Penn Jillette & Tommy Smothers

I watched this video just before turning in last night, and awoke with it still in my head:

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Jillette and Bible, you can come up to speed here; Jillette movingly describing his encounter with an Evangelical Christian fan who loved him enough to give him a Bible. Although he is a professed atheist, Jillette understood and appreciated what the fan had done.

In both videos, Jillette’s willingness to be naked in his uncertainty and introspection is just riveting. We see so little unstaged human honesty in media anymore, that when we encounter it, we are almost tempted to look away -to give the man some privacy with his thoughts.

We live in the age of the omnipresent camera, however, and Jillette is freely surrendering his privacy and inviting us into his thoughtful musings. He appears not to be looking for privacy, but for a way to make sense of the world around him, and that is ironic in a way, given his profession.

Or maybe it’s not. Jillette makes his living creating illusions of head-smacking wonder; he will often explain to his audience precisely how he and his partner have persuaded people to see precisely what they wanted them to see, in any given illusion. In doing so, Jillette reveals other ways of looking at reality, and maybe that is what we are seeing in these two videos: a man looking at reality from all sides, and wondering how to reveal the illusions.

I wondered last night if Jillette, in his scrutiny, would notice that his fan treated him better -more respectfully, more openly, more liberally- than did his idol.

It is utterly fascinating to watch, and Jillette is much smarter than I am, so I would never presume to teach him anything. Tommy Smothers is (unsurprisingly) yet another Hollywood liberal businessman who thrives under capitalism (and his wine is pretty good!) but who finds the ideology that promotes capitalism to be abhorrent. Well, he’s not alone. Unchecked capitalism does have its drawbacks; it often so enthralls the capitalist with the material that he forgets the world around him, and lives an increasingly insular -and insulated- life.

But it is not only the greedy capitalist who can become insulated; the ideologue who will only speak with like-minded people is in the same walled-off compound, where it becomes easy to see label someone whose ideas are different than yours as “evil” and “lesser;” to ignore human commonalities in the quest to not simply disagree, but to destroy the other.

In a way, it’s a little like an extreme Islamist cutting out the tongue of the heretic, in order to silence his dissent. They fear allowing another point of view, because it threatens to unsettle; it might persuade others away from the fold. It is a threat to power, control and illusory “peace.” It does not submit. We saw this earlier this year with the Carrie Prejean story, wherein a beauty queen who did not support gay marriage was targeted for destruction.

We see that behavior, of course, on both sides. My email has as many people telling me that this politician or that is “evil” from the right as people telling me I am evil, from the left. And sometimes, when I’m very angry, or just weary of the game-playing, I’ll tiptoe into that territory, myself. Hey, I admit it, I have a category called “Touch of Evil,” and sometimes the political stuff gets slipped into it.

But what is interesting about these Jillette videos is that he seems determined not to be insulated in his life. He will meet with anyone, talk to anyone -engage in a respectful exchange of ideas. When I was being raised by blue-collar, union-loving Democrats, this is what I was taught was “liberal” behavior: a willingness to hear all sides, be respectful and open-minded.

And that would seem to be precisely the opposite of what Tommy Smothers was advocating to Jillette. For that matter, I cannot help but find an irony, there. Smothers was furious that Jillette would talk to “the enemy,” Glenn Beck, but he (and the left) were furious when President Bush would not talk to Iran. All Jillette is doing, really, is what Obama is now doing with Iran: talking to “the enemy” without preconditions. You’d think Smothers would admire that, after all. Yes, irony.

What we call “liberalism” today is something strikingly illiberal. As I twittered before turning in last night, when did “tolerance” become a demand for ideological purity above all else?

As with the word”fascism,” I begin to think that the people who use and overuse the word “tolerance” do not actually know what it means.

End notes:
Before I get 100 emails arguing with me about capitalism: note all I am saying is what is true: unbridled capitalism, unbalanced with a sense of humanity, can have serious drawbacks. Conscientious capitalism (perhaps more rightly called Social Entrepreneurship) is a force that allows people to work and dream and pursue their potentialities. Balance is the key; so often we do not have it.

