In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson – a thug prone to threatening to “crush” entire elected governments – with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved”, using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”
It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hoardes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.
The odd thing is, change can be wrought in so many small, painless ways, it is almost surprising we don't bother. Take this business of censorship. A few years ago, I remember being in Delhi and attending a show of the play, Line. I forget the name of the theatre company but I think it was a show supported by the First City foundation (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), which does support a lot of cultural activity in the capital. So far, so good.
The script, however, was not an easy one for the average conservative Indian audience to digest. There was sexual content and not of the comic, innuendo-laden type to which we are safely inured. It wasn't particularly brutal sex either. But it was discomfiting. Perhaps, that was the point of the play? We didn't have a chance to find out.
Mid-way through the performance, somebody was discomfited to the point that they asked the group to stop. The director stepped up and apologised and told us, the audience, that the rest of the performance stood cancelled.
And for god's sake, we have to stop thinking that what we think, or do, will not matter. Particularly those of us who are in the business of thinking and expressing. NSR puts it best, as usual:
The best writers in every age have also been deeply engaged citizens, and to ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting. What we’re really asking, when we pose the question of a writer’s responsibility, is for writing to be like bonsai-growing, or ikebana: a strictly ornamental occupation that challenges nothing, shakes up nothing.