Every time I visit New Hampshire, as I did just recently, I notice those license plates. And the motto emblazoned thereon : Live Free Or Die. And even though it stems from noble impulses, I still have to regard it as just about the worst motto ever. It’s a sentiment that dates back to ancient times (perhaps most memorably worded by Patrick Henry) to declare that death is preferable to bondage, but who literally believes it to be true? Even if you’re living in bondage, there’s always the possibility that you can attain your freedom later. If you’re living in death, such prospects are rather compromised.
This sentiment probably (let’s hope) arose from a broader and less literal attitude that an individual would be willing to risk his or her life to ensure the liberty of posterity. But taken literally as quoted, it’s nonsensical to value liberty over life itself, because liberty is a component of life. It’s just another in the endless parade of instances in which people aren’t really listening to what they’re saying.
We often hear that we should watch what we’re saying, lest we utter something offensive or damaging. But it’s also important to listen to what we’re saying. lest we utter something self-contradictory or downright foolish.
Many years ago I was having a discussion with one of my RRR’s (rabidly right-wing relatives) — and when I say “having a discussion”, I mean listening to him rant — about the government’s ban of the pesticide DDT, a ban he was convinced was part of some kind of liberal commie conspiracy to impinge, somehow or other, upon the liberty of ordinary American citizens. He insisted that DDT is necessary to control pests.
“You don’t remember what it was like before we had DDT”, he said. “The flies were so thick you could hardly breathe.”
In other words, he was saying that because there were not nearly as many flies since DDT was banned, that proves that DDT is necessary to eliminate flies. Even if he meant that the flies were numerous before DDT was used at all, his statement makes sense only if those suckers have an extremely long gestation period, and are about to swarm us like Hitchcock’s birds any minute now. He would have done well to pay attention to his own words.
Another relative commented recently that it’s important to keep out “illegal” immigrants because they commit a lot of crime. To which I responded that actually, they commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. To which he replied, “that’s your opinion”. To which I replied that in fact it would be pointless to have an opinion about such a matter, because we have a way of knowing for certain. It’s called counting. That’s the reason numbers were invented — so we can keep track of how many crimes immigrants commit. To which he repeated, “that’s your opinion”. He wasn’t really listening either to me or to himself.
Still another relative is adamantly opposed to cremation, citing her fundamentalist convictions. She literally believes that on Judgment Day, God will resurrect the remains of the deceased faithful; and cremating those remains will make it impossible for Him to do so. In other words, a Supreme Being who supposedly can do absolutely anything, nevertheless cannot revivify cremated individuals, which presumably means things are hopeless for anyone who dies in a fire, no matter how strong their faith. Has she ever tried listening to her own words?
Religious beliefs often come from people who seemingly tune out their own words. Creationists sometimes argue that there must be a Creator just because the universe is too complex to have “just happened”. But aside from the fact that “just happened” is an overly simplistic characterization of the alternative(s) to creationism, the complexity argument is just about the most inept imaginable. Because no matter how complex the universe, its Creator would have to be even more complex. And if complexity itself negates the possibility of “just happened”, then that Creator must have been created by a Creator who was created by a Creator. And so on, ad infinitum.
Politics, of course, also offers a wealth of opportunities for ignoring the import of one’s own words. (And, alas, just about every freaking thing under the sun is connected to politics these days.) Who can forget former Senator Jesse Helms saying that “democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands”. And not long ago I heard a politician say something to the effect that the death penalty is a way of expressing our commitment to the sanctity of human life. (And many other people defend the death penalty by claiming that killing people teaches people not to kill people.)
You hear a lot of people these days declare that black athletes should be forced to stand for the National Anthem because soldiers have died defending their freedom. And many people just know there is an overwhelming liberal bias to American mainstream media because they keep it hearing it from the American mainstream media. And that the way to stop gun violence is with more guns. And spanking kids teaches them respect.
George W. Bush, who built a long and lucrative political career upon utterly refusing to listen to absolutely anything he was saying, came up with quite a few gems like this:
I think we agree, the past is over.
More and more of our imports come from overseas.
You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.
And many, many others, from suggesting that the reason for starting a war is to stop war to proposing easing dependence on foreign oil by getting it from Mexico. Nor was this staggeringly stupid lack of self-awareness limited to Bush himself; the entire administration was infected with it. As just one example: after the 9-11 attack, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Bush Gang decided instead to bomb Iraq. Because, as Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained perfectly deadpan, Iraq had better targets. Sort of like losing your keys in the garage but looking for them in the bathroom because the light is better there.
Speaking of Bush, another relative (and I don’t mean to be picking on my relatives here, God love them every one) insisted that it’s wrong to blame Bush for allowing 9-11 to happen. It was really Clinton’s fault, she insisted, because he dallied with Monica so much that he was distracted from doing his duty. That kind of analysis seems to make sense to a lot of people — I’ve heard it repeated more than once. And granted, it isn’t as obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory as the other statements quoted above. But when you give it a bit of thought, you see that it is indeed absurd.
When you say that the president blew it by getting blown, you are saying one of two things. The first possibility is that Clinton in general spent so much time Monica-ing that he was unable to do his duty. But that’s absurd, because there were surely other activities that he devoted far more time to — eating and sleeping, for example — and nobody has ever suggested that those things were an inordinate distraction from his job.
The second possibility is that on some specific occasion, his preoccupation with philandering caused him to miss an important briefing or decision point. But not even the most devoted of Clinton haters suggest that there was such an occasion; and even if there had been, that still leaves wide open the possibility that he could have received a briefing, or could have done whatever he needed to do, at some other time — if nothing else, by having his sleep or meal interrupted. In contrast, when people talk about Bush allowing 9-11 to happen, they mean that he and his administration ignored or downplayed several warnings, some rather specific, in the months leading up to the attack — including one on Aug. 6. We’ll never know for certain whether they would have prevented 9-11 had they been more diligent. But we do know that they were not diligent. They in fact had their pants down in a much more serious way than Clinton did.
I suspect that all of these relatives did what so many people do these days: they heard something in the media that they wanted to believe, so they decided to believe it and repeat it without stopping to think about whether it actually made sense. They didn’t listen to what they were saying.
It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That may be rather hyperbolic (though surely not to the same extent as “live free or die”.) What’s much truer, however, is that the unexamined belief is not worth believing — much less expressing. It’s fine to quote someone else’s words, provided they’ve been properly vetted. But if you simply parrot what you’ve heard without considering its basis in fact or logic, your opinions are not really your own. It’s a very good idea to listen to what you’re saying, preferably before you even say it. You may still get some things wrong — we all make mistakes. But at least you will be speaking your own convictions rather than serving as a mouthpiece for a ventriloquist. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.