Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/22/2010

I wish Antonin Scalia understood “Liberty or Death”

If I experience growing into part of the older generation typically (I would like to believe I don’t, but that belief bears rethinking because my uniqueness most likely rests only in my imagination or my ego), I can aver that peculiar –rather, perplexing—changes take place in the way one thinks as one ages. My aging does not feel like the maturing of a fine wine. It feels more like the rotting of unrefrigerated meat. 

Gross, you say? 

I have not written anything worth sharing (if I ever ought to share my stuff) in over a week.  I don’t mean I haven’t written; I do that non-stop. Sometimes, however, other obsessions take over my mind and replace the uncontrollable urge to write. Then I want to write about the obsessions, but I can’t because they still control my mind. Some obsessions create interesting (at least to me) thoughts, some create at best, havoc, but generally junk. 

Junk thoughts. 

If I had any political expertise, any way to think about the body politic that would add anything to the alleged debate about the way we live our lives together, current events would call for great and powerful eloquence. The Supreme Court, in its Conservative Roman Catholic Republican majority, decides that corporations deserve the same First Amendment protections as human beings. At the same time, they continually decide that the First Amendment does not apply to me because my tax money can support church-related proselytizing schools and the “Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.” The court  also decides that our communal Civil Religion (one might ask how religion can be “civil”) allows for the wholesale purloining of the bedrock of spiritual life by the secular population’s misuse of such verbiage as “Under God,” “In God we trust,” and “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”  (See: Paul Johnson, “The Almost-Chosen People,” American History, R.J. Maddox, ed., vol. I, 10th ed. Guilford, Conn:  Dushkin Publishing Group, 1989). The purloined use of “God” obviously attempts to establish religion in contravention of the First Amendment. Even if it is part of tradition and not religious language, it sends a message. The use of “God” in these contexts is but one example [perhaps–we at least like to think so] of the encroachments on individual freedom for which the radical revolutionaries of British colonies in the New World fought and died in the 18th century. 

Gross, you say?

My students (the cream of the thorough-going American “christian” crop) cannot comprehend why anyone would say, “Live free or die.” The title of my course in argumentative writing is, “Live free or die: slogan or belief?” General John Stark—as every schoolgirl in America knows—led the Green Mountain Boys to a decisive victory over the British on August 16, 1777, at Bennington, Vermont.  (Vermont had declared its separateness from New Hampshire only a few months before on January 18, abolishing slavery (!) and granting universal suffrage to men.)  General Stark, who led men to death in the Battle of Bennington because they believed dying is better than not living free, penned the phrase in a greeting to an anniversary celebration of the Battle in 1809. 

He was not alone in his sentiments. His words—as every schoolboy also knows—are reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech of March 23, 1775. What every schoolboy doesn’t know is Henry’s explanation of his repeated to the point of trivia phrase:  “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” 

By all means, let’s quote Jesus on our guns and let the Department of Homeland Security make “peace so sweet” that we forget altogether about the “chains of slavery.” Henry was willing to accept death over liberty except in one area, however. He tried to pass through the Virginia legislature a tax on everyone in the state for the support of religious education. His disavowal of freedom led to the passage of the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom (written by Thomas Jefferson) which is still part of the first article of the Virginia Constitution—and which became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

That neither the courts nor the government in general care a fig about “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is evidenced by the cavalier attitude of the U.S. Army (and its supposed overseers, the Administration and the Congress) toward using rifles with Bible references inscribed on them. (News reports this morning say that the makers have agreed to stop the idiotic practice—an out-of-the-ordinary victory for the forces of freedom of and from religion.)  In how many other secret ways does the U.S. government attempt to subvert religion and use it for its own purposes (investigate the wholesale indoctrination with Fundamentalist Christian ideas at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, home of Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” for example). Of course, what we don’t know won’t necessarily hurt us. 

I know lots of christians who claim they would die for their faith. They would, I suppose. But many such folks would also be willing to make it necessary that someone who believes in a different religion die for her religion. Pat Robertson says the Haitians brought earthquake destruction on themselves by a “Pact with the Devil” (Voudoo) . He also says that “Islam is not a religion” but a violent political system. Do christian leaders denounce him, censure him, assure the world he does not speak for them? Not so much. Political leaders murmur, libertarians and others on the fringes of society rail against him. But the American people continue to listen to him. 

Junk thoughts. 

I rejoice in the peculiar changes in my thinking as I grow into old age. I rejoice that I have not much time left to rail against the idiocies of our life together. I rejoice because I am already too old to be revolutionary so I probably will never have to make the choice between liberty and death. Someone else will have to do that. I don’t know if King George III was a fascist or not. Probably not. But he was certainly a tyrant. His tyranny, however, as perceived by the American Revolutionaries, was basically  tyranny over their newly-codified (see Adam Smith) capitalistic urges. The liberty or death most of them fought for was the liberty to amass wealth. Most of the so-called revolutionaries would have followed Patrick Henry: give me liberty to make money (not to practice or reject religion as I see fit) or give me death. 

I think most Americans today would say,  “We don’t care about the liberty to vote. The Supreme Court says that capitalist institutions may completely control our electoral process, and we don’t care as long as the Department of Homeland Security protects us.” Give us money or give us death. Give us the sweetness of peace or give us. . . .? 

See, I told you my thinking had become peculiar. The kicker is that the Army’s Jesus rifles actually tell the truth, a truth that no longer guides American thinking (if it ever did). Light is better than darkness. Death is better than tyranny. The tyranny of Antonin Scalia or Pat Robertson.


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