The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Our Places in the Great Wall

... the military don't burn books any more: they sell them to the paper manufacturers. The paper companies shred them, pulp them and put them back on the market for consumption. It is not true that Marx, Freud or Piaget are unavailable to the public. In book form they are not. But they are in the form of serviettes.
Eduardo Galeano

Seaghán Ó Murchú • July 29, 2003

When I heard about the recent raid on the editors of The Blanket, it was a fortnight afterwards. My family and I had come home from a visit to the Czech Republic and Hungary. To an international conference of Irish literature scholars, I had delivered a paper on two plays by Irish women from the 1990s who had addressed exile from Hungary after WWII. Despite the fact that I teach at a university, I had to pay for the entire trip myself—these days, I’m told I’m lucky to simply keep my (non-tenured, full-time, year-round) post. Still, despite the surfeit of Czech dumplings and Hungarian gulyas, our family enjoyed the adventure. Our sadness at learning upon our return to the realm or regular e-mail about the events of July 4th diminished our pleasure.

I thought of Martin, who had driven us in his minivan—one of three or four jobs he had—around Prague and Bohemia. He told us how his father had refused to support the Soviets in their liberation of his homeland in 1968. For this protest, Martin could not attend university, nor could he choose to follow his father as a ceramic artist. Passports, driver’s license, everyday choices vanished even more quickly than they did for their fellow Czechs. The system assigned you a job and a flat, but could not grant you what people needed beyond sustenance. Blanca, who assisted us as an interpreter and guide, noted that her family was too poor even to suffer much more from the state socialists. Her family having fled when she was 14, her relatives endured mistreatment in their place. Miriam, who guided us around the remains of the Jewish ghetto of Prague, dryly reminisced of a literature professor who, in her third year at university, whispered in an aside that could have cost him his job to her class that without some knowledge of a book called the Bible, learning the humanities could be rather daunting. Miriam had never heard of this book before.

Talking to these victims of censorship, and mulling over the current case in Ballymurphy, connections between the Irish and Central European applications of governmental oppression continue to unfold in my thoughts. For nearly a year, in preparation for my trip and my paper, I have been studying novels, memoirs, histories, and journalism about an area about which—outside of personal encounters growing up with some teachers and neighbors who had fled Hitler or Stalin’s minions—I knew little. One description that incisively addresses the plight of the intellectual under silencing, from Gyorgy Konrad’s 1980 novel A mincos, best sums up the predicament faced by the publishers of The Blanket today.

‘If you extricate yourself from the state culture, writing becomes an adventure. Pulling out your notebook from its hiding place and making entries in it amounts to engaging in subversive activity. The words can be confiscated; they can be turned against you as part of an indictment. Anarchists lug around bombs in their briefcases—here you just slip your diary in your bag, and presto you’ve become an outlaw. A man can come up to you on the street, flash his badge, and quietly ask to see what’s in briefcase.’ Certainly, we can see the parallels to harassment of those who speak out against our system where collaboration with the state by not only the politicians but the police and the plainclothed widens to ensnare the resistance.

Konrad observes: ‘The police division in charge of intellectuals exists to prevent the intellectuals from defining themselves. I don’t look for hiding places for my notes; I keep censoring them.’ Here, again, the cost to the individual’s humanity comes at discounting the inner value that we clutch to keep our moral balance. We deceive ourselves on any record kept outside of our self. ‘Facts can’t be recorded, only opinions, and mine alone. A record of events that included names, places and other factual information is state security’s favourite reading matter. To make sure I risk only my own neck, I generalize.’ As in Winston Smith’s Minitruth, the scraps are constantly untrustworthy, always open to reshuffling, burning, delusion, and revision. When MI5 or the PSNI reads hard drives and scans hardcovers, what defense can these facts have against the opinion of the state? An opinion that makes up its own facts.

