As you gain political power, Penn Jillette told the conservatives and free market advocates at the Independence Institute’s 30th Anniversary Founders’ Night banquet, be sure to remember the “nuts” and “crazies” and defend their liberty, too. After all, he said, we can’t have a free society unless people have the “freedom to be stupid.”
The Institute’s president Jon Caldara is an edgy guy who often pushes the boundaries of humor. But I could tell he was a little nervous that Jillette, an outspoken atheist known for his Bullshit! Showtime series, might prove too controversial for his more conservative supporters. His hand-wringing was unnecessary. Jillette delivered an earnest and heartfelt speech (while pacing the stage without notes) that appealed to most everyone in the room. I had seen Penn & Teller’s magic show in Las Vegas, so I knew Jillette to be a talented entertainer, but I was surprised by how polished and engaging a public speaker he is.
Jillette gave as good a presentation for the standard libertarian argument that “government is force” as I’ve ever seen. He talked about the many hours he’d spent at his local library as a child and about his love for NPR. Yet, he said, he could not justify pointing the guns of government at people to force them to help finance such projects. He once turned down a government grant for a project because “our show was too damn good” for that. “Guns don’t belong in art,” he said.
Jillette also talked about the trap of cynicism, and how he had once fallen into that trap by assuming that many people would watch Bullshit! because they hated it. Instead, although many people were critical of the show, usually they expressed their criticism politely and constructively. Telling a person “you’re wrong” directly grants them a certain respect, he said; it’s recognizing “you’re an American” and seeing robust debate as part of what we’re about as a nation.
Incidentally, Jillette looked fantastic; he has recently lost over a hundred pounds by changing his diet.
The Institute also presented its annual David S. D’Evelyn Award to George Caulkins, a veteran Marine helicopter pilot active with the Alliance for Choice in Education.
I also received the Vern Bickel Award for Grassroots Leadership. (I had only 20 seconds on stage, so I thanked the Institute and jokingly presented Caldara with a Hillary Clinton Nutcracker.) Mike Rosen graciously introduced me. I very much appreciate this recognition by the Institute and all the well-wishes expressed by my friends and associates.