by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - June 19, 2006) What do Bruno Bayen, a French director, Peter Handke, an Austrian playwright, author and poet, and Ward Churchill, an American professor of ethnic studies have in common? You'd be hard-pressed to know if you only read the corporate media in the U.S. They are essentially invisible men. They don't make the news. And they are politically being lynched.
Peter Handke's travails have been covered in these pages. Readers will recall that, first, Marcel Bozonnet, the administrator of the French public theatre company the Comédie Française scrapped Handke's play, "Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking," that was programmed in early 2007. Then the council of the city of Düsseldorf in Germany decided that they would revoke the Heinrich Heine prize that the jury had awarded to the Austrian author. These two events received little or no coverage in the American media. The New York Times buried the news in short paragraphs by Lawrence Van Gelder in "Arts, Briefly," never raising the issue of freedom of expression, which is at the heart of the two scandals.
When Handke wrote a letter to Joachim Erwin, the mayor of Düsseldorf, to inform him that he would not accept the prize, Lawrence Van Gelder (June 9, 2006) dutifully quoted part of Handke's letter: "'I am writing to you to spare you and the world from the upcoming sitting of the city council in which they will decide not to give me the prize.' He added that his action was 'above all to spare my work, which I do not want to become an endless target for the vulgar insults of party politicians.'" Van Gelder did not include that Handke dismissively suggested that the members of the council should cancel the meeting, go out to breathe some fresh air, "for example to have a picnic on the banks of the Rhine." But he surely reminded the readers of Handke's "sympathies for the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in March in The Hague while on trial for genocide and war crimes." (You can see a summary in an English article of the German daily Deutsche Welle of June 9, 2006, or the full chronicle of the debate in the German Press on signandsight.com.)
Bruno Bayen did not deserve any coverage at all. He was supposed to direct Handke's play, which he had translated in French. He also was supposed to appear on February 10, 2007, at a "Saturday of the Vieux-Colombiers," organized by François Regnault, the literary adviser of the Comédie Française, and dedicated to the "history of theatre at the Comédie Française." However, Mr. Bayen publicly objected Marcel Bozonnet's decision to cancel the play, and he went with Peter Handke to meet the French secretary of culture and communication, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, to express his strong disagreement with the decision coming from a public, state company.
Presumably Marcel Bozonnet and François Regnault took umbrage, for the latter simply disinvited Bruno Bayen, writing that "since you [Bayen] have taken a public position against the decision of the Comédie Française, and since you went with Peter Handke to [see] the secretary, the situation between the two of us has changed." In other words, Bayen became a collateral victim of this sordid affair. Not a word transpired in the US main press.
As to Ward Churchill, the silence is deafening. The so-called Standing Committee on Research Misconduct of the University of Colorado at Boulder recently issued a politically motivated 124-page report accusing professor Churchill of "academic misconduct" and calling for sanctions, perhaps temporarily, or even excluding him from the university. Professor of sociology Tom Mayer deconstructed the report in a 1900-word article that he sent to local papers in Boulder to no avail. They all rejected the article because "it was too long." Nineteen hundred words to criticize a 124-page report are considered too long by the local guard dogs of the orthodoxy. The national press simply ignored the issue altogether -- or maybe they covered it in tiny snippets buried in the bowels of the papers. One can easily imagine a Van Gelder treatment of the news: "Controversial professor is charged with academic misconduct: Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the U. of Colorado who called the 9/11 victims at the World Trade Center 'technocrats' and 'little Eichmanns,' and blamed Americans for what he called the 'genocide' of the Indian nations, was accused of gross academic misconduct by the university Standing Committee on Research Misconduct. The committee recommends sanctions that may include his expulsion from the university."
In all cases the political context is ignored; the abridgement of freedom of expression is kept under the lid; and the culprits are always characterized as controversial, or offensive to the conventional wisdom. But by and large, they disregarded the stories.
Since the "paper of record" is in the business of publishing "all the news that's fit to print," I decided to contact Byron Calame, the Public Editor at The New York Times.
To: "Byron Calame" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Peter Handke in the NY Times
Date sent: Tue, 06 Jun 2006 14:14:29 -0800
Dear Mr. Calame,
In early May 2006, General Administrator Marcel Bozonnet of French state theatre company, the Comédie Française, scrapped a Handke play that was scheduled for early 2007. At the end of May, the Council of the city of Düsseldorf revoked the famous Heinrich Heine Prize that its jury had awarded to Peter Handke.
