Robert Conquest’s sensual muse: remembering the legendary poet and historian in the TLS

November 5th, 2016

At work in his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I’m at the Times Literary Supplement this week, writing about the historian and poet Robert Conquestand his lifelong balance between Clio and Euterpe:

An excerpt:

Until a few days before his death last year at the age of ninety-eight, Robert Conquest was busy finishing his memoir, completing a poem or two, and sending off a steady stream of letters to a wide international circle of friends. As always, his serenely successful life was divided between poetry and prose. Most of the obituaries concentrated on his groundbreaking work as a historian: The Great Terror (1968), Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and other books had exposed the genocidal horrors of Stalin’s regime and earned Conquest the disapprobation of left-wing intellectuals and the admiration of, among others, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.


With Poland’s Radosław Sikorski in 2009.

But he was also a poet of note; not just for the light verse and bawdy limericks with which he entertained fellow guests at social gatherings (a selection of these, A Garden of Erses, was published in 2010 as the work of “Jeff Chaucer”), but for serious verse that is lyrical, sensual and exactingly observed. …

He wrote about the joys of the flesh even as he wrote, at other times, about the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. For decades after the publication of The Great Terror, Russians would tell Conquest that they had just learned how their loved ones had perished under torture, or by forced starvation, or by being worked to death in Arctic camps. Perhaps his poems were his clearest protest in an age where, as he wrote, “Shiva walks on and on / Down Coventry Street”, of the governments he saw as “the organization of absence of love”. His response to history’s monsters was not only to reveal their horrors; he answered them with his own love poetry, erotic poetry, and even limericks, which asserted an earthy humanity of their own.

Read the whole thing here

Stanford acquires an important collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky’s papers

November 2nd, 2016

From a postcard in the new collection. Brodsky ties a shoelace on the morning of his departure from Leningrad in 1972. (Copyright: Lev Poliakov)

When the Soviet Union expelled the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in 1972, he already had a few friends waiting for him in the West. One of them, Diana Myers, would remain a confidante until the Nobel laureate’s death in 1996. The London home she shared with her husband, the translator Alan Myers, became his English pied-à-terre.

The Hoover Institution Library & Archives at Stanford has recently acquired Diana Myers’ collection of Brodsky’s papers, including letters, photos, drafts, manuscripts, artwork and published and unpublished poems.

“We were keenly interested in adding the Joseph Brodsky papers collected by his friend Diana Myers to our vast archives on Russia and making them accessible right away,” said Eric Wakin, the Robert H. Malott Director of the Hoover Library & Archives.

“With Hoover’s significant holdings on the poet in its Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection, and the recently acquired Joseph Brodsky papers from the Katilius Family Archive at the Green Library, we’re honored that Stanford has become a notable center for Brodsky studies in the United States.”

The new acquisition documents Brodsky’s enormous capacity for friendship and his long love affair with the English language.

“I am a patriot, but I must say that English poetry is the richest in the world,” he once told an American student visiting Leningrad in 1970 – strong words for the man who would become one of the preeminent Russian poets of the last century.

Brodsky, who settled in the United States, was fascinated by the metaphysical poets of the 17th century. His landmark poem “Elegy to John Donne” was written in 1962, when he knew very little of Donne’s work. It brought him international attention. He began translating and writing English poetry during his 1964-65 internal exile in Norenskaya, near the Arctic Circle.

When the newlywed Myers arrived in London from the Soviet Union in 1967, she was carrying an armful of flowers to lay at the feet of John Donne’s effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The specific request from Brodsky was her first stop in her new homeland.

In a letter Brodsky wrote to Alan Myers a few months before his exile, he requested more information about George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughn. He sought guidance in finding the best editions of Ben Jonson, Henry King, Walter Raleigh and John Wilmot. An undated and unpublished poem in the collection seems to be an experiment written under their sway.

On another page in the collection, he adds his own illustrations to a few passages from Shakespeare, who anticipated the metaphysical poets.

Fifteen pages of holograph poems in the collection document the slow progression from an idea to a finished poem, with notations, corrections and amendments – all likely of interest to Brodsky scholars. “You can see how it worked, to the final version,” said archivist Lora Soroka. “It’s something that gives insight into his work.”

