Posts Tagged ‘penn jillette’

There’s a Reason Rally happening somewhere soon, apparently. And there’s some fuss over who’s going to be there. People just can’t seem to agree on who should be allowed to attend under that hallowed banner of reason, and who has already cast themselves too far into ill repute with their unreasonable positions.

I can understand Hemant’s frustration. He’s trying to get some notable names to the event, some regular favourites among the skeptical crowd, as well as some long-sought-after political notice from actual big-time representatives. But they’ve all pissed people off at one point or another, and alienated people with whom they might have got along. This is something shared by politicians, skeptics, rationalists, scientists, celebrities, and everybody who’s ever lived.

PZ Myers in particular has serious issues with some of the attendees, and with good reason. There’s more than one person known for endorsing alternative medicine on the list, as well as a couple of religious senators. They don’t exactly sound a perfect match for the usual critical thinking crowd.

But there are certain values that I think the Reason Rally is about. Reason, for instance. The importance of basing our beliefs and public policy on evidence, on factual data, on a carefully tested scientific understanding of the world that’s liable to change at any time in the face of new evidence.

Also, the virtue of respectful disagreement, and our ability to take wildly opposing positions on specific issues without becoming spiteful and furious and rejecting each other from every aspect of our lives. If compassion and kindness aren’t among the Reason Rally’s most important values, then I want nothing to do with it.

So, I say why not invite Tom Harkin, thank him for offering his address and for his positive support of freedom and secular values in his political office, and let him pay some public lip service to our shared cause. Then, openly and respectfully and clearly, explain why his stance on alternative medicine is uninformed, unsound, and at odds with the message that supporters of the Reason Rally want to promote.

Invite Bill Maher, cheer him as he tells some jokes, agree with him publicly and loudly as he discusses the inanities of religious prejudice, and also let him know that you think some of the things he’s said about women have been inappropriate and damaging and come from a place of ignorance.

Bring Dawkins along, tell him The Greatest Show On Earth was wonderful, and ask him if he has any further thoughts on why his elevatorgate comments may have elicited such a strong negative reaction.

Get Penn Jillette to do some magic and shout about God, and tell him you’re really not okay with that time he called a woman a cunt, and see if it’s something he regrets.

If people want to support reason, let them come. Not a single idea may pass unchallenged, the criticism and picking apart of fallacious logic must flow freely – but if you’re going to insist people shouldn’t even be there because they’ve ever been an asshole in the past… Well, you just enjoy that party. You’ll have lots of space to yourself.

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I’ve been finding more and more things about which to disagree with Penn Jillette, as I’ve been learning and making up my mind about libertarianism. He’s still a great guy, and a fantastic performer, and I have not a shred of doubt that his politics are consistently driven by compassion and humility, even when I think he has the wrong idea.

But I know just about enough now to have some kind of opinion about this recent Penn Point:



If a billionaire like Warren Buffett thinks he’s not being taxed enough, why doesn’t he give the government some cash? He clearly wants the government to have more of his money, and there are ways he can just make a donation. That should make him happy and feel like he’s doing good, right?

Penn knows why Warren Buffett doesn’t do this, obviously. Buffett’s smart enough to give a lot of his money to, for instance, Bill Gates, who might do something with it such as vaccinate children, rather than to the US government, who are more likely to use it to start another war. So why does Buffett talk like he wants the government to have more money?

This is where I think Penn’s missing the point. It’s not that Buffett wants the government to grow bigger and richer and stronger, and have more money in an absolute sense. But if it’s going to insist that it needs to raise funds to pay for all its shiny wars and such like, then someone like Buffett is best placed to take the hit.

If he knew that a donation from him would directly reduce the tax burden faced by all his countrymen in households earning below $20,000 a year, I think he might consider it. But that’s not how the government operates, so instead he’s acknowledging that the mega-rich are in a better position to take on an increased burden than the millions living below the poverty line. To the extent that taxes have to be collected, Warren Buffett is advocating shifting the balance so that slightly more of the burden rests with billionaires than is currently the case.

Of course, whether the government really needs to be collecting as much money through taxes as it plans to is another matter. Any possible savings on favoured governmental extravagances, like extended military actions and imprisoning people for victimless crimes, should be fully explored before we start deciding that money needs to be collected at all. I don’t know if Warren Buffett’s brought this up much, and maybe it’s something he should be putting more emphasis on.

But I don’t think it’s fair to conclude from his remarks that he’s a devout statist, or that he’s a hypocrite for not writing President Obama a cheque. “Let’s give the government more money” might be a deeply problematic rallying cry from any angle, but at least he understands the relative privilege of his position, and recognises the hardships of others, more than many of his class seem capable of.

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I realised, sitting in the fourth row of the Hammersmith Apollo on Friday night, that I’m basically the ideal Penn & Teller audience member.

