Tag: NSA

The Writer Censors Himself

Café Dose, rue Mouffetard, Paris

May 2015

Censorship comes in different forms. You’ve indulged in free political speech for most of your life—but then grown more and more concerned about security agencies like NSA taking notes on what you say. Perhaps for later use. And so you arrive at the point where you ask yourself, “Should I come right out and say this?”

Maybe that’s the point: to make you think twice or thrice before you let your fellow citizens know what you think about, say, censorship in all its forms. After all, as throughout history, first they eavesdrop, then they make lists, then they come for your neighbor—and then for you.

Here in this country below the border, you withdraw a one-act play from the Internet, first the Spanish translation, then the original English, because it may or may not be dangerous to suggest, even indirectly through art, that the country’s government may be complicit in high crimes against its own people. In the process, you get the idea of what it was like to write in France during the German Occupation, in the Soviet Union then and now. And, presently, in Saudi Arabia, China and much of Africa.

How did you arrive at this point? You took a screen writing workshop at this year’s San Miguel Writers Conference. Up to that point, you had applied yourself to writing short stories and novels. You had never written a play before. Thinking you might be asked to write something right then and there, you chose a subject that was on everyone’s mind, the disappearance of forty-three students in the south of your country of residence, all of them from one school, all of them surely murdered—this in the context of some 92,000 other people who are also missing here.You didn’t have to write a five-minute play, but you decided to proceed with your idea. You wrote a one-act play. And then you had your translator translate it into Spanish.

Hoping to continue skirting the line of what was safe, you mentioned your play on Facebook. You wrote, “Thanks to the gifted translation by the Guanajuato writer and poet X, you can now read ‘The Colonel and the Pig’ in Spanish, a short one act play possibly in the epic style of Bertolt Brecht, where the latter sought to distance his audience from the anecdotal quality of reality. That is not my phrasing, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it—in the matter of forced disappearances in a country south of wherever you find yourself in the world.”

And then you gave your blog address, so people could read the play.

You mentioned the posting to a few young Mexican friends. One such friend told a friend of hers. The latter, a young woman with an BA theater, read the Spanish version, said she liked it very much but added it would be difficult to stage because it was so politically loaded.

At that point, you begin to come out of your self-congratulatory haze and realize that a watching censor would likely come to the same conclusion. Your best friend warns that the government, Army and Federal Police would not understand myth, metaphor, irony, epic theater or Bertolt Brecht. And that the government—on many levels—was becoming increasingly intolerant of critics. Plus, your are not a citizen, and they could deport you for breaking one of the rules on being a resident: You may not demonstrate politically against the government.

And so you decided to take the little play down, both the Spanish and the English. You give a few people electronic copies, but tell them not to distribute them further. You also write a friend who has been living in the country for more than sixty years and whose opinion and judgment you trust. You mentioned the great risks taken by articulate and brave women like Lydia Cacho, Denise Dresser, Carmen Aristegui and Raquel Padilla Ramos, who do not hesitate to take on the government. You mention you do not feel good about yourself, giving in to the fear of censorship and retaliation.

You friend replies, “Being a non-citizen of Mexico can also be a great cloak to wrap around yourself. The most comprehensive stories of graft and corruption, the best investigative inquiries into massacres and suspicious suicides like Linda Diebel’s book Betrayed: the Assassination of Digna Ochoa are written by non-citizens. Given the choice of an article in Proceso or an in-depth article about the same incident in The New Yorker, I will almost always prefer the dispassionate but fact-checked writing of the American journalist. But what you wrote, in my opinion, is not investigative journalism. You wrote a lovely lyrical almost poetical play that is more art than rant or cant. Aristegui, Dresser, Cacho are IMMINENTLY public figures with huge followings, hence the threat as well as the political clout that they bring to their battle. I think the performance of your play (in Spanish) or even just reading of it at some cafe or little theater at least in Michoacán would have been thoroughly appreciated for what it is. My getting involved in the disgusting political machinations of the mayoral campaign here in town is seriously dangerous…I still take notes and jot down the farcical (albeit with deadly serious implications) nature of this campaign.  You should not self-censor. Keep writing in your (excuse me) Brechtian fashion, and collect your writings. Posting or publishing is not that important right now. Capturing your impressions of the political climate is what is important. ”

You write this as you sit in a third country (France), which prides itself on unrestricted expression that, if exercised without some situational restraints, can have disastrous consequences. And then there is Texas, where free expression is used as provocation—again with disastrous results.

There is a danger line in the country where you live,  except that you don’t know exactly where it is. There are other questions. Were you overestimating the importance of your words, or were you underestimating their possible impact? On the one hand, a writer wants the widest possible audience—but not so wide that the government’s enforcers react. The Internet offers the illusion that you comment from neutral ground and that you are therefore safe, but we all know that that is not true.

And so you arrive at the final question—perhaps a false one—and that has to do with which group you belong to: the brave risk-takers? Or to the self-censoring, the silenced, to those who have knuckled under? We have some guidelines that help here. There are a great many dead risk-takers in this country and, no doubt, a few living expelled ones, too, like the Italian women who got involved in Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising. Clearly, you also have to control the writer’s ego, which might otherwise be over-estimating its importance and foolishly willing to risk disaster for a piece of writing, badly timed and, in the long run, quixotic. And so, in the end, you turn to the meta-story, the one presented here, which you hope will bore the censors speechless, while giving the writer some relief.

