Wednesday, May 03, 2006


PEN Panel: You Say You Want a Revolution?

Unlike the semi-deserted venue for the Internet panel--where you expected to see tumbleweeds blowing down the aisles--the Celeste Bartos Forum was packed for "Revolution: A User's Manual." Late arrivals bickered over the remaining places. The beautiful people--Salman Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi, Martin Amis with a cunning little flip to his hair in back--slipped into their reserved seats in the front row. Then the revolutionaries hit the stage, led by moderator Christopher Hitchens. This was a genuinely impressive group: Adam Michnik, Gioconda Belli, G.M. Tamas, and Baltasar Garzon. As they arranged themselves onstage, Hitchens addressed the crowd: "Please hold your applause, all praise belongs to Allah." This produced a ripple of uneasy laughter--was it permissible to make fun of Islam at the New York Public Library?--which subsided as the Hitch began his introductions.

Everybody on the panel had participated in an actual revolution. In the case of Garzon, a magistrate, it was less a matter of violent upheaval than the slow-motion rebirth of Spanish civil society after the death of Franco. Hitchens himself had been on hand for many of these events, like a chain-smoking Zelig of world revolt. Speaking with unusual deference, he asked Michnik to begin the conversation.

A key figure in Solidarity and the editor of Poland's first independent newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, Michnik exuded a kind of pot-bellied decency. He spoke in Polish, with simultaneous translation by none other than John Gross: "Karl Marx used to say that revolution is the midwife of history--because the midwife can decide how the birth will take place." But every revolution, he asserted, is ultimately betrayed. In each case there are two phases: the first is beautiful, the second is ugly. For that reason, only unfinished revolutions are happy events. And what of the Polish revolt? "Solidarity was the only revolution I know of that simply wanted normality."

Hitchens, who had started revolving his glasses in the air to move things along, now addressed Belli: "The Nicaraguan revolution was the last one in recent memory to have a utopian or romantic character. So it's your turn, darling." She responded with some reminiscence: "I was five years old the first time I saw blood. I was going to buy some candy, and saw a big splash of blood on the wall. My nanny said the soldiers had killed a student. That splash stayed with me: it was a shock to my young mind." During the late 1970s, Belli joined the Sandinistas and shared in the exhilaration of toppling Somoza. "We had a revolution that triumphed in May 1979," she recalled. "That day I thought I had the privilege of seeing my dreams come true."

To some extent, of course, the Sandinista revolution fulfills Michnik's two-part scenario: communal joy followed by sharp disillusionment. After winning the presidency in 1984, Daniel Ortega promptly declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties, even as his government's economic programs alienated both urban and rural supporters. Clearly Hitchens wanted Belli to discuss this revolutionary hangover. Yet the poet refused to play ball. "I still think utopia is possible," she insisted. "I think the crisis in the world now is a crisis of the imagination." With a weary wave of his spectacles, the Hitch gave up, and turned to G.M. Tamas, who served in Hungary's parliament from 1989 to 1994.

"You've heard the witty, the moving," Tamas began. "Here comes the grim." He ran down the checklist of failed revolutions and scolded the vanguard for its Chatty Cathy tendencies: "Revolutionaries are loquacious. Revolutionaries talk a great deal." And what do they get for their troubles? In the case of the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956--who demanded no more than worker's councils and the hasty exit of Soviet troops--they got nothing. Then came the upheavals of 1989, which put Tamas and his peers in the driver's seat. "I had to realize that nostalgia and sadness--and hatred for the new order--was spreading."

Now it was time for Barzon to speak, also through a translator. A large, gravid man with silver hair, he patiently explained the role of the traditionally conservative judiciary in Spain's post-Franco transformation. Not being a man of letters, he felt no obligation to spice things up rhetorically, which led to some slow going. By the time he was through, it was getting late. Hitchens, not willing to simply note the hour, got fancy: "The tyranny of time is not one that can be abolished." Very true, comrades! Yet a few minutes remained for final statements and questions from the floor. (The moderator's instruction to audience members: "Be terse and, if possible, ironic.")

In response to one such question, Tamas spoke up: "Isn't it quite interesting that nowadays, the crushing majority of those dying for violent causes are dying for the same reasons people were dying 6,000 years ago? The progress is tremendous!"

Rusdie himself approached the microphone to ask about the oil-and-water rapport between the Church and revolution. Belli argued that liberation theology, once a real force in Latin American society, was basically dead. Tamas had a more elaborate answer. In Hungary, he explained, believers were in the minority, and a frequent butt of jokes. "People in general do not trust ideas of any kind," he said. "They do not trust protestations of innocence. I come from a skeptical country, you see--it would be a very good vacation spot for a Pole, or for a Texan."

The Hitch, perhaps unwilling to let the vox pop get in the last word, hijacked the panel with a final question. Which did they see as the most profound revolution: 1776 or 1789? Belli dodged again, merely asserting that the "women's revolution" will ultimately have the most sweeping effects. This elicited applause from approximately one half of the audience. Barzon declared that "you lose something in every revolution."

But Michnik, again with John Gross as his English mouthpiece, was more willing to play favorites. "I love all revolutions," he began. "And I am afraid of them all." He cited the Jacobin motto: "Be my brother or I will kill you." This would seem to favor the American Revolution, no? Michnik praised the Founding Fathers, who contrarily understood that human beings were fallible creatures. "I like the American Revolution. It was a proposition for people like myself: sinful, imperfect, who like to eat, and do not want to be an angel." Comrade, you've come to the right place.

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