Or: “Maxims, Idioms, and Saws (Oh, My!)”
There are hundreds of maxims and idioms which have become commonplace in the American English lexicon. As such, they are all but universally accepted as almost having the weight of law.
Those familiar with my radio shows and/or other writings here at The Trenches will know that I strive to emphasize etymology (specifically, the original meanings of words) as much as possible.
Just as one example, we’ve all heard the old saw, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But is there any truth to it? Are “trash” and “treasure” really that subjective? At first glance, both terms appear rather fixed and immutable, don’t they?
In answering that question, the first thing one does is look to their own experiences and environs, branching out from there to empirical and historical facts. In my area, for instance, there are a fair number of thrift shops run by the Disabled American Veterans, the Salvation Army, and Goodwill Industries.
In this Obama economy, they have all expanded what were already thriving businesses. Somewhat tangentially, in the past year I’ve seen no less than half a dozen dollar stores pop up to complement these thrift stores. They run the gamut from Dollar General to Family Dollar to Dollar Tree. While these are mostly indigenous to the Eastern Seaboard, I can imagine you’ve seen their counterparts growing in your own area.
But, since the latter are purveyors of manufactured goods, generally ensconced in their requisite packaging, we’ll leave them aside for our purposes here.
The others I mentioned rely mostly on donated goods, which have sustained varying degrees of use. Some of these items could properly be termed “trash”, if only due to the fact that they are generally older products which have been improved upon since.
But, couldn’t the same item also be a form of treasure, to someone who doesn’t already have any version of it and simply can’t afford it, brand new? The line becomes a bit blurry at this point, doesn’t it?
Still, a larger question remains: can the “trash” of one man, found in these thrift stores, be “treasure” to someone more well-to-do? After all, these stores are generally frequented by working joes, and mostly shunned by the more affluent members of the community.
But, if you observe closely, there is a pretty stark exception to the above rule of thumb. I’ve seen early ‘80s Chevettes, billowing blue smoke, as well as late-model Beamers with sparkling leather interiors at these thrift shops.
But they’ve been parked in front of the side door.
That donation door tends to be the great equalizer, doesn’t it? No matter how bad off we are financially, we all know, instinctively, that there is someone who might just benefit from that worn sofa, outgrown bicycle, or DVD player that the kids lost the remote for.
In that sense, even those people who donate this “trash” have some recognition of its possible value, to someone else, as “treasure.” Otherwise, they’d simply throw it away.
And, invariably, someone does actually buy this stuff that their neighbors don’t particularly need anymore. They wouldn’t exchange their dollars for the item if they didn’t place some value on it.
Bearing that in mind, it’s pretty obvious that one man’s trash can, indeed, be another man’s treasure. And, in a way, a single person can see an item as trash and treasure, simultaneously.
However, this shouldn’t give anyone the impression that all saws are created equal and, thus, hold equal amounts of truth.
During the most recent IDF/Hamas dust-up in the Gaza Strip, for example, I heard a variation of the previously described idiom. To wit: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
While I’d heard this turn of phrase several times before, the direction from whence it came, this time, gave me pause. So, being the curious and logical sort, I decided to explore the notion. (And, fancying myself somewhat of a writer, I further decided to share my thoughts on the topic with you, dear reader.)
After all, this is not only timely, but rather important, to boot. As mentioned previously, far too many maxims, idioms, and even plain-Jane saws, on a multitude of topics, are accepted as gospel these days, with barely a second thought.
So imagine my surprise when someone whose opinion I value greatly started this line of discussion. Is one man’s terrorist really another man’s freedom fighter? Are these terms just as subjective as “trash” and “treasure”?
To answer this question, as before, one must refer to their own experiences and environs. Being an American, in the year 2012, it’s only natural to jump immediately to 9/11 (my thoughts on which can be found here).
But it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to stop there.
When someone utters this idiom, thereby attempting to make the case that terrorism is subjective, it makes sense to give their claim some serious thought. Simply accepting this characterization at face value can have tremendous repercussions. But rejecting it, out of hand, is equally wrongheaded.
So, in an effort to tackle this idea, I moved on to listing the groups commonly characterized these days as “terrorists.”
Of course Al Aqsa, Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Hamas, and Hezbollah spring immediately to mind. But the circle extends far wider than that. Is terrorism confined only to Islamic militants? Then what of the Tamil Tigers, for instance? Or Shining Path? Both are officially designated as terrorist organizations by several countries, but neither can be properly classified as Islamic.
What do we mean, these days, by “terrorist,” then? Modern etymology is a bit cloudy, but certainly eye-opening.
