Six years ago today, a group of Cuban intellectuals, artists and journalists was apprehended by the Cuban police and thrown in jail. They were all convicted of conspiring against the Cuban government and they were all given harsh sentences. Their trial, if we can use that word, was a one-sided affair, where the only body calling the shots was Fidel and his crooks.
Although this blog is not overtly political, it is my belief that writers, artists, performers and journalists should be allowed to express their views on contemporary issues without any fear of backlash. This is the same principle that made me condemn the fatwa issued against the writer Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah twenty years ago as well as denounce the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya a few years ago by Putin's henchmen.
Of the more than 70 Cuban intellectuals arrested six years ago in what has become known as Cuba's Black Spring, more than twenty still remain in Cuban jails in sub-human conditions. They have been tortured and their human rights have been trampled upon. That is why tonight I, along with other bloggers join forces to demand that the Cuban government free all political prisoners that it still keeps in its jails and that it open the way to democracy by allowing its people to form and vote for political parties whose political manifesto is different from the official party line. Only by holding a mirror to itself can a society advance, become more independent and succeed. At present, alas, that is not the case in my country.
Amongst the items I include below there is a letter published in the British newspaper The Guardian on Monday 16th February of the current year and signed by the Writers in Prison Committee English PEN. I also include part of their mission statement (you can read the rest on their website). I also want to include part of an essay by the writer Phililp Pulman on the perils of writing in totalitarian and theocratic societies, a message that is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago under Mao, or sixty years ago under Stalin.
I would like to thank Cat Lucas, English PEN Campaigns Assistant, for allowing me to reproduce their mission statement. I would also like to thank The Guardian Saturday Review team, especially Ginny Hooker once again (for the other favour she did to me before, click here), for authorising me to use Philip Pullman's article. The second part of this post will be published tomorrow at the same time.
Letter in The Guardian
Today is a momentous day for Cuba. Fifty years ago, on 16 February 1959, Fidel Castro brought about the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Batista and created the western hemisphere's first communist state. 2009 has been a doubly significant year for Cuba, due to President Obama's orders for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. Within a year, the horrific prison conditions against which there have been worldwide protests for the last seven years will cease to exist.
However, there are reportedly over 300 other prisons on the island, many of which are notorious for the ill treatment of political prisoners, who are often deprived of food and water, while guards are known to abuse them both physically and mentally. Many are drugged, left naked for weeks on end or kept in cages. Some resort to self-mutilation in the hope of an early release.
Such treatment has contributed to the rapid decline in health of the many cases of concern to English PEN. In fact, one of the 21 writers, journalists and librarians still detained almost six years after the 2003 Black Spring crackdown on dissidents, reportedly greeted Obama's announcement by saying "When will the world open its eyes and say that the other Guantánamos should be closed?" To mark the anniversary, we are launching our 2009 Cuba Campaign, calling for the early release of these prisoners, and for immediate improvements to their prison conditions, including access to visitors and medical treatment, and removal from hard labour.
Lisa Appignanesi, President
Jonathan Heawood, Director
Carole Seymour-Jones Chair, Writers in prison committee English PEN
Part of PEN's mission statement:
As such, on 16 January 2009, fifty years after Fidel Castro took power, English PEN launched our 2009 Cuba Campaign. The overall aim of our campaign is to bring greater freedom of expression to Cuban citizens in general, but most specifically to our fellow writers, journalists, novelists, poets and dramatists. The areas on which we will be focusing include the following:
Release of prisoners: We will campaign extensively for the early release of the 21 imprisoned writers, journalists and librarians arrested during the 'Black Spring' Crackdown in March 2003. We will also campaign on behalf of the five other Cuban PEN cases imprisoned in violation of their right to free expression. For more information on these cases, please click
You can continue to read the rest of PEN's mission statement here.Essay by Philip Pullman
The war on words
Reading is a democratic activity, argues Philip Pullman, and theocracies discourage it. Khomeini's Iran and the Soviet Union had similarly degraded views of literature - and Bush's America is heading the same way
The Guardian, Saturday 6 November 2004
I start from the position that theocracy is one of the least desirable of all forms of political organisation, and that democracy is a good deal better. But the real division is not between those states that are secular, and therefore democratic, and those that are religious, and therefore totalitarian. I think there is another fault line that is more fundamental and more important than religion. You don't need a belief in God to have a theocracy.
Here are some characteristics of religious power:
There is a holy book, a scripture whose word is inerrant, whose authority is above dispute: as it might be, the works of Karl Marx.
There are prophets and doctors of the church, who interpret the holy book and pronounce on its meaning: as it might be, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.
There is a priesthood with special powers, which can confer blessings and privileges on the laity, or withdraw them, and in which authority tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men: as it might be, the communist party.
There is the concept of heresy and its punishment: as it might be, Trotskyism.
There is an inquisition with the powers of a secret police force: as it might be, the Cheka, the NKVD, etc.
There is a complex procedural apparatus of betrayal, denunciation, confession, trial and execution: as it might be, the Stalinist terror under Yezhov and Beria and the other state inquisitors.
