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The Real Tyrants: Leftist Cliches

Thanks for reading this. I mean, if you're one of the ultra-liberals who despise "conservative puppy kickers" like me- then there is still something to say for your willingness to read my rants. A side note to you people out there sending me hate-mail accusing me of being a CIA guy: I'm actually very flattered, but PLEASE don't feed my ego any more than it already is! :)
In debates with readers, colleagues, college audiences, and defenders of Islamonazi terrorism, the monitor on my internal respect-o-meter flat-lines every time I hear someone say, for instance, "better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished."

In order to explain what I'm talking about let me repeat my objection to this phrase.

It's not so much that this isn't true. Maybe it is. Maybe it is better that ten confirmed rapists and murderers be set loose on the streets to murder and rape again rather than lock up one innocent guy along with the ten menaces to society. Maybe we will all accept it as the price of liberty when your mother is subsequently raped or your son is shot because, hey, better the rapists and murderers go free than the unlucky go to jail.

But, it seems to me, there's an argument to be had here. Isn't there? Let me provide a very quick-guided tour of the obvious. According to the best social scientists and criminologists, career criminals commit a great many crimes over their lifetimes. Indeed, that's why we call them "career criminals" — they've made a career of it. Career accountants have, in all likelihood, prepared many tax returns and we can expect them to prepare many more. So it is with career criminals who've committed many crimes: We can expect them to commit many more. This is why I call prison "the bad people place."

So, anyway, if you say "better ten guilty men go free than one innocent be punished" — or some variation of that — all I expect from you is an argument. Why is it better?

Don't get me wrong, I understand the principle: We should err on the side of protecting the innocent rather than punishing the guilty. Fair enough. But quite often — too often — when people throw out this old adage, they seem to think the principle settles the argument when in fact it only sets the stage for it.

For instance, how come it's better that ten guilty men go free? When we translate the principle to reality, we've got to pick a threshold number. So why not say it's better that 50 guilty men go free? Or, say, two guilty men? Is 10 a special number? Or is it just easy to say? Or haven't you thought about it all? Most often, people haven't thought about it all.

So let me ask you, why not set free two million guilty men? After all, we all know that some number of innocent people are in prison right now. Therefore, if we maximize the principle of erring on the side of the innocent we should let everyone out of jail because we know someone doesn't belong there.

The point is we live in a society where we have to make choices about how much error we will permit in any given system, because no system will ever be perfect. It's fine to say that we should err on the side of the innocent. The real work comes when we have to decide how we're going to do that and still keep murderers and rapists in prison.

Without recycling old arguments, let me just say, this is a nice principle too. Experience is useful, sure. But "unless you were there, you have no right to judge" is still a pretty dumb thing to say 90 percent of the time. I've been neither a slave nor a slave owner; am I therefore deprived of ever offering an opinion on slavery? Can I never criticize a professional football player, president of the United States, policeman, or gay prostitute because I've never been any of those things, either? Should we get rid of juries entirely since we usually don't allow murderers and thieves to decide the fate of murderers and thieves? Anyway, you get my point.

I think some people assume clichés are akin to mathematical proofs; some Pythagoras did all of the heavy lifting ages ago, proving that this or that cliché is true and therefore nobody needs to re-check his math. So when someone says "who are we to judge?" everyone in the room nods as if it's in fact true nobody can judge anybody just as everybody nods when your math teacher plugs in the Pythagorean theorem to solve a problem up at the black board.

But let me be clear. My problem isn't with clichés themselves. As a conservative, I have to have more than a little respect for the pearls of wisdom contained in phrases like "why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?" There are millennia's worth of Hayekian trial and error built into the trite phrases your mother or grandmother uses. No, my problem is with people who accept clichés without reflecting on what exactly they mean. In a sense, clichés become an ideology all of their own. And since we accept cute phrases like "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" uncritically, clichés can be far more pernicious than ideology.

Let me give you the example that made me want to write this in the first place. Because I'm skeptical about slippery-slope arguments, because I've argued that America is largely immune to becoming a totalitarian state, and because I don't particularly care if Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, or Richard Reid ever get a fucking lawyer, a lot of people keep telling me that when one person loses his freedom we're all a little less free.

