the silence of writers, an essay from   ARGUMENTS WITH THE THOUGHT POLICE
by john bart gerald
drawings by julie maas



The Silence of Writers

    When writers are manipulated, silenced, or forced to write only what is acceptable to government policy or popular concerns, the people lose a first line of defence against terrible wrongs which are beyond our power as individuals to stop. Every nation is capable of mistakes, and of crimes against humanity, or warring to the point of genocide: this seems to be the lesson of Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the Russians in Chechnya, the histories of settling North America. We know the faults of our native land most intimately. Both US policy in Vietnam and the US Coalition's war against Iraq initially presented as just causes, became warfare against civilians.

    The more awful the crime against humanity the more profound the silence of the medias, as though it is "disloyal" to point out the war crimes of one's own country but acceptable to point out the war crimes of another. That places writers in particular within the perspective of military or tactical usefulness, rather than letting us be voices of conscience.

    The silence lets further crimes occur. If our cultures and civilization present any impediment to the excesses of humanity stunned by its own capacity to create terror, where are the voices of Euro-Canadian-American writers protesting the slaughter of innocents ? As the Gulf War began, US Congressman Gonzalez of Texas protested commitments to make war in the Gulf by attempting to impeach President Bush. Few of the world's writers were able to effectively protest the Gulf war, and few have publicly declared common humanity with the victims of the Nineties sacrificed to military planners and strategic interests of the most powerful.

    As a US writer during "Vietnam", I found that when a criminal military policy is in progress, all aspects of the media are controlled either by law, by covert pressure, or by economic self-interest. Although writers who take the point lead against a military policy may in the US retain their rights, severe covert repercussions are inevitable. The first obstacle is getting the work into print. Writers with strong government backing have the best chance of being heard if they speak out, but selective silence is often the price of government approval. Respect and good reputation are rarely accorded dissidents which limits their access to the media. "Straw men" dissidents are set up if their voices can be controlled in a clinch. Occasionally media responds to honest voices but at the risk of the good editors.

    Many of the lessons from the US war against Vietnam, remain unwritten history of continuing relevance. The US writing community was against the Vietnam war. The tactical response was to identify protesting writers with Communism, or to buy them off with jobs in universities. Still, the people's dislike of oppression could be addressed by metaphor. There was effective literary protest reaching mass media markets, which became increasingly controlled during the war. Because Presidents Johnson and Nixon found the people's opposition the essential impediment to prosecuting a war, freedom of speech became a military political problem and tactically controlled.

    Canadian writers were in an enviable position. They were not held accountable for American policy as American citizens were, and so were under less moral pressure to alter criminal policies. If they chose to write honestly about the Vietnam war, the border presented some buffer to retribution. The rising popularity in the States of Canadian writers relies partly on their lack of political commitment or responsibility for US policies.

    A positive side to writing in the US during Vietnam was that literary protest was possible at all. The price was acceptable to some and not to others. I was falsely arrested several times, and without recourse for redress. As a mechanism of control false arrest is psychologically debilitating and knocks out the message by knocking out the messenger. However it showed that the press itself was open to printing dissident material. Through strong editors I was at rare points allowed to publish anti-war material in national media. I was able to write anti-war stories which could not have been published if I had worked the same material as fact. When anti-war stories no longer appeared, anywhere, I was still allowed to publish occasional book reviews.

    Part of what military planners gained from the Vietnam war were mechanisms for controlling freedom of expression without overtly controlling the media. Censorship became a fallback mechanism, as it was used in the war against Iraq where journalists' access to military operations was limited. A much better indication of how silence was gained and maintained was apparent in the US media's treatment of the Kennedy assassinations which with unanimity found a single assassin guilty immediately. During the Vietnam war lists of people to be detained in event of a national emergency, grew from dissident writers to include presidents of universities, professors and possibly anyone with access to speak honestly to the American people. Anti-war organizations were used to train CIA operatives (it remains illegal to prove this). And long after the war ended the surveillance and persecution of dissidents remained but the reasons changed. The nonconformists who rely on the Constitutional protection of freedom of speech, once suspected of communism became suspected of drugs became suspected of terrorism.

