Story Stream
recent articles

Today is the 174th anniversary of Iowa statehood. In all that time, oddly, the Hawkeye State hasn't learned how to properly tabulate presidential votes. It's true that part of the problem earlier this year was caused by meddling politicians in Washington, D.C., although, if you think about it, that's a theme with broader application. In any event, the Feb. 3, 2020, Iowa caucuses fiasco was a harbinger of chaos to come.

Today is also the anniversary of Europe's deadliest earthquake, which claimed 100,000 Sicilian lives in 1908. And it's the date of milestones in the publication of two great literary works that shook the earth in another way. 

Thomas Paine, patriot and a truth-teller, was arrested in Paris on this date in 1793. Paine had gone to France to encourage rebellion, just as he had done in the New World. Although the "Rights of Man" author was initially embraced by French revolutionaries, his opposition to capital punishment soon put him at odds with the architects of the Reign of Terror.

Paine was detained in a castle-turned-prison while James Monroe frantically pulled strings to get him released. Afterward, Paine returned to the United States, but the new nation wasn't yet ready for "The Age of Reason," the book he had been writing in France. Tom Paine, a hero of free thought, died poor and unlamented in 1809.

Throughout modern history, many other writers and journalists have paid dearly for documenting tyranny, with France eventually becoming a beacon of free expression. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "literary investigation" into the vast network of prisons for political dissidents -- a system at the core of the Soviet Union's existence -- was released on this date in 1973, it was published in Paris. Any Russian publisher who dared print "The Gulag Archipelago" would have been committing suicide. This was, by the way, the Kremlin's official version of what happened to Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya, a typist and Solzhenitsyn collaborator who was arrested in 1973 and interrogated for five days by the KGB. After her release, she was found hanged in a grim stairwell of her Leningrad apartment building. Solzhenitsyn suspected she was murdered, as do I.

Famed American diplomat George Kennan pronounced the book she worked on "the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times." Tass, the Soviet news agency, termed it a work of "unfounded slander." It was the opposite of unfounded: Solzhenitsyn had been a political prisoner himself and had worked on the manuscript for decades. And Soviet leaders underscored the veracity of the author's work by deporting him from the country of his birth and forbidding the Russian people from reading "The Gulag Archipelago" for themselves.

The great writer subsequently won the Nobel Prize for literature, lived safely in the United States, and later returned to Russia to live out his final days after the demise of the system he did so much to expose. But the fight is never done. Today, Russia is ruled by a former KGB functionary who has brought back a feature of Soviet-style despotism practiced by Stalin: sending assassins abroad to murder political rivals.

Meanwhile, an odious feature of Chinese-style communism revealed itself a few hours before I sat down to write this note: The government in China handed out a four-year prison term to a 37-year-old lawyer and citizen journalist named Zhang Zhan for reporting on her government's handling of COVID-19.

Last February, Zhang traveled from her home in Shanghai to Wuhan to document what was really happening with this virus. Her videotaped interviews revealed that the government was being neither forthcoming nor forthright about the perils of the virus. Pointing out officials' lies is a crime in China. The actual charge is "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," which is a pretty good working definition of what any self-respecting reporter should be doing.

Vive la liberté! 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments