The subtitle of “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said” says that it’s “essays and conversations.” Maybe my expectations were a bit too high for a slight, 109-page volume. But it involved renowned novelist Arundhati Roy, successful actor John Cusack, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, so can you really blame me? Shouldn’t a book containing writings from and conversations with these four be three times as long? Are the things that can be said really only 109 pages’ worth of material? Either way, my experience reading this book was scattering rather than clarifying, which would be an odd goal for a book of this potential.
The transcripts of conversations were hard to follow, almost like picking up a conference call and four other people are deep in the middle of a conversation they’ve been having for years. Snowden, one of the most controversial and fascinating figures to emerge in recent years, seemed like a tack-on at the end, as either an afterthought or a marketing ploy. And the topics I was most interested in learning about from this powerful foursome’s discussions were, frustratingly, summarized. Maybe that’s to prove the point of the title — “there are things that cannot be said” — but then my question is, what’s the point of this book? Is it that when whistleblowers, a writer and someone who earns his living in front of a camera get together, the public can’t know what they talk about? Surely Roy, Cusack, Ellsberg and Snowden didn’t go through the royal hassle of meeting up in a hotel room in Russia (due to Snowden’s circumstances) for no higher purpose than to prove there are many things that can’t be said.
Perhaps this book needed more context. If you don’t know who Arundhati Roy is, then the following excerpt of a conversation between her and John Cusack might be alarming: “Nonviolence is radical political theater.” (Roy). “Effective only when there’s an audience.” (Cusack) “Exactly! And who can pull in an audience? You need some capital, some stars, right? Gandhi was a superstar. The indigenous people in the forest don’t have that capital, that drawing power. So they have no audience. Nonviolence should be a tactic — not an ideology preached from the sidelines to victims of massive violence.” (Roy).
You might think that Roy is commenting on immigration when she says, “The only thing that is allowed to move freely — unimpeded — around the world today is money” rather than critiquing capitalism. If you’re not up on your Vietnam War history, you might entirely miss the gravity of Cusack’s comment: “Going through immigration of the country he once planned to annihilate [Russia], Dan [Ellsberg] flashed the peace sign.”
If that last paragraph seemed disjointed to you, that’s how “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said” felt to me. If Daniel Ellsberg can say, “We are not in a police state now, not yet ... white, middle-class educated people like myself are not living in a police state ... black, poor people are living in a police state. One more 9/11 and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of detentions,” then why wasn’t the entire book about that? It’s not that capitalism and the chaos greed, corporate and otherwise, is wreaking on the world, particularly its poor people, aren’t worthy subjects for books, but each alone could be many volumes. And, when you’ve got two government-overreach whistleblowers in a room together and only 109 pages, why isn’t the focus mass surveillance? Or, at the very least, a focus at all? If the point was to get a cool group of famous people together to talk about big things, maybe the book succeeded — but how important is that success? If the point was to inform, enlighten or motivate readers to action, which I would argue should indeed be the point, then there are things left unsaid that should have been said.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full December 13 issue.