I love it when a good argument erupts on the blogosphere. Enough with the endless recitations of prizes and parties and industry comings and goings; for all its current popularity, the internet is underperforming as a platform for serious debate, and for this reason alone I am really glad to open my browser and find Tom Stoppard’s ideas getting batted around.
I like Stoppard’s work a lot. His trademark play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a Hamlet send-up that places two of Shakespeare’s most definitively insignificant and powerless characters at the center of a full-length play, just to see what happens (they talk a lot, try to control their fates, and never once figure out what’s going on around them). Stoppard is an enthusiastic intellectual, tossing the likes of James Joyce and Lenin together in Travesties and exploring the hollow spaces inside an acclaimed writer’s mind in The Real Thing. When this playwright talks, I’ll listen, and if the points he’s making are difficult ones, I will listen that much harder.
“We persist in the notion of a ‘right’ as something to be claimed rather than accorded,” Stoppard says. Furthermore, “‘rights’ are a psycho-social phenomenon, and there are no rights more human than others” He’s simply laying the facts down here — whether or not free speech should be a basic human right, it is not one, because many societies both past and present have not managed to provide this freedom. We are all responsible for maintaining our ability to speak freely, and nobody who looks at the history of the world should take this ability for granted.
But Stoppard is wrestling with tough boundaries here. “To St Augustine, religious tolerance would have been an oxymoron. The concept of pluralism as a virtue is a thousand years more modern than St Augustine. To say, therefore, that the right of free speech was always a human right which in unenlightened societies was suspended from the year dot until our enlightened times is surely beyond even our capacity for condescension.” Is he commenting, in part, on the recent uproar over Danish cartoons? He sure as hell is.
Is he also writing this because he’s sick of seeing his peer Brit satirist Harold Pinter generating all the chatter? Yeah, I believe that too. And good for him, because this is the kind of stuff we need to be talking about.