In a recent speech announcing his intention to seek election to America’s most elliptical office, an ambitious candidate has predictably invoked the words of fiery colonial Virginian Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death!” In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of a long and deplorable rhetorical tradition – implying that prosaic times call for desperate measures. Why do I find this to be such a vexatious practice? Because it rouses the cognitive rabble at the least opportune of moments. There are times, I firmly believe, when it is appropriate to let slip the limbic cascades of war, but unless I badly mistake my surroundings, those times are not ours. At least, they are not mine.
I must admit to being a lover of liberty, often in the most selfish and unprincipled of ways. I can be as petulant in the discomfiture of my immediate desires as any man, but, perhaps not so lamentably, I seldom have the occasion to exercise this petulance on the world around me. Indeed, my will is so seldom crossed that, at times, I have to expend considerable effort engineering the opportunity let fly an indignant, “but as for me…” Just the other day, in fact, I deliberately sought to purchase a difficult-to-obtain consumer product at an inconvenient hour of the night, mostly to indulge in the exasperation of having my liberty to freely consume any thing at any hour checked by the small-minded, diurnal sensibilities of my fellow townspeople. Did I enjoy myself? I certainly did. Was I acting nobly? Not exactly, no. But the point of the anecdote is not that indulgence in pointless exercises of manufactured self-righteousness is bad (It is bad, though.); the point is that I have to go to such extraordinary lengths to manufacture them.
As long as I can maintain the self-control to avoid deliberately confronting orthodoxies that otherwise wouldn’t concern me, I pass through the world in a state of almost perfect liberty. I desire to turn left. I do so. I desire pickles. I purchase pickles. I feel deprived of Romantic sublimity. I drive a thousand miles with nary an inquiry as to why and marvel at the granitic splendor of the American West. Then I drive back. No one questions me. My property goes unseized. I don’t even pay a toll. Suppose I decide the time has come for me to change careers. I let my employer know at a polite interval preceding my departure and take my leave without incident.
You might object: But you pay taxes! No toll? What about the third of your income you must send to the federal government or be imprisoned? What about the speed limit? What about the near monopoly imposed by three or four pickle manufacturers of indifferent quality on your freedom of choice? What about the hegemonic system of bourgeois consumerism that channels your desires into “needs” that can only be met by enslaving yourself to a tyrannical set of labor practices that restrict your thousand mile romantic odysseys to weekends and a paltry two weeks of annual vacation time?
And in some ways these objections would be reasonable (if maybe a bit beside the point). When I say “almost perfect liberty” I leave less room for qualification than I ought to. Nevertheless, I hope that my sentiment comes through. As a privileged member of my society, one to whom questions of race or poverty or irregular status generally do not apply, as one who has internalized, rationalized, and even come to appreciate a system of long working hours, as someone with the benefit of a good education and a steady job, I have almost nothing to complain about. And that nothing extends to a surprising (surprising at least, were it not so habitual) freedom to do a great many of the things I want to do with little or no opposition from anyone. The limits to my liberty are so slight that I can hardly imagine anyone willing to die to be free of them. I speak of social limits, of course. I and, I expect, many others, would absolutely risk life and limb to extend physical liberties. How many years of life would you trade for the ability, say, to throw off the constraints of gravity? But when it comes to the hoof of society, I simply cannot see, in my present position, any freedom under an assault so intolerable as to require my throwing myself into the breach to defend it.
As such, I resent rhetorical attempts to baselessly activate the neurological circuitry associated with such a defense. Were I the victim of true oppression (and such victims abound) I should absolutely feel justified in touching the rhetorical match to a few synaptic cannons. There are times when we need to get riled up, lest cold rationality swallow our humanity. But as I said before, unless I badly mistake our surroundings, those times are not ours, not for a great many of us, and not for the most of those for whom Patrick Henry’s blazing ultimatum was regrettably reconstituted. The redcoats aren’t coming just yet, and though we should probably keep a weather eye out, we also probably ought to let Patrick Henry lie for now.