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.