“The world lives by phrases,” said Herbert Hoover.
He spoke in the era when men like Edward Bernays, advertising mogul J. Walter Thompson, and government propaganda czar George Creel were making manipulation of the public mind “scientific.” Not to mention all pervasive. Slogans and other simple phrases were handy for taking over people’s brains.
One hundred years on, and with Twitter as our bible, we may be the most phrase-driven people ever. But no doubt the pithy quote, ringing slogan, or pseudo-wise saying has always driven humans — and often driven them to heaven knows what.
“Hierosolyma est perdita” (“Jerusalem is lost!”) and “Deus Vult!” (“God wills it!”), cried Crusaders as they headed off to fight The Infidel, pausing to slaughter Jews along the way.
“Remember the Maine!” demanded Yellow Journalists. (But don’t ask for facts about what actually sank the ship.)
“Better dead than Red.”
“The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.”
“All’s fair in love and war.”
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
“To the victor belong the spoils.”
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
All very useful for halting thought and justifying savagery.
Of course plenty of phrases the world lives by are less murderous. There’s the ever-popular class of inspirational sayings — which are mostly harmless, even when they’re kinda dumb:
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” (Which will be pretty crappy stuff unless life also gives you plenty of water and sugar and a pitcher to mix it all up in.)
“A penny saved is a penny earned.” (Or inflated away to nothingness, as the case may be.)
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” (And die with your lungs bursting in the vacuum of space, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.)
“Tomorrow is another day.” (Um … yeah. So?)
“I cannot tell a lie!” (A lie made up by a pastor, who also invented the accompanying “true story” about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.)
“You can’t buy happiness.” (Yes, you can if you’re a smart shopper.)
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” (Oddly enough, my typical 5:00 a.m. waking time has never been reflected in my bank account, and probably also not in my dubious wisdom. As to health, I do at least avoid hangovers by going to bed early — but mostly by not drinking all night.)
And there’s more.*
But today’s subject is phrases nominally about freedom or justice that in my humble opinion actually damage the cause they claim to speak for. I’m thinking of three in particular — with a fourth (maybe the best-known of all) on the borderline. These are all famous quotes. Popular quotes. You’ll recognize them instantly; you may have used them yourself. I know I have.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” — Henry David Thoreau
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” — Edmund Burke
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” — Not actually Thomas Jefferson, though everybody thinks he said it
When I was younger, I was enamored of the Thoreau “just man” in prison quote. Which just goes to show that I was an idiot. Because the quote is purest bullsh*t.
It has that appealing ring of “aren’t I special?” that young, self-righteous activists cherish. And it rings as clearly as a bell. But think about it and it falls right apart.
For one, every government, at nearly all times, has imprisoned — or beheaded or burned or exiled or branded or chopped appendages off — people unjustly. So if you buy the Thoreau standard, every decent human being should be in prison pretty much forever.
For two, it’s damned hard to be an effective activist when you’re locked up. It does happen occasionally. But if all the “just men” were to turn themselves over to total, rigid government control, they’d be doing nobody much good.
For three, injustice is quite scarily in the eye of the beholder. You might think it’s obviously unjust to lock a guy up for defending himself against a chaotic midnight SWAT raid. The SWAT cops think it’s unjust to let the “vicious cop killer” go free. You might think it’s obviously unjust to lock somebody up for selling pot. But for decades, millions of moral crusaders thought it unjust to let such “destroyers of our innocent youth” roam the world. And there are people out there right now who think that “justice” to the children of Parkland or Sandy Hook would involve locking you or me or any other gun owner in prison — and killing us if we resisted.
So yeah. While there are plenty of self-designated “just men” (e.g. presidents Lincoln, Wilson, and Bush 2, for instance) who might deserve to be in prison, the idea that all the actual just men should show their solidarity with the oppressed by being locked up by government utterly fails the reality test.
And Thoreau? He did spend one night in jail for tax reistance, bless his heart. I’ve always loved him for that. But note that he accepted bail the instant somebody showed up to pay it.
So it’s not that justice isn’t worth fighting for. It’s worth being more intelligent about.
The other two phrases — “triumph of evil” and “eternal vigilance” — aren’t idiotic at all. Absolutely there’s a lot of truth to them.
Burke’s statement does have a flaw similar to the problem of “injustice.” How many “good men” fighting evil have ultimately caused evil? All those crusaders, witch burners, prohibitionists, and victim disarmers, for instance? How many of the world’s worst dictators are driven by what they imagine to be “good” motives? Ugh.
Still, it is true that while ordinary, decent folk are looking the other way (or being swept away by propaganda slogans that discourage thought), powerful forces perpetrate evil. Freedom is lost.
The problems with those otherwise accurate sayings are again threefold.
For one, Burke and not-Jefferson both assume that freedom or goodness is other-focused. Rather than living free and promoting the welfare of our own families and communities, we’re always to be scanning the horizon as if we’re nothing but human radar equipment, watching for anybody who might up to no good. Ordinary situational awareness is exhausting enough. Keeping an eye on the entire nation or world at all times? That way lies collapse and failure.
