Friday, 26 November 2010

The PEN is mightier

A little over a year ago I took what turned out to be one of the defining steps in my journey to where I am today as a writer. I accepted an invitation from Anthony Gormley's 'One and Other' project to do an hour on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. I themed my hour around an interactive poetry experiment on freedom of expression which didn't quite come off on the night, but which I later got the chance to do right at Newcastle Library for their Human Rights Day Celebration last December. My back-up plan was to do an hours' worth of material (a pretty scary prospect in a scene where performances usually last about twenty minutes at most), and it was in the preparation of this material that I came to the realisations about myself that have been the driving force behind this blog since.

But there was another motive behind my performance that night, and it was to raise money for International PEN, a fine charity which provides support to writers who have been wrongly imprisoned for the crime of producing work which the authorities find subversive.

Punishing a writer for expressing themselves is a ridiculous and cowardly act which should be beneath the dignity of the pettiest of tyrants, but it happens all over the world far too often. This Guardian article came to my attention recently, marking PEN's Day of the Imprisoned Writer and making me feel a little guilty for not having referenced PEN very much in the year and a bit since I got the customers at the bookshop where I worked to contribute to my plinth fund for them.

Free expression is something I've been thinking of these past few days,  because we've seen how our new Coalition masters respond to it: by sending riot police on horseback to attack defenceless children.

So this is where we are as a society. Any dissent from the neoliberal concensus and the corporate interests it serves is savagely punished - even if the dissenters are the young people politicians blandly enthuse about as 'our future'. And oddly enough they're right, about that part.

The students and schoolchildren who protested this week are the future of this country in spite of all the mockery pampered newspaper columnists have directed at them. They represent the first strike back on behalf of all those marginalised and disenfranchised by this government and the kyriarchal interests it serves. These young people are the ones the Daily Mail warned you about, and they won't be the first.

A culture which fears dissent, a culture which attacks its own children, is a culture that is doomed. But the fault lines which cracked open this week have been present for a long time. They have been present in this culture's attitude to race, to disability, to gender. They have been present in every lie a middle-manager ever told for advancement, every slur hurled from a moving car whose drivers thought a pedestrian looked either insufficiently feminine (or too feminine if they happen to be male-bodied), every heartless little laugh issuing from the beer-swollen bellies of a gang of cosseted cis caucasian males when they watch their Little Britain DVDs. Our culture has been sick for a long time. These kids are the first sign of our culture beginning to recover. The fact that so little about what really happened at the protests has appeared in the mainstream media is a sign that there are many people in positions of power and influence who have a vested interest in keeping us sick. As well they might: like many in positions of authority throughout this society, they owe their 'success' to the sickness.

But the young are the future. Just as the other marginalised people are the future. We are, to borrow Camus' phrase about Africa, 'those shining lands where so much strength is still untouched.'

So much strength - because our eyes truly see the sickness at the heart of this world, and we refuse to turn away. So much strength - because we deal with attacks from the privileged every day. So much strength - because every day we survive horror which would break them if they had to live through it just once. And we don't just survive: we find joy and colour and real laughter and love in the midst of it. We make music, literature and art of unflinching beauty and truth. We live, truly, in a way which the sick, authoritarian masters of this culture could never really understand because it can't fit on a spreadsheet. Strength of this kind cannot be overcome. It can be repressed for a time, but the repressed will always return. Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empire. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.

This week the past tried to fight the future. The world of authority and submission and hierarchy - of kyriarchy - which is slowly passing from the earth, tried to abort the new world yearning to be born with truncheons, fists and lies. It failed. And it will keep failing. And there will be more protests, more marches, more occupations and more creative forms of direct action and protest and dissent, and more and more marginalised people making a noise to drown out the echo chamber of the right-wing press. More and more of us telling our stories, dreaming our dreams, until those stories, those dreams and the life and love and good real anger we put into them redraw the boundaries of this world forever.

Every society in the past which fears dissent as much as ours has fallen. Ours will too. The question is, where will you be on the day when it falls? Weeping in your bunker or dancing in the ruins?

Today's homework assignments for new readers: read Anna Funder's Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, and watch the film The Lives of Others. Think.

Oh, and you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of one of International PEN's anthologies like Free Expression is No Offence. You'll read a lot of good stuff and contribute to the protection of one of the most important human rights. After all, if you're reading a blog like this, I figure free speech has to be something you consider important, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment