Sometimes one opens the morning newspaper and, instead of fires, floods, or declarations of war, finds a parable.  This one hit me with the force of a subway train back in January, and I duly rushed it off as a post on the Chronicles blog, but stubbornly the retina refused to let go of the killer image it had captured.  I felt I needed to see that parable on paper, which is why it now appears as a column.

A Syrian girl I used to be friends with in England once presented me with a magnificently bound copy of the Koran, though her gift, she insisted, was being given on the condition that “the Book” should be given a place of honor on my bookshelf.  It had to stand above “Tolstoy and other light literature,” as she put it.  What to do?  Even Shakespeare, in her uncompromising view, was in the end only frivolous reading.  “Darling,” I said, “there is only one solution.  I will put it next to my Oxford English Dictionary.”

Begun in 1879 under the auspices of the University of Oxford and published in 1928 by Oxford University Press, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now better known as the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of the greatest events in the history of Western civilization.  What is not widely remembered is that the lexicographer Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, who undertook the project at the behest of the Philological Society of London, was the son of a village tailor.

Among the scholars fortunate enough to have contributed to the launch of this juggernaut, a book of 16,000 pages when finally completed, was an American paranoid schizophrenic—a former army surgeon traumatized by his experience of the Civil War—who contributed 10,000 entries on science and medicine while confined to the Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane.  William Minor’s story has been told by Simon Winchester in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, and I need not recount it here, except to add that by 1902 Minor’s mental state had so deteriorated that one afternoon, using a pen knife, he castrated himself in full view of Broadmoor’s other patients.  This dire condition, however, did not deter Minor from becoming one of Murray’s most esteemed contributors, any more than Murray’s own humble background prevented him from making his way in Victorian England.

What made Europe, of which the United States is an historical extension, master of the world and synonym of civilization is the ear that its culture kept open for the individual utterance—however freethinking, deviant, alarming, or subversive.  Indeed, dissenters as diverse as Socrates, Thomas Becket, and Oscar Wilde were hounded to death, but not before they had had their say, whereas under the conditions of despotism, such as prevailed in Russia under the Bolsheviks or in China under the Qin, none would have dared to open his mouth for fear of having it filled with molten lead.

A crucial corollary of such openness is that a people free to ratiocinate and exchange ideas thinks up, designs, and builds better weapons than its less philosophical adversaries, a circumstance that has rendered Europe invulnerable to conquest by nations more populous, militant, or cruel.  The freedom of listening to a madman, which Murray enjoyed at Oxford, is the selfsame freedom that allowed Einstein at Princeton to speak to Roosevelt of the “extremely powerful bomb of a new type.”

Sic transit gloria mundi.  In January of this year Oxford University Press issued an advisory to its authors to enjoin them from using the word pig or writing about anything “pork-related,” such as sausages, for fear of offending “Jews and Muslims.”  According to a spokesman for the world’s largest university press, “Many of the educational materials we publish in the UK are sold in more than 150 countries, and as such they need to consider a range of cultural differences and sensitivities.”

Conservative MP Philip Davies has responded by saying,

On the one hand you have politicians and the great and the good falling over each other to say how much they believe in freedom of speech, and on the other hand they are presiding over people being unable to use and write words that are perfectly inoffensive.

A Muslim parliamentarian, Labour MP Halid Mahmood, has concurred: “I absolutely agree.  That’s absolute utter nonsense.”

I think Messrs. Davies and Mahmood have missed the point.  This is more than a passing contradiction.  This is the terminus of the West’s millennial autarchy, adumbrated by T.S. Eliot back when Murray’s dictionary was just going to press at Oxford:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.