    The ad hoc peace movement lost political power at the Vietnam war's end, and the left wing and dissidents became increasingly vulnerable to the right wing which could operate in a clear field. Many peace organizations became non-government organizations with the United Nations which provided a measure of protection but may have limited their effectiveness in questioning wars of "the new world order." Within this perspective it became difficult for writers concerned with peace to find a literary political base and outlet for their understanding.

    Until the internet became widely accessible it was impossible to share information beyond select circles, about international law, the environment, peace activism, etc.. Pacifist direct action groups working through the Seventies and Eighties were ignored by the US national press. Freedom of speech became a closed circuit apart from the news media.

    With the advent of former President Bush's 'new world order" a fairly rigorous code of silence hit the US media hard. The Bush administration's handling of the Gulf War prefigured both questioning and protest. As a result of their experience with Vietnam, US planners factored the dissent of writers into their military equation. Military preparation and the massive transport of troops overseas happened so quickly that there was almost no public discussion. The people's protest to the war, huge at its initial stages when compared to Vietnam, was minimally reported. As international threats moved to speedy conclusion by force of arms, journalists were forced farther from the news. Access to military actions was parcelled out to a controlled press. In a sense the US and Coalition war was waged in a manner that could obviate protest.

    The silence was unusual behaviour for American writers. Writers organizations were strong (though selective) defenders of freedom of speech. Yet the entire US writing community was essentially silenced by a simple mechanism of fear. Prosecution of the Gulf War was so rapid, ruthless, and objectively criminal that the American people were terrorized. Among others writers did not know how far the crime would go once the line of acceptability was crossed.

    Two other factors capped any protest by US writers. The US writing community is essentially pro-Israel. In the States there are only recently, any well known Palestinian writers and few known Arab-American writers, as in another era there were no known Communist writers. To notice the absence is unsociable. Since the US Gulf War policy placed Israel in danger, literary ranks closed in its defence and few in the literary and intellectual communities championed reasonable diplomacy. Precedence for the American media's absolute denial of common humanity to the Iraqi people was established in the media's previously enforced silence about the humanity of Palestinians.

    Secondly, the entire Euro-Canadian-American literary establishment, the entire machinery of NATO's press, writers, publishers, booksellers, media, championed Salman Rushdie's freedom of speech and right to stay alive despite the death threat from Islam, and so found themselves in an anti-Islamic camp about to drop five Hiroshimas worth of conventional weaponry on an Islamic nation. Before the Rushdie case arose American writers as a group were entirely unconcerned with Islam; the ethic of a free marketplace was always more interesting than a re-run of the Crusades. The fact that Rushdie's Satanic Verses, became an international best seller without yielding to simple subject verb object sentences is in itself remarkable. That his book was so purposefully and widely marketed once it was found offensive to Islam, suggests that the work was used strategically with no real concern for its author's safety other than his usefulness to essentially military policies. The efforts on Rushdie's behalf in all the NATO countries who formed the Gulf War Coalition, point to a fairly sophisticated example of a contemporary agit-prop campaign. The West's writers were tactically manipulated and therefore controlled. To be a writer in our countries one had to belong to a religious/political camp eager enough to do battle.

    The Rushdie affair remained a kind of muzzle on Western writers. Of course one supported Rushdie's freedom to write without retribution, as one supports the rights of all serious writers even when their works are found "criminal" by governments owing their existence to the covert actions of Western countries. But to defend equally the rights of Islamic peoples became within the West a "disloyalty." With some experience in helping writers in duress, I thought the US response to threats against Rushdie was a state-of-the-art Anglo-American intelligence operation.

