I am a writer…
And as far as I know, no one is offering a bounty for one of my ears. Not so for Akram Aylisli, a highly regarded writer, poet and scriptwriter from Azerbaijan who once received that country’s most prestigious literary prize. However, the leader of the Modern Musavat party has announced that he would pay a bounty equivalent to $12,700 to anyone who cuts off Aylisli’s ear.
The impetus for this threat is Aylisli’s novel, Stone Dreams, which provides a sympathetic view of Armenians in Azerbaijan’s ongoing ethnic disputes. Aylisli is accused of describing only Azeri abuses against Armenians, and not addressing attacks by Armenians on Azeris. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s president stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer.” And although the Minister of the Interior has announced that calls for violence are unacceptable, the threat to Aylisli remains. At 75, Aylisli is contemplating seeking asylum abroad with his family.
A writer, he says, has the right to express thoughts without being a considered a traitor.
Yet, government officials in Azerbaijan have labeled Aylisli’s book as treasonous.
Is this because the events depicted in Stone Dreams are not considered accurate by some? Aylisli says the story is based on real life, but it is a novel after all. And anyone who thinks novels should stick to the facts might want to try biographies or historical fiction. (No, wait…don’t believe everything you read in, say, The Other Boleyn Girl.)
The situation, as I see it, is suppression of a perspective that does not support the nationalist stance on the Azerbaijani/Armenian conflict. And that is called censorship, even though, in Azerbaijan as in the U.S., authors ostensibly have a constitutional right to write what they want without pressure or government interference.
Book bans and book burnings notwithstanding, our constitutional rights here in the U.S. are faring better than those in Azerbaijan.
Do we in the United States have nationalist viewpoints? Yes, we do, and it’s taken much of our 200+-year history to give voice to differing perspectives about events surrounding Native Americans, slavery, immigration, child labor, internment camps, McCarthyism, Kent State, Iran Contras, waterboarding, WikiLeaks, extraordinary rendition, and others.
I write about many of these same topics.
I write in support of our troops and our nation, a nation for which both my mother and father served in World War II. And I also write about, and for, peace, and about our Constitution that guarantees our First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press.
So in our country, no matter what I write, how I write it, or who I please or offend with my writing, I’m assured of keeping both my ears. And if that should ever change, we all have a much larger problem.
I do have advice for any entity of our government that tries to censor my words.
As Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously wrote in 1839—and as systematic oppression against writers has proved since antiquity—“the pen is mightier than the sword.” Plus, if I may paraphrase Russian-based bestselling author Boris Akunin’s comments from his recent blog post about Akram Aylisli, “Don’t you know that the state cannot win in a war with a writer?”
I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve always thought it would be cool…
…to be a political speechwriter. To tug on people’s heartstrings, push their buttons, and, sometimes, play fast and loose with the facts. And to have the power of history in my hands.
I was reminded of this aspiration while watching a ceremony this week at the White House to honor the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award recipients. The award’s name, of course, comes from the description of Americans serving each other as “a thousand points of light,” from President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Republican nomination acceptance speech.
A kinder, gentler soundbite…
Bush is often remembered, as well, for the expression “a kinder, gentler nation,” another memorable catchphrase coined by presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Noonan calls speechwriting an odd profession, part policy-explainer, part hack, part innocent. A speech, says Noonan, is a combination of theater and political declaration, a paradox of both great power and great delicacy.
I find Noonan’s presidential words worthy of the history books because, well, they are in the history books. And because Noonan reminds us that speeches are not significant simply because we have the technology to broadcast them to the world, but because they are one of the “great constants” of politics, the ocean on which politicians sail…or in which they sink.
These words matter…
Consider, for example, “Give me liberty or give me death!” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” The iconic 10-sentence Gettysburg Address—in which President Abraham Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, in just over two minutes—survives through hand-written transcripts. Regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history, it was penned by Lincoln himself.
I believe that President Obama won the 2008 presidential election right here in Denver. On a beautiful Colorado evening in August, then-senator Obama, with his characteristic charisma, delivered his Democratic presidential nomination speech at Mile High Stadium, telling Americans that “this is one of those moments,” a defining moment upon which he built his campaign. The phrase still resonates.
A brilliant diversity…
Last week (without partisan bias, in my opinion), President Obama welcomed President Bush and Barbara Bush to the White House to recognize a retired couple from Iowa, who have created a nonprofit organization to feed hungry children, as the recipients of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award. That’s a lot of light.