Before I get 100 emails telling me that Penn & Teller have sullied the name
of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta: Yes, I’m aware. Teresa can more than take care of herself, I think. No one gets everything just right, do they? It drives me nuts when a Christian writes to me saying “this person did this and that, and so they have no credibility…” because it flies in the face of what we believe about mercy, and the potential within all of us for change. Jillette strikes me as a guy who is seeking. He’s going to have blind spots like everyone else, particularly in those areas where he thinks he’s got it all figured out (again, like everyone else.) But it would not surprise me to read someday that he’s gone and spent some time with the Missionaries of Charity, to see what they do. God is not done with any of us, yet.

Related: A fascistic crushing of dissent

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Bender’s Cheerleader

    note all I am saying is what is true: unbridled capitalism, unbalanced with a sense of humanity, can have serious drawbacks

    Yes, indeed. And the only way to change that is to change people’s hearts – really change them, right down to the core. We all need to give until it hurts, and not just financially. But then we’ll be free.

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  • Rick

    The thing about capitalism is that if you get too insulated from life, you go out of business and someone else gets your toys. And actually it happens to people all the time.

  • paul

    I visit my favorite websites daily…
    ‘Anchoress’ is my fourth stop…
    I arrived this morning after my third cup of coffee; watched the video and read the post…
    And I was blown away -
    This video and this post encapsulate most or at least enough of what has gone wrong with our traditional way of working out our differences – of finding solutions to our problems and carrying them out.

    Especially poignant, “I wondered last night if Jillette, in his scrutiny, would notice that his fan treated him better -more respectfully, more openly, more liberally- than did his idol.”

    Thank you.

  • dry valleys

    This about “social entrepeneurship” hits the right notes for the most part. The majority of environmentalists don’t support giant statist schemes because they are generally unworkable & are often promoted by politicians who shamelessly use greenwash to hide what they’re really doing.

    It is a shame that politcian hypocrisy puts people off, but it shouldn’t really.

    I am in support of, for example, co-operatives & systems whereby people can distribute fresh produce, such as farmers’ markets. I probably do outrage the more raw meat eating libertarians but I’m no one’s idea of a socialist.

    I do support fencing off areas from development (especially where woodland can be planted), restrictions on unlimited immigration, & laws to prevent fouling of the air & water. But a lot of what comes out of the state doesn’t have our backing.

    Furthermore, in this country, there is a well-established tradition of people saving money with building societies rather than banks. They have weathered this recession because they don’t engage in shoddy lending practices as they are keen to provide a solid foundation for their members rather than quick bucks for shareholders.

    In my view it is a profoundly good thing to be a member of mutually supportive clubs, organisations etc. Doesn’t civic society stand between us & the brute force of the state, which as we all know doesn’t always work?

    What I admire about America is the size & reach of the non-profit sector. I do think there needs to be some form of welfare state (we introduced it to begin with because existing working-class organisations weren’t enough to meet people’s needs) but we can all reduce our reliance on it.

    An example would be the White House garden & the encouragement of similar behaviour. I don’t have a garden but I have talked my parents into buying a fruit tree.

  • dry valleys

    You are, in fairness, right about authoritarianism- I would say it divides the liberal left from the non-liberal left. Sometimes I feel as uncomfortable as a Ron Paul supporter in the GOP- but just as that person would still not be a Democrat, so I would not be right-wing :)

    An interesting example is that of the leader of the British National Party (imagine Patrick Buchanan at the head of his own political party & you’ve basically got it) being invited on national TV. A group calling themselves United Against Fascism (which I call United For Fascism) have set themselves to do just about everything possible to stop him. I think they’d try physical intimidation or at least trying to shout him down so he can’t say anything.

    A load of this happens on campus & is vile.

    My view is that his opinions are odious & silly enough to discredit themselves & the last thing we want is for him to be able to act like some victim. A take on this can be found here

    Of interest is that one of his anatagonists is a conservative Muslim whose views have me tearing my hair out, but who probably would go down well here.

    I am all for a bit of mockery- I do read Pandagon, after all- but things should not be made unthinkable or unspeakable.

    [It's one of the reasons I like Jillette a lot; he doesn't allow anyone to tell him what to think, which is why I think he was shaken to be screamed at by one of his idols. -admin]

  • Jake P

    Anchoress, this is killing me because I vividly remember the impact when you blogged about the original…and now I’m in Canada and the YouTube is blocked for copyright restrictions!

