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.

Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
How the Cross Is Like the Confederate Flag
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
Erasing the Past, Denying the Future
About Adam Lee

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


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