“It’s everyday life – everyday life when he was there, in England,” she said. “This is definitely our star collection – not big, but stellar.”

The collection also includes 70 letters from Brodsky, as well as correspondence to him from such figures as Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Swedish translator and author Bengt Jangfeldt, Australian poet Les Murray and others; 25 pages of notes and drafts; five self-portraits, a landscape, and a still life, all in black chalk; an elaborate wedding card he created and illustrated for the couple; a transcript of his 1964 Soviet trial for “parasitism;” and other records.


Brodsky in 1988.

Friendship and hospitality

Myers, who died of cancer in 2013, was born Diana Abaeva, ethnically an Ossetian, whose prominent father had been politically purged and shot under Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. She grew up in Moscow and Tblisi, in the Caucasus Mountains – Brodsky once traveled to Tblisi to visit when he was impatient for her return to Leningrad.

Friends recalled that she was small and slender, with straight dark hair, an aquiline nose, and a radiant smile that was slightly dimmed by nicotine stains, for she smoked almost as ferociously as Brodsky did.

Like Brodsky, she lived for literature and was impractical, even unworldly. One friend recalled she had a slightly languid “Eastern” air. On one page in the collection Brodsky calls her “queen of the couch.”

She was “very intelligent and thoughtful and idiosyncratic,” said University College London’s Faith Wigzell, who had been a close friend of Brodsky’s as well as a colleague of Myers.

Her great gift was for hospitality as well as intellectual conversation: “She was the most relaxed and welcoming hostess. Her home was an international hall of residence. People came to just sit around. She was an excellent cook,” said Wigzell.

For Brodsky, Myers was a means to continue the literary and cultural conversations that had started in Leningrad. In exile, he would continue to consult her, phoning from around the world to read his latest poem and get her opinion. He said she had insights unlike anyone else’s.

Alan Myers, who died in 2010, became an important early translator for Brodsky’s poetry and prose, publishing in the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement. In one letter, Brodsky told Myers that he would be paid “substantially, I think” for his New Yorker work, and he reminded his translator that he was looking after his interests.

Brodsky’s “In England” cycle is dedicated to the couple. In the “East Finchley” section, both make an appearance in their London home. In addition, the sections “York: In Memoriam W.H. Auden” and “Stone Villages,” recall trips the three took to W.H. Auden’s birthplace in the northern city of York, an ancient Roman stronghold. (Auden had been Brodsky’s mentor, protector, and friend – and another vital link to England.)

“Joseph found our sleepy residence very relaxing,” Alan Myers recalled in an interview from 2003-04. He remembered him as “a radiant source of wit, generosity of soul and exaltation.”

“No one who knew him well thought it other than a privilege to share the planet with him,” he said.


A selection from the Joseph Brodsky papers is included in the current exhibition Unpacking History: New Collections at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibition Pavilion until February 25, 2017. For more information about hours and access to the collections, visit the Hoover Library & Archives website.


Robert Browning is the first poet ever to be recorded – and he muffs the lines of his own poem.

November 1st, 2016

robert-browningThis is the first time ever a poet’s voice was recorded. And he muffed the lines of his own poem. The recording contains the voice of the eminent poet Robert Browning (1812 – 1889), recorded in a dinner party given by Browning’s friend the artist Rudolf Lehmann, on May 6th, 1889. (Browning died the following December.)

Colonel Gouraud, the sales manager of Edison Talking machine, had brought with him a phonograph and each of the guests was invited to speak into it. Browning was reluctant, then relents. Eventually he praises this “wonderful invention” – but perhaps he’s just covering his embarrassment at forgetting the lines of his own damn poem.

He’s reading his poem “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” though you may not quite catch the words (the video has subtitles to help). It’s only 50 seconds long.

(Merci to the Interesting Literature website.)

The last days of Tom Hayden: “I am wide awake in the unforgettable present moment.”