You wouldn't believe how many famous people have offered or repeated this observation. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Eli Wiesel, Captain Jean Luc Picard, as well as countless politicians have said something to the effect of "we are only as free as the least free among us."

It sounds nice, of course. Unfortunately, it's also a crock of shit, factually, logically, and morally.

First, facts and logic: Remember how we all agreed at the beginning of this column that there's undoubtedly an innocent person in prison right now? Well, he's not free. Are you only as free as him?

Take this principle out of the realm of civil rights for a second. Say you're on a plane. Some poor shlub gets yanked from his flight because the airline screwed up. The plane takes off and you make it to Chicago, while the other guy is still trying to work things out at the Southwest counter. If we are only as free as the least free among us, some magical force would have kept you from leaving too. This is no less true if the guy who got yanked off the plane was pulled off because he was unfairly profiled. You're still free to travel. You can make an argument that next time you might be the poor shlub, but that's a different argument and you'd need to prove it too (more on this in a moment).

Or look at it this way: We're all taught these days that the original Constitution just preserved the freedoms of rich, land-owning, white men. Well, the same people who say that also nod like those toy birds who dip their beaks in a glass of water every time someone says "We're only as free as the least free among us." Well, which is it then? Did the Constitution just protect the rights of those rich white guys or were Tommy Jefferson and Benji Franklin no more free than all those oppressed women, poor people, slaves and Indians?

The notion that we are inextricably bound together in our freedoms is poetic, uplifting, and perhaps even necessary as far as useful fictions go when it comes to public ideals. But it's not true. Indeed, the people who use this phrase the most invariably invoke it precisely because it is not true. Martin Luther King made the argument that we are only as free as the least free among us because he was trying to persuade people that blacks were not free enough. If what he said was true, he wouldn't have needed to say it because everyone would have been in the same boat. His audience, obviously, weren't the black people who needed no convincing of their oppression, but the white folks who were, needless to say, more free than blacks.

This illustrates why the argument that we are only as free as the least free among us is actually deeply cynical and perhaps even immoral. If you want what's right for somebody else simply because you're afraid that you'll be next, then your motivations are selfish. If you think Joe should get a tax refund because you want one too, then the merits of Joe's case aren't particularly important to you except insofar as they jibe with your own. If you're white and you want black people to be free because you want people like yourself to stay free, well then you don't really care about black freedom except insofar as it insulates white freedom.

The same moral logic powers clichés like "first they came for the Jews" or "we're only as free as the least free among us." It is not an appeal to conscience but an appeal to the self-interest of those who fear they might be next.

Indeed, the adage "first they came for the Jews" is often used as part of an argument for the state to never "come" for anybody. I can't tell you how many fools write me to say that the government cracking down on terrorists is akin to the government cracking down on Jews (or blacks, or gays, etc). In effect, not only does this logic hold that the government is so inept and immoral that it will be forced to "come" for other people once it's through with the terrorists, it also implies that Jews and terrorists are somehow similar. After all, if cracking down on the Jews first is indistinguishable from cracking down on terrorists, what's the difference between Jews and terrorists?

Well, that's offensive. I have every right in the world to be a Jew. I have no right to be a terrorist. To confuse the two colors you stupid.
Anyway, none of this means that Martin Luther King or Gandhi were immoral for making these arguments (though they were prudently cynical for making the calculation that most people would only be stirred to action when convinced their private interests might be threatened).

But what drives me nuts, getting back to the Pythagorean thing, are the people who plug these clichés into their arguments with mathematical certitude when these people never spent a moment to question the platitudes they live by. What's worse, once you start listening for these little algorithms for lazy thinking, you'll hear them everywhere — on talk shows, on the Senate floor, in your classrooms and offices. And pretty soon, you'll realize how much this country is ruled by the tyranny of clichés.
dear *Lame Valet* 18.Sep.2002 00:46

repost of Tsalagi--from earlier *Iraqi nukes*

Vali, thanks for sharing the CIA slant with us. It is always nice to get a horse laugh going over your writings. It is so cathartic. Are there any more employment opportunities within the CIA propaganda machine? Who do we talk to to get an application? In these tough times of high unemployment, it seems that the CIA is the only game in town. But who is going to keep things swinging if we are all working for the CIA? Who will make the pizzas? Who will take care of airport security, if we are all over in the middle east delivering weapons and money to terrorists like Oh-mama Bin There-done-that?

