Interesting. Used (slightly modified) piece twice. First bout (vs. the estimable Bilal Dardai) victorious, second bout (vs. the Live Lit bone-cracker Samantha Irby) a crushing defeat. Sidebar: the Poetry Foundation is just about the fanciest place into which I've ever been permitted entry.
If you could reanimate the corpse of your civics lessons, you’d no doubt recall that patriot Patrick Henry famously said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Given our context – a festival in celebration of… whatever the humanities are, in this TEMPLE erected for a literary form nobody cares about – I mean honestly: look at this place. It’s a fifty million-dollar bookcase. All those books back there? Poetry. Or worse: about poetry. Building this palace is like launching an aircraft carrier to defend stamp collecting.
But since we are here in this I’m ascribing to each of you and extraordinarily high degree of egg-headedness. As such, I shall operate on the assumption that you care about things like attribution and provenance – you recognize that as ideas are passed from hand to hand, there should be an anally retentive record of these pathways.
Anything short of this kind of butt-squinching documentation about the chain of possession for ideas sparks a frenzy of academic knife-sharpening that makes the average flame-war on Yelp! or Amazon seem positively sedate by comparison.
I think it’s safe to say that this is the kind of crowd where if I speak the words “epistemology,” or “tautology,” or “semiotics” – if you listen carefully you can hear the nerd-nipples stiffening.
Like most Americans, I cannot with confidence tell you what “epistemology” or “tautology” or “semiotics” mean.
But academic hackles are known only go up where there is nothing at stake, which is what separates dork-fighting from the real kind. Only at Comic Con is it possible to witness slap-fights about the place of Jar-Jar Binks in the Lucas canon. Likewise, it is only in the halls of academia where bitter tears are shed by the gallon over disputed punctuation in the doctoral thesis nobody will ever read.
In fact, the ONLY time you’ll see historians retract their catty claws is when the detail in question is agreed to be of abiding benefit to the national narrative. Which, in the case of Patrick Henry’s alleged statement, is clearly what’s going on.
First of all, let’s just say it: Patrick Henry is a one-hit wonder – “Give me liberty or give me death” is the “Hey Mickey” or “Baby Got Back” of its time – a shallow, idiotic tune we should all be mortified for having danced to so lustily. And it’s a hit from era of such chronic lameness, men were expected to march to their deaths behind a dude playing the fucking fife.
The trouble? Henry never published the text of the 1775 Virginia Convention speech alleged to contain this line. The version we think we know was published 17 years after his death by his biographer. Who wrote it from memory. A full twenty-four years after the speech in question. Now, speaking as a guy that’s constantly walking into my kitchen and forgetting what I came in there for, I readily concede people were smarter back then – but even so, twenty-four YEARS is a long-ass time to wait before jotting anything down.
But even if we accept this quote as valid, and even if we set aside the false dichotomy of Liberty vs. Death, it’s STILL no contest. Look – in principle, Liberty is appealing. Who among does not think we want freedom? However, we invariably find that that Liberty, so virtuous in principle, turns out to be total nightmare.
Because in practice, Liberty is nothing more than the paralysis of too much choice. And this mind-cracking weight of choice squashes from us all sense of control and clarity like grapes in a wine press until we are ankle-deep in an ineffectual puddle of our own waffling.
America has been in this Liberty bidness for a long-ass time.
With too much Liberty, we become the fattest country in the world, where the national pastime is gun violence. We elect paunchy helmet-haired men who declare that global warming is not real from what has become the Atlantic coast of Kentucky; men who draft constitutional amendments that defines rape as being between a man and a woman; men who lobby to “solve” the society-smashing perils of gay-marriage with drone strikes, and immediately get caught in the airport bathroom trying to give a handie to the dude in the next stall while chanting USA! USA! USA!
This is where Liberty leads us. We can’t handle it, man. Because we tend to be selfish, ignorant, short-sighted swine. No disrespect intended.
In his acceptance speech last night, President Obama acknowledged this – in talking about the messy nature of life in democracy, he talked about this tendency for rancor and squabbling. He said “These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”
We suck at ramifications. We got no patience for consequences. Complexity is super-boring. We like tidy conclusions with only the most casual relationship to the facts – Americans will flatly declare things that are insane like “Racism’s over – we elected a black president,” or “Kim Kardasian is a star.”
And here’s what the Patrick Henry lobby, the fat cats in the pocket of Big Patriotism, don’t want you to know, brother: Death? It’s the completest Liberty there is. In Death, there is no rancor and squabbling, Mr. President.
When laid beside Death, is Liberty not a stingy little thing? A self-seeking and small-minded little thing? Of course it is.
Death is the Great Emancipator, because it is only Death that offers complete freedom from choosing. Anything. Ever. Only Death that grants the cessation of desire, the everlasting reprieve from longing and unrequitedness. Death alone that bestows freedom from all striving – and we, The Unfulfilled, know from bitterly won experience that our striving leads only to misery and want. Only in death, my friends, are we relieved of the chaotic snarl of our hankering, the restless clot of our hungering.
If you claim to cherish Liberty, then you know it is only in Death that real freedom is possible, only in Death that true Liberty abides. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, you must cast your vote for Death. To do otherwise constitutes cowardice of the worst sort, and only serves to declare your contempt for the Liberty of any lasting kind.