So, perhaps we should venture into the realm of empirical historical fact (we must do this, after all, for the sake of comprehensive analysis). Should we exclude from “terrorism” the actions of the Jacobins? The Bolsheviks? The Nazis? Lehi (commonly known as the “Stern Gang”)? Haganah? Irgun? Red Hand? The IRA (whose political arm, Sinn Féin, now controls over 25% of the Irish government)? You get the point.
None of the above were/are Islamic groups, but they certainly fit our current etymological understanding of terrorism, don’t they?
Where, then, is the line of demarcation? Whether the method be blades, bullets, bombs, or Zyklon-B, if the desired effect is to terrorize, is that sufficient justification to label a group “terrorists” rather than “freedom fighters”?
If so, the Continental Army would have to be placed in the same category, would it not?
I think I hear crickets.
Shall we proceed? The rebel colonists, under orders from General Washington, burnt down stockades that held British food rations, utilized snipers to intentionally target British officers, conducted sneak attacks hiding in trees to mimic the tactics of Indian tribes (leading to severe British retaliation against said Indians), and poisoned water supplies and livestock the English troops were subsisting on. Are these not the tactics of “terrorists”?
Subjectively, the answer is a resounding “yes.” (More on this a little later.)
So, have we established a clear criteria for labeling a group “terrorists”? Hardly. The “international community” can’t even agree to a hard and fast rule on that point, and our own criteria for designation seem largely arbitrary.
That being the case, isn’t it safe to conclude that tactics alone are not enough of a benchmark to differentiate between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter”? Shouldn’t we also take into account motives and stated end goals?
For the sake of clarity (which is the entire point of this exercise, after all), let’s explore that path.
In can be debated as to whether the end goal of Islamic terrorist organizations is to reestablish an Ottoman-style caliphate or simply to retain relative autonomy (as much as is possible in a theocratic regime) in the affairs of their disparate countries. The evidence I’ve seen inclines me to believe the former, but opinions vary.
By contrast, most accounts say that the Tamil Tigers sought to gain and control an independent territory, to be ruled by a government of their choosing. Likewise with the IRA, Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Red Hand, the PLO, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and numerous other current or defeated militant groups.
But, at what cost?
Terrorism, no matter its forms and regardless of a concrete definition, takes a large toll on the lives of combatants and innocents alike. Ultimately, and demonstrably, it accomplishes very little in the way of achieving stated end goals.
So far, it’s not looking good for the idiom in question, is it? After all, if we can’t define its terms, how can we hope to determine its factuality?
But, we must forge ahead! Let us not be deterred, for we shall crack this nut, yet!
We are still left with the second (ostensibly subjective) term in the saw: “freedom fighter,” so let us attempt to glean some clear-cut definition on this front.
The second word there is not the least bit obscure. A fighter is, quite simply, one who fights. Whether the attendant fight itself is for a person, a place, a thing, or an idea (or against any of the above, for that matter), the description of the parties involved remains the same: Fighters.
What, then, is “freedom”? Here we enter problematic territory. As is the case with myriad words that entail concepts, “freedom” has traveled over some rather treacherous etymological terrain since the dawn of the Progressive era.
Once synonymous with the concept of individual Liberty, as informed by Natural Law, the word freedom is now understood in such trite terms as to be applied to cellphone plans.
In modern parlance, you could rightly deem yourself a “freedom fighter” if you spend an hour on the phone with customer service quibbling over the early termination fee you may incur, upon deciding to switch carriers.
Apply the idiom in question to that scenario, however, and the result is pretty straightforward. If you call to negotiate the cancellation fee, you cannot be properly called a “terrorist.” Likewise, if you plant a bomb in the cell service provider’s headquarters, you cannot be properly called a “freedom fighter.” In both cases, the motive (the fee) and the end goal (avoiding all or part of said fee, and switching providers) are identical. The only substantive difference is one of tactics.
But, with the other aforementioned terrorist groups, the distinction is actually unclear. The British deemed Irgun, Haganah, and the IRA “terrorists.” Zionists and Irish nationalists, respectively, lauded the same groups as “freedom fighters.” But the tactics were identical from either vantage point.
So, does it all boil down to a matter of perspective, rather than motives, tactics, or goals? Enemies see terrorists where peers see patriots? After all, that holds true with every other group mentioned so far, doesn’t it?
Yes. But with one glaring exception, which we’ll cover in a moment.
First, a bit of context as to the proliferation of terrorist groups in recent history.
At the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt reasserted the Monroe Doctrine, albeit a somewhat bastardized version. Setting up, propping up, and toppling foreign regimes all but replaced baseball as our national past-time for the next century.
The United States, whether through direct military action or covert intelligence operations, has intervened in and disrupted the governmental affairs of Afghanistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal, Rhodesia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Africa, Syria, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, Zaire, and, yes, even Zimbabwe.