    [Briefly: Jillette was doing something professional w/ Tommy Smothers, who he says is one of his idols. Smothers got into Jillette's face (apparently right into it) and screamed at Jillette for doing the Glenn Beck show, making it clear that he thinks Beck is a nazi and a true "enemy". Jillette says his feeling about controversial speech is "more free speech" and is shaken to be screamed at in this way by a man he admires, and ponders whether Smothers is right, and he is wrong. Smothers tells Jillette, "you'd talk to Hilter" and Jillette says "yes, I would, perhaps it would make a difference." It's a very interesting video, and it really does make one realize that our passionate political ideologies have made many of us turn in on ourselves, in some ways. -admin]

  • elizabethk

    I agree with you. I really appreciate Jillette, NOT agreeing always with him. But I love his zest for life, his ability to listen to all sides. I would rather hang out with someone like this (who, for now – calls himself an atheist) than a closed minded person of any faith or party.

    P.S. – you are one reason we resubscribed to First Things, as are broken-hearted that Fr. Neuhaus is no longer with us (in a much better place) – I miss him so!

    [Thanks for that PS. Appreciate it, and we miss him too! -admin]

  • Joseph Marshall

    Unchecked capitalism does have its drawbacks; it often so enthralls the capitalist with the material that he forgets the world around him, and lives an increasingly insular -and insulated- life.

    It also has a general drawback or two, besides the personal ones. We have had three massive stock market collapses recently, 1987, 2000, and 2008. There were no such massive stock market collapses between 1937 and 1987. To forestall confusion, by “massive”, I mean % of total stock prices lost from the top to the bottom of the crash.

    Why? Because capitalism was controlled by sensible regulation, and during those 50 years America became the richest nation on earth with the least real poverty in its history.

    Since 1987, our comparative national wealth has declined and the numbers of poor among us has steadily increased. Between 1964 and 1972 the average hourly earnings increased by $2.43 [in 2007 dollars]. From 1972 until 2007 these earnings decreased by $1.44. They now stand merely $1.00 higher per hour [that's $40.00 per week higher] than in 1964–I seriously doubt $40 per week covers even your grocery bills]

    Now why are massive market collapses a drawback since they are always preceeded by massive market gains?

    Very simply, under those conditions people who are worth less than + or – $100,000 cannot make long term investments [known as buy-and-hold] in such a market because they cannot ride out the crashes. And when they are tempted to invest, they lose their money by being forced to sell their equities off at a loss. The result? 89% of all stocks are held by a mere 10% of the population.
    The wealthiest 10%, whose after tax income starts at $92,400. And this is mere income, not net worth.

    So what is the alternative? Bank Certificates of Deposit at absolutely ridiculous rates of return compared to buy-and-hold stocks. Interest rates that can barely cover the cost-of-living rate. The highest of them currently stand at 2.25% APR. In 1982 that rate was 16% APR. In 1982 the personal savings rate was 11.2%. It is now under 1%. Guess why?

    Bought and held DJA average stocks increased in value by an average of 30% per annum from 1982 until now.

    Unchecked capitalism has simply made it almost impossible for anybody in the bottom 3/5 of our income range [maximum $67,000] to accumulate any serious wealth whatever, no matter what they do.

    I think that’s a serious drawback, don’t you?

  • dry valleys

    Yes, I can’t watch the video. For some reason, sound on my computer barely works & is completely impossible on YouTube so I never watch them. I have to sort of guess what’s going on from the context :)

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  • EJHill

    Anyone else struck by the fact that a campaign point of the President’s was that we should be able to talk to any world leader without precondition (Ahmadinejad, Chavez, et. al.) but it’s a sin to talk to Glenn Beck or anyone else at Fox News?

  • EJHill

    Joseph -

    When you write, “There were no such massive stock market collapses between 1937 and 1987… Why? Because capitalism was controlled by sensible regulation…” you are pushing the classic “wet streets cause rain” theory.

    America had such a tremendous economic advantage caused by the fact that three-quarters of the world lay in the rubble of the Second World War that the US government couldn’t screw it up.

    I would direct you to President Kennedy’s address to the Economic Club of NY:

    “Our true choice is not between tax reduction, on the one hand, and the avoidance of large federal deficits on the other. It is increasingly clear that no matter what party is in power, so long as our national security needs keep rising, an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget — just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits. Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions, and any new recession would break all deficit records.

    “In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now. The experience of a number of European countries and Japan have borne this out. This country’s own experience with tax reduction in 1954 has borne this out. And the reason is that only full employment can balance the budget, and tax reduction can pave the way to that employment. The purpose of cutting taxes now is not to incur a budget deficit, but to achieve the more prosperous, expanding economy which can bring a budget surplus.

