Pen Jillette and His Libertarian Legerdemain
I don’t generally like to talk about politics here, since that’s usually when assholes show up and threaten to disrupt my naturally cool demeanor. But Penn Jillette wrote this piece for CNN, and I felt like I had to answer it. I felt this way for two reasons: the first is that I really like Penn & Teller, and the second is that I think he’s cheating.
I’ve been a huge fan of Penn & Teller, as magicians, since I was a kid. I had How to Play in Traffic, and it was my first introduction to how a clever speaker could set up a person’s expectations in such a way as to fool them; it was like a weird manual to the underside of art and language, and I loved it. I saw them live at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, and I still point out the brilliant linguistic intricacy of Penn Gillette’s routine on broken bottle juggling — how it’s not only true that broken bottles are far more dangerous to juggle than fire clubs, but how his continued explanations simultaneously both undermined and reinforced themselves.
They signed my Hoyle brand Three of Clubs, and I still have it in a little plastic frame I keep on my desk.
But I started to sour on them (on Penn, mostly, because he’s the one who usually does the talking, right?) after their episode of Bullshit — a show which I generally found to be pretty deadly smart — about global warming.
I’ll admit that I’m someone who believes in the validity of anthropogenic climate change, but my problem here isn’t that Penn was disagreeing with me. It’s that the whole premise of his arguments — that ACC was overblown, hyped up, and just a regular part of nature — was hinged on co-founder of The Weather Channel John Coleman (I think it was this one, and not the other) and his explanation of global warming’s relationship to sunspot activity. And, here’s the kicker: in the episode, Penn actually narrates over Coleman’s explanation with a bit of “Blah blah blah, this is just boring science stuff, who cares?”
If you want to fight about climate change we can, and if you want to make fun of some harmless hippie who’s just trying to help people find ways to conserve energy, then fine, you can do that, too. But if you expect me to go along with it, then you’ve got to have a reason, and you’d damn well better let me hear what it is.
This is when I started to get a little suspicious of Penn and his arguments, and when I started to wonder just how much legerdemain was going on.
His CNN article is actually a perfect example of it. He invokes Richard Feynman, great avatar of the intellectually curious and self-avowed atheist, to establish some ground rules. I guess a magician might call this The Pledge. He uses that argument — that there’s no shame in not knowing something — to defend his atheism. It’s a strong argument with lots of precedent; even true believers admit that some questions don’t respond well to being addressed head on, and there’s no shame for an atheist to respond to “How did you get here?” with “I don’t know.”
But then Penn takes the argument and does a little magic trick with it (a Turn? I never studied magic properly). He uses it to ALSO justify his Libertarianism — a political philosophy that, in his particular case, seems to run the gamut from not approving of taxes to not approving of the existence of fiscal policy to not approving of things like Social Security or Medicare.
What’s tricky about it, though, is that while it’s framed with a philosophical, agnostic argument — “I don’t know the best way to help people” — it actually turns into a moral argument: that it’s actually wrong for the government to at gunpoint take your money and give it to someone else.
This is an extreme characterization of the government, but it’s not completely incorrect. The problem with it is in the phrasing as a question of agnosia. Saying that it’s immoral for the government to help people — that it’s immoral for me to expect him to pay a Social Security tax so that senior citizens don’t starve when they’re too old to work, and that the only moral action for me to take is to give them my own money (i.e.: nothing, so that they can starve) — is completely different from saying that you don’t know the best way to help people.
The key element here is one that Penn himself brought up early on in his patter when he invoked Richard P. Feynman: when Feynman didn’t know the answer to something, he tried hard to figure it out.
We actually live in a country that is built from the very ground up on the idea that we might not know the best way to help people — but that it’s our job, our responsibility, and our right to try to figure it out.
