Relevance of historic quote questioned
March 23, 2007
On this very day in 1775, colonist Patrick Henry spoke the words that would come to represent the spirit of the impending American Revolution: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
To those who listened, these words represented a harsh critique of a tyrannical monarchy, a defiant declaration of deeply held beliefs about basic human rights and, most of all, a call to action.
But what significance do they hold now, to us, Midwestern college students of the 21st century? We, who were raised under the pacifiers of television and individualism, have been trained not to concern ourselves with the implications of our Constitution or the actions of those in power - who were either elected by our parents’ votes or sponsored by our parents’ dollars. We’ve been led to believe that cynicism is fashionable, and apathy the final solution. We were told that past movements for change were just that: movements of the past, providing little more than context to the present.
Sparse political participation among American youths is not a new phenomenon. However, with few exceptions, the number of young people willing to take an active stand has been steadily declining for decades.
In the 2006 midterm elections, with our country in the midst of an expensive, unpopular war that a large majority (62 percent) of eligible voters, ages 18-29, disapproved of, less than one out of every four young people actually showed up at the polls to elect senators and congressmen who would represent their voices in Washington.
Instead, we argue endlessly in isolated living rooms about a war in the Middle East, genocide in Africa or nuclear weapons in North Korea. Drunk and complacent, we trade declarative statements during commercial breaks, taking sides defined by colors (red or blue) rather than personal opinions backed by credible facts. We assume by simply saying the words - in private, among agreeable friends - that we alleviate the need to act on them.
Today, revolution is a lucrative product. Patrick Henry’s words are a marketable slogan, printed on a Tshirt, sold at a mall and worn by your favorite rock band. Though we may be slow to admit it, many of us even affiliate with causes whose central element is a style of dress or a genre of music instead of a social statement.
It seems to me in the past, there was a deeper meaning behind rebellion. We can see this in some of history’s most iconic images: A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest or a student standing defiantly in front of a line of massive tanks in Tiananmen Square. It is in these events that the choice between liberty and death, defined centuries earlier by another brave dissenting soul, becomes truly apparent.
I don’t deny the importance of open discussion in stimulating change, but only when it is genuine, honest and with purpose. I also do not intend to selfishly speak for my entire generation. I can only attest to what I have seen, confident that I am not alone in seeing it.
Tyler Liedman is a student at UW-River Falls.