Cannon of Extremism

I often exit the FaceBook expressway because of the absurd misuse of the American past. And it’s not just history. Politics have abscessed into a free for all, and scientific/medical reality into FaceBook insanity. This verbal dysentery is loaded into into a cannon of extremism, where the unschooled righteously blast irrational conclusions. 

Case in point, an old friend of my husband’s posted, “Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.” It’s Benjamin Franklin’s sentiment, but incomplete. Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

The quote is from a 1775 letter written by Dr. Franklin on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He addressed this (very long) correspondence to the Deputy Governor at the time, Robert Hunter Morris. Governor Morris had irritated the Assembly by demanding new militia for protecting western land from the Shawnee and Delaware Natives who, according to rumor were attacking settlers. To keep this episode simple, Morris wanted the lands of wealthy landowners protected, but the rest of the colony to cover the costs. Exempt were the Proprietary landowners who were earning rents from settlers, with a kickback percentage figured in for the deputy governor.

Franklin essentially called Morris out for an egregious conflict of interest, and the Assembly wasn’t financing graft. This was, by the way, four months after Lexington and Concord, and relations between colonials and redcoats tense.

What this misquoted post implied on FaceBook, defended refusing the Covid vaccine. So apparently it’s virtuous somehow to be a cyber Paul Revere spouting Franklin, calling for vaccine resistance in a pandemic. 

The irony of playing fast and loose with the past, is presuming Dr. Franklin would agree with this nonsense. Every founder did what they did for the gravest of reasons; not some oppositional hype to reject public health interests, in bumper-sticker brevity. 

The irony of the post lay with the man. By faith, Franklin counted himself a Deist–that God was the creator of a precise universe; to discover that precision is to find God. In pursuit of those truths, Franklin took on the life of an empirical, data-driven scientist. (Remember his kite-electricity experiment?)

“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves,” is another quote that ought to be repeated on FaceBook and everywhere else. When his child, Francis Folger Franklin died of small pox at age four, Dr. Franklin made an enlightened decision—he inoculated himself and his family from that deadly disease. And an inoculation was no easy nor guaranteed procedure. But as a man of science, he had the sense to take a reasonable path.

Remembering Dr. Franklin means to further our understanding of this moment in time, and follow his example of open minded curiosity, and trust in empirical solutions. Today, that task has been muddied by the misguided, destabilizing all that is good in our America.

Franklin worked hard to make the United States an opened-minded conduit of democracy, not of electronically delivered bedlam.

As Dr. Franklin reminded us, (And I mean us) “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” And this gem, “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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