Words That Burn

The winter of 1777-1778 was a bad time for the American revolutionary army. General George Washington had encamped his army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania – an excellent position tactically, but a source of terrible misery and suffering for his weary, poorly equipped troops. The Continental Army was assailed by bitter cold and plagued by chronic shortages of food, shelter and warm clothes. Almost a fifth of the soldiers died of frostbite and disease, and the survivors’ morale sank to its lowest point in the fledgling nation’s first battle, to the point where Washington himself feared that it would collapse entirely.

It was at this, the lowest point of the war, that Washington had the following passage read to his men:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

These immortal words, the opening argument of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet The Crisis, are famous to this day. In the blackest depths of despair, he offered us a way forward and a reason not to lose hope. Did Paine’s words give American patriots the spirit to fight on? Did he provide the breath to kindle those dying embers of independence back into life and flame? History is rarely susceptible to such simple, unicausal explanations… but we did fight on, and in the end we won an astounding victory, the triumph of some ragtag colonial militias over one of the reigning powers of the world.

Or consider Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in antebellum Maryland, he escaped his cruel owner at a young age and made it to the North and freedom. There, he joined an anti-slavery society in Massachusetts. His inaugural address, from all accounts, was historic:

His very appearance and demeanor destroyed the then-prevalent myth of the “natural servility” of African-Americans. By all accounts his eloquent analysis of the evils of slavery was one of the most brilliant debuts in American oratorical history. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist of the day, sat in the front row. When Douglass finished his speech, Garrison rose, turned to the stunned audience, and challenged them with a shouted question: “Have we been listening to a thing, a chattel personal, or a man?”

“A man! A man!” the audience roared back as one voice.

“Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?” called out Garrison.

“No! No!” shouted the audience.

And even louder, Garrison asked: “Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage from the free soil of Old Massachusetts?”

And now the crowd was on its feet, crying out “No! No! No!”

Douglass lived the rest of his life a free man, and lived to see his fellow blacks liberated as well. Again, however eloquent his oratory, his contribution may have been a small one, just one thread in a vast and tangled skein of causality… but he was there, he spoke those words, and the world they described was the one that came into being.

One remarkable fact about human history is that every tyranny, every dictatorship, every autocracy – without exception – censors speech which criticizes its rulers or otherwise upsets its preconceptions. The medieval Catholic Church – and indeed, the modern Catholic church – has its Index of Prohibited Books. In its heyday, the Soviet Union had samizdat, the underground copying and distribution of literature banned by the Communist regime. Modern China is infamous for its censorship of the Internet. And the Nazis burned books en masse.

If you think about it, this is remarkable. Why would a dictatorship bother to burn books and censor speech? Why should those rulers care what the common people think about them? If they have the guns and wield all the power in society, one would think their position is unassailable. Why not let the masses say whatever they want and stew in the knowledge of their own helplessness?

The answer is that, fragile as they seem, words are a more powerful weapon in the long run than swords or guns. Though words can be burned, they can also rebound and burn their persecutors – by exposing crimes and misdeeds, bringing the truth to light, and inspiring people to devotion in the service of a better cause. Dictators and tyrants know full well the power of words, which is why censorship has been the watchword of every autocratic society since time immemorial. They hope – and so far, in every case, this hope has proven futile – that by forbidding those words from being spoken or written, they could erase them from inside people’s minds.

What person today is speaking words that burn? Whose speech is cast into the flames by vicious tyrants wishing futilely to keep the truth silent? Whose speech leaps into people’s hearts to kindle a different kind of flame, one that rises and sweeps entrenched powers away? It might be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who speaks against the repressive and barbaric Islam that has taken root across the world:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

Or, perhaps, democracy activists like Wei Jingsheng, whose manifesto The Fifth Modernization calls for freedom from the repression of Chinese autocrats:

Let me respectfully remind these gentlemen: We want to be masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors. We do not believe in the existence of any savior. We want to be masters of the world and not instruments used by autocrats to carry out their wild ambitions. We want a modern lifestyle and democracy for the people. Freedom and happiness are our sole objectives in accomplishing modernization. Without this fifth modernization all others are merely another promise.

