
Because otherwise we could share the fate of Rafiq Tagi, who received multiple stab wounds in a attack carried out by two unidentified assailants as he was returning home from work in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. It was believed to be in relation to an article that he had published.
Spare another thought for Mikhail Nabil Sanad, who was arrested on March 28, 2011 in Egypt and handed a three-year sentence for comments made on his blog, in which he accused the new government of anti-democratic practices and of continuing the corruption of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Where I live we’re free to say what we like about our elected leaders. But we should do well to remember; if anything changes we’re the ones in the front line.
So even without a Thanksgiving turkey I will tonight raise a glass to my elected leader – even though I didn’t vote for her.
At least I know she’s not listening in and I won’t be arrested for saying that I think she’s hopeless …
Do you ever feel that you’ve been persecuted (that includes family and friends!) for things you have written? Have you ever been asked NOT to publish something for any reason? Have you ever been sued? Are you PROUD to be a writer? I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment. We’ll talk about what you all say next week.
Avagoodweekend Mister Walker!