Tell me something, my friend, do they really remove your brain and replace it with cow shit? Or is that just a rumor? I know that if they drilled a small hole in your head, they could shove deer shit through it without the trauma that a full cow shit replacement would cause. Since deer shit is so small.

Keep it up, Vali. It's patriots like you that give real meaning to the concepts of free speech. At least the thought police won't be throwing you in jail.

I know you represent the domestic beer drinking, breath through the open mouth, reactionarie crowd. You must be thought of as a real brain down there at The Stink Hole Tavern. A CIA hangout.

Oregon Back Woods

To confuse the two colors you stupid. 18.Sep.2002 01:48

To confuse the two colors you stupid.

To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.To confuse the two colors you stupid.

Does the CIA offer an E.S.L. course?

Lame Valet 18.Sep.2002 03:18

Phillip AGee

Pay no attention to Lamet Vali, or Lame Valet, or whatever is his name.

Lame Valet's feeble attempt to convince everybody of the legitimacy of the American Empire's newest version of "Blood For Oil" is increasingly floudering.

That is why is he repeatedly posting his rants on this board. He is desperate as his clueless.

you are only fueling my cynicism 18.Sep.2002 04:41

neither right nor left nor in-between

Is it too much to ask of an Indymedia Leftist to refute the argument point-by-point ?

There are some pretty smart people around here, regardless of the problems that I or "Vali" or anyone else out here in virtualdom have about their dogmatism and rigid antiquated ideologies...and you only add weight to dissenting viewpoints by meeting them with half-assed insults and assumptions, instead of serious rebukes.

Does the Indmedia Collective have the technical knowhow to track the server "Lamet Vali" uses down and confirm the idea that s/he is COINTELPRO, or is this just another way of COINTELPRO to get you to their dirty work for them, meaning, that, when anyone who attempts to critique the overwhelmingly Marxist slant of opinion here is immediately tarred and feathered as CIA, then you have saved them a little work ?

For example, could it be possible that some of the more "radical" calls for violent action on this same forum are also COINTELPRO, and, does it seem strange to you that these are also not subject to the same immediate assumptions ? By this same logic, does it seem strange that when Noam Chomsky is referred to as "an inveterate liar" by the controversial prominent conservative, and former Leftist, David Horowitz, that the right-wing audience that he entertains does not have the time to scrutinize Mr. Chomsky's many hundreds of thousands of
printed words, and he knows it ?

By now you are probably thinking that I am in the employ of the Company itself, just as Tim Leary was until his death ?

Think about how much cheaper it would be for them to merely have us discredit each other all the time over dissenting political opinions, as opposed to spending the money on someone's salary to do this, ala the recent series of articles in the Tribune.

Report to Prison Immediately 18.Sep.2002 07:27


Okay, Vali. Here it is nice and simple. I assume you have committed no offense that you believe should land you a prison sentence. You are innocent and you know it.

If you really honestly believe that it's okay to jail people who did not commit any crime, you ought to put your money where your mouth is. Report to prison immediately. And since you don't care to have a lawyer defend you, save us all a lot of time and effort by sparing us a trial. Just go to jail now, and stay there, and then my respect-o-meter will tick up for you. (But only for a moment.)

Your logic is weak! 18.Sep.2002 08:55


Lamet Vali-

You went to great lengths to write alot while saying very little.

Your attempt at simplifying a complex subject is typical of conservatives who think a "linear" approach is the only effective way to draw moral lines.

Your repeated sarcastic references of "better that 10 guilty go free, than one innocent be imprisoned" is a very weak and incomplete attempt to justify eroding civil liberties for the purposes of what you claim is justice.

Here's a cliche for ya.
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."-Benjamin Franklin

You are using the term "Cliches" in the same way conservatives use the term "politcally correct".
That is the root of your confusion and your obvious cynicism.

