By Ruth Bass
RICHMOND "Live free or die." That's the motto on New Hampshire's license plates, undoubtedly the best known of the 49 states where cars carry a state slogan. The blander words on other states include "The last frontier" for Alaska, "The spirit of America" for Massachusetts, "The first state" for Delaware. (Wyoming takes a pass on this whole idea.)
At President Trump's campaign rally last Friday in New Hampshire, at least a thousand people crowded together with, apparently, a total embrace of the four words. They were living free, which seemed to mean doing what they pleased about the threat of coronavirus little social distancing as they came to hear the president and a loud booing when the public address system advised wearing masks, which were available. So, if one man can set off the epidemic that shut down New Rochelle, N.Y., Friday's fans were also accepting the "die" part of the motto.
A selfish attitude toward the health of the community wasn't really the intent of that motto.
It harks back to New Hampshire-born General John Stark, a hero of the American Revolution. When he could not attend a reunion of Battle of Bennington veterans in 1809, he sent a letter, closing with a toast he wanted made to the vets: "Live free or die. Death is not the greatest of evils." It was also a popular phrase during the French Revolution.
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Various analysts over the years have pointed out that it was not meant to set all residents of New Hampshire free to do what they pleased, just to assert their independent spirit and their willingness to die for freedom. That freedom includes the right to cover any part of the motto on their plates. We can only hope they do not die for a president who eschews masks and whose unwillingness to take responsibility has set a vicious virus on a rampage throughout the country.
It's easy to be lulled into a same-old, same-old response to the rhetoric of a political campaign. Sometimes it's far easier to quote television's clever commercials than its serious commentators. We remember, for instance, the mysterious role of the emu but can't accurately quote what a candidate actually said. We laugh as Big Foot protests that his name is Darrell. But we let the news slide in and out of our brains, inured to its dismal nature these days.
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Words matter. It struck a discordant note for instance, when Mike Pence's campaign manager dismissed the NBA's postponement of playoffs in the name of seeking justice. Mark Short said it was a "silly" thing to do. Previously, the president had called basketball's professionals "nasty" and "dumb." (Smart enough to be competent at their jobs, by the way, hardly silly.)The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was similarly offensive when he remarked that the players were lucky to do so well (financially) that they could take a "day off from work."
Irony gets a prize almost daily for misuse. It was not ironic that the president said he had done more for Black people than any president since Abraham Lincoln. It was just wrong. No one in the White House apparently had the nerve to point out that African-Americans were among those thrilled when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, considered a landmark achievement outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. Not ironic, just uninformed.
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But that's not new. Some of us remember his words a couple of years ago about the long-dead Frederick Douglass ("who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.") and are not surprised that he didn't realize pardoning Susan B. Anthony for her illegal voting would be met by outrage instead of the applause he craves.
What may possibly fall into the tricky character of irony is the president's accusation of Joe Biden being guilty of nepotism, presumably in connection with his son's appointment to a corporate board in Ukraine. Nevermind that Biden has been cleared of any illegal role in that incident. Let's see about nepotism, the business of giving jobs to relatives: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., all in power because of their father or father-in-law.
What's silly is the president's attention to people's birthplaces and his scorn for the American right to protest ("live free" at its best). What's nasty is his encouragement of violence, expressed often in the 2016 campaign when he wanted police to let prisoners hit their heads when getting into the patrol car and advocated punching protesters at rallies. It's unsettling to hear his crowd cheer such statements like people reveling in a bullfight. All this from a man who seeks the votes of veterans, the long-suffering soldiers who went to Vietnam while he nursed his bone spurs. What's illogical is the president's campaign for create law and order while chaos crisscrosses the country on his watch. Ears must be open as we connect the dots.
Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is http://www.ruthbass.com.
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