    “I repeat: our practical choice is not between a tax-cut deficit and a budgetary surplus. It is between two kinds of deficits: a chronic deficit of inertia, as the unwanted result of inadequate revenues and a restricted economy, or a temporary deficit of transition, resulting from a tax cut designed to boost the economy, increase tax revenues, and achieve, I believe — and I believe this can be done — a budget surplus. The first type of deficit is a sign of waste and weakness; the second reflects an investment in the future.”

    GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION or as JFK called it, a “restrictive economy” has given us this “chronic deficit of inertia.” The cure is MORE capitalism, not less.

  • Western Chauvinist

    I deeply admire Jillette for this. And, although he probably is blinded by the certitude of his atheism, I think there is tremendous hope for someone seeking truth and the path to goodness as he clearly is.

    As to capitalism, I would argue it is the best economic system for a society grounded in Judeo-Christian values. And really, the only system for a free people. The patriarch Joseph had the best of intentions and did good when he tended to the welfare of the people through the famine. But, eventually the people willingly enslaved themselves to the state for a portion of grain. It may have been as God intended, but I prefer to look at the current trends with eyes wide-open. Those agitating for “universal” healthcare really want a giant nanny state for us all and are willing to sacrifice their freedom (and ours) to achieve that end. Hayek titled his book, “The Road to Serfdom” for a reason.

    I always find it astonishing that at this pinnacle of prosperity, this country is debating the merits of capitalism. And frankly, I’m appalled at the apparent ingratitude for the blessings of liberty we have enjoyed.

  • Amy P.

    Body language often speaks volumes more that someone’s words. Watch how Jillette acts once (turn down the volume) and see there a man who’s deep, deep in thought. I could almost hear the wheels turning.

    As to capitalism, I would argue it is the best economic system for a society grounded in Judeo-Christian values. And really, the only system for a free people.

    Indeed. Because we’ve seen socialism/communism in action and it not only impoverishes many (save a select elite), it goes to great lengths to deny and destroy humanity.

  • Joseph Marshall

    But it is not only the greedy capitalist who can become insulated; the ideologue who will only speak with like-minded people is in the same walled-off compound,

    I’m sure you don’t count me among such isolated ideologues, do you Anchoress? And I think the whole business of Social Entrepreneurship is very much worth a deeper examination. So, from your link to Hot Air:

    John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods. Mackey tells that he believes in capitalism, but that its advocates have not told its story adequately enough…Mackey is that rarest of businessman: an articulate and passionate defender of free enterprise and free individuals.

    At first I thought this odd. How many businessmen attack free enterprise and free individuals? Surely not that many, Tommy Smothers notwithstanding. But on second look the rarity being spoken of is articulateness and passion.

    “Free enterprise” is like apple pie and motherhood [or maybe just like apple pie these days] an intrinsically positive glittering generalization that many can wave around but few can define. “Free individuals” is an even murkier concept usually brandished with more passion than articulateness. However, Mackey is quite lucid about both:

    In a capitalistic market economy business is ultimately based on voluntary exchange; all the main constituencies of a business (such as customers, employees, suppliers, and investors) voluntarily exchange with the business to create value for themselves and for others. No constituency is coerced to exchange against their will.

    Fine as far as it goes. And Mackey makes a passionate–and accurate–presentation about how the philosophy and practices of his business foster these ideals and make a tremendous amount of money by doing so. And this is “conscious capitalism” or “social entrepreneurship”.

    However, freedom is not just freedom from, it is also freedom to. After 1865, blacks in the southern states were free from being coerced into slavery but, from about 1880 until 1964, their freedom to actually do something with their freedom from coercion was virtually nil.

    Now if you look at the figures I have outlined above, you can immediately see that the problem with Unchecked Capitalism is not coercion, and particularly not coercion by greedy and evil corporations. The problem is that Mackey’s so-called constituencies are prevented from exchanging members.

    There is a massive wall between most of the customers/employees and the nearly all of the suppliers/investors. On one side of this wall are people who are capable of buying and holding stocks through market crashes.

    On the other side are the people who are not capable of it and who have no serious alternative that would generate any real wealth for them beyond their own labor, in the same way that buying and holding stocks generates real wealth beyond the investor’s labor.

    Reading Mackey I am inevitably reminded of the boast of Bill Clinton that more people became millionaires during his administration than ever before or since.

