Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Power to Question - Milan Kundera

Its been almost 3 months since I last put up a post here. This unplanned interlude has not been entirely  unwelcome, because lately the blog was turning in to a sort of film review portal only. Even though I love films, "और भी ग़म हैं ज़माने में......", as Chacha Ghalib would say. 
The well-read among you would know Milan Kundera as the noted Czech novelist who writes on politics, history and human relations. I have been introduced to this genius quite late in life, courtesy a fulsome recommendation and priming by my friend Rahul J. 
I have recently finished reading his "Immortality", published in 1991, and find it akin to a detailed travelogue on a journey in to one's mind, something like watching self from afar. Here is something which I found pertinent to share with you in these times when we are questioning the role of media:

"Journalists realized that posing questions was not merely a practical working method for the reporter modestly gathering information with notebook and pencil in hand; it was a means of exerting power. The journalist is not merely the one who asks questions but the one who has a sacred right to ask, to ask anyone about anything. But don't we all have that right? And it is a question not a bridge of understanding reaching out from one human being to another? Perhaps. I will therefore make my statement more precise: the power of the journalist is not based on his right to ask but on his right to demand an answer.

Please note carefully that Moses dis not include among God's Ten Commandments: 'Thou shalt not lie!' That's no accident! Because the one who says, 'Don't lie!' has first to say, 'Answer!' and God did not give anyone the right to demand an answer from others. 'Don't lie!' 'Tell the truth!' are words which we must never say to another person in so far as we consider him our equal. Perhaps God only has the right but He has no reason to resort to it since He knows everything and does not need to know our answers.

The inequality between one who gives orders and one who must obey is not as radical as that between one who has a right to demand an answer and one who has the duty to answer. That is why the right to demand answers has, since time immemorial, only been accorded in exceptional circumstances. For example, to a judge inquiring in to a crime. In our century, fascists and communists states have appropriated this right, not only in exceptional circumstances but permanently....

The election campaign is on, the politician jumps from plane to helicopter, from helicopter to car, exerts himself, perspires, bolts his lunch on the run, shouts into microphones, makes two hour speeches, but in the end it will depend on Bernstein or Woodward which of the fifty thousand sentences that he uttered will be released to the newspapers or quoted on the radio.That's why the politician would prefer to address the radio or TV audience directly, but this can only be accomplished through the meditation of an Oriana Fallaci, who sets the media rules and asks the questions. The politician will want to exploit the moment when he is finally seen by the entire nation, and to say everything that's on his mind, but Woodward will ask him only about things that aren't on the politician's mind at all and that he has no desire to talk about. He will thus find himself in the classic situation of a schoolboy called to the blackboard, and will try to use  the old schoolboy trick: he will pretend to be answering the question, but in reality will use the material he has specially prepared at home for the broadcast. This trick may have worked on his teachers but it does not work on Bernstein, who keeps reminding him mercilessly: 'You haven't answered my question!'

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