March 28, 2006


Steven Augustine

In any case, Stoppard's point dovetails neatly with the Irving 'controversy'...and goes right to the heart of the question of who 'we' are. Even the 'right' to bear arms wouldn't be problematic if 'we' were all the kind of people who could be trusted with guns...but we're clearly not all up to it (the paradox being that if we were, guns would be wonderfully pointless and vanish with a 'poof' from the face of the earth...same with the concept 'Free' Speech?). Stoppard isn't arguing to rescind the 'right'...I think he's being the Playfully Serious Rhetorician that he is and calling into question the unexamined default nobility of the phrase 'Free Speech,' ...the fuzzy thinking...pointing out that it's a morally neutral concept which is only as noble as the people practising it. Free Speech in the mouth of, say, Joan Didion becomes a Hate Crime in the mouth of David Irving...two demonstrably different things. Maybe 'we' need as many inflected forms for 'Free Speech' as the mythical number of Inuit forms for 'snow'.

Steven Augustine

PS even 'liberty'...even 'life' itself...are provisional rights on this planet.

goethe girl

Thanks for the link. Actually, I liked Stoppard's take on this issue a lot. At first I thought he was going to take a squishy point of view, as many liberals have done in the face of the Muslim cartoon protests. The Muslim protesters irritate me precisely because they (those in Denmark or elsewhere in Europe) want to enjoy the privileges of Western society but otherwise believe the "rules" of Western society shouldn't apply to them. That said, I have for a long time been weary of the invocation of "rights." For another interesting take on the issue, you might look at an essay by the Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle in the March 18 issue of the English Catholic magazine The Tablet. (Don't worry, it's a "liberal" Catholic magazine, practically undistinguishable from the New York Times in its pieties.) The essay is called "Human Rights and Our God," and he gives a good overview of the development of ideas of rights: www. thetablet.co.uk. Enjoy.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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