    But I think if you delved deeper, you would find that the overwhelming majority of those new millionaires came from the 2/5 of America who can successfully invest in stocks, rather than the 3/5 of America who can successfully invest in little to nothing.

    No single enlightened capitalist, socially responsible business, or free-market enthusiast will ever remove a brick from that impenetrable wall. Nor, I suspect, would a whole economy full of them do it either.

    The unbudgeable fact is that 3/5 of us are simply not, and never will be, invited to the party.

  • Jake P

    Thanks for the summary, Anchoress–you’re the best :)

  • leg

    Like others here, I don’t always agree with Jillette, but I do admire him. He is thoughtful and reflective. He examines his belief systems with regularity. I appreciate this in a person and it is the main reason I visit “The Anchoress” on a daily basis. I really appreciate Liz’s reflective thoughts. It helps me be reflective.

    Jillette’s monologue and confrontation clearly points up a pervasive problem in our society: the refusal by many to question their belief systems. All belief systems are a choice. I choose to believe in a God and Christ, yet I routinely question the existence of God. Generally, I find that the existence of God provides a far better coping mechanism – not just for me, but for society in-toto. I have no problem with aetheists, as long as they rationally present mechanisms that help themselves and society. Too many aetheists do not do this. They adopt aetheism more as a rejection of religion without understanding that they are adopting a set of beliefs – which they have not studied and do not fully understand. Therefore their belief set is very shallow. I’ve seen/read enough of Jillette to recognize that his belief set is much more than just a rejection of religion. There is true hope for a better world in his belief set. This is no different than what Christ taught. The great thing about the Bible, and believing in Christ, is that it gives us a written basis for striving to a higher level of humanity, moralness and thoughtfulness. The aetheists do not have a bible and must develop their own guidelines and work these things out by themselves. I don’t know how they do it. Jillette is one of the few aetheists that I see working on it. More power to him.

  • Joseph Marshall

    One of the advantages of starting with numbers and facts, is that they usually cannot be refuted, the only reply that can reasonably be made to them is to ignore them. I think it can be safely said that those who have responded to me have done this.

    you are pushing the classic “wet streets cause rain” theory….America had such a tremendous economic advantage caused by the fact that three-quarters of the world lay in the rubble of the Second World War that the US government couldn’t screw it up.

    Well, I think I would have to say that this is the streets were never really wet because I never looked out the window theory. The starting point is what the market actually did, and the goal is to explain it. Your explanation is colorful, but hardly explanatory.

    GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION or as JFK called it, a “restrictive economy” has given us this “chronic deficit of inertia.” The cure is MORE capitalism, not less.

    Arguments from authority [which is what this is] have practical value only when the knowledge of the authority is assured. As fine, and intelligent, a man as Kennedy was, I hardly think that he had much insight into the facts and numbers I have adduced from 1964 until now.

    I always find it astonishing that at this pinnacle of prosperity, this country is debating the merits of capitalism. And frankly, I’m appalled at the apparent ingratitude for the blessings of liberty we have enjoyed.

    I yield to no one in my appreciation of the merits of the shiny new car that I drive away from the dealership. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to change the oil, rotate the tires, flush the cooling system, and so on. No such routine maintenance has been performed on our economy since 1980. If you’re willing to face them, the results speak for themselves.

    Further calling our current situation a “pinnacle of prosperity” is very strong evidence of chronically unopened eyes. And, finally, I can assure you that my gratefulness for the blessings of liberty remains unabated, thank you.

  • SjB

    Aww… I love this guy. I’m a sucker for an honest man who has the courage to evaluate criticism of himself and seeks to understand if it is valid or not.

    Now… can we all regularly pray for this adorable heathen’s salvation in Christ? I would love to see Penn in heaven for all of eternity. Wouldn’t you? ;)

  • Barbara

    “…yet another Hollywood liberal businessman who thrives under capitalism (and his wine is pretty good!) but who finds the ideology that promotes capitalism to be abhorrent.” What a whopper! Any given individual can find his preferred economic model on a spectrum that can range from the Somalian Libertarian nightmare to Mao’s Brutal Dictatrorship and everything in between. But how silly to imply that your run of the mill liberal is anti capitalists simply because they do not share your own very specific political values. Sure, phony straw dog liberals, constructed solely for the sake of your argument, might. But most people do not fit into neat philosophical boxes, no matter how tidy such boxes might make us feel.

