Victor Navasky

Breaking the Barrier

Editor's Note: In A Matter of Opinion, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Victor Navasky reflects on a lifetime in magazine journalism. In this excerpt, he recalls meeting Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine writer who had been tortured -- and wanted to re-enact the experience on television.

The spring of 1981, when I had been at The Nation for three years, saw the publication of Jacobo Timerman's powerful memoir A Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. The Argentine journalist Timerman had been "disappeared," imprisoned, and tortured during the 1970s by the military junta in Buenos Aires, and his memoir vividly evoked that experience. Although some members of the organized Jewish community took exception to his argument that the mass "disappearances" were tinged with anti-Semitism, he and his book (with a huge assist from his human-rights activist publisher, Random House's Robert Bernstein) were widely celebrated.

I thought he should expand on the underlying meaning of his story for The Nation, and I was looking forward to meeting him one evening at a small dinner party in his honor. Then I opened my New York Times and there on the op-ed page was an article by a CBS television producer headlined "Torture? On TV?" In it the producer of CBS Reports, Eric F. Salzman, claimed that when he met with Timerman to ask what he wanted to discuss on his program, Timerman told him to forget about the questions: he wanted to be tortured.
Mr. Timerman looks at me, I say nothing. Is he testing to see if I will do anything for a program that will generate controversy and pull a large rating? I stare and listen for clues to see if the man is mad.

"It is not very difficult," he continues. "I will not die, don't worry. Do you know how it is done? The subject is tied down and his body wet with water. Electrodes are applied. The apparatus allows more or less energy to pass." He moves his thumb and forefinger as if twisting a dial -- "So, the body twitches and jumps. The subject howls or his flesh is burned or he may die. But it is controllable, you see. A doctor would make sure I don't die. There can be a problem of shock to the heart." He rubs his chest, making a small circle. "But it can be massaged. There can be a problem of exploding something but I have survived. I would survive. In half an hour it is over. Can you arrange this?"
Salzman wrote that he was struck silent as Timerman went on to say that there were excellent torture doctors in abundance -- in Argentina, El Salvador, Iran, Cuba, Brazil, the Soviet Union.

"If you volunteer to be tortured," Salzman told him, "you will trivialize the evil of torture. People will call it a publicity stunt."

The TV interview went on as scheduled, and there was no torture.

So that night I met Timerman at the home of a liberal labor lawyer. We were introduced, and I asked him, What's the story on the op-ed story?

In his heavily accented English, he told me, "They want me in twenty minutes to explain what I've already written in hundreds of pages. How do you explain to the American people what is torture in twenty minutes? So I said you want to explain what it is to be tortured? Torture me on television."

At dinner the toasts were plentiful and much wine was consumed while Timerman explained to us that the Argentine government said it couldn't account for the thousands of people who were disappeared, and the State Department had lists of thousands of names but declined to release them.

After dinner and after after-dinner drinks, as he was leaving, Timerman put his arm around my shoulder and said, "So tell me, Veektor, what is so terrible if I am tortured on television?"

Salzman hadn't been able to figure out whether or not Timerman was serious, and at some level neither could I. But his point was profoundly serious. How, given the media glut, do you break through and communicate the terrible truth?

A few years later, I witnessed another writer facing a similar conundrum (albeit with no torture involved). J. Kirkpatrick Sale, whom we had signed on as a contributing editor to The Nation specializing in radical environmental, green, spiritual, and other issues (what some called New Age but Kirk liked to think of as "cutting edge"), was explaining the Luddites, the subject of his new book, to an audience at Town Hall. He was one of two dozen speakers brought together by the Utne Reader to speak about alternative perspectives on the events of the day/week/year. What entranced Kirk about the Luddites, who had asked what was called in their time "the machinery question," was less their resistance to new technologies than the forceful way in which they raised the question and demanded a voice for those affected by the answers.

