"If this be treason, make the most of it."
What a different line that would be without "if." It would become an admission of the crowd's charge of treason rather than Patrick Henry's defiant stand for the law it was.
"Thou hast said it."
Is that an affirmation or a denial; or a refusal to answer the question?
"If I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. . ."
How would that statement differ if the 'if' disappeared? That's a question being asked today about one of the inscriptions on the new Martin Luther King memorial being dedicated in Washington, where the 'if' does not appear as it did when it was spoken at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968:
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all the other shallow things will not matter."
The 'if' matters. It matters a great deal because without it King is assuming a mantle and with it he is not; that it is not about him but about Justice, peace and righteousness. Is this a shallow thing or insignificant? I don't think so. I think it speaks of the way our heroes are elevated, to become, in death, a 30 foot tall man expressing stern, stony determination rather than just a man struggling with a mission, struggling with himself, struggling with a stupid, angry and vengeful world that will continue to be just that long after he is gone. The quote on the monument is not phrased as part of a question and that raises many questions.
Are we making him what he was not and apparently did not wish to be? If we make his life about him, then we can opposes him more readily than we can argue against justice and we can make the movement he participated in, a mere matter of quotes and formulae if we like him and personal failings if we do not. Perhaps some can ask his stone idol for guidance and support for their own objectives and pretend he is not gone and will magically return some day. As always happens when our heroes die, we are making his life something less than it was and something more about our lust for leaders, prophets and even gods and we do it to preachers and prophets; polemicists and presidents when we put our desires into their acts and words and thereby worship ourselves.