Liberty and Safety

I am still struggling to write a coherent post about the slaughter of Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged in Georgia; the death of British railway worker Belly Mujinga from COVID-19 after being spat at by someone who [claimed he] had the virus; and the sense of entitlement, fear, and intimidation that runs through the stories of their deaths, intersects with armed protesters in the Michigan statehouse, and is an essential part of systems of enslavement everywhere and at all times.

In the meantime I share this quotation from the current week’s Torah portion:

וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ   Uk’ratem dror ba-arets l’khol yosh-veha

The Liberty Bellfamously inscribed on the Pennsylvania State House bell (now known as the Liberty Bell) as “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10)  In its original context it referred to the Jubilee (yovel) year, an every-fifty-year occurrence in which people who were indentured (usually translated as ‘enslaved,’ but it was a far different system than in pre-Civil-War US) were freed, and concurrently land was re-apportioned among families so the newly-emancipated people had a basis for livelihood.


“Your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”

(A history of the usage and attribution of this quote may be found here.)

The following photo was posted on Reddit on May 13, 2020.  I reposted it a couple of days later when it appeared on Facebook, with the comment:

וְאָהַבְתָ לְרֵעָךָ כָּמוֹךָ   V’ahavta l’rey-acha kamocha
Love your neighbor as yourself.

If liberty (or freedom) is to be shared among all the inhabitants of the land, nobody’s liberty can be boundless.  And yet…

White man and woman carrying a sign that says "I WILL NOT TRADE MY *FREEDOM* FOR YOUR SAFETY!" Sign has "Don't tread on me" logo and American flag. Woman is carrying an American flag over her shoulder, wearing a hat with red-and-white striped brim, blue body with white stars, and a "Trump" t-shirt of some kind. Man is wearing black clothing with some kind of a badge or patch over the left breast, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a gun holstered at his side. The general appearance gives the impression of a uniform. Both people are wearing dark sunglasses.

While looking up details about the Liberty Bell, I learned that this sign is a paraphrase of words attributed to Ben Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  

Apparently no one who commented on my post recognized the origins of the sign any more than I did.  One can imagine this quote being a basic tenet in some circles with the best of intentions.  It has been adopted by groups that oppose the growth of government surveillance.  But the application in this photo is fringe, appalling, and utterly lacking compassion.  Under *no* circumstances should anyone’s physical health and survival be called “a little temporary safety”! Especially when it’s someone else’s safety and survival that one is denigrating, not one’s own. 

But if you look at the 18th-century letter in which the quotation appears, these words are neither original to Ben Franklin, nor do they mean anything remotely like the unfettered freedom this sign claims for its holders.  Franklin was writing about an earlier letter in which the statement was quoted by the Pennsylvania Assembly, as it feuded with the governor over sufficient funds to properly provision the army, maintain roads, etc. The governor, apparently under pressure from wealthy landowners, blocked them at every turn. 

You can read the original letter for yourself. I recommend scrolling up to page 99 and starting at “The residue of this piece.” Note that “the proprietaries” are wealthy landowners, who apparently had been instructing the governor to veto tax bill after tax bill.

The politics of fear is not new

It’s fascinating to read that the governor had been making wild claims, for political purposes, about the danger posed by native peoples in the area.  The Assembly acknowledged that while scattered settlers were indeed afraid, their fear was out of proportion to any threat.  If you want to read it yourself, start on page 95 in the left-hand column with “Intelligence (probably the same intelligence contained …” and look especially at the top paragraph on the right, in which the governor’s words are characterized by Franklin as:
“A dose of venom apparently prepared and administered to poison the province; if the governor might have been their savior, and was not, for want of proper powers, the assembly accused of having withheld them, were to be considered as public enemies.  [If the governor might have saved them, but couldn’t because the assembly didn’t give him enough power, then the assembly would be considered dangerous.]  The populace are never so ripe for mischief as in times of most danger.”
An astute awareness of the politics of fear. Franklin continues:
“A provincial dictator he wanted to be constituted; he thought this would be the surest way of carrying his point; and if the Pennsylvanians had taken so frantic a turn, they would not have been the first, who like the flock in the fable, had, in a fit of despair, taken a wolf for their shepherd.”

Will we never learn?

But I can’t end on that note.  Including a nechemta, a comfort, is a tradition of Jewish leaders going back 2,000 years or more.  Franklin’s words are reassuring as well as disquieting: We’ve survived fear-mongering top leadership before.   

And let’s finish with Ella’s Song, which has been playing in my mind for days: