We need people like Bill Maher. Since the Reagan Revolution, the right, like an increasingly flatulent cow in a feedlot, has expanded so much farther to the right that it pushed those of us in the center over to the left. Right-wing radio was a big part of it, while, at the same time, progressive voices were increasingly silenced by a media more intent on covering the fear of the moment rather than the long-term consequences of misguided government actions. Like the invasion of Iraq following the threat of seeing mushroom clouds over our cities. As a consequence, we now have a President who’s a Democrat, or says he is, but acts more like a centrist Republican.
And so we need people like Bill Maher to come at us from the left, working to restore some balance to our national discourse by pulling us back toward the center. I wish he’d clean up his language a bit, because I think it would serve to broaden his guest list, but that’s another issue. Right now, I’d like to discuss what he did last night with regard to one of the nation’s most prominent founders, Benjamin Franklin, and one of my favorite Franklin quotes, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Apparently the quote is being used by Sarah Palin, something I wouldn’t have known except for Maher going after not Palin, but Ben Franklin, for having the gall to suggest that we need to consider the critical balance between trading “essential liberty” for “a little temporary safety.” Maher, disagreed with and then attacked Franklin and Palin, giving the appearance that one of the great thinkers in our nation’s history is somehow intellectually in league with the former short-term Governor of Alaska. It brought me right off the sofa.
I think Maher is wrong in his (or someone’s) assessment of Dr. Franklin’s quote. I think, I hope, that someone else wrote his monologue, and that once Maher thinks it over, he will decide that the quote makes quite a lot of sense after all. Raving against Dr. Franklin because someone else draws an association with something he said is totally misdirected and beneath Bill Maher’s intellect. Particularly so, when it serves to elevate the likes of Sarah Palin, while demeaning the memory and intellectual power of Franklin.
There’s also the issue of changing semantics with regard to “essential liberty.” I doubt that Franklin would have had much of a problem with removing his shoes at the airport. We can’t know that, because there were, of course, no airports in his day. He would though, I’m pretty sure, have had a serious problem with Congress giving the military the right to set aside due process for American citizens on American soil while scooping up millions of Americans in an anti-terror dragnet by secretly seizing their telephone records and internet tracking data and holding it in storage for years without having to show cause.
Franklin’s quote reminds us that Liberty is by no means free. It comes with a price that some are willing to pay while others are not. Patrick Henry’s proclamation of “Give me liberty or give me death,” was, to the best of my knowledge, unconditional. The founders knew who they were. Who are we?