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Hullabaloo


Sunday, February 17, 2013

 
"An intimate connection between public safety and private authority"

by digby

Here's a good read for a Sunday afternoon: Corey Robin's essay about Oliver Wendall Holmes' famous metaphor about free speech not extending to shouting fire in a crowded theater.  It turns out that it stems from a very dicey view of what shouting fire might mean --- and he likely got his metaphor from a very real event in which someone (rumored to be a company man) falsely shouted fire and caused a panic among workers involved in a labor dispute. It's fascinating stuff.

The piece (written with co-author Ellen Schrecker)concludes with this:

Holmes’s metaphor was supposed to illustrate the unity of society in the face of an alien danger and the right of the government, grounded in neutral and universal principles, to suppress that danger. But Calumet, like Schenck, reveals the opposite: a society divided—not just in the face of danger but over the face of danger—and a government selectively deciding whom to protect and from what to protect them.

While Holmes’s metaphor obfuscates the realities of Calumet and Schenck, it also reveals a deeper nexus between them. Why, after all, might Holmes have remembered and reached back to an incident from the nation’s bitter labor history to describe an equally bitter conflict over war and peace?

Perhaps it is because there is an intimate connection between public safety and private authority. A safe and secure nation, many believe, is publicly united—and privately obedient. Workers submit to employers, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, the powerless to the powerful. A safe and secure nation is built on these ladders of obedience, in its families, factories, and fields. Shake those ladders and you threaten the nation. Stop people from shaking them and you protect it.
[...]
“Men feared witches and burned women,” wrote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California. That’s true, but men also feared women and burned witches. It is that traffic—between the uppity and the unsafe, the insurgent and the insecure, the immoral and the dangerous—and the alchemy by which a challenge to a particular social order becomes a general threat to the whole, that is the real story of how a fire in a theater, which may or may not have happened in the way various men and women think it happened, became a national obsession and an emblem of our constitutional faith.

Those who have been following Robin's efforts to preserve freedom of speech on his own campus will, of course, find this especially interesting. But I think the analysis speaks to a universal truth about the ongoing tension between conservatism and the modern world. How do they keep control?


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