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Language is a weapon in the fight for freedom

Last week I heard an interview on CBC Radio's The Current with a former journalist and editor named Robert J. Cox.

Last week I heard an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current with a former journalist and editor named Robert J. Cox. I’d never heard of Cox, or of the paper he edited back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, but I was riveted by the interview.

It turns out that the British-born Cox risked his life to report the disappearances of roughly 30,000 Argentinians during the military junta’s “Dirty War.” Now, almost 30 years later, his son David Cox, also a journalist, has told his father’s story in a book called Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox. It’s the story his father, still traumatized by those events, was unable to write himself.

It’s an important book, not least because it’s the timeless story of one individual who spoke truth to power, and saved many lives as a result. It’s also a testament to the crucial necessity of press freedom. Dictatorial regimes fear the power of words; they thrive on lies and silence. Finally, it’s an account that’s as acutely relevant today as it was three decades ago. In the words of Argentinian journalist Graciela Mochkofsky, “the ideal of journalistic truth (again) risks becoming old-fashioned and another ‘war against terrorism’ recently opened the way to government-sponsored torture and disappearances.”

Note the quotation marks around Mochkofsky’s use of the term “war on terrorism,” signalling that the term is not hers and not one she endorses. Those tiny black marks are critical. Such flagging is one way of reminding us that all governments, and especially authoritarian ones, manipulate language in order to mask their acts of repression. From the Nazi term “the Final Solution” (the mass killing of Jews) to the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” (the kidnapping and outsourcing of the torture of suspected Islamic “terrorists”), such phrases conceal rather than reveal. They degrade language into a series of lies.

After the Second World War, many German writers felt they had to somehow cleanse their language of its corruption, reclaim it from its misuse by the Nazis. The Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan (who wrote in German) spoke movingly and haltingly of what had befallen his language. “Language ... had to go through ... its own lack of answers, go through a terrible silence, go through (a) thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It went through and did not bring words for that which happened. But it went through all this happening.”

Such reclamation requires a massive act of the imagination. As the American poet Ezra Pound put it: “We are governed by words, the laws are graven in words, and literature is the sole means of keeping these words living and accurate.” In our own time, language is corrupted not only by governments but by advertising and marketing. The word “product,” for example, is now applied to anything available for sale, including books. But to group books - acts of the world of ideas - together with inanimate objects such as hammers or computers is to diminish them, to imply that they, too, lack any life force. What does that tell us about the world we currently occupy?

The relationship of language to power, and the importance of the individual voice, was very much on my mind this fall as I worked on a memoir piece about the American journalist I.F. (Izzy) Stone. I came across Stone’s newspaper, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, when I was a university undergraduate in the late ‘60s, at the height of the Vietnam War. For 19 years Stone waged a lonely crusade against the lies and corruption of Washington’s political establishment. By the ‘60s he was an icon of the New Left student movement, and one of the few sources of information we trusted.

“It is strange,” he remarked later, “how, with all the correspondents there were in Vietnam, Saigon’s misgivings (about allowing in American troops) were kept from public knowledge.” Of course, as Izzy and his readers well knew, it wasn’t strange at all - the corporate press had colluded in suppressing such information.

Which brings me back to Robert Cox and his brave act of defiance during his years as editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. Cox, in fact, originally supported the military dictatorship that overthrew the democratically elected government in 1976 with the intention of crushing ‘subversive elements’- the left-wing guerrilla movements. He had married into the Anglo-Argentine upper class of his adopted country, sent his children to an elite private school, and had friends and in-laws in the military.

But then stories of people being kidnapped and ‘disappeared’ by right-wing death squads began surfacing. The first confirmation came from an English expatriate couple whose son had been abducted by a squad of policemen in the middle of the night. The son was later found dead, with signs of having been tortured. Cox came to the reluctant conclusion that far-right factions within the government had adopted the methods of the left-wing “terrorists.”

The Herald began publishing front-page stories about the disappearances - a decision that took great courage, since many other journalists and editors were being arrested. Cox later said that he lived with the assumption that he would be murdered, too. But when his 11-year-old son Peter received a letter containing intimate information and death threats, Cox went into exile. From abroad he continued to speak out against the situation until democracy was restored in 1983, though it took much longer for the Argentinian media to regain their credibility.

The personal cost to Cox and his family was enormous, as it was for I.F. Stone and other individual journalists who chose truth rather than silence. History has vindicated them both, but it’s a fight that’s never over. The late, eminent Argentinian journalist and editor Jacobo Timerman, who himself was arrested and tortured in the early years of the “Dirty War,” spoke eloquently of that need for eternal vigilance.

“American publishers, indeed all artists, writers and thinkers, should be emblems of the role of the creative imagination in the continuing struggle for human rights. We have a singular power, one of the few that have survived so much violence: our relationship with the world of ideas. That is what totalitarianism and terrorism fear the most.”

Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s memoir Aiding and Abetting: Izzy and My Political Education will appear in the fall issue of

The New Quarterly (available in late October). Her column appears on the last Friday of each month.