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Why the Solution to Bad Speech is Always More Speech

July 21, 2013, 6:00 AM

We do a bit in our show where we burn an American Flag and then restore it.  A friend of ours who’s a great magician named Jamy Ian Swiss was talking about how the burned and restored handkerchief trick.  You borrow a handkerchief from the audience, burn it and restore it. It was a great trick but it didn’t mean anything.  Jamy said, “I always thought someone should do that with the flag.”  Automatically, you have some meaning there.  

And Teller and I had just gotten back from doing shows in Egypt, China and India.  When I traveled overseas I just found myself more of an American than I’ve ever been before.  And I came back and Teller and I wanted to do something really patriotic. We wanted to just celebrate living in the USA.  And our way to do that was to burn the flag and restore it and talk about freedom of speech. 

We live in a country so cool you can take the flag and burn it on stage in Vegas.  And that was the goal, to do a patriotic bit.  You know, we’ve always hated people who in their shows waved the flag, but we wanted to wave the flag.  We wanted to do exactly what bad Vegas shows do and do flag waving, but do it in our own way.  So our way of sliding in the suite was to burn the flag.  

I remember saying to G. Gordan Liddy, "you’re going to come to our show, we’re going to burn the flag, and you’re going to stand up and cheer."  And he said, "No, that’s something I will not tolerate. It may be inside our freedoms, but it is not something that I will condone."  I said, “Okay, come to our show.”  I said to Glenn Beck, “We’re going to burn the American flag and you’re going to cheer."  And he went, “Huh?  What?”  That’s what we wanted to do.  We wanted to do a patriotic bit that was honestly from our hearts patriotic.  And one of the things that Teller and I loved the most about the ideas of this country (I have to say the ideas of this country, as opposed to the reality because of the Patriot Act and a lot of the other stuff that the Bush/Obama one, two punch put through) is freedom of speech.  It’s a total celebration of freedom of speech and it means a lot to me.  

I say the line in that bit, “Teller and I consider ourselves patriotic.”  I don’t know if that’s really true.  I hope it’s the lie that tells the greater truth.  I hope that it’s a higher level of patriotism, but I don’t see myself as a flag-waver in any way.  But I do see myself as believing in the basic ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I think those are really important and I think freedom of speech is absolute. I think burning the flag is also talking about Fred Phelps being able to do things that make us sick.  And I think it’s also talking about how it’s okay for AMC to say they won’t show “The Aristocrats.”  I agree more than anything with the idea that the solution to bad speech is more speech.  And that’s why Penn and Teller do a flag burning in the show. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.


Why the Solution to Bad Spe...

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