We’re supposed to forget about this bit, though. This is the Prestige, discreetly dumped off in the corner somewhere where it won’t come back to haunt the argument. Because the fact of the matter is, whether or not you know what to do about the US’s AA+ credit rating, we still have to do something. Throwing up your hands and saying, “Well, no answers here, let’s just call it quits on this whole USA thing,” is still a choice — it still implicitly suggests that you think this course of action (whether or not you know it) is better than another course of action. You can’t say, “The US should default on it’s loans rather than raise taxes because I don’t know what the right choice is,” because you’re still picking one choice over another.
It’s bullshit, and I suspect that Penn Gillette KNOWS that it’s bullshit. Maybe he’s terrified of debt, sure, but can he really not know how he might have lived with debt? People in America live with enormous deficits all the time. They’re called “mortgages”. Car loans. Student loans. Credit cards. Sure, Penn couldn’t get his credit limit raised when he was a broke and starving carny, but America isn’t a broke and starving carny, and are we really supposed to believe that he can’t get his credit limit raised NOW? Now that he’s rich and famous and writing articles for CNN?
The morality of this is questionable in general, but the morality of using “I just don’t know” as an excuse not to make a decision is execrable. We had to go in to debt to fight World War II — we had to go into a LOT of debt. You can say that debt is wrong no matter what, and you can say that no sacrifice would have been too great to fight that war, but don’t try and tell me that not knowing how it will turn out absolves you from picking a side.
What, exactly, does he think that Congress is supposed to do with its power to impose taxes to provide for the general welfare? With its ability to borrow on the full faith and credit of the United States? Is the purpose of the Constitution to empower a body of men to get together and say, “You know, I’m not sure whether or not we should feed the hungry, let’s just collect our salaries and go home”?
I’m going to sound a little jingoistic here, so bear with me while I make my point, but if you think that’s the way the country’s supposed to be run, then you need to pick a new one, man. I’m not saying this in an “America, love or leave it” way, and I’m not saying that you need to be a socialist Democrat for me to count you as an American, but if you don’t believe that the government has a right to impose taxes and to empower a body of men to TRY TO FIGURE OUT the best way to spend them — then you don’t believe in the essential compact of a Democratic Republic. You do not believe in the actual mechanics of our government, and that means that yeah, you actually DON’T believe in America, and that you want to back out of the deal you made when you turned 18 and enjoyed the full benefits of American citizenship.
That deal isn’t explicit — they don’t make you sign a contract or anything — but if you want to be an American citizen then, at some level, you have to accept the notion that the American government — and its powers enumerated in the Constitution — has a moral right to exist. And if you don’t want to be an American citizen, then hey, that’s cool, too. You can renounce your citizenship. You can give it up, they won’t come hunting for you. There are plenty of other places you can go to — places that don’t have taxes, places where no one tries to figure out the best way to provide for the general welfare, places where the only good done is done individually, places that are not founded on the principle that a government has the power to levy taxes and that the people will elect representatives to determine how those monies are spent.
Hey, man, Somalia has starving people, too, and you could probably help those guys out a lot with your personal Will to Charity. Just, obviously don’t use American dollars, since the only reason they have any value is because they are the product of an essentially immoral system.
Or else, you need to stop trying to play tricks on the folks who still listen to you, and just fucking admit that you don’t like paying your taxes. And if that’s the case, then that’s bullshit, too. No one likes paying taxes, but that’s what civilization MEANS. You don’t know anything about compromise or sacrifice? Let me tell you: in civilization, you sacrifice a portion of what’s yours for the sake of the general good. This is a compromise between an autocracy that takes everything from you, and an anarchy that shoots you in the face and leaves you to rot in a ditch.
Or, at the very least: if you don’t know, and you aren’t willing to guess, and the best that you can do is try to disguise your own morality under a thin veneer of intellectual credibility, then at the very least you can shut the hell up.
This entry was posted on August 17, 2011 at 9:32 pm and is filed under Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics with tags Braak, penn jillette gilette, Politics, socialism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.