October 28th, 2016

Tim Schick and Rob Meachum review back issues of the Michigan Daily with Tom Hayden in the 1970s. (Photo: Ken Fink)

On the West Coast, I was quick to get the news of activist, author, and legislator Tom Hayden from the Los Angeles Times. The obituary briefly mentions that he was editor of the Michigan Daily circa 1960 – before Jane Fonda, before the Port Huron Statement, about the time of the Students for a Democratic Society was founded.   
I met him briefly in 1976, at the offices of the Michigan Daily on 420 Maynard. He was there as part of his Indochina Peace Campaign effort – he had objected to a position The Daily had taken, as I recall – but I knew that Steve Wasserman, my former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review (and now consulting editor at large for Yale University Press and publisher of Berkeley’s Heyday Books), would know him perhaps as well as anyone. I was right. He published this week in The Nation:

A week before he died, I went to say farewell to Tom Hayden. I’d known him ever since we met in Berkeley in 1969 during the tumult of People’s Park, when he was 29 and I was 16. I knew he was gravely ill, debilitated by the stroke he’d suffered the year before, just three weeks after he’d agreed to write a book I’d been urging him to undertake for Yale University Press. For the next 18 months, we would work closely together on a modest book-length essay about the legacy of the Vietnam protest movement. I had suggested he write it as a natural outgrowth of the conference he and other antiwar veterans had organized in Washington, DC, to protest the Pentagon’s plan to sanitize an official commemoration of America’s Vietnam veterans. That plan had conveniently omitted to mention those courageous vets who protested the war, the brave young men who resisted the draft, or the many millions of patriotic citizens who had come together in an unprecedented movement of opposition.


Out next May, his last book.

Tom was appalled that our legacy of protest was in danger of being forgotten. As he wrote: “One can only guess why so many elites want to forget the Vietnam peace movement by history cleansing, why public memories have atrophied, and why there are few if any memorials to peace.” We talked about how efforts to end an unjust war had been whitewashed and stricken from mainstream memories, and what to do about it. He felt that “the steady denial of our impact, the persistent caricatures of who we really were, the constant questioning of our patriotism, the snide suggestions that we offered no alternative but surrender to the Communist threat have cast a pall of illegitimacy over our memory and had a chilling effect on many journalists, peace dissenters, and the current generation of students today. Of course, one reason for this forgetting is that the Vietnam War was lost, a historical fact that representatives of a self-proclaimed superpower can never acknowledge. Accepting defeat is simply not permissible.” We agreed that if truth is famously war’s first casualty, memory is its second. Tom’s book would be a necessary intervention in the on-going conflict between empire and democracy.

That the book got written at all is something of a miracle. I was shocked to receive an e-mail from him just days after he’d signed the contract with Yale, telling me he’d suffered a serious stroke. “I am the victim of my own reckless character,” he wrote. “I was photographing a toxic pit of fracking wastewater out in the land of the devil, Kern County. It was hot, the air full of dust, the black ooze sinking into the aquifer below and evaporating into the air above. I threw myself into the cave of the devil and the devil blew back into my heaving lungs. It was something like Ginsberg staring into the eye of Moloch. And so in the course of an exhausting day and night my breathing worsened and I eventually fell into a stroke and was rushed twice to emergency rooms, doctors and nurses, and the MRI machine where I experienced life and loved ones passing before my eyes. The man at the MRI was named Jesus. When it was over and I asked him how his day was going, he said with an upbeat shout, ‘You survived, everybody’s gonna survive in this place today.’” Tom went on to say that while he would “need therapy to help recover my brain over the next little while,” he assured me that “if you call me, and I hope you will, it will seem that I am my old self, slicing and chopping words into sentences and arguments, living again in the immanent world that I nearly left behind.” …

He closed his missive, which he’d written from his hospital bed at 5 in the morning, “I am wide awake in the unforgettable present moment, and now I must try to sleep.”

Tom always did live in the unforgettable present moment, and he refused to be hostage to an easy, self-aggrandizing nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s. As much as he had a profound respect for the ways that history, as was once so famously observed, weighs upon the brain of the living like a nightmare, he spent his life trying to write it by making it in the here and now.  …

Read the whole thing here


A glorious evening with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God!