The reasons advanced for those two actions were a) Peter Handke's political views in regard to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, b) his so-called pro-Serb and pro-Milosevic positions, and c) the fact that he had attended Milosevic funeral in March 2006, which was reported in an April 6, 2006 slanderous snippet in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that was entirely cut out of whole cloth.
In other words, the preeminent Austrian artist has been punished for "délit d'opinion."
I am surprised and saddened that these two stories have not been better covered in The New York Times. Only a couple of short newsbits appeared in the Arts Section of the paper. These stories go far beyond arts. They have political ramifications and denote a culture of ostracism and nasty retributions for one's opinions.
Why has the NY Times not covered these two stories and their political dimension? Could you do something about this lack of coverage by asking the various editors (politics, arts, culture) to visit or re-visit these two scandalous occurrences?
(Kindly note that if needed for your personal information I can provide you with more details on this two controversies and point you to articles on the Web that present the chronology of those lamentable affairs.)
One week later, having not heard a word form the Times beside their automatic e-mail acknowledging receipt of my correspondence, I sent another e-mail:
To: "Byron Calame" <email@example.com>
Subject: Peter Handke and the NY Times 2
Date sent: Tue, 13 Jun 2006 16:22:35 -0800
Dear Mr. Calame,
I sent you an e-mail on June 6, 2006 -- appended below -- in which I asked the reasons why the NY Times had not fully covered the Peter Handke stories in Paris, France, and Düsseldorf, Germany. I also asked you whether you could do something about this lamentable absence of coverage.
You haven't had the courtesy to answer my polite query. May I ask then: Is ignoring NY Times' readers who have legitimate concerns, which may deviate from the editorial line and conventional wisdom, your actual function at the august paper?
The next morning, I received the following answer:
From: Public/NYT/NYTIMES <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: 6/14 OPE Response Re: Peter Handke and the NY Times 2
Date sent: Wed, 14 Jun 2006 11:34:23 -0400
Dear Mr. D"Aymery,
I passed your original message to the appropriate news department. I apologize for not writing to you then to let you know.
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times
Note: The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.
To say the least, the response contained no opinion whatsoever. A little apology and a big wash of hands. So, I attempted to enlarge the issue to its political context and once again politely requested a response from the public editor.
To: "Public/NYT/NYTIMES" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: 6/14 OPE Response Re: Peter Handke and the NY Times 2
Date sent: Thu, 15 Jun 2006 14:47:12 -0800
Dear Mr. McElroy,
Thank you for your e-mail and for passing my original message to the "appropriate news department."
However, the "appropriate news department" has not departed from ignoring the topic altogether. It remains obscured in the few lines your very able Lawrence Van Gelder buries in the sempiternal "Arts, Briefly" feature that is read by the very few. Nothing of substance has been published in the pages of the paper in regard to these two lamentable affairs.
Additionally, neither Mr. Calame nor you have answered my legitimate question: "Why has the NY Times not covered these two stories and their political dimension?"
Here is a preeminent author, Peter Handke, being censored by a French public theatre company and denied a famous literary award in Germany for, to put it straight, délit d'opinion: Handke refuses to espouse the orthodoxy when it comes to the Yugoslav wars, the Serbs, and Slobodan Milosevic.
Now, I fully understand that the Times, a carrier and disseminator of that very orthodoxy, would disagree and oppose Mr. Handke's views, but this is not the story. The story is about freedom of expression -- a notion that the paper's owners and top editors have been relentlessly defending since as far back in time when the Times became the "paper of record."
Is this benign neglect or dereliction on the part of the Times? Freedom of expression is being assaulted day in and day out (cf. Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado at Boulder) and the paper remains silent. What will it take for the Times to address this issue? Another McCarthy?
I would appreciate it if Mr. Calame could look into this issue and answer this reader's concerns -- and questions.
Sincerely, Gilles d'Aymery
At this writing, the e-mail has been met with total silence. Then again, as the automatic response states carefully: "Thank you for your comments. Everything sent to this mailbox is read by either me or my associate, Joseph Plambeck. If a further reply is appropriate, you will be hearing from us shortly" (my emphasis).
Evidently, the appropriateness of my request must have been carefully weighted and considered...and dispensed with silence. People, famous or not, can be entirely ostracized for their political opinion; their words can be twisted; their views, and at times their words, wholly fabricated. They can be smeared and slandered, their character assassinated. They can be censored, their work cancelled, their contracts annulled, their job eliminated -- simply for holding unconventional and unorthodox views. They are being pilloried for nothing else but délit d'opinion -- the offense, both figuratively and literally, of their views.
Handke Scriptmania Portal, by Michael Roloff
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