The price of ‘eternal vigilance’ is boredom

  • Both a retiring High Court judge and a dissident scholar have recently cited a statement wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson. It certainly sounds grandiose but it’s not clear what they meant
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 5:53pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 10:17pm

Some statements sound profound but are actually trite. Speakers often quote them to create an appearance of gravitas. For example, there’s that oft-cited remark about “eternal vigilance”, which is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, though scholars generally agree he never said or wrote it.

People as diverse as a retiring High Court judge and a dissident scholar in Hong Kong have recently cited it. It certainly sounds grandiose but it’s not clear what they meant. Perhaps they were merely saying it’s better to be awake than asleep.

At the end of a month-long trial, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a University of Hong Kong law lecturer, said: “Only through the introduction of genuine universal suffrage could a door be opened to resolving the deep-seated conflicts in Hong Kong … The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance.”

Tai is one of nine defendants charged for their roles in the Occupy protests in 2014 who have all pleaded not guilty.

If it’s meant as a statement of fact, what he said about universal suffrage is probably untrue, or at least highly debatable. Just look at Britain’s Brexit and Donald Trump’s America.

Commenting on the current state of British society undergoing Brexit, a British wit went Churchillian with a twist: “We shall fight each other on the beaches … in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight each other in the hills; we shall never surrender – to common sense or rational thinking.”

In his farewell address this week, outgoing US House Speaker Paul Ryan described his country’s politics as “broken”, a problem that “frankly … I don’t have an answer for”.

One could just as well have said the price of tyranny is eternal vigilance. Read George Orwell and the way in which “Big Brother is always watching you”. The operative word here is “always”.

In his retirement speech, Mr Justice Robert Tang Kwok-ching, a permanent Court of Final Appeal judge, said “eternal vigilance” is needed to uphold the rule of law. The judge is on firmer ground than Tai. It’s worth reminding people about the rule of law, but we shouldn’t bang on about it all the time. Otherwise, people just become numb to constant repetition.

Let me, instead, quote the sagacious Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: “The price of eternal vigilance is indifference.”

So stay alert while you can, but you need rest and beauty sleep, too.