Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Are we Safir?

I'm guessing that Howard Safir's last name was originally pronounced something like staffer, Zamfir, sapphire...something like one of those. But as he is one of the increasingly sampled voices on national security issues and given his career track with law enforcement, I'm sure he smiles at the safer pronunciation. It doesn't make him good at the job, but it likely makes a few easily influenced minds out there think "hey, he has the right name . . . I'm going to stop evaluating now." Never mind that we all know how irrelevant phonology is to semantics.

In other words: it may not be true - but I'll believe it because it'd be neat if it is.

But it reminds me of the quote I heard by Benjamin Franklin:
He who sacrifices liberty for security deserves neither.

No wait. I think he said
If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both.

Hold on. I'm pretty sure it was actually
A society that gives up a little liberty to gain a little security deserves neither and loses both.

Franklin never said any of those. At least we have no reliable record of him saying them. But don't they make the point so well? Especially now that we can use wise ol' Ben to support our grumbles about the foolishness of our current federal executive administration? Franklin is smarter than Bush so I want a quote by Franklin that disagrees with Bush. Alas these are not his.

Here's my question. Why do quotes carry such weight? We're all guilty of hitching our arguments to the soaring wagons of the philosophers' utterances. Especially in academia. But let's look for instance at that first quote mistakenly attributed to Franklin. Why would someone no longer deserve freedom or liberty just because they make a foolish choice of prioritization? Does that mean that anyone who demands every right and surrenders security deserves both? Is that why that last quote looks so good - because by endangering both freedom and security the foolish citizen forfeits all?

The problem with these quotes is they are predictive. They assume morals and promise judgment. To use them in argument simply says "I agree with this value." That's a fair statement but not a good argument. I like Mr Franklin's actual quote much better. In Poor Richard's Almanac he writes

  Sell not virtue to purchase wealth   
nor liberty to purchase power.
These suggestions are unabashedly about values. The quote does not sneak under the rhetorical radar as true-because-of-it's-rhythm-eloquence-and-wit.

In an interview a few weeks ago I heard Mr Safir respond to the question of racial profiling with the clarification that he was not supporting "racial" profiling; he was supporting "terrorist" profiling. Oh well of course. Great. If all he wants to do is catch terrorists then I'm behind him "a hundert purcent." Here's the problem - in "racial" profiling those who are identifiable because of cultural markers are suspected. In "terrorist" profiling those who are identifiable by the same cultural markers are suspected.

Mr Safir has forgotten that changing the phonology of a policy doesn't do anything to change the semantics.

Here's my proverb for the day.

He who surrenders the rights of others
to make himself secure
will lose the respect of all his brothers
and is an ass for sure.

I just believe it.


  1. FWIW, I knew someone named Safir (he was from Moldova) and he pronounced it sah-feer.

  2. Ah--kinda like Zamfir then. Kinda.


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