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Stout Necks

J.K. Rowling signs autographs outside the Odense Concert Hall in Odense, Denmark, in 2010. Rowling was in Denmark to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award. (Jens Norgaard Larsen / Scanpix via Reuters)

In Impromptus today, I discuss an assortment of issues: foreign policy, race, politics, the media — even food. But I begin with J. K. Rowling and what it means to be a writer. I would like to excerpt a paragraph or two, then make additional comments:

I admire JKR no end. I’m sure her politics are very different from mine. So what? She could have spent the rest of her life accepting laurels (and royalties). She could have spent the rest of her life going to Harry Potter conventions and being adored.

Instead, she has waded into the “controversial.” She has joined the fray. And that takes spine.

I think of two other major figures of our times: Natan Sharansky and Garry Kasparov. They are both chess players. But Kasparov is really a chess player. (Some rank him the greatest in history.)

When Sharansky emerged from the Gulag in 1986, he was a hero of world Jewry. He could have basked in plaudits for the rest of his life (and he is afforded many, no matter what). But he quickly entered politics — Israeli politics. And, in taking sides, and taking positions, alienated a great many.

This is inevitable, when you take a stand.

Kasparov? He retired from the game in 2005 and could have basked in admiration for the rest of his life: the chess hero. He is that, to be sure. But he threw himself into politics — especially human-rights advocacy — and earned the enmity of many.

Often, taking a stand costs you something. And I honor all those who pay the cost — especially those who pay a very steep one. They don’t have to do it. They can simply be the beloved author, the freedom hero, the chess legend. But they stick their neck out, and I could hang a medal around such a neck.

(George W. Bush did hang the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Sharansky’s neck, true.)

(I once knew a lady who had a picture of a turtle on her wall. Underneath the dear animal was a saying: “A turtle never gets anywhere except by sticking its neck out.”)


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