Giving Voice to the Excluded
First Churches, Northampton
The Force of Language Competes
Against The Weight of The State
By Edward Shanahan
The First Churches sanctuary was all but overflowing the other night for a bracing and timely antidote to the dangerous virus of rampant US government paranoia.
In the name of national security, our government squanders lives and treasure in an illegal war in Iraq, imprisons without trial non-combatants at Guantanamo in Cuba and tortures others in secret overseas locations, collects phone records and engages in other forms of surveillance of its citizens, erects a monster wall along our southern border, and sees enemies lurking in every shadow and just around every corner.
You would not think in the land of the free and the home of the brave it would become such an all-consuming and agreeable task for the government to take away our liberties and rights in order to protect them.
Yet, when it comes to the question of who is disloyal to American principles and ideals it seems not be the people, but the government acting in their behalf. It’s an old story and a worthy struggle, Citizens vs. the United States.
“An Evening Without … Giving Voice to the Excluded,” sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and PEN New England, was a tonic for those of us who are becoming deeply discouraged with the direction the country is moving.
On stage were some dozen of the area’s best-known authors and performers, reading from the works of other authors, whose writings told of censorship, imprisonment, travel restrictions, visa and visitor sanctions against them, all linked to their political views or commitment to speaking freely.
In introducing the evening, Bill Newman, director of the ACLU western region law office, sounded a very somber note about the relentless attempt to strip away rights from those who might be tempted to criticize this "Great Power."
His remarks set the stage for the powerful expressions of sustained, often eloquent, protest by a long list of writers who had come afoul of the restrictive, anti-democratic, and preemptory US policies to muzzle, censor, silence or otherwise intimidate them.
It was a felicitous concept – first the writings - Emma Goldman , “Living My Life, 1931,” Graham Greene on “The Virtue of Disloyalty, 1969,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Lecture, 1982, Carlos Fuentes, "Speech of Sept. 1, 1984,” Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook, 1962," Dario Fo, “Letter to President Reagan, 1987,” Farley Mowat, “My Discovery of America, 1985,” Tariq Ramadan, “Resigning My Position, 2004,” Moazzam Begg, “Enemy Combatant, 2006” as well as the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, and Mahmoud Darwish.
Related then by the very effective readings of Jane Yolen, Roland Merullo, Leslea Newman, Barry Werth, Cathi Hanauer, Pat Schneider, Martin Espada, Eleanor Lipman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Daniel Jones, Charles Coe and Floyd Patterson II.
And, finally, the huge audience, listening, absorbing, clearly moved by words and sound, by thought and expression, by passion and humor.
Such is the power of words, first put down on paper, then read and finally heard, a power that ultimately can attempt to neutralize or combat the unequal weight of a government out of control. But can the words and ideas succeed in such a contest? Maybe they can, but there are no guarantees. Still, it is essential to make the effort and carry the fight.
For me, one of the most poignant moments of the evening was Pat Schneider reading Doris Lessing’s regrets, lamentations really, about not opposing with more vigor the execution of Ethyl and Julian Rosenberg in 1953 on charges of spying.
One of the moderators of the program was Robert Meeropol, a son of the Rosenbergs, who earlier in the evening had read a section from his own book about his family and how he was six years old and a kindergartener in New Jersey on the day of the execution and the long-term impact that had on him and others.
His presence and comments along with the words of author Lessing effectively closed the circle on the events of today and those that reach back nearly 60 years in the history of the “freedom-loving” democratic nation.
(Posted March 14, 2007)
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