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Petri: The right to be stupid

Published March 1, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last week, John Kerry noted to an audience of German students, "In America, you have a right to be stupid, if you want to be."

That is my favorite inalienable right. To borrow Stephen Sondheim's phrasing, "Everybody's got the right to be stupid. Even though at times they go to extremes." It's a nice summation of all those inalienable rights we put so much stock in.

Freedom of religion? More like, "Right to Make a Total Idiot of Yourself, Weekly." Have you listened to your neighbor's doctrine lately? He believes we were put here by a flying spaghetti monster? We celebrate you, Pastafarian! Wear that colander with pride! As H.L. Mencken noted, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

Freedom of speech? In theory, it's the freedom to express your heartfelt beliefs in cogent, beautiful phrases, aloud, in the public square. In practice, it's more often the right to open your mouth and sound like a complete idiot. But in some ways, that's even more precious than the other.

Freedom of assembly? In theory, we should use that to forge great social movements and powerful protests. In practice, we go to "Twilight" conventions.

Freedom of petition? You've seen Change.org, haven't you? You've seen the White House's petition site, We the People? This might almost exclusively be the right to be stupid. We had a sufficient number of signatures for a Death Star to require an actual, official White House response.

Yes, stupidity is a cherished right. It's my favorite. It's right there in the Constitution. Well, it's not there exactly, but it's pretty strongly implied in the emanations of the penumbras. But it's a little more prominent and less ambiguous than privacy. And Lord knows it is the only thing making a lot of discussions of the Second Amendment possible.

"We want to create a country where stupid people can feel safe." That's what the Founders said, when they got together to come up with the Constitution.

Then Ben Franklin dashed out to fly a kite in a lightning storm.