Those who’d rein in speech should read E.B. White

Thursday, October 18, 2001

Perhaps the president and Condoleezza Rice and Ari Fleischer should pause for a moment and read the essays of E.B. White.

Perhaps we all should.

E.B. White is known to young people as the author of the wonderful Charlotte’s Web, and he’s known to an older generation as the composer of snappy one-line retorts below news oddities printed in The New Yorker of old.

But he was also one of the great essayists of the 20th century, and he was never greater than when World War II was approaching.

He stood foursquare for freedom.

He stood foursquare for freedom at a time when others were temporizing, were vacillating, were accommodating. He stood foursquare for freedom when other writers — on their own or at the behest of their government — were deciding to say or write only what we today call the politically correct.

“To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand — it has so special a meaning,” White wrote in December 1941 on the third day of World War II.

To him, that America was a place where he could say or write what he pleased, in war or in peace. Imagine what he would have written today had he heard Press Secretary Fleischer tell Americans to “watch what they say.”

Imagine how he would have responded had he heard National Security Adviser Rice tell the networks not to air live footage of the ramblings of Osama bin Laden.

“In a free country,” White wrote in January 1939, “it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty. Only under a dictatorship is literature expected to exhibit an harmonious design or an inspirational tone.”

He responded bluntly, and gracefully, to every threat to the rights of Americans. “I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear,” he wrote in a 1947 letter to the editor of the New York Herald Tribune after that newspaper defended the Hollywood blacklist of writers and directors. “Nothing lately has unsettled my party and raised my fears so much as your
editorial, on Thanksgiving Day, suggesting that employees should be required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs. The idea is inconsistent with our constitutional theory and has been stubbornly opposed by watchful men since the early days of the Republic. I can only assume that your editorial writer, in a hurry to get home for Thanksgiving, tripped over the
First Amendment and thought it was the office cat.”

White, who died of Alzheimer’s Disease at age 86 in 1985, was never more eloquent than in the perilous times leading to World War II. “I am inordinately proud these days of the quill,” he wrote in July 1940, “for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic that inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Marys, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example. These persons are feared by every tyrant — who shows his fear by burning the books and destroying the individuals.”

If patriotism means loving your country, White was the most patriotic of Americans. Yet he had little use for those whose patriotism was expressed as intolerance. “There would never be a moment, in war on in peace, when I wouldn’t trade all the patriots in the county for one tolerant man. Or when I wouldn’t swap the vitamins in a child’s lunchbox for a jelly glass of
compassion,” he wrote one month before Pearl Harbor.

Andy White — the E.B. stood for Elwyn Brooks, but he gladly embraced the nickname Andy when his Cornell University chums tagged him with it — was, in his own words, “no warrior.” Yet, he went on, “I would gladly fight for the things Nazism seeks to destroy.” And in a brave aside that is as true today as it was then — but that few people still would utter — he added, “Living in a sanitary age, we are getting so we place too high a value on human life — which rightfully must always come second to human ideas.”

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