Welcome to See Better, Lear. This blog is an independent journal of literature, history and politics.
My name’s Bethan, aspiring journalist, amateur author, even more amateur poet, and student of English Literature at UCL in the magnificent “cauldron of illicit loves” that is London.
I started this blog in February 2013 in a tiny village at the foot of the Ochils in the midst of an existential crisis I’ve never quite emerged from. To see better, that’s it, that’s the highest aim. Bear with me as I tackle this impossible task by turning to the explorations of the human condition throughout literature, as well as analysing the current affairs and political machinations of the day.
And forgive any pretension, it’s genuine, I promise!
My little corner of the tempestuous ocean of the internet is a space for debate and contemplation.
Picture, if you will, a miniature island just visible through the dark and stormy swathe of sea and sky, upon which sits a small stone hut, albeit one that has delusions of being a castle, with battlements lining its roof, a single crooked turret, and two crossed quills engraved over its oak door. Encircled by a haggard ring of standing stones, this little shieling is a haven for all those who also strive to see better. Within you will find a single room lit by a roaring fire and the warm gaze of a hundred candles. Ancient books line the walls and prop up the mighty chessboard that serves as the table in the centre of the room, around which sit nine cushioned oak chairs carved in the shape of dragons. In this modest little hut you will find an ever-replenishing stock of wine and chocolate, as well as an insatiable hunger for knowledge and a love of all things literary.
So please, come in out of the storm!
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
“See Better, Lear”
An Essay on the Power of Journalism
One of Shakespeare’s most enlightening insights occurs in King Lear, the dark and stormy account of a foolish King’s descent into madness. Despairing at his King’s poor judgement, the unswervingly loyal Kent cries, “see better, Lear“, and so if you like hits the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to puzzling out the riddle that is humanity. But I’ll come back to this idea.
Following the Second World War, a decade of the greatest loss of human life in history, the countries of the world united in one desperate attempt to safeguard the future. In December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written. Article 19 of these thirty basic rights is arguably the most important. Without it, all the others are obliterated: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” And it is this right to freedom of speech regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, or class to all people of the world that we should dedicate our lives to achieving. For life is nothing without this liberty. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, 19th-century English writer, once said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
It is with words, both written and spoken, both printed and posted, that we can work to achieve this, perhaps the most noble of ambitions. Examples have evolved with the very history of journalism itself. Veronica Guerin, Irish investigative journalist, ruthlessly pursued the crime lords of Dublin, brushing aside the numerous death threats that came her way, continuing even when she was shot in the leg. Her courage earned her the reputation of an international freedom fighter. But, in June 1996, she was murdered on her way home by drug barons of the convicted drug lord, John Gilligan. She was 36. Also an investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya of Russia, received international recognition during her coverage of the breaches in human rights by the Russian government in Chechnya. In 2006, she was assassinated outside her home in Moscow.
I’ve often wondered if Guerin and Politkovskaya would have chosen to erase their careers if it meant life, if they were really willing to give their lives for democracy. Can one achieve what they did and live to tell the tale, as it were? Are the two mutually exclusive? Well, consider Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a polymath, and the ‘First American’. He published his radical ideas in ‘The Pennsylvania Gazette’, so contributing to the outbreak of the American Revolution, a freedom fighter if ever there was one. It was Franklin who said, “whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Then there was Elijah Lovejoy, who dedicated his life to the abolishment of slavery in the 19th century through his publications. His presses were burned and destroyed three times but he refused to give in to prejudice. But he was killed by enraged protestors. Seymour Hersh, on the other hand, discovered the horrific massacre of Vietnamese citizens at My Lai in 1968. This was one of the greatest tragedies of the Vietnam War, when American soldiers killed 500 innocent and defenceless men, women and children, and it earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. He went on to break the news of the US bombings in Cambodia and the immorality of the CIA. Exposing the most sordid and corrupt sides of humanity, bringing oppressive regimes crashing to the ground, protecting the sanctity of democracy, and advocating freedom as the greatest force in this world: this is the power of journalism. What’s one life when all that is at stake? I’d be inclined to say everything, one life is everything. But does that mean we shouldn’t try?
When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal, when John Hersey exposed the horrors of Hiroshima, when Jiro Ishimaru began to train North Korean citizens as undercover reporters to advocate democracy, journalism changed the world. When Kostas Vaxevanis published the ‘Lagarde list’ to bring down the Greek tax evaders, when Walter Cronkite pioneered broadcast journalism, and when Hu Shuli passionately attacked corruption and fraud in China, journalism changed the world. Whether it was the eternal courage of the oppressed writers looking death in the face in Soviet Russia, the Bulgakovs and the Solzhenitsyns, or the inconceivable endurance and humility of the survivors of the Holocaust; Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Anne Frank, writing has changed and will continue to change the world.
Throughout history literature has analysed, commemorated, created, retold, interpreted, and taught. It is the greatest exploration of the human condition, something which we must never stop exploring so that we can perpetually learn to “see better.” Because, ultimately, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Maybe that’s the power of journalism: seeing.