Even today, authors can have a huge impact on public opinion and public policy, changing minds or confirming judgments.
In today's New York Times, James Brooke profiles a survivor of North Korea's brutal prison camps, Kang Chol Hwan, and the apparent impact the former captive's book is having on President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the administration. The book, recommended to the President by former State secretary Henry Kissinger, has won the President's enthusiastic endorsement.
On Monday, Mr. Kang, 37, received the ultimate book endorsement when he was ushered into the Oval Office for a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. On June 10, Mr. Bush had allotted only a few more minutes for a meeting with South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun.He later points out:
"He was more interested in the pains North Koreans are going through, more so than I had previously thought," Mr. Kang said in a telephone interview on Thursday, after returning to Seoul from Washington. "He kept on repeating how deeply sorry he was about the situation. To hear a president say these deep things made me feel that he cared."
Mr. Bush has displayed similar enthusiasm for other books, notably "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now an Israeli politician. Subsequently, it was widely noted, the theme of promoting democracy, especially in the Middle East, ran through the Inaugural and State of the Union addresses.The upshot, as chronicled by Brooke:
In late April, the president's reading of "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" seemed to bolster his longstanding hostility toward North Korea. As American diplomats tried to revive stalled talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Mr. Bush told reporters in Washington that Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, was a "dangerous person" who ran "huge concentration camps."The role of propagandists, whether as authors of books, pamphlets, or now, blogs, is venerable. Thomas Paine played an important role in inciting thirteen English colonies on the shores of the northern Atlantic to declare their independence and later, in inspiring George Washington's disspirted colonial forces to stick it out for the long haul during that fateful winter at Valley Forge. (Washington brought his troops together there to hear Paine's latest epistle read.)
Since then, Bush administration officials have said that any package solution for North Korea's nuclear weapons program will have to include progress on human rights.
"I felt that he agreed with me in that the human rights issue was more important than the nuclear issue," said Mr. Kang, who directs a rights group in Seoul called the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag.
Martin Luther's pamphlets promoting the Biblical teaching that human beings have a right relationship with God and with themselves as a God-granted gift to all who turn from sin and turn in faithful surrender to Jesus Christ, stirred an entire continent and then the world, to shake of the legalism of religion and live by faith. He started the Reformation, which had not only spiritual, but political implications.
Charles Dickens, whose novels appeared in serialized form in the mass circulation papers of Victorian England, challenged the gruesome conditions under which the poor of that era were forced to live.
Hwan stands in that tradition, with his memoir of his imprisonment and his activities promoting awareness of the crimes of North Korea.
He and others who are part of that tradition should inspire all of us who are writing at the birth of the new printing press, which is what I consider web logs or blogs to be. We can have a positive impact on our world, even if our goal is nothing more than to bring some gentleness and understanding to planet which often appears bent on devolving into constant, unproductive, and downright destructive conflict.