  • Sharon Graham

    The reason that Penn kept saying “sane” is because ,for the last 20 years ,the media has portrayed Christians as nut cases.Every serial killer has a mother who reads the Bible or who has a cross on the wall.Last night’s “”Criminal Minds had a homosexual killer whose Father “”relied on the Lord” and screwed up his son’s life.This becomes “Truth” after years of it.The only show that showed beleivers in a positive light was “Joan of Arcadia”.It was yanked after 2 years but Dog the Bounty Hunter is still with us.
    I beleive that this brainwashing is one of the reasons for the decline in church attendance.Who wants to be thought of as a nut?

  • T Harris

    I agree with your points. Optimism is a mental state of listening and weighing in in a constructive manner. Liberalism I find much more open. Possibly too open depending upon the interpretation of a specific point. Mr. Jillette has it right from a commentator’s perspective. He presents most things in an objective manner with arguments for and against. After all, we’re not all perfect.

  • Dub Dublin

    Thanks for the discussion, and for embedding a fascinating video. Jillette only thinks he’s an atheist. His real commitment is obviously to the truth, as it’s quite clear that’s what underpins his worldview. Although others may differ, I see a man standing on the precipice of a conversion experience, afraid to jump, but fully aware that what he believes is about to push him anyway. I think Jillette realizes, but does not yet acknowledge, that truth is not an abstract concept, but rather that Truth is a person – that of the living Christ, and that the only way he can be faithful to truth in the abstract is to be faithful to the living Truth in reality. Let’s pray that his honest questioning is fruitful and his realization overwhelming.

  • EJHill

    Joseph – Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear.
    The wealth of the nation is produced by the people as a whole. It does not come from government or Wall Street. Government produces nothing but government. And regulation and taxes stifle all economies.

    Throw out all the market numbers you want.
    They are just snapshots in time of the market and not the economy as a whole. Neither can they be taken as reasonable indicators removed from the greater world around them. So, yes, you are dealing in Michael Crichton’s “wet streets” theory, that is, screwing up the whole cause-and-effect of the subject. Wall Street can reflect the prosperity but doesn’t cause it. Wall Street does not produce wealth. It raises capital so others may produce wealth. It was, is and always shall be legalized gambling. There are winners and losers. That, too, is eternal.

    Whatever regulations that were in place doesn’t mean they were MORE responsible for American prosperity than the relative weaknesses of our current economic rivals.

    There wasn’t even one Korean car company exporting to the US during your golden age of regulation let alone TWO (No, Hyundai entered the US in ’86, Kia in ’94.) Was China an economic powerhouse during that time? Again, no. So whatever the Dow was in ’54 or ’64 or ’77 makes no difference.

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  • Russ

    Joseph, capitalism is not perfect, it is just better then anything else that has been tried.

    Sharon Graham, I believe that you nailed it.

    SjB, Amen! Praying for him is a great idea.

    Can you not imagine Christ having a meal with Penn?
    Penn would do illusions for entertainment and Christ would display power to guide him to the Truth.

  • Barbara

    “Regulation and taxes stifle all economies.” In many circumstances, like irrational exuberance in the marketplace and the growth of financial institutions who are too big to fail , a very good thing!

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  • J

    My parents were both college graduates from the WWII generation, both born and raised in MA, a very liberal state. They raised me in a home that practiced not only listening to the other side of an argument, but, for a mental exercise, trying to ARGUE the opposing idea, and switch sides the next night. It helped to see both sides of the argument, but, because of their wise voices, they were able to teach us to question some of the liberal ideas, see their consequences, and predominantly, turned out conservatives.

  • Tony

    Elizabeth…Maybe it’s time a group of civil, rational Catholic thinkers and apologists (like yourself and Mark Shea) asked Penn out to lunch and gave him a different view of Christianity and Catholicism in particular.

    [Maybe Shea. I'm a nobody-admin]

  • Joseph Marshall

    The wealth of the nation is produced by the people as a whole. It does not come from government or Wall Street. Government produces nothing but government. And regulation and taxes stifle all economies.

    Now, frankly, this is a mere piece of The Catechism. The conservative catechism. Catholics have a religious catechism of “revealed truth” [to quote the Pope] about the Nature of God. This makes perfect sense because the evidence of our senses is totally neutral about either God’s existence or God’s nature. If we are to know it at all, it has to be “revealed” to us and we must sustain this revelation on “faith”.