That list is only partial, but quite literally extends from A to Z. What’s more, that was only half of the 20th century, roughly since the end of World War TWO.
And the practice continues.
It could be argued, factually, that military, monetary, and “moral” support from the US has led to much less peace in the world at large, rather than more.
But, was this always the case? Absolutely not. This era of military adventurism, nation building, and “Democracy Project(s)” was ushered in, carried out, and largely continued by progressives in both major political parties.
What would the Founders have said about our 20th century foreign policy?
Because they would swallow their damn tongues in shock, horror, and outrage.
You see, despite the tactics of the Continental Army (which could reasonably be described as terroristic, as previously pointed out), our Founders had a stated end goal that differs greatly from that of any “terrorist” or “freedom fighter” group before or, especially, since.
It was embodied in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. It utterly rejected the “divine right of kings” and force-based governmental structures that had been the way of the entire world since the beginning of human civilization (and, largely, still are).
In acknowledging unalienable rights, inherent in all human beings regardless of political favor or arbitrary “class” distinction, they explicitly and emphatically stood athwart the entire march of history. This is the true meaning of “American exceptionalism,” whether or not that term was coined by Karl Marx as a pejorative.
Those revolutionaries, tactics during the war notwithstanding, were spurred on by motives and clearly stated end goals which were both based upon an entirely moral idea: human dignity, which demands the subjugation of the whole of government to individual Liberty. As Ayn Rand dubbed it: the subordination of “might” to “right.”
Only America, up to that point in history, had a rightful claim to this moral high ground, because only a civil society can lay that claim.
The moral high ground they stood on, and the civil society they sought (and fought) to establish can be summed up by two stories from our pre-Constitutional days. Strangely enough, from our modern perspective, the two key players in these moral illustrations were lawyers. (Yes, that was sarcasm. Calm down.)
One of these cases is fairly well-known, as it followed on the heels of the Boston Massacre. A handful of British soldiers were accused of killing innocent colonists in cold blood. John Adams, the cousin of infamous Sons of Liberty co-founder, Samuel Adams, took up their defense. John realized that, with revolution brewing, British soldiers had little chance of receiving a fair trial at the hands of an American judge and jury.
He further reasoned that the rule of law was paramount and, without a vigorous defense being made, these troops would be dispatched quickly, taking with them any claim to a righteous cause the revolutionaries might assert.
Likewise, after the war, Alexander Hamilton defended Tories and British loyalists in court, from lawsuits brought by colonists. He, too, recognized that a civil society demands due process, holding the rule of law to the highest standard possible, so that justice would be done.
Can you imagine any of the other groups I’ve listed, whether “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” spending their time or energy to defend their sworn enemies in a court of law? The answer to that question, at least, is obvious.
These Founders, along with the rest, would be aghast at the kangaroo courts and tinhorn tribunals which plague most of the globe today. Indeed, one of the “long train of abuses” listed meticulously in the Declaration was that King George III had removed colonists to other British territories to stand trial for trumped-up crimes against the crown.
George Washington, no stranger to war and not one to shrink from any battle, devoted a majority of his farewell address to admonishing future generations against foreign entanglements and “favored nation” designations.
Why was that? Because he and his generation knew, from the study of philosophy, history, and human nature, that the only foreign and domestic policy entirely consistent with individual Liberty is one of non-intervention. This is what federalism entails, which is why it was codified in the Constitution.
America was meant to be a beacon of Liberty, not a flamethrower for “democracy”.
Liberty spreads when other societies see it in action, consistently, and choose to emulate it. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century is the fact that, just when the rest of the civilized world was beginning to pay attention to our prosperity and strength, and starting to warm to the idea of establishing the concept of Liberty in their own nations, the Progressives were establishing their own power base here on the notion that individual Liberty was a losing proposition.
By seeking to emulate the rule by brute force, faction, and fiat that blanketed the rest of the world, the Progs squandered, for generations, any chance for Liberty to flourish domestically, much less bloom abroad. Subsequently, I would argue, America as a whole abdicated the moral high ground we alone could rightly claim. And we’ve seen and felt the deleterious effects of bureaucratic, fiscal, and foreign expansionism ever since.
Establishing Liberty and a civil society (or even its mentally impaired distant cousin, democracy) by force is a contradiction in terms. How far we have fallen, to not see the folly in attempting to bring such an oxymoronic concept into reality.
Our Founders, Framers, and growing numbers of our contemporaries realize a simple truth, and will not rest until it is once again an axiomatic one:
Liberty is the maximum absence of coercion and initiated force. Domestically, monetarily, and in our dealings with the rest of the world.
Learn it, love it, and, for the sake of restoring some semblance of peace in the world, live it.