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A YEAR AFTER | Regarding Media

Writers Bear Witness With Unique Voices

September 11, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIME STAFF WRITER

. . .We believed we

Would see with our own eyes the new

World where man was no longer

Wolf to man, but men and women

Were all brothers and lovers

Together. We will not see it.

We will not see it, none of us.

It is farther off than we thought.

--Kenneth Rexroth

There are moments in the writer's life when formal eloquence fails before history, when explanation falls out of reach. Silence, however, is not a choice. And so, the writer falls back on ancient duties: the simple act of witness, the preservation of memory, the expression of solidarity.

One year ago today such a moment exploded in lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania. Among that day's most unexpected consequences has been an outpouring of work by West Coast writers and editors who banded together in various groups to speak what could be said to the larger, national community about its loss, its anger and its peril. Like Sept. 11, 2001, this is an unprecedented event, and three of the works that flowed from it--two produced in L.A. and one in Portland--commend themselves to thoughtful attention.

The most unusual is the current issue of Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West. The entire volume is given over to Sept. 11. The graphic images are striking and shrewdly chosen (see the accompanying cover illustration), and the only representation of the World Trade Center is a color satellite photo of the smoldering site taken on Sept. 12.

More remarkable still is the content, which manages to convey that the industry, for all its vulgarity and venality, encompasses a network of serious, thoughtful, accomplished writers. "Unfortunately," said Richard Stayton, Written By's editor, "popular ideas about screenwriters are shaped by the coverage in the trades. It's all box office, the deal and the pitch. Ours is a literary perspective, which comes through as it may never have before in this issue. It shows there is a community out there of deeply intellectual writers, who happen to be making a living writing for Hollywood."

Stayton recalled that when he first raised the possibility of dealing with the anniversary at a meeting of his editorial advisory committee, novelist and screenwriter David Freeman responded by urging that "it should be the whole issue. David argued that the writers of the guild had an obligation to make a statement about 9/11 to the nation."

One of the issue's achievements, in fact, is that it makes--entirely without self-congratulation--a point first noted in the prestigious British documentary series "Panorama": Hollywood writers have been more prescient on the nature and origins of contemporary terrorism than any Western intelligence agency.

For example, in a piece Stayton contributed on the travails suffered by New Yorker magazine writer Lawrence Wright and producer Lynda Obst during the making of the film "Siege," the editor quotes a U.S. military analyst who appeared in "Panorama's" recent Sept. 11 special, "A Warning From Hollywood."

"About the only thing they really got wrong was they didn't come out and name Osama bin Laden," former U.S. intelligence analyst Lt. Col. Ralph Peters told his British interviewers, "... but the overall vision was absolutely more acute than any intelligence report I read when I was in the Pentagon."

Another Los Angeles-based publication that cuts across the grain of prevailing opinion is "It's a Free Country: Personal Freedom In America After September 11," the first in a projected series of books on public issues to be published and edited by civil libertarians Danny Goldberg, Victor Goldberg and Robert Greenwald.

Danny Goldberg is president of Artemis Records and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California; his father, Victor, formerly co-published Tikkun and the Nation; and Greenwald is a veteran producer and director of films and television.

Their volume's tone, intensely critical of the erosion of civil liberties that has occurred in Sept. 11's wake, is set by Cornell West in his introductory essay, "Lift Every Voice." As the Princeton University professor writes, the book "bears witness to a precious truth of American life after the ugly catastrophe of Sept. 11, 2001: The spirit of freedom is still alive in the face of panic-driven government policies. And since dissent and criticism are the life-blood of freedom in a democratic society, this book is in the best of the American grain. It is no accident that the voices in this volume are those of progressives, liberals and conservatives."

Indeed, among the book's notable attributes is the presence of essays not only by civil libertarians of the left--Ira Glasser, Howard Zinn, Tom Hayden and Ramona Ripston, among many others--but also conservative critics of overreaching government, including former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and Republican activist Paul Weyrich.

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