    Note I say “neutral”. Atheists have a corresponding catechism about the non-existence of God, which is equally “revealed truth”. Empirical evidence from our senses is simply silent on the issue.

    On public issue after public issue, and not just economics, conservatism has The Catechism of “revealed truth”. Evidence doesn’t matter: Throw out all the market numbers you want. They are just snapshots in time of the market and not the economy as a whole. So we should not even bother to analyse the evidence, and we should rest content in our revealed truth.

    This is very convenient because it exempts such notions as, “And regulation and taxes stifle all economies,” from any serious intellectual examination.

    From 1980 until now we have watched the systematic deregulation of our economy. Under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, deregulation was pursued actively; and under Bill Clinton it was maintained passively by Republican ability to stifle any action by Congress to alter the matter. If reduction of regulation would make us richer, it certainly must have made us richer over the last 30 years. Right?

    From 1980 until now, the upper 2/5 of us. [everyone with an income above about $65,000+] had a growth of real family income of 42%. The bottom 3/5 of us had a growth of real family income of 16%.

    Before 1980 those growth rates were 107% and 109%, respectively.

    In other words, deregulated capitalism drastically reduced the total family income growth of everybody as well as keeping the lower 3/5 of us merely treading water.

    Well, perhaps not quite everybody. After 1980, the top 1% of us [about $250,000+annual income and net worths of about $2,000,000+] saw a growth in their after tax income of 228% [!]

    So I guess we can say that if you are one of the 300,000 Americans who are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, regulation was stifling your economy.

    These are facts. These numbers are real. This is money. Money talks. But if you have The Catechism you don’t have to listen and you don’t have to try to explain the facts.

    Now: Joseph, capitalism is not perfect, it is just better then anything else that has been tried.

    No living American has lived under any economic system but “capitalism”. Despite The Catechism, this is not a comparison between “capitalism” and something else, this is a comparison of two different ways of running a capitalist economy.

    One way massively increased the wealth of everybody, the other way massively increased the wealth of current millionaires and has stifled the increase in wealth for everybody else.

    One way led us out of the worst economic crisis this country has ever seen, the other has led us into the second worst economic crisis this country has ever seen.

    Deregulated markets crash and burn. If the market is big enough, like our own total economy, several episodes of crashing are required before the damage becomes critical. We now have had 3 such deregulated crashes to get us to the second worst economic crisis this country has ever seen.

    There wasn’t even one Korean car company exporting to the US during your golden age of regulation let alone TWO (No, Hyundai entered the US in ‘86, Kia in ‘94.) Was China an economic powerhouse during that time?

    How do you think our economic rivals got to be our economic rivals? They didn’t do it by merely selling goods at home. They didn’t do it merely on the unfettered inventiveness of their ordinary people. And they certainly didn’t do it with governments that never significantly intervened in economic affairs.

    One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how little conservatives seem to understand what “capital” means in capitalism–from the vantage point of the investor it means lending and from the vantage point of the entrepreneur it means debt.

    You can create an enterprise without borrowing money, but you can’t sustain it and expand it without borrowing money. The debtor is massively vulnerable to adverse circumstances beyond their control, as millions of homeowners have learned over the past couple of years. And joint stock companies remain debtors all the while that they are producing profits.

    You look at each of the so-called “economic miracle” countries–Japan, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, China, to take them in chronological order–and you will find that their capitalism [or their return to it in the case of Japan and Germany] was sustained and supported by extensive government regulation to dampen the swings of the market forces which can kill fledgling companies that are all debt and no profit no matter how promising they are.

    Just like we regrew our economy by government reorganization of it to fight World War II and a philosophy of sensible peacetime government intervention into it up to 1980.

    After 1980, an economy that started with a fair number of industries that were productive and profitable has devolved steadily into a place where we only export our wealth to consume everybody else’s goods. Industry after industry has collapsed and the slack has been picked up abroad.

    This all happened under a steadily deregulated market that was supposed to expand economic growth, and therefore benefit everyone.

    It failed. Period. And the progenitors of the notion that it would succeed have had more and more to take refuge in The Catechism and avoid examining facts and evidence.

  • Gayle Miller

    People who are old enough and smart enough to know what the REAL NAZIs did and how they acted are way too wise to call other people Nazis, is my opinion. Has anyone noticed that the far left liberal wing of the Democratic Party is essentially a bunch of humorless lunkheads? I’d include Tommy Smothers in that description. Penn Jillette used to be way down on my list of favorite people but he is climbing daily. An intelligent and thoughtful human.