Freethinkers and rebels of ages past fought against tyranny imposed on people from without. But many of those old dictatorships have fallen, and though some remain, the tide of history and technology is turning against them. I believe the battles of the future will be against a more subtle and pervasive foe: the ideologies that slip into people’s minds and imprison them from within, turning them into willing participants in their own subjugation. This fight will be a more difficult one, but in the long run, victory may well be the last moral advance we need ever make. And in the end, it is always words that turn the tide. Let us hope we can kindle some worthy ones.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • OhioAtheist

    This deserves a standing ovation.

    And that quote just makes me want to find Ayaan and hug her. :)

  • http://atheistagogo.wordpress.com/ Gregory

    I believe the battles of the future will be against a more subtle and pervasive foe: the ideologies that slip into people’s minds and imprison them from within, turning them into willing participants in their own subjugation. This fight will be a more difficult one, but in the long run, victory may well be the last moral advance we need ever make. And in the end, it is always words that turn the tide. Let us hope we can kindle some worthy ones.

    Yes, yes, yes. There has never been a dictatorship that could survive solely through the use of force — it has always been necessary for those in power to convince the oppressed that it is their lot to be oppressed. When that breaks — say, when the generals tried to turn back the clock in the Soviet Union, and the people wouldn’t have it — they crumble like dust. Sometimes they take a lot of people with them, but crumble they do. Dictatorships are ideas more than they are physical forces.

  • Brad

    I wonder what the “last moral advance” we will ever need to make will or could look like. Is the mass treatment of mind-virus ideologies really such a finale?

    “that quote just makes me want to find Ayaan and hug her. :)”

    I felt that way 50% of the time I was reading her book Infidel. ;)

  • http://kaltrosomos.livejournal.com/ Kaltrosomos

    Great post. I’ve thought for a while now that the mind is a more important battleground than any other. In fact, all of our physical battlefields could be traced back to the mental one. These things start in the mind. The memes have grown more important than the genes.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “We may not be able to destroy your idea… but we can kill everyone who believes in it and burn your books.”

    It works by the way- China had one hundred philosophy schools before the Qui emperor- all but three were eliminated.

    So don’t get too optomistic- force has, and may in the future, triumph over ideas. But so far the ideas are winning in this day and age- they can’t be killed- they spread too fast.

  • That Other Guy

    Reminds me of an old Buddha quote:

    “Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.”

  • Penguin_Factory

    “And in the end, it is always words that turn the tide. Let us hope we can kindle some worthy ones.”

    I think you just did ^^

    Incidentally, is there anywhere where I can read Frederick Douglass’ speech itself?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Unfortunately, I don’t know if the speech itself was transcribed – such are the hazards of life before recording equipment. Douglass himself claimed not to remember it (search for “Nantucket”). He did, however, make speeches of equal eloquence on other occasions which have been preserved.

  • Jim S.

    An excellent post and a timely one as well.

    The political dynamic in play in the developed countries, and especially the US of A are in a state of serious flux. The US democracy has been under assault by the ultra-conservative element since the Nixon administration. The process was fairly subtle until the 2000 election cycle. The last 8 years have all but gutted the basic tenets of American style democracy and few in the population seem to notice or care. The latter point may change dramatically as the economic party we’ve been wading thru since the 50′s is coming to an end. The combined pressures of an ever expanding population, increasing consumerism and (suddenly) clearly finite resources are in the early stages of a massive collision. Enlightened politics is very likely to be an early victim of the coming conflict and associated decline. The current administration has set the table well for the collapse. Others before them contributed their share, but the the extant administration has cut at the very foundations like none before them and the religious right have been their willing pawns. In hard times religion finds a ready audience. The secular advances we have made will be tested.

    Strong, clear, intelligent words will indeed be needed to speak to the coming trials. Let us hope that there will be ears ready and willing to hear them through the ever present media noise and, more importantly, take those words to heart and act upon them.

  • Christopher

    What those dictators fear isn’t the words themselves, but rather the ability of those words to motivate his underlings to take up arms against him – the reality of any dictatorship is that the dictator can never achieve the absolute loyalty of all his followers, so he must ensure that there is no cause (other than his service) for them to rally around.

    Even one disgruntled citizen with a pamphlet can set off a firestorm in a place where the dictator has trouble keeping the peace – just imagine what that same citizen could do with a real weapon…

  • bestonnet

    Brad:

    I wonder what the “last moral advance” we will ever need to make will or could look like. Is the mass treatment of mind-virus ideologies really such a finale?

    It might be that the victory of atheism over religion is the last civil rights advance we ever make since most of the opposition that civil rights campaigners have had to face in the past (and still face) came from religion.

