Last month I joined Amnesty International. I probably should have done it long ago, but I never quite got around to it until after they released their report condemning in unflinching detail my government's torture and abuse of detainees around the world. Actually, it was the manufactured, shoot-the-messenger furor following the release of that report that finally got me to send in my money; I hope Amnesty's willingness to do the right thing and speak out against torture even in the face of such withering (and appalling) hostility and denial earned them many more new members.
A few weeks later they sent me a letter asking me to contribute more money to their Urgent Action Network, which sends appeals on behalf of prisoners of conscience around the world. In addition to asking for a donation, they included a small card - I'm sorry, a "Message of Hope" card - which they asked me to sign and return with the promise that they'd try to deliver it to a prisoner. It says simply "Do not be discouraged. You are not forgotten" in five languages.
It's been sitting untouched on my desk ever since. I can't help it; I'm skeptical of calls to action that appear to be nothing more than symbolic gestures. What is the card really supposed to do? Is it just a way of making members feel involved in Amnesty's work? Is it the bait to reel in the contributions, which conceivably do more good than the cards? What's the point?
This week, of course, all the cool boys are mocking the Live 8 concerts, which had the double gall of dusting off aging rock stars and attempting a mass political intervention in the upcoming G-8 summit. The concerts, the London one in particular, really did look like rock's last hurrah, one final albeit impressive manifestation of the revolutionary liberation that was always inchoate but never quite realized in its glory days. It was a broadcast from some parallel universe where rock stars do this sort of thing every summer and Yoko Ono never sold her dead husband's songs to Nike - interspersed with transmissions from our own Philadelphian timeline, where hip-hop superstars talk about helping Africa while wearing diamonds.
So there was a certain undeniable grandiosity to the proceedings, but grandiosity - hell, pomposity - for a good cause is better than invoking cynicism or derision as a safe, comforting, morally superior alternative to action, and that's exactly where many of the Live 8 criticisms have been pitched from. But I have to admit, lambasting a campaign for debt relief because you don't care for Pink Floyd isn't so dissimilar from my reaction to the Message of Hope, which is as much a recoiling from the style, from the unbounded intimacy with strangers, from the name as it is a reasoned doubt about the little card's practical effects.
And then somehow I always end up thinking about the graphic novel and soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture V for Vendetta. This recent discussion over at the Howling Curmudgeons first sparked my thoughts about the sixteen-year-old comic in relation to the Amnesty card and our government's torture practices.
Towards the end of Book 2 the jailed and tortured Evey Hammond receives a strikingly similar message of hope. (Speaking of whom, it was rather disconcerting to see Natalie Portman at Live 8, addressing this mass political mobilization while sporting Evey's shaved head. I kept waiting for Big Ben to explode.) It's written by a fellow prisoner from the next cell over (in a sense), not a well-meaning charity donor who sits in provisional freedom halfway around the world, and it's scrawled on toilet paper rather than eco-friendly recycled paper stock. It's the story of a woman who is arrested for being lesbian, who has her head shoved in a toilet bowl - at least there's no waterboarding, eh? - who is finally subjected to fatal medical experimentation, and who writes a testimony that inspires at least two other prisoners not to give in to the dehumanizations inflicted upon them by their captors. In fact, it leads to the destruction of the government that tortures and kills her.
It's the moral center of a book that compromises every other moral stance, including the stance of inaction, and one of the most memorable passages in a book that does not lack for quotable quotes. When I was 18 I was more likely to find a slogan in V's all-but-final words ("Ideas are bulletproof"). And any number of lines are creepily appropriate today; V's injunction to Lewis Prothero ("Admirable concern, commander. Yet it's deuced odd, isn't it? How you can show so much concern for porcelain and plastic... and show so little for flesh and blood") seems all too applicable to those who can get worked into a lather over analogies about torture or representations of torture but don't have any outrage to spare for the actual torture.
But the more I read V for Vendetta, the more I realize that every other cool-sounding Alan Moore action-movie line - everything V says or does, for good or ill - is set into motion by Valerie's letter. It ends with a simple assertion of her and her fellow prisoners' worth as human beings, and their refusal to surrender that worth to their captors:
I don't know who you are, or whether you're a man or a woman. I may never see you. I will never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope that you escape this place.
Do not be discouraged. You are not forgotten. From the filth of the "fraternity pranks," Valerie creates real human fraternity. An Amnesty note that included selected portions of her letter would be truly inspirational - but Moore doesn't own those words anymore, and besides, the thought of sending real political prisoners letters of encouragement penned by fictional characters is unspeakably depressing.
But they are a reminder that even the simplest words of support can have a profound impact. So can all those gauche public declarations and protests and grandiose message concerts, whose main purpose has always been to remind people at home that they're not the only ones who feel something isn't right. Six years ago debt relief was supposed to be a pipe dream, something only the fringes cared about; now it isn't so fringe or so unrealistic.
When Moore's words are written up there, pulled out of their emotional context, they can look just as maudlin as any rock-concert Message of Hope. Maybe genuine conviction always does, especially in contrast to the no-risk variety of the cynic. But style and aesthetics and a lingering adolescent concept of cool are horrible reasons not to take part in a just cause.
The card and the check go out in the mail tomorrow. What else can I do?