For two, both sayings imply that people who want genuine good, genuine justice, genuine freedom will spend their entire lives in reactive mode. Rather than achieving freedom by determining to live unyieldingly free and conducting ourselves accordingly, they assume that the best outcomes are achieved by spending our lives monitoring what powerful people are up to, then responding to it. And we have to do this eternally. What kind of life is that?
For three, both sayings (particularly Burke’s) blame the victims. Yes, evil people get away with murder when good people don’t stop them. But the evil people bear primary responsibility. Yes, when we’re minding our own business and living our private lives, politicians and their minions steal freedom. But they, not we, are the do-ers of the tyrannical deeds. To blame ordinary folks for the acts of Ted Bundy or Pol Pot or the latest lunatic who decides to take his (legally purchased or illicitly acquired) gun into a gun-free zone is absurd.
To imply that we, not the actual perpetrators of tyranny, bear primary responsibility for the loss of liberty is nothing more than a sophisticated form of bad old psychological guilt tripping. It’s an attempt to hold ordinary folk in bondage by making them feel responsible for forces beyond their control.
Does this mean I think we’re not responsible? That we should go about our lives ignoring threats and dangers while freedom dies? Hell no!
It just means I think that we’re encouraged — and sayings like these are major culprits — to look at our situation wrongly. We’re hugely responsible. Just not in the way we’re led to believe.
Long ago, I learned another useful phrase — one that spurs thought and intelligent action rather than suppressing thought and advocating reactivity:
“We are each 100% responsible for our own actions.”
I first heard this in the context of personal relationships (and relationships could be anything from familial to romantic to friendship to employer/employee or bureaucrat/peasant): Each partner in a relationship bears 100% responsibility. But wait, I objected at the time. It’s got to be more like 50/50, doesn’t it? But no; it’s 100/100.
If someone treats you unfairly, they’re 100% responsible for their unjust actions. But equally, you are 100% responsible for what you do. In the face of mistreatment, do you whine, hit, grovel, pretend not to care while secretly seething, calmly speak up for yourself, or walk out of the relationship? That choice is 100% yours.
Yes, there are lots of contributing factors: temperament, upbringing, finances, balance of power between the parties, family concerns, etc. There always are. But within your given parameters, how you respond to a person or a situation is 100% your responsibility.
For all the complications in the real world, the beauty of it is that thinking this way discourages us from either being helpless victims of or mindless reactors to the stronger forces (and seemingly stronger people) that press upon us.
You’re being abused? Yes, it’s hell. But knowing you have 100% responsibility for your own choices can empower you to begin figuring a way out of danger; you’re not completely helpless, no matter how frightened or oppressed you are in a given moment.
You’re being guilt tripped? Realizing that the manipulator is 100% responsible for their attempts to twist you — but that you are also 100% responsible for accepting, defying, or escaping the manipulation — is liberating.
You’re being forced to do things you believe you shouldn’t have to? The bully is 100% responsible — but so are you responsible for how you choose to deal (or not deal) with the demands being made upon you.
On the other hand, maybe nobody’s mistreating you, but you’re just being inert or unmotivated to move ahead. Knowing you’re 100% responsible for finding your way — and that there’s no point making excuses about how all the world’s against you — can be a spur to action.
The same thing operates on a macro scale (though again, I grant that power imbalance can be, and usually is, a huge factor — a factor, but not an excuse).
Government is turning tyrannical? Yes, that’s terrible. Yes, there will be suffering if it’s not stopped. But specifically how you respond, or if you respond, or when you respond (and again, always within the paramaters reality imposes) is 100% your choice. Engaging in battle — literal, political, or philosophical — is merely one option. With an unfettered mind, you may see alternatives.
Maybe it’s not your job to respond to evildoers, except in strict self-defense (which for most of us is a very occasional need). Maybe it’s your job to be the immovable object on which force breaks, or which it has to flow around.
The notion — implied in the sayings from Burke and non-Jefferson — that we somehow owe it to ourselves and the world to be eternally on guard and reacting like mad from birth to death is bassackwards. That way lies confusion, failure, wasted energy, exhaustion, and tyranny. Because tyranny is like a hydra. You think it’s your job to lop off every head on the beast, and all that happens is two new heads of tyranny grow in place of every one you battle. You’re fighting the beast on its own terms rather than focusing first on your own wisest choices and actions.
Which brings us to that fourth phrase I mentioned — the one that may be useful or not, depending: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
It’s a great phrase. It is. Spoken by a great orator and a great man. And talk about inspirational … whoof.
But let’s let go of those words “give me.” Yes, the British could have given death to Patrick Henry and friends. Just as our overreaching government can give us death now, pretty much any time it chooses to. But nobody can give us freedom.
* Other phrases or sayings manage to be complete nonsense without rising to the level of inspiring.
“Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” (Got news for ya, pal; even seven billion earthlings can be wrong, all at the same time.)
“Calories in, calories out.” (Only if you imagine that the body metabolizes sugar exactly as it metabolizes salmon or asparagus.)
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” (Says exactly what evidence?)
“Truth will out.” (Unless you’re a smart politician, the NSA, or have a great PR agent.)
And some of those phrases we live by are just convenient everyday shorthand — completely meaningless in themselves but handy to convey complex ideas in simple lingo. Harmless. Colorful, even.