Kaliman and the Madness of Writers

Kaliman is a walking wreck, with hair like a bush, swarthy from complexion, some of it dirt, and of this I’m sure, he has identified me as a writer—since he is one, too—and is trying to infect me with all his insanity. His eyes are squinty from too much thinking. My mother would have faulted him for his dirty ankles, more for his lack of socks. “Were you brought up in a barn?” she would have said with her gentle scold. I’ve known him for thirteen years. He was brought up on the street, and apart from cows.

Today he spoke to me for the first time. I was sitting in a local wreck of a café, sipping moras y yoghurt, blueberries and yogurt, a berry-like tea for Mexican yuppies. The window was open to the street, and I sat behind an iron railing, thank god, a little below the slanted callejón where he was standing. He brandished some writing at me and said some unwritten words. I ignored him, like a dessert we’re wise to decline. So little separates us from Kaliman and, as much as I would like to have broken our thirteen-year silence, I did not. There are traditions to uphold. Plus, dementia often waits for us down the line. A little preview baked by Kaliman might have been ahead-of-time contagious. One bite of him could have been enough. One glance at his scribbling bereft of words as we know them could have destroyed my own—all part of his plan to induct me into the Hall of Insane.

Clearly, someone had told him I was a writer like him. And now he wanted to change that as well, infect it, so that my words collapsed into kuneiformed rubble like his own? But, hold on. I could be just as devious and put an end to harassment of this sort. I stood up, collected my Apple things and beckoned with my index digit to coax him into a cyber café, where I plopped him down in front of a computer—not that I cared one way or another whether he knew what one was. I showed him how to touch the keys, my account, meaboutme@gmail.comto an old and unresponsive friend, and only inserted a few words of my own. Camel, Allah, NSA-Great Satan. The rest of it looked like rat droppings fonted in pungent rows.

Some time passed while the words flitted through Our Coaxial Who Art in Heaven, and then the FBI visited me—its Mexican cell. The snoop cartel.

“Did you write this?” they asked, at my mesquite door, showing me a stamped and dated official copy of the time-sensitive drivel.

“No, my friend Kaliman did,” I replied—as truthfully as truth allowed.

“Who is Kaliman?” they asked—taking notes.

I described Taliban—I mean Kaliman—and where to find him, near the Museo de Leyendas, description enough—little visited repository of legends. An institution I thought would list him eventually, once things had passed.

They returned.

“He’s not sane,” they said.

“Who is these days?” I answered, palms outstretched.

“He doesn’t understand the words camel, Allah, USA or Great Satan.”

They looked at me with suspicion, looking for guilt.

“That should be ‘NSA-Great Satan.’ Not ‘USA-Great Satan.’ And written together,” I said, precise from my training as unionized teacher-citizen, California.

“Whatever,” said the less amused of the two.

The seat of his pants was shiny. I could see he is on his way to being Kalimanized. I wondered whether I should tell him, or what.

“You need to be careful,” I say. “He can infect your thinking.”

“Perhaps you’ve infected his,” says Agent Less Amused. “Adding words to his.”

“I have never spoken with him,” I said.

At that moment, Kaliman showed up. Not surprisingly, he had found out where I lived. He brandished a scribble. We were all in danger.

“He’s a writer like me,” I said. “And doesn’t wear socks.”

They tried to examine the page, but Kaliman clutched it, like a raccoon with an egg, and looked at me for help. I smiled at him and told him—breaking my vow of silence—he could trust me and that I would read it for him, without cracking the egg. His eyes brightened, one of them wept a cleansing line down his cheek. I had won his confidence. That much was clear.

I struggle with the first word. “Ben—gha—zi,” I read. “Benghazi,” I said. translating from Kalimandarin to English. “Al…al….al…,” I read.

“Al Qaida?” barked Agent Grouch, with a professional tone and ready to pounce.

“Al—lah,” I completed, nodding and pleased at my code breaker talents.

“It’s clearer now,” I continued. “Allah…be praised…my camel…Benghazi…knows more…about…Libya…than…Obama’s whole Stasi.”

I looked up at them, their darkened Homeric brows.

“That’s what it says, the rest is gibberish,” I said. And then, “I appreciate your trouble….”

“What does it mean?” they asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “The man is mad, as mad as a hatter—without doubt it’s a thing of no substance—of little matter.”

I often rhyme when it’s least appropriate.

Just then, Kaliman did me a favor, plucked the page out of my hands and stuffed it into his gob and, with shark-like pressure of grinding enamel, re-encrypted the code beyond all reach. He picked at his tooth where a phrase had got suck, spit out a glob of something penciled and strutted away, I supposed to re-establish the silence that he had broken between us.

“His brain is limited,” I said, “unlike our own. He must read the paper, AM or Correo or Corazón—all reliable rags. He’s like a parrot and repeats whatever he’s told. Nothing to worry about. Thank god there’s surveillance. I’ll keep you informed if I learn any more. Things that begin with ‘al…’—and words of like clout.”

The FBI said I would be hearing from them, but I never did. It’s possible they read my blog and tap my everything Google or Apple—looking for things like “NSA-Great Satan” and equivalent babble.

As for Kaliman, he avoids me with care, I suspect smelling treachery. And all has returned to its former quiet. I am still un-demented, my writing as well, don’t you think? Everything is good, everything swell. And so, Happy New Year everywhere, there’s nothing more to this, as there wasn’t before. But should more come up, you’ll be able to tell.