Noonan doesn’t claim that the phrase “a thousand points of light” has never been uttered before—variations appear in works such as a C.S. Lewis sci-fi novel and a speech by a turn-of-the-century engineer in Venice. Instead, Noonan describes its impact in Bush’s speech as its context: “a brilliant diversity spread like stars…in a broad and peaceful sky.”
The power of such words is indeed in their contexts, in their memorability, in their places in history. When President Obama recognized President Bush for the Point of Light volunteerism effort that he spearheaded more than two decades ago, Obama said: “We are surely a kinder, gentler nation because of you.”
I don’t know about you, but my heart is singing: “America, this is one of those moments.”
- Obama toasts Bush: ‘We are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you’ (nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com)
- Obama honors George H.W. Bush for promoting volunteerism (reuters.com)
- Obama to Bush 41: We are a ‘gentler nation’ because of you (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- We Are Kinder and Gentler Nation Because of You: Obama To Bush (spyghana.com)
To paraphrase the young lady on the balcony…
in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet who says, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” — I ask today:
“Is news by any other name still news?”
Although I’ve asked this question before, it’s continues to be important, especially after the international saber-rattling over the charges, extradition requests, and asylum granted for Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
A cause célèbre, yes? But maybe not the whole story.
Not that the Assange/asylum issue isn’t news; it’s big news, with heads of governments in Australia, Europe, Latin America, and the UK jockeying for position and pointing to one another (or someone else) behind their hands.
No, I’m asking the question—“Is news by any other name still news?”—because I have maintained all along—to anyone who would listen—that if Assange had named the organization “WikiNews” instead of “WikiLeaks,” this whole story would have played out differently.
Why wouldn’t a name like “Wikileaks” get people up in arms, literally?
Why wouldn’t any government be incensed about material blatantly and globally labeled as “leaked?” Why wouldn’t agencies whose sole purpose is to prevent “leaks” then descend with a fury on those who allowed and perpetrated the “leaking?”
On the other hand, though, news outlets all over the world take great pride—and go to great lengths—to “break” news stories, some of which come from “unnamed sources close to the situation.”
Are these considered leaks? Breaking news? Both?
Let’s face it; authority and the media have been grappling for centuries.
Why? Because freedom of the press improves transparency of information, and transparency of information creates a better society for all people. It’s the different definitions of transparency that get everyone’s dander up.
For example, in its landmark decision on the Pentagon Papers in 1971, our own U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose corruption in government.” (Note, however, that the Court ruled that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required in this case, and its decision did not give the press unlimited freedom to publish classified documents.)
But news is not just about corruption, or even just about government, for that matter.
The holidays are news. Syria is news. The cease-fire is news. Dancing with the Stars is the news. The price of gas and the weather are news.
And, to varying degrees, all of us need this news. With the advance of digital technology and the Internet, we can access all the news we want. In fact, we can gorge on the news; it’s up to us to be responsible consumers of the media. But that’s a topic for another post.
Are some of the documents on WikiLeaks explosive? Yes. Are some embarrassing, some horrifying? Yes and yes. Are some of the documents illuminating, enlightening? Of course.
I do understand that classifying some information is a valid standard. I also know that improved transparency of information in society comes from a free press.
Consider this, too:
There are people who are free today—or are becoming free, or are helping others to become free—because of uncensored news…leaked news, breaking news, or both.
I’ve worked on both side of this debate, in government and in the media, and I remain convinced that “WikiNews” would have been a more palatable portal.
With fewer struggles, WikiNews could have provided the kind of service that WikiLeaks is fighting to provide for people in free democratic societies—and for people who want to live in one.
A little more about the author:
Andrea Doray is a writer who believes that transparency is not invisible anymore. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please feel free to visit my other blogs:
New postings (almost) every day! 365 Days of Divesting — Living more, with less…one day at a time
New posting—first-ever Inspiring Blogger Award! Mirth-Marks — For people who enjoy the irony in life
Lessons from Colorado’s Poet Laureate! This Writing Life — Craft, comment, critique
- Julian Assange: I may leave embassy if US government ends standoff (guardian.co.uk)
- Vivienne Westwood declares ‘I am Julian Assange’ as she visits WikiLeaks founder in Ecuadorian embassy (telegraph.co.uk)
- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s Cambridge University talk cancelled (standard.co.uk)
- Julian Assange addresses UN (familysurvivalprotocol.com)