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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Privilege

In Mark Twain’s essay The Privilege of The Grave (written in 1905 but published for the first time in the December 22 & 29, 2008 New Yorker), he writes about a privilege we as American citizens, I think, we take for granted. He argues that this liberty that we are provided, we do not exercise to our fullest capability and, in my interpretation, to our fullest obligation. This privilege: free speech. Twain presents the argument that as free speech is not actually something we participate but in fact we, “Sometimes suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us like to be hated, none of us like to be shunned.” We as a nation like the idea of free speech but that act of participating in it, is rare. From even our simplest interactions with each other to larger issues that plague our nation and world, perhaps we sit idly by as we allow mainstream thought, popular wisdom, and tradition, take precedence over our fears of disturbing the status quo, challenging the authorities that govern, or debunking mistruths.

Twain goes on to say that the privilege of free speech really only belongs to one group of people: the dead. It is the dead who we hold in high esteem as we canonize their words. Twain states, “We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we cannot revile them, as knowing that they cannot now defend themselves.” How peculiar it is that those who can speak no longer are the ones that can really speak most honestly. And how true it is that we take more seriously those words of the deceased than those of living present day. Throughout history, philosophers, biblical prophets, human rights activists, world leaders and alike, existed in present day communities and constituents so rarely heeded their words. So much in fact history demonstrates that heresy and rhetoric was grounds for punishment by death. And yet today, we take Socrates as the foundation of logic and argument into many law practices, we take biblical prophets as authorities on righteous living, and look to the thousand in history, recognized and unrecognized, as heros against cruel caused who chose to exercise free speech and paid for it dearly with their lives.

As long as we live in the fear of potentially offending someone, or the fear of being shunned or outcast from those we associate with, we will perpetually live according to laws of the land and rules of the culture that do not reflect what or who we really are. We must realize, that as long as we do not participate in free speech which we are invited to do by the Constitution, we make no progress from the generations before us. And ultimately, “would realize, deep down, that [we], and whole nations along with [us] are not really what they seem to be—and never can be.”

On this eve of a particularly historic inauguration, and day of observance of Martin Luther King Jr. I believe it apropos to take inventory as citizens to the lengths and measures many a great men and women have contributed to the foundation and building of our country. So much of what our country was based on came from the mouths of men exercise their liberty and while though unpopular at the time, become engrain in our society as what is right, just and above all, truth. Today, I re-read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and absorb his words with awe and admiration for his message and circumstances for which both were delivered. His legacy will be his ability to exercise free speech to the degree that so few have been able to. To that degree, our challenge and invitation is to honor his legacy by doing the same. Standing up against injustice, exercising our ability to advocate for the oppressed, and using words to challenge the status quo and ultimately changing the world.


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