October 26th, 2016

dsc09023Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God made for an exuberant and provocative discussion on the evening of Monday, October 24 – and a record-breaking amount of audience participation. It was a full house, and it rocked. Couldn’t make it? The podcast is already available here.

Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the lively discussion as best he could. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.”

theireyeswatchinggod-pb-cHe was joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford. And perhaps the spirit of Hurston as well. (Among the podcast highlights: Aleta sings the spiritual that’s in the book.)

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before.

Loyal Another Look fan and photographer David Schwartz recorded the caught the flavor of the discussion in the photos below.














Trading up: Kim Kardashian for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra

October 23rd, 2016

Maggie Smith as Cleopatra in Stratford, Ontario.

Some news a few days ago from The Guardian about a school program in Wimbledon:

Girls are to be taught to see Shakespearean heroines such as Cleopatra as positive role models to supplant social media superstars such as Kim Kardashian, in a programme being launched at a London secondary school.

Jane Lunnon, headteacher of Wimbledon High School, said she devised the programme after discovering that many pupils at the £17,000-a-year independent school named Kardashian and singer Taylor Swift as their role models. …

“It’s well documented that there is a paucity of female role models who are speaking to girls at the moment, certainly in western society. It made me think, where else can we look for them?” Lunnon told the annual meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of leading independent schools, taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The article touts the “glamorous” Rosalind of As You Like It. I guess I hadn’t thought of her that way. She’s a girl willing to go and piss in the woods rather than be separated from a beloved friend. Not sure I’d do it. I’m fairly certain Kim Kardashian wouldn’t.

I hope the class makes them memorize scores of lines from the soliloquies, till the iambic pentameter flows over them in times of fear or loneliness, echoing, as it does, the double rhythm of the heartbeat. I hope they explore the cadences of the English language at its most vigorous.

The article called to mind my own trips to Stratford, Ontario, where I spent season after season taking in Shakespeare. I saw Maggie Smith as an magnificent Cleopatra. I saw a less-touted Measure for Measure that changed my understanding of the play (and human nature) ever since.

Magnificent Maggie.

Magnificent Maggie.

I especially remember the last summer I went to Stratford – or perhaps it was the fall. My last chance for the season. I hadn’t planned beforehand or ordered tickets or made arrangements; I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive up in my trusty old black Dodge. I slept in it that night, after taking in the first day’s plays, with a coat over my head, parked way out in the woods. Yes, it was autumn, I remember mountains and mountains of golden and red leaves.

The article continues:

“Look at Rosalind, look at Beatrice, look at Viola. Their capacity, in their challenges and dilemmas, to laugh, to be vivacious, to be resourceful, to be resilient, they embody it so beautifully. And that is a really powerful message.

“It’s not that terrible things didn’t happen to them. It’s the way they respond. I think that is a really important message: to know what matters. Getting kids to laugh at themselves – it’s very important. And Shakespeare does that.”

Of course, I don’t think they go far enough. “What matters” is a lot more than getting kids to laugh at themselves. I think the program ought to be expanded to include Portia with all the moral quandaries of The Merchant of Venice, the ambiguous character (I find her ambiguous, anyway) Isabella of Measure for Measure, or the questionable Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well. 

They’ll have their work cut out for them for the rest of their lives. If they’re lucky.

Join us on Monday, Oct. 24, for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, an American masterpiece!

October 18th, 2016

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”


Almost forgotten, now a classic

Zora Neale Hurston was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Then she all but disappeared, finally working in obscurity as a substitute teacher and a maid before her 1960 death in a county welfare home. The folklorist, anthropologist, and writer left behind four novels as well as short stories, plays, and essays. Foremost among them is Their Eyes Were Watching God, the passionate, exuberant tale of a woman’s journey to reclaim herself. The book will be Another Look’s fall offering.

For thirty years after its 1937 publication, Their Eyes was out of print and attacked for its portrayal of black people, when it was remembered at all. By the 1970s, however, it had been rediscovered as a masterpiece. Pulitzer prizewinning author Alice Walker wrote, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”


Aleta, a Stanford star

Join us for a discussion of this short, mesmerizing American classic at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 24, at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center on the Stanford campus.

