The Power of Ideas

On this day in 1921 the first branch of PEN, the now worldwide writers’ organization, was founded in England. Its first president was John Galsworthy, and early members included Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence. The acronym derives from Poets and playwrights/Editors/Novelists, but today the organization includes critics, translators, journalists, and others. Besides operating in the usual ways of professional organizations, PEN is especially active in supporting writers who are politically oppressed, and for promoting Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which guarantees “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Oppression continues to triumph over expression in many parts of the world, the “Latest News” from the PEN International website [] reporting censorship and incarceration in Uganda, Kenya, Gambia, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Guatemala…. In an attempt to convey that there are no options in this matter, some of the PEN branch websites feature the following poem by Tahar Djaout, who was assassinated by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group in 1993:

Silence is death.
If you are silent you are dead,
And if you speak you are dead,
So speak and die.

Djaout’s anti-fundamentalist novel, The Last Summer of Reason was published posthumously. “They have understood the danger in words,” says Djaout’s bookseller-hero,” all the words they cannot manage to domesticate and anesthetize. For words, put end to end, bring doubt and change.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa‘s birthday is this week — October 10, 1941. The following is part of a letter he managed to have published in several British newspapers in 1995, some months before the Nigerian authorities hanged him and eight others:

A year has gone by since I was rudely roused from my bed and clamped into detention. Sixty-five days in chains, weeks of starvation, months of mental torture and, recently, the rides in a steaming, airless Black Maria to appear before a kangaroo court, dubbed a special military tribunal, where the proceedings leave no doubt that the judgment has been written in advance. And a sentence of death against which there is no appeal is a certainty. Fearful odds? Hardly. The men who ordain and supervise this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen; by the demands of social justice and the rights of man. Nor do they have a sense of history. They are so scared of the power of the word, that they do not read. And that is their funeral….