28 February 2013

Jefferson's dangerous freedom

Another gun rally at the state capital this morning: burly bearded guys all over the park, snake flags flogged by the drizzling wind. Nothing new to see here, but persistence is the point, I guess. They want to remind Gov. Cuomo that they're here and not going away. They demand the repeal of the gun-control law recently passed here in New York; failing that, some want Cuomo impeached, presumably for violating the U.S. Constitution. The motto of the moment is molon labe, whether in the original Greek, transliterated or translated. "Come and take it," according to Plutarch, is what Leonidas of Sparta (and 300 fame) told the Persians when the invaders ordered his army to surrender their weapons. Whether Sparta is the best analogy for American gun-rights activists to adopt is a question for another time. On this particular morning, my eyes were drawn to a sign inscribed with a quotation from America's enigmatic oracle, Thomas Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello was here said to have said, "I prefer dangerous liberty to peaceful slavery."

This particular sign holder got it at least half right. According to monticello.org, the authority on Jeffersonian sayings, the lines on the signs were used but not coined by Thomas Jefferson. He was translating an apparently anonymous Latin proverb: malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium. Monticello cites a 1787 letter to friend James Madison in which Jefferson describes "dangerous liberty" as a condition of democracy itself. He specifically identified it with "governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one....The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it's [sic]evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem." This is the same letter in which Jefferson wrote that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."

Jefferson identifies liberty with a danger of "turbulence," which he then virtually identifies with rebellion. He may have discovered the Latin quote in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, where the words are put in the mouth of a Polish nobleman. Rousseau himself raises the stakes that come with liberty. "[T]here is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government," he wrote, "because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is." If anything, Rousseau more than Jefferson gives figurative ammo to the gun-rights movement, since he continues: "Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium."

What does an NRA sympathizer mean by "dangerous liberty?" The more extreme sympathizers may say that we have to be prepared to fight to defend that liberty, to rebel or wage civil war if necessary? It's also possible that sympathizers who aren't so extreme politically intend a more heartless message. Since the other side, presumably, is the one that wants "peace" above all -- understood by both sides in this context to mean freedom from anxiety over random gun violence -- might the sign's message to the other side be that you have no right to expect it?  That you have no right to expect that you'll never be caught in a crossfire, because the price of such a guarantee would be too high -- to somebody?  How you interpret it and how you respond really depends on how you define freedom, or how high a priority it is to you. Many on the left would probably equate freedom with peace or at least question whether freedom without peace is truly freedom for most people. Peace itself may depend too much on self-denial or some sort of submission for many people to be comfortable making it the highest goal. But peace itself need not be seen as a kind of slavery any more than actual slavery should be presumed peaceful somehow. Politics ought to be the art of reconciling freedom with peace. Those who think that impossible probably have no faith in politics and no more trust in people, individually or collectively. Some of them, at least, have made it clear that they trust guns more. That's dangerous liberty, all right.


Anonymous said...

Every single individual - armed or not - is as free as they choose to be. Having a gun in hand is no guarantor of freedom. If a man points a gun at your head and makes demands, you are free to accept death and choose freedom. Freedom is of little use, however, to a corpse. If that man has no gun to begin with, his ability to realize his demands becomes quite limited.

The moment your "democracy" is at the barrel of a gun, it ceases to be democracy and becomes force. Gun nuts are defending neither freedom nor democracy with their barely veiled threats. I say any government too weak to deal with armed thugs and would-be usurpers is a weak government indeed.

Samuel Wilson said...

Note that the gun extremists always presume that somebody will have a gun, be it the government or the criminals. They simply (and to an extent realistically) can't imagine a society without guns -- or without some people being in a position to force their will on the rest. Anticipating some kind of attack by someone stronger, they look to guns rather than their fellow citizens (since they always presume themselves in vulnerable isolation) as the equalizer. One of the difficulties in the gun debate is that the gun extremists always presume themselves innocent and on the defensive against criminals or tyrants, while their antagonists see them as the ones forcing their will on others in a bullying manner.

Anonymous said...

It's not my fault that they are that stupid and completely unable to understand that they are NOT defending democracy by threatening a legitimate government.

They are no different than Stalin or Mao or Ho Chi Minh or Castro, etc. If a sitting government makes a law they don't like, they immediately turn to showing up at rallies armed, threatening the government. They threaten insurrection. They are thugs and there is not even any point in arguing with them.

The moment they show up armed at a "peaceful demonstration" they make terrorists of themselves and the government has every right to put them down, in whatever manner necessary to truly preserve freedom, peace and order.

This is a democracy and the governments of NY and of the United States were legally elected by the citiens of the United States. If the people and their government decide to eliminate the threat imposed by an armed but undisciplined mob by disarming them by law, they had better concede or prepare to die.

Samuel Wilson said...

Don't know if any of the idiots in Albany this morning were armed, but we've all heard stories about events elsewhere. From their perspective, NYS has surrendered some legitimacy by passing a gun law they deem unconstitutional, but to think of Andrew Cuomo or Barack Obama as an imminent despot is simply mad -- why would they want to be despots, exactly? What sinister thing do they propose to do besides confiscate guns? I'd be curious to know what the folks who were in Albany suspect.

Cody Deitz said...

I recognize this is an older post now, and I apologize if it's awkward or inconvenient to post here, but you bring up some intriguing points. I'm certainly in favor of gun rights--I think they're imperative in a free society--but I also acknowledge there are some finer points that can and should be hashed out.

To try and approach some of the ideas in your post: I think the basic idea of the latin phrase most commonly attributed to Jefferson is that a state (by that, I mean the people) that is truly free, that is, where people are able to determine their own fates and are not beholden to a government, has inherently a certain instability, a certain violence. I think that's pretty clear from the rest of the letter he sent to Madison. When we think of what that instability might look like now, it seems we're at no loss for examples: protests against police brutality, demonstrations against government corruption, the occupation of a wildlife station to oppose federal overreach. These are all examples of the push and pull that a free society exhibits.

The question, and I think it's an important one, is whether gun violence--mass shootings, gang violence, etc.--are part of that instability. For the most part, I think the answer is no. Do we have a lot of guns in the US? Yes--a ton. But per the number of legally-owned firearms, a number that has steadily risen in recent years, violence overall has decreased. There is certainly a connection between the number of guns in this country and the amount of gun violence, but it by no means appears causal. When we look at violence in this country, and think only of the tools chosen for that violence, we become pretty short-sighted.

Still, it seems your post is more getting at the philosophical aspects of the question, and that's more interesting, at least for me. As strange as it might be to some, I am willing to accept a degree of violence and uncertainty to possess actual freedom--freedom to succeed or fail by my own volition. Jefferson's use of that latin phrase is a simplification of reality, certainly, but it speaks to a very real choice we make both as individuals and as collective groups. We must decide to whom we give the power of force and violence--to the government (whom we don't trust with much else, generally)--or to the people, whatever that means to you. In no way do I think demonstrators, holding unloaded weapons or not, are thugs or terrorists. They are symbolically meeting the powers that be with equal force, saying that they still hold their power. Personally, I think so much of our individual liberty and power resides in our ability to meet force with force--and for the most part, that remains a peaceful stalemate at it was largely designed to be.