Free Speech: “the Monopoly of the Dead”


The newest (and last 2008) New Yorker came in today’s mail and in it a posthumous piece by Mark Twain, aptly titled The Privilege of the Grave.  What is the privilege you might ask? In short it is the fact the dead can say pretty much anything they well please. Mr. Clemens writes:

“Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege…he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it…”

Actually, Twain was pretty vocal in his time, though he at times spoke his thoughts but didn’t necessarily want them printed (see post here.)  And just why wouldn’t we want to voice our opinion? Simply put, “none of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.” And so he says:

“…We consciously or unconsciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor’s pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy….”

Since the dead can’t offend:

“Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves….

….[so that people might know just what we think] Why not put these things in our diaries, instead of so discreetly leaving them out?  Why not put them in, and leave the diaries behind, for our friends to read? For free speech is a desirable thing. I felt in it in London, five years ago, when Boer sympathizers – respectable men, taxpayers, good citizens, and as much entitled to their opinions as were any other citizens – were mobbed at their meetings, and their speakers maltreated and driven from the platform by other citizens who differed from them in opinion. I have felt it in America when we have mobbed meetings and battered the speakers…. Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and pout them out on paper…..then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can’t print the result….[for] the trouble it would make for me and the family.”

Interesting thoughts.  Though I don’t quite think we – and I boldly speak for all of us – would be able to (with all due respect to the dead) agree with him, dead or alive.

4 thoughts on “Free Speech: “the Monopoly of the Dead”

  1. I agree we have no free speech (or at least not as much as we think we have).

    But, when I said we disagree with Twain was his suggestion that we voice our opinion from the grave; that we keep a written record of our thoughts in our diaries so that after we’re gone people can read what we really thought and it wouldn’t cause as much offense.

    Like the blog, for instance, as a diary where we jot down our thoughts on certain things. We are consistent in our thoughts and then, years later (after we’re gone), our loved ones find a whole list of unpublished posts….things we didn’t want to publish (how we really felt about such and such).

    Say what you have to say, if it’s something that is offensive chances are it’ll be just as offensive after you’re gone, the only one you’re saving the embarrassment from is yourself.

  2. Actually I tend to agree with most everything that is written… perhaps it is just that I am awake at 4:30 am trying to get my mind off of my dad? Who knows, but this will do as well as anything else I suppose.
    When gangs of college students mob speakers at their universities because, and they have also physically assaulted them too, just because they hold a different viewpoint, we have no free speech. We have brats who do not repsect others and want their own way.
    We have no free speech when what you think and then say can get one hauled before a human rights tribunal (oh Canada) and fined for your views.
    Has there been excesses in the protection of free speech? Yes, we do live in a world where the ACLU just loves to represent NAMBLA and pornographers, the worst of perversions are made to be legitimate and some things just can never ever be legitimate.
    Just say that you don’t think Israel has the right to statehood or that Hugo Chavez is a wonderful dictator (two statements that I happen to disagree with) and there will be someone in an organization – formal or otherwise – who will protest your right to harbor such thoughts. Opinions are still like rear ends – everybody has at least one and the problem seems to be a distinct lack of propriety and manners. Free speech has declined along with common courtesy and civil behavior.
    Does it matter in the long run for the Orthodox? Not really, not if one is ready to be persecuted for one’s beliefs and rejoice in it.
    just my worthless .02 way too early in the morning.

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