Chesterton, Franklin, and the Pernicious American Obsession with Safety
“To sweat a slave to a race of slaves,/ To drink up infamy? /No, brothers, by your leave, I think/ Death is a better ale to drink, /And by all the stars of Christ that sink, /The Danes shall drink with me… By this sign you shall know them [the new barbarians],/ The breaking of the sword, /And man no more a free knight, /That loves or hates his lord.” —GK Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse
At one time, Americans prized freedom above everything—they were willing to fight and suffer and even die for it. Yet somehow, since WWII, Americans have gradually lost that courage, to the point where the overwhelming majority—including both conservatives and leftists—prize “safety” over everything.
Founding Father Ben Franklin brilliantly observed, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We once knew that prioritizing safety would lead inevitably to a loss of freedom, to an increase in tyranny. Now we don’t seem to care if our privacy is invaded, our dreams smashed, and our rights violated if we can have convenience and “safety” (though this is especially true, I think, of boomers and young people).
Patrick Henry spoke the sentiment of the old America, the America that became a shining light to the world, when he exclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The modern rallying cry instead is, “Take my liberty so I can avoid death!” And yet, in the long run, millions will die because of this obsession with safety. Millions already did die from the COVID vaccine. At what point do we realize that the pursuit of safety leads to the loss of both liberty and safety?
The COVID-19 lockdowns were a great shock to me—I thought for sure they were doomed to failure. I thought Americans would never accept them. But we did accept them, the masks, the vaccines, all of it. Thousands of businesses were destroyed, churches closed, suicides spiked, children were permanently developmentally delayed, people lost jobs, and the vaccines killed. Yet despite that devastation most Americans were docile and fearful. Safety—first from COVID, then from government ire—was the first priority.
And I looked around at the masked faces about me and realized that the America I had always believed in no longer exists. We are no longer the people who stood on Lexington Green or the Alamo or Gettysburg Battlefield or Omaha Beach with the determination to win either liberty or death. And because of that, we are perilously close to an all-out oligarchy where anyone and everyone can be fired or arrested or ruined for any reason at the elites’ whim. Seeking safety usually backfires. Americans will self-destruct in pursuit of “safety.”