Another Look’s director Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. Harrison is an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature who writes regularly for the New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, “Entitled Opinions.” He will be joined by Aleta Hayes, Stanford dance lecturer and founder of the dance troupe Chocolate Heads, and Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner, who is one of America’s foremost writers, as well as an English professor emeritus at Stanford.

Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected have been Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before.

The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats. Books are available at the Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.



Did Dante go mad in his hell?

October 15th, 2016
Virgil says don't listen

Did Dante lose it altogether? Hmmmm…

The Book Haven always enjoys Robert Harrison‘s reflections on Dantehere and here and here. There’s more of them this week over at the New York Review of Books website. Some will find it a controversial p.o.v. – I’ve studied Dante with Robert, as well as John Freccero (and Jeffrey Schnapp), so it’s less unfamiliar territory for me.

Robert has a slightly Girardian take on the Inferno – that is, adopting some of the perspective of the late, great French theorist René Girard – with his emphasis on reciprocal and escalating violence. You hit me, I hit you back, only harder. It’s the ruling principle of the Inferno. 

In a nutshell: Girard argued that we copy our desires from each other, and hence we long for the same object, honor, recognition, friendships as others do. Envy is one of our most underestimated vices. This “mimetic desire” leads to rivalry and competition, and sometimes violence and war. However, Robert brings genocide into the mix, with his eloquent and passionate argument.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from Robert’s essay, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell”:

If revenge and reciprocal violence are the essence of God’s justice, Dante’s Inferno despairs of God. It is impossible, at least for this reviewer, to read the cantos that bring Inferno to a close and not come to the conclusion that “Dieu n’est pas là,” as a French nun said of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it tore itself apart with civil war in the 1990s. The extravagance of the punishments in lower Hell suggests that in those cantos, if not in the canticle as a whole, an infernal rather than divine justice is on display.

When violence enters its cycles of reciprocity, when it spreads like a contagion out of all proportion, it turns into a form of mimetic insanity, drawing everyone, including God, into its vortex. Because Dante scholars operate on the assumption that their author is always in full control of his poem, they tend to blind themselves to all the indications that Dante—the author as well as his character—is starting to lose his mind at the end of Inferno.


We miss you, René.

In Inferno 28 the mimetic contagion is such that the pilgrim abuses a sinner with the words, “And death to your clan!” In canto 33, after Ugolino recounts how he cannibalized his children in the Tower of Hunger, Dante the author succumbs to wild murderous impulses. In his animus against the city of Pisa he bids the Arno River to overflow “so that it may drown every person in you!” Later in the same canto, Dante turns his rage against the city of Genoa: “Ah, men of Genoa, foreign to every decent usage, full of every vice, why have you not been driven from the world?” This is not the character but the author speaking. It is astounding, but true, that even the most acute commentators of The Divine Comedy pass over in silence these genocidal fantasies at the end of Inferno.

Read the whole thing here.

Women of the Gulag: help finish the film. Putin won’t like it.

October 12th, 2016

Marianna Yarovskaya on location

Paul Gregory, author of Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010), is passing the hat. It’s for a good cause.

Filmmaker Marianna

He and Muscovite documentary filmmaker Marianna Yarovskaya are in the final stages of filming his 2013 book, Women of the Gulag. (Marcel Krüger has an interview with Yarovskaya here.) They’re nearly a quarter of the way to the $25,000 they need to complete final editing, sound mix, and music. Want to help? Go to Indiegogo here.

From the introduction to Women of the Gulag:

A remark often attributed to Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

This is the story of five such tragedies. They are stories about women because, as in so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.

These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.  They show how the impersonal orders emanating from the Kremlin office of “the Master” brought tragedy to their lives. They cover the gamut of victims. Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children.



“Why film a bunch of old babushkas?” Marianna is asked.  According to Washington Post‘s Pulitzer-prizewinning Anne Applebaum, who appears in the film,  “What had happened since the year 2000 is that history has been gradually re-politicized. And the Russians started treating history that way. And that means that they’ve become more sensitive again about discussing this sort of crimes of their past. For the Russians, understanding the history of the gulag is absolutely crucial.”