I’m predisposed to like them and enjoy their company a great deal, which helps, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I mean in my approach to watching the magic they do – and I suspect I’m far from alone here – I have what must be close to the perfect attitude to maximise my admiration of their performance.

What I mean is: I’m just smart enough to be really stupid.

Or, I’m just stupid enough to think I’m being smart.

Or something.

I have just enough superficial, surface-level understanding of magic, and deception, and of Penn & Teller’s usual way of doing things, that I briefly delude myself that I can watch out for the clever tricks, the subtle palms and whatnot they must be doing to make something appear where it wasn’t. I think I know misdirection when I see it, so I peer carefully at the other hand and keep my eagle eyes peeled for any tiny hints of subterfuge.

In other words, I am precisely the right kind of idiot. I think I’m watching out for the right things and will have some idea where they’re going and what they’re about to pull. And they still fool me and produce some grand last-minute flourish out of nowhere, that I could never see coming even after it’s happened. Every. Damn. Time.

And obviously they’re going to fool me every damn time. They’ve been doing this for decades, and what the fuck do I know?

It’s a wonderful performance, and I can’t really think of anyone for whom I wouldn’t recommend it. You may have missed your chance in London this time (though, as I type this, there are still tickets available for tonight’s final show (and there was at least one tout outside the theatre when I went)), but if you ever find yourselves in the same city as them when they’re performing in future, go.

If you like magic, go. If you like comedy, go. If you like entertainment, go. If you like joy, go. Just go.

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Penn Jillette kicks ass. I kinda don’t even care how much I disagree with him on some stuff, which is actually less than you’d think when you really get down to it.

– If you’re in the UK, the British Humanist Association want you to email your MP to try to ensure that good science gets taught in schools. It looks like “faith schools” might be given even more of a chance to teach kids whatever reality-ignoring crap they like, which is worrying, and letting your MP know where you stand could make a difference. You can do this through the BHA’s site on that link, and don’t forget places like WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou.

– Orac continues to knock it out of the park on the subject of liars who claim they can cure cancer.

– And finally. If anyone ever tries to claim that atheists are immoral, or that “you can’t be good without God,” or that regular church-going folk are any better than the rest of us, or that there is any positive causal correlation between being religious and being a decent human being… remind them that a guy was killed by his wife and children because he changed the channel from a gospel show.

That’s it. That calls bullshit forever on any religious claims to the moral high ground. Anyone of any religion can be just as fucked up as anyone else. This is the kind of thing that some believers insist atheists should be doing, because we have no moral basis without God. Well, believers are out there killing their families and raping children too, so pardon me for not feeling too ethically insecure by comparison.

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An example to us all

Penn Jillette is my hero.

I really, really hope that if I ever find myself in need of open brain surgery, I turn out to be the kind of person who will use it as an excuse for doing a disgusting magic trick.

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Rick Warren is an Evangelical Christian minister, author of a number of successful books on Christianity, and founder of the Saddleback megachurch in California. Yesterday this church hosted something called a Civil Forum on The Presidency, where Barack Obama and John McCain were both interviewed by Pastor Rick, before a ticketed audience who’d paid up to $1,000 a pop.

As ERV points out, it’s pretty depressing that none of the candidates wanted anything to do with Science Debate 2008, but they leap at the chance to share some platitudes, with a Christian minister, in a church, as part of their political campaigns.

Hemant has liveblogged the whole thing, and has a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the whole two hours. Obama seems to come off better, but to someone who was pretty well blown away by his speech on race a few months ago, in response to the whole Reverend Wright thing, this is a long way from being inspiring.

He plays up the Jesus talk, and moderates some of his views on abortion and gay rights, in front of a conservatively Christian crowd, because he can’t afford to alienate people by being brutally honest. I know, this is hardly a revelation – shock alliterative horror, politician panders to public opinion – but in the case of someone like Obama, who I think has some great ideas, and would be a good President, and who a part of me really wants to believe is as miraculously awesome as his hype, I resent how much of a cynic this presidential race is making me.

I really think that Obama is worth voting for, and I’d vote for him if I could, even though he does play the game, he can be disconcertingly slick, and some of the things he says and does make him sound like an empty populist – and even though I know part of my motivation for supporting him is that I think he’d be better for the job than John McCain. That’s an unavoidably cynical attitude. I guess I’m kind of a cynic.

Penn Jillette spoke recently about Bob Barr, the current Libertarian Party nominee for President, and the glorious joy and optimism that really infuses that campaign. They can talk about freedom and all the other things that are important to them as openly and optimistically as they like, whereas Obama “doesn’t have any hope; he’s got to do everything right.”

And Penn really kinda has a point. There is a degree of inspiration to the crazy libertarian position which Obama just can’t match. Because he’s mainstream, and needs to win this, and can’t put people off with the kind of honesty that the media will jump all over. He has to do everything right. That’s pretty depressing, and so is realising that I’m just cynical enough to go along with it.

Damn you, complex and diverse political arena.

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