    Samuel Skinner:

    It works by the way- China had one hundred philosophy schools before the Qui emperor- all but three were eliminated.

    So don’t get too optomistic- force has, and may in the future, triumph over ideas. But so far the ideas are winning in this day and age- they can’t be killed- they spread too fast.

    The dictatorship would probably need to be at it for generations to actually succeed in that otherwise when it falls those old ideas will just come right back again.

  • mikespeir

    Dang, Ebon! Sometimes you can be positively sublime.

  • KShep

    One remarkable fact about human history is that every tyranny, every dictatorship, every autocracy – without exception – censors speech which criticizes its rulers or otherwise upsets its preconceptions.

    Resisting……urge….to bash……Dubya…….

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    Sadly, I’m not sure what to think about China. It’s a country plagued with so many astounding problems. Their resources are such that everyone could have meat, or everyone could have roads, but very few could ever have both. To paraphrase Washington a little bit… in this world we’ve only ever had summer freedoms and sunshine democracies. We’ve never had one that survived when the going got rough.

    America has survived as a democracy because it quickly produced a wealthy and powerful upper class whose interests have always been to let no one person attain absolute power. Even when the democracy was as corrupt as it was during the slave trade, or as corrupt as it is now because of oilmen, it always stayed a democracy because there was plenty of money to be made out of it.

    We like to wag our finger at other countries who are coping with natural resource problems that are simply mind boggling when we’ve never dealt with anything similar ourselves. If we used American standards for when it’s okay to invade other countries in order to secure a resource for reasons of national security (i.e. to steal it), then China should have invaded every country on earth by now. If we used American standards for how much freedom we’re willing to give up when a couple terrorists fly a plane into some buildings, then what we really should be asking is why Americans have become so weak and pathetic since the days of Washington instead of why the Chinese don’t have a real democracy yet.

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    The paradox of massive censorship is that there is often an underground element that emerges to wriggle from the tyrant’s grasp. The more the heavy hand of that censorship comes down upon a people, the more the people fight back with alternate means of expression. Ebon himself is an exercise in that fringe element; the Internet blogger is a reaction to the constraints of the mainstream media.

    In fact, the Internet alone allows for the mass dissemination of information unlike anything that Tom Paine or Frederick Douglass could have imagined. Any effort by countries such as China to censor this platform is an exercise in futility, as I would imagine that it’s impossible to silence a worldwide, multimedia network.

    This is why I never understood the concept of censorship: in the short-term it works like a dream, but it always fails in the long-term, especially once ideas spread. History has proven this time and again. The only true way to achieve absolute subjugation of a populace, as Ebon mentioned, is to control their thoughts (Orwell and “thoughtcrime” comes to mind), though even in today’s world this proves exceedingly difficult.

    Good post, and a necessary one.

  • Mr.Pendent

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  • David D.G.

    Stellar post, Ebonmuse! That was truly moving.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://mindstalk.net Damien R. S.

    in this world we’ve only ever had summer freedoms and sunshine democracies. We’ve never had one that survived when the going got rough.

    Well, I don’t know. Athens got conquered by Sparta, with oligarchy installed, but bounced back to democracy within a year, lasting until the more permanent conquest by Macedon. The USA and Confederacy both had elections in the middle of civil war, the USA and UK maintained elections in WWII. Iceland’s Althing has run a long time, through famines.

  • http://www.currion.net Paul Currion

    You’re over-estimating the power of words based on a bias towards successful writings in your own history. Obviously the failed pamphleteers and orators of history don’t echo down the ages, because they lost – and history is written by the winners.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    I doubt censorship is entirely futile. I’m sure there are dictators in power today who have only retained their power through ruthless suppression of opposing speech. History may not be on their side, but I think they’ll take what they can get.

  • bestonnet

    Dictatorships that didn’t have any outside have tended to last a long time only falling through contact with more advanced outsiders.

  • RollingStone

    Interesting footnote about Thomas Paine: After the American Revolution, he wrote books that criticized Christianity, and all of a sudden he went from hero to evil infidel in the public eye. Eventually, of course, Americans started to respect his Revolution-related writings again, but even today, most people either pretend that his writings on religion didn’t exist or don’t know about them because any mention of them was censored from their history textbooks. So in a way, Thomas Paine is still being oppressed by the same people he helped to free.


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