A Library For Guantanamo

Give them stories. Let them read Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Theodor Dreiser. Let them read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. And Styron, Roth, Didion, Bellow, Franzen. Open the treasure chest of the finest American authors, and let the prisoners at Guantanamo have access to those hearts and minds. Let them learn the diverse stories of America and, perhaps as a result, evolve any alleged perceptions of a nation of uniform thought. America is not a nation of uniform thought.

Yesterday, at the Aspen Institute Cultural Diplomacy Seminar in Washington, Virginia Representative Jim Moran spoke with former NEA Chairman (and acclaimed) poet Dana Gioia about the absence of reading options for prisoners at Guantanamo. Moran cited as, in his view, one of our past Administration’s great mistakes: the fact that these young, arguably still impressionable, men are offered only one book when they arrive—the Koran. In Moran’s view, this is a terrible mistake. Why offer them the one book with which they are likely most familiar? Why offer them something that has no chance to challenge or change the Way They See Us? Here we have, as Moran implied, an excellent potential audience for a low-cost act of cultural diplomacy: reading more about us.

Is it obvious or brilliant to conclude that the most important books we can give our prisoners are fine works of American literature, works which represent the rich diversity of our current cultural climate, and the history of literature in American life? “The way we counter negativity is with the arts,” Moran said.

Moran spoke of a dream for cultural diplomacy. In this dream, all great works of American literature would be translated into all languages. Availability would inspire access. And access might in turn inspire understanding. A compelling complement to Guns and Butter. “Hearts and minds” is a policy with rich history, but it is one that goes in and out of vogue. The time is now. If there is not a library available to all prisoners we take, whether at Guantanamo or in other security facilities across this country, are we failing to do something that, for very little additional cost, might make a difference?

Wallace Stevens; E.E. Cummings; Robert Pinsky; Mark Strand: our finest poets might have suggestions about which works they would include in this library. Books are not necessarily the solution or even the most effective tool for diplomats, but they do show something: we are not reducible to an emotion or an idea or a “party.”

Even if you hate Walt Whitman he remains connected to an idea of an essential American right: we are all interconnected, and we will fail to respect this fact at our peril. He put it better:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


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