If by whiskey

SKIP MENDLER
Posted 4/17/19

On Friday, April 4, 1952, a 29-year-old Mississippi state representative named Noah Sweat delivered a speech at a dinner banquet for his fellow legislators. He was nearing the end of his only term in …

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If by whiskey

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On Friday, April 4, 1952, a 29-year-old Mississippi state representative named Noah Sweat delivered a speech at a dinner banquet for his fellow legislators. He was nearing the end of his only term in office. Mississippi was debating the legalization of liquor at the time and the young Rep. Sweat (whose nickname was “Soggy,” by the way), was invited to speak to the controversy.

The speech he delivered that evening took him several weeks to compose, and has gone down in the annals of rhetorical history. He spoke passionately, brilliantly and with great conviction… for both sides:

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame, and helplessness and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

“But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, heartaches and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

The kicker, of course, is that he was absolutely correct.

I don’t know if Rep. Sweat sought reelection and was defeated, or if he simply became disillusioned and decided to abandon the legislative arena. He went on to become a respected judge and law professor, but the speech certainly suggests that he had come to a critical realization about politics and the nature of truth.

It will be immediately obvious that similar speeches could be written about many subjects—such as, say, cannabis.  (Indeed, a Google search shows that a few people have tried their hands at that very thing.) But to me, the key point is not that this kind of speech tries to play both sides of the question, but rather, that this kind of speech acknowledges that there are in fact two sides, both of which carry some weight.

We would prefer less ambiguity, of course. We want clear, distinct, black-and-white choices. But life, unfortunately, is more complex than that. As we enter into the 2020 election cycle, we will need to recognize the multifaceted nature of the issues we face.

I will have more on this next month—but in the meantime, a challenge: can you write a Sweatian “if-by-capitalism” text? Or “if-by-socialism”? Send your entry to skip.mendler@gmail.com by May 1. Entrants will get a copy of my book, “The Wisdom of Hu Sei Dat.”

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