Kirk's way of making his point at Town Hall was to end his brief talk by picking up -- with no advance warning -- a sledgehammer and smashing a computer screen, scattering shards of glass, wires, and other technological paraphernalia all over the stage. Word of his action spread, and some months later, when a reporter from Wired magazine asked him about it, he said:

"It was astonishing how good it made me feel! I cannot explain it to you. I was on stage in New York's Town Hall with an audience of 1,500 people. I was behind a lectern, and in front of the lectern was this computer. And I gave a very short, minute-and-a-half description of what was wrong with the technosphere, and how it was destroying the biosphere. And then I walked over and I got this very powerful sledgehammer and smashed the screen with one blow and smashed the keyboard with another blow. It felt wonderful. The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air -- some of the audience applauded. I bowed and returned to my chair."

What had he accomplished? "It was a statement. At other forums I attempt to discuss the importance of understanding new technologies and what they are doing to us. But at that moment, when I had only four minutes to talk, I thought this was a statement better than anything else I could possibly say."

And indeed, how can one break through the mass-media fog, the miasma of platitudes, cliches, stereotypes, and untested assumptions that the increasingly conglomerated communications combines share? This is the question that bedevils all small magazines and all others who challenge the national complacency. Those of us in the opinion-journalism business are occupationally dedicated to the proposition that it can be done through critical reasoning, careful analysis, moral argument. But Timerman and Sale remind us that sweet reason alone may not always be enough.

Reprinted from Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2005. © 2005 by Columbia Journalism Review.

You Say You Want A Constitution

The last time I read the U.S. Constitution all the way through was almost fifty years ago, when I was a student at Swarthmore College. My roommate Marc Merson and I were at work on a one-act play (United We Stood); its premise was that an English literature professor had stumbled on the fact that the founding fathers had inadvertently signed the wrong document. (Patrick Henry fell in a beer vat at a party the night before the signing and misplaced the original.) The document they signed had a different ratification requirement and as a result, the Constitution was unconstitutional! The problem of the play: Should the professor reveal his finding to the world, risking all the chaos that would cause, or should he hide the truth?

I won't tell you the ending but I will tell you that when Bobby Handman called on behalf of People for the American Way to ask whether I would join Kathleen Turner, Floyd Abrams, James Naughton, Roger Rosenblatt, Richard Gere, Judge Jack Weinstein, Ossie Davis, Betty Friedan and others in a reading of the Constitution at Cooper Union's Great Hall on the third day of the Republican convention, I said yes, absolutely.

My hope, as I explained to Roger Rosenblatt in the green room before the reading, was to get the Fifth Amendment. "No, stupid," said Rosenblatt: "You're not supposed to take it, you're supposed to read it."

My fear that a simple reading of the Constitution, no matter how accomplished the readers, would fail to entertain the full-house audience turned out to be unjustified. The energetic crowd whistled and whooped and cheered for their favorite passages: the First Amendment (read by Floyd Abrams) and the Civil War amendments against slavery and guaranteeing the vote (read by Ossie Davis). Betty Friedan got a standing ovation when she recited the Nineteenth, which granted women the right to vote.

They hissed and booed when they heard the line where blacks are counted only as "three fifths of all other Persons," and grumbled during the reading of the National Rifle Association's favorite, the Second Amendment; and they laughed and booed, then cheered, as Prohibition was first incorporated into the Constitution and then repealed.

As luck would have it, I got to read Article I, Section 7, which included more subordinate clauses than I could count, and dealt with, among other things, the President's veto power. It interested me, however, that the word "veto" was never used. Instead the clause said that before a bill shall take effect it "shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives..." I now want to look into the legislative history of this upbeat formulation.

Although the event provided an ideal occasion to reflect on the social evolution of this great document (especially in the midst of this week's celebration of an administration bent on subverting it), the audience also took joy in some of the unintended double-entendres. For example, after Rosenblatt read the clause that says, "The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January," he paused as the audience rose as one to stomp and cheer.

After the reading, we were all given a copy of the original (which was on display in a case upstairs). I checked the ratification clause and saw that it was the real thing.

It was all very moving.

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