In a purportedly open society, under which both British and Irish claim citizenship in Western democracies, we assume that the abuses suffered by Blanca, Martin, Miriam, and millions of their comrades overwhelm the petty run-ins our malcontents incite under a rather benign state system. Can we compare Belfast now with Budapest then? Konrad’s depiction arises from the latter city during the 1980s. How much of the former city can we discern? How much has the system changed in the past two decades? Certainly, in both cities, we see new high-rises, Tescos, cellphones, McDonalds, increased traffic, and economic infusion. Fewer prisons, more revitalisation downtown. But half of those in Budapest and Prague live in the Soviet-era projects that ring the grand historic centres

Hungarians now earn an average monthly income of about 320 euros; 400 for their Czech neighbours. While greater Europe enfolds both Ireland and the former Soviet bloc into its wealthier masters, will we see in Central Europe what the past decade has brought to the 26 Counties, where the gap between rich and poor gapes second only to that of the U.S.?

Have the smaller nations given up earlier hopes of equality to serve only the lords of Tesco and McDonalds? (Where, in Prague I admit, the selection and quality of the former’s wares and the reliable hours and working conditions of the latter lure both visitors and natives tired of older, shabbier, and surlier eateries and emporia.) My point, then, expands: however outdated the system Konrad criticises historically, the larger issue of control over the choices we make as consumers of burgers and books endures.

As I generalise, inevitably, so does Konrad, who explains how ‘The combined strength of the state is sustained by the combined weight of public inertia—the mere perception of this fact is considered a guerilla operation. An honor guard made up of camouflaged police cars, the excited bustle of several hundred detectives whose only task is to prevent a single study from seeing the light of day is the state’s tribute to independent thought.’ Compare this vignette to the scene described by Carrie Twomey and Anthony McIntyre; while the languages and the actors change, the script remains the same.

Speaking of the state squared off against independent thought, the samidzat nature of intellectual dissent especially in the thaw after the Prague Spring meant that Konrad and others under Soviet dictates had often to revert to the practices indicative of an earlier dark age. Books were hand-copied, then mimeographed or typed with carbons. To counter informers, great secrecy remained paramount in disseminating texts among the sympathisers. Incarceration awaited violators. As with the Internet today in its most idealised form, so with the manuscript of three decades ago: here lay the power of the word made print, the activist’s chant enduring beyond ephemeral recall, the analyst’s ruminations preserved longer than a chat over a few pints the evening before. The Blanket and its allied media continue this hand-to-hand, word-of-mouth quality of reporting and studying the events of the street, the contraband craic distilled as distributed sceal.

At about the same time, 1979-80, that we heard Cambridge-educated Pink Floyd’s curiously childish rant ‘we don’t need no education’, the phrase that we are “just another brick in the wall” gained more practical application in Konrad’s voice behind the iron curtain. ‘The higher the state rises,’ he wrote, ‘over the social edifice, the more paradigmatic each brick becomes—and the more each built-in being knows and likes his place in the great wall.’ Kafka preceded Konrad in imagining a great Chinese wall, predicting perhaps how Mitteleuropa would mimic the attempts of other dictators to keep barbarians at bay, with barriers that within them gained strength from human mortar.

For many under totalitarian rule no matter the place or time, the wall’s durability depends upon the sacrifice of its workers and intellectuals who must become immured within the state structure. Konrad’s phrase fits for so many who live outside Iron or Bamboo Curtains, but who still depend upon fitting in beside so many identical shapes and sizes.

‘If his superiors like him, the brick is happy; if not, the brick is miserable.’ And here, I must admit, Pink Floyd and Konrad both agree with my own harried attempts to keep building minds in the Irish style—slates that need no mortar, stones that slide about and fit their setting naturally rather than the manufactured standardised brick factory product.

