Acting Up: Free Speech, Pragmatism, and American Performance in the Late 20th Century

Acting Up: Free Speech, Pragmatism, and American Performance in the Late 20th Century

Acting Up: Free Speech, Pragmatism, and American Performance in the Late 20th Century

Acting Up: Free Speech, Pragmatism, and American Performance in the Late 20th Century

Excerpt

All his life Turgenev was suspected by his friends of having a weak character, of being a coward, of not daring to come to either side, of sitting on a fence, above all of showing a certain lack of spirit in crises, whether personal or moral or political, or whatever kind. He never exactly defended himself against these charges, except rather halfheartedly; but that he minded them very strongly is very clear from everything that we know about him, and particularly his correspondence. His whole life was spent in trying to explain that someone like him who has a realistic grasp of the truth cannot take sides with the kind of fanaticism and whole-heartedness with which people with a narrower and more intense vision could, and that he was simply being punished for a just view of the facts, for being moderate, for having a certain amount of insight and human sympathy.

—Isaiah Berlin, unpublished manuscript, 1957

Everybody thinks they have rights. And I tell them why they don’t have any rights: because your rights can disappear. So they’re not rights, they’re privileges. It’s fucking make believe, folks. It’s like the boogeyman. We made that up. And people—they cling to these things.

—George Carlin, 2007

This book takes as its starting point the frequent invocation of First Amendment rights by controversial artists, and how the question of free speech became the centerpiece of national identity during the latter part of 20 century. This notion of freedom of expression is a particularly modern idea—one that is inexorably bound up with profound shifts in American’s conceptions of politics and personhood. Those ideas, I argue, came to a head during the first round of the “Culture Wars” in . . .

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