There is a teleological view of history, according to which human society moves inexorably towards a millennial fulfilment in a golden age: as it might be, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as described by dialectical materialism.
There is a fear and hatred of external unbelievers: as it might be, the imperialist capitalist powers.
There is a fear and hatred of internal demons and witches: as it might be, kulaks or bourgeois deviationists.
There is the notion of pilgrimage to sacred places and holy relics: as it might be, the birthplace of Stalin, or the embalmed corpses in Red Square.
And so on, ad nauseam. In fact, the Soviet Union was one of the most thoroughgoing theocracies the world has ever seen, and it was atheist to its marrow. In this respect, the most dogmatic materialist is functionally equivalent to the most fanatical believer, Stalin's Russia exactly the same as Khomeini's Iran. It isn't belief in God that causes the problem.
The root of the matter is quite different. It is that theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do.
To begin with, the theocratic cast of mind has low expectations of literature. It thinks that the function of novels and poetry is to present a clear ideological viewpoint, and nothing else. This is brilliantly shown in Azar Nafisi's recent book, Reading Lolita in Tehran (4th Estate, 2004). The author, a professor of English literature in Iran during the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini, tells of her attempts to continue teaching the books she wanted to teach in the increasingly fanatical and narrow-minded atmosphere of the period following the Islamic revolution. In order to discuss the work of Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen or Henry James, she had to resort to various stratagems: to pretend to put the book on trial so as to elicit a "safe" defence of it, to meet with a small group of trustworthy students in her own home and so on.
At one point she is describing the attitude of the authorities to the sort of books she finds most valuable:
"Unable to decipher or understand complications or irregularities, angered by what they considered betrayals in their own ranks, the officials were forced to impose their simple formulas on fiction as they did on life. Just as they censored the colours and tones of reality to suit their black-and-white world, they censored any form of interiority in fiction; ironically, for them as for their ideological opponents, works of imagination that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous. Thus, in a writer such as Austen, for example, whether they knew it or not, they found a natural adversary."
Works of imagination that did not carry a political message were deemed dangerous - that is, an overt political message. Nafisi is too subtle a reader to think that Jane Austen, or any other great writer, is devoid of political implications, echoes, correspondences; but if they don't stand up and wave a flag and shout slogans, they're invisible, and hence suspect.
And that is true for believers and atheists alike. Here is an extract from a famous resolution of the central committee of the all-union communist party of August 14 1946:
"Recently in Zvezda magazine, along with important and worthwhile works of Soviet writers, there have appeared many worthless, ideologically harmful works. A crude mistake of Zvezda is the offering of a literary platform to the writer MM Zoshchenko, whose productions are alien to Soviet literature. The editorial staff of Zvezda is well aware that Zoshchenko has long specialised in writing empty, vapid and vulgar things, in spreading putrid nonsense, vulgarity and indifference to politics, so as to mislead our young people and poison their consciousness... In addition, Zvezda in every way popularises work by the authoress Akhmatova, whose literary and socio-political physiognomy has been known to Soviet people for a long, long time. Akhmatova is a typical exponent of empty, frivolous poetry that is alien to our people. Permeated by the scent of pessimism and decay, redolent of old-fashioned salon poetry, frozen in the positions of bourgeois-aristocratic aestheticism and decadence - "art for art's sake" - not wanting to progress forward with our people, her verses cause damage to the upbringing of our youth and cannot be tolerated in Soviet literature."
The charge of indifference to politics: there it is again. It is a consistent theme. In 1929, the writer Boris Pilnyak had been denounced by the Stalinist Literary Gazette for offences including "apoliticalness (not being a communist)" (Ian MacDonald, The New Shostakovich 1990). What it amounts to is that if a literary work doesn't openly support your side, then it must be empty, and ought to be condemned.
So the trouble with the way theocracies read is that they have a narrow idea of what literature is: they think it only contains one kind of thing, and has only one purpose, which is a narrowly political one. This is true even of some apparent supporters of literature, such as the leftist activists described by Nafisi, who defended Scott Fitzgerald against the attacks of the Muslim activists on the grounds that "we needed to read fiction like The Great Gatsby because we needed to know about the immorality of American culture. They felt we should read more revolutionary material, but we should read books like this as well, to understand the enemy." The theocratic cast of mind is always reductive whether it's in power or not.
The second charge against the theocracies is that they only know one mode of reading. Because they think there is only one way that books can work, they have only one way of responding to them, and when they try to apply the one way they know to a text that doesn't respond to that reading, trouble follows. There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.
Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world "began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious". This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: "Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality."
Not only Protestants, we might add, and not only the Bible. In March 2002, the BBC reported the publication of a story in several Saudi newspapers about a fire in a school in Mecca. According to the reports, the mutaween, the Saudi religious police, stopped schoolgirls from leaving the blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress. Fifteen girls died as a result. One witness said that he saw three policemen "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya" (the black robe required by the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam). The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out. What is this but a failure to read with imaginative understanding, a triumph of literalism and the bare decoding of instructions over human empathy?
The second part of this essay will appear tomorrow.