    Beginning with the Gulf War, the US, and it appears to be true in Canada as well, entered a new era of silence. After the bombing of Iraq with the purposeful destruction of its civilian infra-structure, the intended ongoing suffering of civilians was an inhumanity of genocidal proportions. The damage was compounded by applying post-war Sanctions. This instigated a new order of silence, beyond the silences applied to Palestine, and East Timor, and aspects of US intervention in Grenada and Panama, as well as DIA and CIA connected death squads throughout Central and South America.

    The best protection against democratic majorities going awry with policies such as ethnic cleansing, is respect for difference. Affirmation of differences is partly the value of dissidence. Without dissent, the media becomes a function of corporate interest and government. But the people cannot affect policy in a democracy if relevant news is suppressed.

    Consider US declarations and understandings at ratification in 1988 of the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which the US signed initially in 1948. In effect these declare the US the sole arbiter of the Convention's applicability to the US. In response the position of the Netherlands for example, was that the US is no longer party to the Convention. US understandings of the Convention also require a "specific intention" to commit genocide in war rather than say, genocide by collateral damage, for the crime to be subject to the Convention. It is as if the reservations were written with situations like the Gulf War in mind. My experience as a writer is that this area of discussion and information was and remains banned from the US press.

    On paper, Canada's position on the Convention against Genocide is much more supportive than that of its neighbour to the South, and carries no reservations at all. Yet domestically, it is an unmentioned topic, despite particular relevance to the issue of Quebec Separatism and the historical reasons for it. The sense of tact within the Canadian press, at what is gradually proving

to be a nonviolent ethnic cleansing of Anglophones from Montreal, is remarkable.

    When government policies of a democracy touch on issues of genocide, and writers prove silent, then silence is being enforced about issues which require public discussion. No national discussion of the genocidal aspects of US foreign policy has appeared since the Gulf War. Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark's books War Crimes and The Fire This Time, present evidence of US and Coalition war crimes during the Gulf war, while carefully avoiding the word "genocide" (his subsequent work does find the use of Sanctions against Iraq, genocidal). The works and the information Clark's writings contain were and continue to be ignored by the US press. Books glorifying Gulf War military leaders were well covered and promoted. Subsequent actions by Voices in the Wilderness Campaign, where participants have risked prison terms, large fines, and the possibility of US bombing raids, by going to Iraq with emergency medical supplies, consistently receives little or no coverage in the US or international press.

    Complicity in silence began to become the price of admission to publication. The silence remains enforced by codes of corporate and government loyalty which have nothing to do with morals, ethics, or the people's need to know. Policies which put entire civilian populations at risk have to be publicly discussed. And particularly when we are not supposed to, writers must raise issues of decency. Political leadership is accountable, as are the people to covenants and conventions which were made international law to spare all of us.

    How can there be valid literature in English if our cultures require major crimes against humanity which aren't allowed to be publicly questioned? As the Gulf War slips into the exclusive domain of well-paid historians, the mass graves of soldiers who never fought back, the ruined temples of a civilization older than Europe's, the Iraqi children still dying from the effects of bombing, still dying from lack of nourishment and necessary medical supplies, all become submerged in a tradition of silence which creates chaos to sell armaments, which would destroy entire peoples in the name of peace.

    What claim can silence make but as the grave marker of a terrible wrong ? Because in order to partake in the literary marketplace, we are supposed to forget the crimes at the heart of our cultures, the silence of North American writers is being enforced, as though the spoils of victory in those lucrative massacres called wars claim our rights to write our visions honestly. The silence of Canadian writers presents no contradiction to shared policies which supposedly serve US-Canadian mutual interests, but which risk literature's claims to anything greater than the self-serving claims of propaganda. In Canada particularly, our English language cannot escape some political accountability. By recognizing the silence we have a chance to question it. At the least I here pay respect to the more profound silence of those who become victims through what is left unsaid.



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copyright 2002 john bart gerald
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