Mark S. Weiner

Posts Tagged ‘Elements of Style’

Why International Law is Like Webster’s Third Dictionary (at least, for E. B. White)

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Environment, International law, Law and literature, United Nations on June 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm

United Nations Security Council Chamber

E. B. White disliked the name “the United Nations”—he thought it dishonest and phony. The structure of the institution, from its weak emergency force to the veto power of the Security Council, seemed to him to sell out the ideal of global unity. It offered a thin bill of fare whose underlying ingredient was the principle of national sovereignty.

“Some people, perhaps most people, think words are not really important,” he wrote in Points of My Compass, “but I am a word man and I attach the very highest importance to words. … The newspapers, with their sloppy proofreading, sometimes call the world organization the United Notions, sometimes the Untied Nations. Neither of these typos would make a serviceable title, but curiously enough, both are pat.”

Because White was at bottom “a word man,” I’d like to conclude this thread by suggesting how his legal vision is implicated in The Elements of Style—a book that many readers of this blog will know more intimately than all his other works. White’s views about English prose, it turns out, also register his views about world federalism.

In Stuart Little, the book’s hero draws a distinction between two proposed laws: “Don’t eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools” and “Nix on swiping anything.” The first, says the young mouse, acting as Chairman of the World, is merely “advice.” The second is a “good law.” Why? Foremost among its qualities, it is enforceable. In its propositional clarity, it can be backed up with punishment and power—which Stuart demonstrates by encouraging Harry Jamieson to steal Katharine Stableford’s scented pillow.

Wild FlagWhite believed that the standards for international conduct developed by the United Nations were nothing more than a litany of recommendations not to eat mushrooms—and that they probably could never be anything more than that. The institution’s rules, after all, were developed through mere diplomacy. “To speak as though we had law,” he protested in The Wild Flag, “when what we’ve got is treaties and pacts, to use the world ‘law’ for non-law, is to lessen our chances of ever getting law among peoples.”

To vindicate the equality of mankind, to protect “the ‘I’ in man which Hitler has set out to destroy,” to protect all the world’s peoples—including, in Stuart Little, rats—treaties and pacts were not enough. “Government is the thing,” White argued. “Law is the thing. Not brotherhood, not international co-operation ….” What was needed were objective, inflexible, normative rules of conduct whose meaning everyone could apprehend. Read the rest of this entry »