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Gregory: Whiskey, Automation — Good and Bad

The value of whiskey is in debate.

Commentary by HottyToddy.com contributor Neal Gregory
A great Southern political speech, delivered more than a half-century ago by a Mississippi legislator, popped up in a Wall Street Journal book review in October.
Neal Gregory with British Prime Minister Clement Atley, who visited Ole Miss around 1960
Neal Gregory with British Prime Minister Clement Atley, who visited Ole Miss around 1960

The old speech was about whiskey and the new book is about technology, but the reviewer—a Canadian professor who is an award-winning musician and a best-selling author — drew perfect parallels on the problem of absolutes and the difficulty of defining good and evil.
Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, reviewed The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a new book that explores the human consequences of looking to computers to shoulder more of our work, a practice that may make us more complacent and less skilled. After comments about outsourcing work to machines, the problems of too much reliance on automation and the danger of forgetting basic intuitive skills, Dr. Levitin concludes that technology is neither good nor bad. He said the debate reminded him of the 1952 speech on the pros and cons of whiskey by Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., a state representative from Alcorn County:
“If, when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge…that defiles innocence, dethrones reason…if you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge…that defiles innocence, dethrones reason…if you means 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…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…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 inform; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.”
In tribute to Sweat’s speech, Dr. Levitin assessed the debate over automation:
Neal Gregory in front of the Ole Miss student union
Neal Gregory in front of the Ole Miss student union

“If by automation you mean the soulless fiend that takes jobs away from earnest hard-working Americans, the myopic mechanical monster that robs us of the opportunity to use our hands and our minds in the service of exercising agency in the world; if you mean that collection of integrated circuits that amorally moves electrons from one chip to another without regard for the hopes and dreams and lives it may be crushing in the process, then certainly I am against it. “But if when you say automation you mean the time-saving device that allows a loving couple to spend more time together while the dishes and clothes are restored to their store-bought new condition; if you mean the intelligent, vigilant and benevolent robots tht prevent the brakes on our cars from locking in the ice, causing an irreversible skid and resultant loss of lfe or limb; it you mean the marvelous multi-national manufacturing machines that make the drugs that a child with leukemia needs in order to live a healthy, full and productive life, then certainly I am for it.”
Soggy Sweat was in his twenties when he gave his famous speech. Mississippi was dry, and repeal of prohibition was the most contentious issue faced by the state’s politicians. Elected to the legislature at 24, Sweat served for just a single term, delivering this famous speech at a banquet at the old King Edward Hotel in Jackson.
He was later a circuit judge and law professor. He founded the Mississippi Judicial College, the first full-time state judicial education program in the nation. A division of the Ole Miss Law School, the college provides continuing legal judicial education and training for the state’s court-related personnel, including some 2,800 judges, court administrators, court clerks and court reporters. Judge Sweat died in 1996 after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. That was the year that the legislature enacted legislation permitting the legal right to sell liquor in Mississippi.
Through the years, Sweat’s remarks have been cited by language experts as a parody of political doublespeak and the exploitation of ambiguities. It has been written and re-written about to defend or oppose gun control, marijuana legalization and other divisive political topics.
One linguist noted that underlying the speech is distinction making explicit references to various meanings of a word, a device Bill Clinton used in telling a grand jury, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is, is.”
William Safire, the late New York Times reporter cited the speech favorably in his column “On Language” and included it in his book, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. State Rep. Ed Perry reprised the speech in a ceremony on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the State Capitol.
Author John Grisham, who as a law student worked with Judge Sweat, read the speech at the 2010 Oxford Conference on the Book. (A video of this event can be found on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPzUcJcgXUA).
Sweat’s speech was called, “one of the craftiest orations in the history of American politics” by Richard Nordquist, a leading grammar and composition expert .
“In these days of duplicity in the land of spin,” says Nordquist, “we lift our hearts and our glasses to the memory of Judge Soggy Sweat.”


Neal Gregory is an Ole Miss alum from Washington and can be reached at nealgregory@msn.com.

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