‘Education is an all-encompassing, cradle-to-grave campaign to make a brick out of everyone.’ We are given votes, we are told that our voices matter on the Net or at the ballot box as much as they do at the mall or when shopping on-line. But the power we have as consumers to boycott, to sample, to compare comes under attack by an increasingly corporate assault that makes outer Budapest look like outer Belfast, where in every Hungarian market town’s historical square the golden arches stand near the golden spires. Of course, we are told that we choose to shop and eat at the corporate outlets rather than the cornershops. Yet, as on the Net with alternative media like the Blanket, how can the democratic whispers shout out the demagogic conglomerates? How can we target those who seek the easier selection of goods, like Prague’s crowds eager to abandon the Soviet-era stores for the designer brands and the British chain store? However, when you stroll down Narodni (“Freedom”) street, past the site of the 1989 protests, compare the prices in the Western franchises, and do the calculation against a Czech native’s monthly wage. You’ll see who frequents Prada and the Gap more often.

The window-shopper finds plenty to delight while walking through Narodni street or the York Street mall in central Belfast. Again, who can afford the goods? As with the glossy media, full of text crawls, visual come-ons, and relentless updates, how can a simple website endure? How can it meet the rent and survive in a gentrifying city that aims to please more a tourist like me than its underpaid natives? Belfast or Prague, the big media, the mega-mall, and the central location pull in the traffic. Konrad’s scenes, therefore, apply not only to the plight of the intellectual, but as I have tried to suggest, to the plight two decades later of the everyday consumer/citizen against the power structure that supplants the Soviet state and the Western democracy.

Konrad concludes his section from the novel: ‘There are no grey areas; the state culture has a ready-made statement on just about everything. If you don’t want to run up against taboos, be sure your mind gropes around ever so gingerly. Better yet, do not have anything in your head that was not put in by the culture—that way you won’t entertain thoughts that might induce you to dissemble. Do not simply turn down the person who asks you to sign a letter of protest—turn him in.’ Those in Budapest, as in many other lands, who found themselves co-opted by the system against which they had once in youth rebelled, often ingratiated themselves with the authorities by turning tout. After 1956 there, after 1968 in Prague, after decades in Derry or Belfast, we know thanks to testimony preserved—often via samdizat rather than the mainstream media—these choices of loyalty and betrayal. The parallels between state socialism then and state capitalism now persist. Flags and emblems may change, but human behaviour persists.

A final note may summarise the difficulty behind such easy comparisons and truisms. In Hungarian, A mincos translates as ‘the panderer’ or ‘the accomplice.’ Ivan Sanders chose in 1982 to render the title as ‘The Loser.’ While the Magyar original emphasises the go-between nature of the intellectual trapped between the machinations of the lustful power the State and the ambiguous object of the State’s desire, the English version conveys the emptiness accompanying one’s surrender to the State. Like Winston Smith under the chestnut tree at the conclusion of 1984, we never know when our tormentors will summon us to our own personal fears in Room 101. Many, in Konrad’s time and ours, could not resist the forces allied against one individual’s rebellion. Yet, unlike Oceania, we in the extended, ever-warring empires of our world can still hope that our articles find an audience and an enduring forum that evades the censor, the sharp tool or excision, and the bully-boot threatening to crush the human face, voice, spirit, and all our individual complexity. This message presents the rationale for the Orwells, Konrads, and Blankets of our time. Like our predecessors, we lack one ultimate truth. Yet, as these two authors have insisted, we speak for the neglected. Biased as all our interpretations may be, we have the right to speak out as and on behalf of the unheard and the whispering voices.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



"As a rule, dictatorships guarantee safe streets and terror of the doorbell. In democracy the streets may be unsafe after dark, but the most likely visitor in the early hours will be the milkman."
- Adam Michnik

Index: Current Articles

29 July 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Our Places in the Great Wall
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Mr Michael McKevitt's Statement at the Special Criminal Court
Michael McKevitt


Crisis of Political Imagination

Liam O Ruairc


Childhood, - West Belfast, Race and 'Irishness'
Davy Carlin


Island Palestine
Anthony McIntyre


A Short History of the Global Economy Since 1880
M. Shahid Alam


Belfast's Big-headed Bully-boy
Margaret Quinn


20 July 2003


Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Fein Support for Prisoners' Demand
Mick Hall



Liam O Ruairc


Revenge of the Bureaucrats
Julie Brown


What It's Like to be Raided
Carrie Twomey


Raid on McIntyre Home




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