Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On the Care and Feeding for Your Tree of Liberty

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
-Thomas Jefferson

The above bit of colorful phrasing first came to my attention on the day the President came to town. President Obama was in Portsmouth for a town hall meeting on health care reform. A gentleman by the name of William Kostric won himself some notoriety by showing up among the crowds of protesters and supporters carrying a sign that read "It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty!" He was also openly carrying a loaded handgun. The incident occurred roughly a mile from my home and maybe 15 feet from my wife, who was there carrying a sign with rather different sentiments. Mr. Kostric caused quite a stir.

I assumed Mr. Kostric was indulging in a bit of performance art to highlight some imagined offenses against the first and second amendments to our constitution. To the best of my knowledge he faced no legal consequences. Whatever tyrannical measures have been implemented by the Obama administration, apparently bringing a loaded weapon to a public event attended by the President of the United States and making a not-very-subtle threat against his life, is still permissible.

I assumed this was the last we would hear on the subject of the of the care and feeding of the Tree of Liberty for a while. But the words of Mr. Jefferson recently reappeared on a Politico post (a site where I am now a semi-regular forum poster).

Geo1342 writes:
Thomas Jefferson has said "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants". He recognized that the passion that would have to exist behind such an uprising, regardless of whether driven by intellect or ignorance, was necessary to keep the republic free -- for otherwise, lethargy in the public regarding matters of government would set in, and the Government would grow unchecked.

Today, while it is true people are making a lot of noise about the abhorrent and tyrannical behavior of our government, our representatives view it as just that -- noise. Few, if any, believe the public would rise up violently against them. And thus they are emboldened.

Is it too late? Has the Tree of Liberty already died, it's leaves just waiting for a breeze to carry them away?

This poster seems to be advocating the violent overthrow of our government. Its is generally unwise to impart too much importance to an anonymous internet post. And both sides have their lunatic fringe. But these kinds of sentiments are not hard to find. In the last year, at the local and national level, the extremists and Republican core became increasingly intertwined. An undercurrent of implied violence and revolution is now a common feature of political discussions. What does it all mean?

Perhaps the talk of violent revolution isn't meant to be taken literally. Maybe even those who speak of rising up in the face of "abhorrent and tyrannical behavior" would be disgusted and repulsed by the treasonous idea of actual violence against our elected officials. I don't think the founding fathers advocated for the murder of King George III. And we can assume that Thomas Jefferson did not mean for his bloody arboreal advice to be literally applied to democratically elected presidents of the United States, like say... Thomas Jefferson.

The authors of these sentiments are playing rhetorical dress-up, pretending to be patriots. The attempts to link their grievances to those of the founding fathers is pure artifice. They know nothing of actual tyranny, actual revolution, or actual violence. By claiming equivalence they cheapen the actions those who have fought, and those who are still fighting, for democracy and against dictatorship. They dress up their argument in innuendo and metaphor for effect and talk vaguely of "abhorrent and tyrannical behavior" but decline to offer specifics. Were they do do so, any actual listing of "grievances" and "acts of tyranny" would be laid bare as petty, and partisan, and totally unworthy of the bombast that accompanies them.

Is the talk of revolution just noise? Even if the rhetoric of violence is just rhetoric we should still be appalled by it. Why should anyone who lives in this country, shared in its opportunities, been protected by its laws, and enjoyed its freedoms tolerate an argument advocating for its destruction? What's the difference between a Muslim extremist, or left-wing extremist, or a right wing extremist who calls for for the destruction of this country and the murder of its citizens? Is it Ok to clap along until someone actually pulls a trigger? Any person, any political party, any TV station, anyone who advocates violence against our elected officials should receive our scorn. The are not entitled to call themselves patriots. With threats of violence against it, they disrespect this country, its constitution, it history, and its citizens.


  1. Well, one of the principles of our Constitution is that talk is usually just talk (i.e., freedome of speech). However, words can be destructive in their own right, whether of an insular society's subjective belief system, or an open society's alienated or unempowered minority who cannot be heard. And yes, we can heap scorn or pity on those who use violent rhetoric (communitarian shaming can be useful in some instances), but what will that really accomplish? Our system of "winner takes all" alienates a large minority. If 45+% of the people disagree with a 52+% majority (i.e., Obama's overwhelming win), they have little functional voice. Although less efficient, I think a proportional system would allow for better representation, and perhaps would give those with extreme views a proportional voice at the table where they could work within the government to effectuate their goals. I'm not sure anything will ever quell extreme views of a few, but perhaps there is something of value to be offered that doesn't come through when any minority must constantly shout to be heard.

  2. My (naive?) hope in going after violent and extremist rhetoric is that people will police their "own side" or at least give a deeper consideration of what they are hearing (and saying).

    There will always be someone in the majority (and after a while it'll switch). The biggest danger of extreme expression is it makes it impossible for your side to compromise with the other side. I'm a big fan less radical rhetoric more political compromise.

    My fear is, right now, the minority has no interest in compromise or negotiation. They do have the power to make it so the legislature no longer functions (and thus no problem can be addressed). I actually think this is too much power. See California.