Your inability to believe that people really mean what they say when they talk about protections that our constitution and our bill of rights provide, is the obstacle that prevents your understanding that this is not an issue of cliches, but rather an issue of unwavering principles.

Principles whose importance can not be demeaned or diminished with simplistic rhetoric about cliches.

Vali 18.Sep.2002 09:04


First of all, I would like to thank who ever it was that reposted my last comment to the Vali.

Vali has a perfect right to express his thoughts here. I believe his goal is to bait and discredit us, but again, we offer him that right. He is the one in ten who we will not throw in prison along with the oil warriors, because he has not committed a crime by expressing his thoughts. Pick up a gun and kill innocent children in Iraq, and then you become one of the guilty ten and you need a cell, with your own personal right wing queen.

Your writings seem to amount to a death threat to those in the world who don't toe the Bush/CIA line. Of course, it is against the law to threaten them world shakers, but they and you can threaten with death, anyone who stands in the way of the ChenBushCo machine. Go figure?

You are here to cause trouble, and you get a charge out of it. That comes out in your writings.

You don't care about sending a innocent person to prison if it will save your mother from being a crime victim. Putting an innocent in prison is a crime. And if you do it, then you are a criminal. One of the guilty nine you speak of.

Again, my friend, you have a perfect right to express your thoughts here. Veiled death threats though they be, to anyone in the world who doesn't buy stock in ChenBushCo. Changing your world view is not going to happen. But we must counter your words in an effort to get people to see that you are the problem, not the solution. We need your writings so that we can offer the full canvas to others who might read Indy. Our half of the argument, without your half, does us no good. We can't get
ChenBushCo to reply, but we have you, which is so close, I can't tell you all apart. I encourage you to keep writing, and I encourage others to counter you with the truth. It is a good exercise, and a healthy one. Then people will be able to compare your thoughts with ours and draw their own conclusions.

I welcome you with open arms, but not military arms. I hope that doesn't make you feel uneasy.

Oregon Back Woods

Hyprocracy - an actual argument 18.Sep.2002 10:59

Whether I'm Next or Not

Too much rambling to respond to it all. You seem to make the point that some individuals are career criminals, and that these should be locked up to prevent them from commiting future crimes. i.e., if they get away with it once, they'll strike again. However, you criticize as bankrupt the same principle when expressed by the left. If we allow the goverment to demonize, harass and repress one group of people based on their political beliefs (e.g. Fair Trade movement, anarchists), Religious beliefs (e.g. Muslims, "cult" members, previously Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and yes Jews), or associations (e.g. Union members), having gotten away with it the goverment WILL do the same to other groups.

That a particular group or classifcation, such as Jews or Conservatives, contains multiple individuals who are criminals does not somehow justify action against the whole group or classification. When "law enforcment" changes it focus from the crimes of individuals to pursuit people based on afflications it ceases to be law enforcemnt or protection of the public and leads to disaster or even dictatorship.

First they came for Jews...

it's simple, duuuuuuude! 18.Sep.2002 23:10

like this!

Here's how it is. I am all for that 10 guilty / 1 innocent cliche that you bandy about, though I've never used it myself.

The whole point is that if the prosecution can't prove a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then we have no right to punish him/her. On the other hand, if you could prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then those 10 guilty people wouldn't go free, would they, now?

So go ahead, tell me exactly why I should support jailing somebody based on unconvincing evidence, or why military tribunals are ok, or why you'd be glad to accept a speeding ticket if the police just sent it to you in the mail without first proving that you'd been speeding. I'll be waiting for your reply, and your eventual defection from the Republican Party as you begin to wake up and realize how bad it really is.

Think Saddam's the reason Bush wants us to bomb Iraq? Maybe so, but I doubt it. The Bush administration first said Iraq was supporting terrorists, but that didn't stick. So he changed his story a couple more times. Now, if he were telling the truth, please explain to me why he decided to change his story. Shouldn't the truth stand up on its own and be able to withstand scrutiny? Let me help you out with this dilemma you're in. And when you come over to the forces of good, you can go post your provocations on a Conservative web site. :)