She tells us that Russia still lacks “that defining moment, that big monument” that will help the Russian people come to terms with their past.

“I wish to express my support for Dr. Paul Gregory’s and Marianna Yarovskaya’s documentary project, Women of the Gulag. Although there have been a number of excellent Gulag documentaries, this film is intended to tell the personal stories of just a few former prisoners in greater detail. It will also focus on the stories of women, which differed in a number of ways from that of their male counterparts. Rape, pregnancy and motherhood were a part of the Gulag experience, too.”

The film below gives a preview of their work.  I hope you find it as riveting as I do – and please do pony up whatever you can over at Indiegogo here. Putin won’t thank you. That’s one reason to do it.

Free-speech champion Timothy Garton Ash: Are we in a “post-truth media world”?

October 8th, 2016

He’s rather “robustly civil” himself. (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

Last week, Timothy Garton Ash called for a “robust civility” – he added “that’s the gamble of liberal democracy.” But how does that play out in a social media avalanche of images, tweets, and hit-and-run postings?

Tim was here at Stanford in-between lectures, readings, discussions, and book-signings for his newest, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, and that lauded 480-page volume was the subject of his talk at Cubberley Auditorium Wednesday night.


Nix the “heckler’s veto.” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

We live in an age, he noted, where 1.7 billion people are on Facebook. “Facebook is the empire on which the sun never sets,” he said. In today’s world, “one sleazy little video uploaded by a convicted fraudster in southern California” can cause dozens of deaths in demonstrations half a world away – and also result in the offer a $100,000 bounty for killing the filmmaker who exercised his freedom of expression. Such are the asymmetries of our global society, where “a Youtube video is as mighty as a fleet,” he said.

In 2000, president Bill Clinton had scoffed that China’s attempts to control internet freedom within its borders would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to a wall.” China’s reply: “Just watch us.” Today, Tim said, China runs “the largest apparatus of censorship in world history. It’s not true for the long-term, but it’s true for now.”

In the West, we’re living “a market failure in the marketplace of democracy.” Political coverage has become polarized, creating two echo chambers in the “post-truth media world.”

Online shouting earns “eyeballs, ears, clicks,” he said. “If it bleeds it leads, if it roars it scores … reality has overtaken satire …truthiness made flesh.” The sheer scale, intensity, and repetition of a 24/7 news cycle presents us with daunting challenges. He recommended George Orwell‘s essay, “Politics and the English Language” (it’s here) as a counterbalance to cant and a way “to purify the language of the tribe” (which is of course T.S. Eliot).

We’ve already written about his recent words on the cult of “safe spaces” and banning campus speakers in our previous post. (Sample quote: “It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be ‘unsafe’ because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.”)

This presentation was a more systematic and comprehensive presentation of his thought on the issue of free speech. He outlined ten guiding principles, also on his free speech website here (it’s been translated into thirteen languages to date).

  1. A discussion seminar featuring Timothy Garton Ash (Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution), Joshua Cohen, Faculty, Apple University, and Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties, The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School on October 6 2016 at Encina Hall. The discussion revolved around Garton Ash's most recent book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, 2016). Photography by: Christine Baker-Parrish

    “Eyeballs, ears, clicks” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

    Lifeblood: We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. He put particular emphasis on “and able” – many in the world are illiterate, or without internet access, which can be as effective as censorship.

  2. Violence: We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation. “We don’t accept the heckler’s veto,” he said, nor the “assassin’s veto.” The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of Theo van Gogh have a massive chilling effect of on free speech. Anyone remember Molly Norris? Read about her here.
  3. Knowledge: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge. This includes considerations of the currently fashionable discussions of safe spaces, microaggressions, hate speech, and so on.
  4. Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
  5. Diversity: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.
  6. Religion: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.
  7. Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.
  8. Secrecy: We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.
  9. Icebergs: We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.
  10. Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences. He cited Pericles: “The secret of happiness is liberty, and the secret of liberty is courage.”

Watch the video below. He wants to hear from you.

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