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Number 1,106, February 21, 2021

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The Cliché I Hate the Most
by Sean Gangol

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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

A few years back I read this book titled The Tyranny of the Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas by Jonah Goldberg, which I can honestly say that I didn’t care for as much as his previous book, Liberal Fascism. It’s not to say that there weren’t aspects that I agreed with, but I took issue with some of the points he made against the “Slippery Slope” argument. It may be a cliché, but it happens to be one that is actually true. Despite the disagreements that I had with this book; it did inspire me to come up with a list of annoying cliches that statists like to make. As a you probably guessed by now, this was something that I intended to write years ago, but it was one of those things that ended up on the backburner when I found more pressing subjects to write about (story of my life). Though recently I was inspired to revisit the cliché I hate the most.

It was John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor who said that any proclamation of the elections in Pennsylvania being rigged is not protected speech, since it is based on a lie. As asinine as this statement was, he managed to top off its absurdity by using the old “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” cliché to justify his position. First of all, as Chris Aloe from The Blaze correctly pointed out, false statements are generally protected, which is why The Stolen Valor Act that criminalized the impersonation of servicemen was stuck down. Also, Amy Swearer of The Heritage Foundation said that the only forms of lying that aren’t protected by free speech are monetary fraud and defamation of character. I would also add that even if the people who question the integrity of Pennsylvania’s election process are wrong, they technically aren’t lying if they actually believe it to be true. Even if somebody says something as ridiculous as the moon being made of cheese, as long as he believes it, it’s not really a lie.

What really peeved me the most was that annoying cliché’ about not yelling fire in a crowded theater. I have always hated that argument for a number of reasons. One of them being that it is always the go-to argument that statists (mostly from the left) use when they want to restrict our rights. They arrogantly believe that no-one has anyway to counter such an absurd argument. I have always thought that it was absurd that any rational adult can believe that banning the misuse of the word “fire” is somehow going to discourage miscreants from yelling it into a theater. For anyone to even contemplate doing something as despicable as falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater is someone who has no moral qualms about causing the destruction of private property or causing bodily harm to another human being. That is why I have a hard time believing that a person who would consider doing something that devious would be discouraged by a legislator banning a certain word or action. If anything, that banned phrase would become forbidden fruit, which would make it even more desirable for that person to yell it into a busy theater.

Also, how would you even enforce something like this? Would you force people to wear gags before entering the theater? Better yet, why not have ushers patrol the aisles with baseball bats to use on anyone who would dare utter anything resembling the words “fire?” Good luck finding anyone who put up with any of that nonsense. Basically, the only way you can enforce such a ban would be to level punishments against the offender after the fact, which really doesn’t work as a preventative measure.

What I find the most interesting about people who use this cliché is that they have little to no understanding of the historical context in which it was used. They always lead you to believe that yelling fire in a crowded theater was a common problem back in the 19th and early 20th century. The truth is that between 1854 and 1913 there were a total of five instances where actual mayhem occurred when somebody falsely yelled fire in a crowded building. As tragic and senseless as these instances were, they actually seemed relatively rare. In the case of The Shiloh Baptist Church in Alabama, a stampeded occurred in 1902 when somebody yelled the word “fight”, which people mistook for fire. So, why was there such a push to ban the misuse of the word “fire”? Actually, there wasn’t.

The actual quote or paraphrase originated from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. US when he upheld that the conviction of a socialist who handed out flyers protesting the draft during The First World War. Holmes reasoned that since it could discourage young men from serving in the military during war time, the government was justified in restricting his First Amendment rights. You can always tell how flawed someone’s reasoning is, when it forces someone like me to side with a socialist. Of course, what the anti-free speech crowd fails to mention is that Holmes realized the folly of his decision and would later take a hardline stance in favor of free speech in later cases. It’s also worth pointing out that parts of the Schenck v. US case were overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which is something else the anti-free speech crowd likes to ignore.

What really makes my blood boil is that people use this same flawed logic against so-called “hate speech” or any form of speech that could incite misguided people to commit violence. Of course, one could ask, how it is even possible to know what incites people to do bad things? Charles Manson said the Beatles’ White Album inspired him to send his minions to go on a series of murder sprees to incite a race war. Then you have people who claim that violent movies and video games have incited people to commit murders, which is something that I have never bought into. Then of course you have leftist who try to shame right-wing commentators into silence by linking them to mass shootings, even in instances where the shooters have no links to anybody in the conservative community. The Democrats used the same logic to impeach a president that was no longer in office. They say that since Trump told his supporters to challenge the results of the election, he was responsible for the rioting. Never mind that anybody with half a brain knows that when Trump told his followers to come to DC to challenge the results, he was talking about a peaceful protest not a full-scale riot. The truth is that the left wants to make the First Amendment obsolete by effectively neutering it to the point where there are only a few words that meet their approval. That is why I was refuse to compromise with these people when it comes to any individual right, especially free speech. That is how we end up on the slippery slope, the very thing that Jonah Goldberg claims is just a cliché.

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