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The Bulletin’s Day Book

June 27, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Francois Marie Arouet (if you don’t mind our calling Voltaire by his right name) accosted Arthur Garfield Hays the other morning as the noted Jewish attorney was emerging from the Court of Chancery in Jersey City after having engaged in a two-hour legal fracas in defense of free speech.

“Hello, Arthur,” Voltaire greeted the distinguished counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. His manner was quite matter-of-fact, as if it were an ordinary thing to be popping out of his gave 250 years after he was born and 156 years after being laid to rest without benefits of clergy.

“Why hello, Francois!” boomed Hays, who, having from long experience with the law become inured to surprises of all kinds, quickly recovered from the shock of being tapped on the shoulder by the sardonic Frenchman whose words he had just been using as a key with which to unlock the muzzle that Union City authorities had clamped on the Nazis.

“Imagine meeting you here,” Hays continued, thumping the aged mocker of religion a resounding thwack on his frail back in the approved Rotarian back-thwacking style. “Why, just five minutes ago; nay, even less than that, I was telling Vice Chancellor John Bigelow about you. To impress him with the importance that I attach to your views, I even quoted one of your famous lines. You must know the one I mean.”

“Not that line of mine from Candide, was it,” the vitriolic freethinker chimed in, “where I said something like … let me think, oh, yes … ‘Il faut cultiver votre jardin,’ wasn’t that the one?”

“No, no,” Arthur put in benignly, “guess again, Volty.”

“Could it have been that so much misunderstood remark of mine credited to me as I lay dying: ‘I die worshipping God’ … ‘m I forget exactly how you people have translated it, oh yes … ‘loving my friends, not hating my enemies, but detesting superstition?'”

“You’re getting warm, Francois, But maybe I better tell you. It was those glorious words of yours—correct me if I’m wrong—’I detest your views, but will defend to the death your right to express them.'”

“Oh, that!” Voltaire grimaced. “Well, if I remember correctly, what I am supposed to have said was something like this: ‘I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.'”

“But, really, Arthur old chap,” the wrinkly old man demurred, “you shouldn’t have used that old chestnut of mine. That thing’s been tossed around so much that it’s sort of lost its edge. I am sorry I ever put that one in circulation. It was a poor thing when I dashed it off in one of my more heedless moments and age hasn’t improved it any.”

“Are you serious, Francois Marie Arouet?” Arthur Garfield said, blanching at the import of what he had heard and hardly crediting his ears.

“Serious, my dear man? Why I was never more serious in my whole misspent life,” the bewigged Frenchman who in his day had pinned many a king’s ears back with his mordant wit insisted. “The trouble with you people is you never give a man credit for growth. Although I may not look it, I have grown considerably since I died. One grows immeasurably faster in death than in life. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime. What I mean, in case you don’t follow me, is that what I said a couple of centuries back may have been okay then, but today it’s a horse of a different color—as a matter of fact, the horse has completely vanished, he is no more and hence he has no color.

“Now follow me. In the days when I ruled the realm of bon mots and devastating repartee, there were no such things as Nazis. To be sure there was a sufficiency, nay, even an overabundance of boors and bigots, but they were nice, clean boors and bigots against whose boorishness and bigotry it was a pleasure to take up the cudgels. As a matter of fact they were such a nice type of boor and bigot that I frequently found it necessary to rush even to their defense for fear that my malicious wit would completely destroy them and thus leave me without someone to taunt.”

By this time Arthur Garfield was gasping for breath.

“But, but,” he protested, “our Consti—”

“But my eye as your Americans so well say,” the peppery antique interrupted. “When I was a lad freedom of speech was something to fight for. If anyone not of royal blood so much as said ‘peep,’ he’d have a cute little guillotine wrapped around his neck. Today, in your country freedom of speech is an established fact—with only minor exceptions, of course. The crying need is to see that the freedom is not boorishly abused, for freedom, I have heard some of your best sages often say, is easily abused. Fighting for free speech today in your country is like Don Quixote thrusting his lance at an ant-hill instead of a windmill. And fighting that Nazis may be permitted to mouth their vile tripe is like—well, it simply defies analogy, metaphors, aphorisms, sophisms and what have you!

“And in short, Arthur, young man,” Voltaire concluded, as he flirted his shroud and flicked some dust from his shoulder as he prepared to take French leave, “you have shown great energy, great zeal, but in a rather silly cause. The Nazis! Pouf! We never had such animals in our day. If we had, I would have known how to deal with them.”

Crestfallen, the stout – hearted champion of free speech for everyone, even for Nazis who bellow for the blood of Jews, departed muttering something about not being appreciated.

“And me a Jew, myself,” he was more distinctly heard to say as he kicked stones out of his path, “who has been bending over backward as far as a human back may stretch without breaking to be decent to our friends the enemies.”

—H. W.

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