  • Bender’s Cheerleader

    Maybe Shea. I’m a nobody-admin

    Delude yourself thus if you must; we all know of your delightful modesty. Those of us who are faithful to your blog know you are anything but a ‘nobody.’

    Shea himself has written about you.

  • dry valleys

    Catholic Beliefs Might Give Anglicans Pause

    Worth noting is that large-scale conversions, especially of people who shift tactically or sort of gradually rather than having a Damascene conversion & prostrating themselves at the feet of whatever they’ve converted to, change the charachteristics of the organisations they join.

    In such a manner, the influx of ex-liberal neoconservatives has changed the GOP, people that paleos call “undocumented aliens from the left”, who have been especially vocal on foreign policy.

    This is where the observation of Christmas began, & other things which are now accepted norms of the church.

    I do think those of any organisation of any form who welcome converts should keep a calculating mind beneath those warm smiles & open arms, for their own sake. It isn’t so simple as just people realising they were in the wrong church & have reverted to their rightful place. You might find it harder to handle than that!

  • Tony

    Once again, Elizabeth, you underestimate yourself. You have plenty of thoughtful insights to offer about life and faith. Penn could learn a lot from you.

  • newton

    Delude yourself thus if you must; we all know of your delightful modesty. Those of us who are faithful to your blog know you are anything but a ‘nobody.’

    I second that. :-)

  • newton

    The one thing about idols is that they’re made of a perishable material. On their way to collapsing in their own weight, they hit you in the head. Hard.

    I get the feeling that Penn Jillette is well in his way to his own awakening… his own encounter to the Truth Himself… Yet, he doesn’t seem to realize it. Don’t you think?

  • Jennifer

    I won’t make any assessment of Penn’s honesty or sincerity, and maybe he is truly seeking. But I have no appetite for him or his schtick. I saw his insulting piece on the Vatican recently, and that was more than enough for me. I just find him vulgar and ignorant. When he can manage to be respectful and courteous, then maybe his opinions would be worth considering.
    Til then, I have to wonder why people of Christian faith, Catholics in particular, tolerate this man’s hateful garbage.

  • exhelodrvr

    “Til then, I have to wonder why people of Christian faith, Catholics in particular, tolerate this man’s hateful garbage.”

    Why does God tolerate us?

  • Jennifer


    God doesn’t tolerate us. He loves us. He forgives us. He also wants us to follow and serve and to sin no more. He knows we will fail and fall miserably short, but we still have to try to clean up our act. Then His mercy meets us where we fell.

    Penn is clearly an intelligent man with talent. I’m simply saying he is also vulgar, disrespectful, often crude and insulting.
    Why is it a sign of intolerance to reject his brand of “entertainment”? I guess I don’t understand the thinking that allows Christians to applaud the talents of artists of every genre when their “art” is so often anti-Christian, especially anti-Catholic.

    I know of folks who pay for concert tickets to see Fergie (for example) and rave about it afterward, even though her lyrics are so full of disgusting, immoral sexual crudeness it makes me want to puke. This is the kind of thing Christians support with their money/time/applause?

    I don’t get it. I sincerely hope Penn is seeking, and if he genuinely is, then he will find. But in the meantime, I won’t be watching or listening to him unless he cleans up his act.

  • exhelodrvr

    “But I have no appetite for him”

    We absolutely should have “an appetite for him,” even if we don’t like his act. We should be loving him and forgiving him. Reject his entertainment, but not him.

    Plus, a lot of his stuff is hilarious.

  • Jennifer

    Okay, again, I’m rejecting his vulgarity, crudeness, disrespectful and insulting “act.” I have no need for it and no appetite for it. Why would any believer?!? He makes a living by trashing our faith and the saints who inspire us. Is nothing sacred even to us anymore?

    Again, I don’t get it. I don’t wish him any ill, and I truly hope his heart is changed, as I’ve said before. That doesn’t mean I have to support what he does by watching or listening.

    If that makes me closed-minded or hopelessly unenlightened, so be it. I don’t have to invite garbage into my home or my life.

    If he showed up at my door I would welcome him in and try to tell him who Jesus really is, but he’d be told to watch his language in my house or be shown the door.

  • Punditarian

    Dear Anchoress,

    Behavior unbridled by a conscience and a moral code leads to problems in any society, under any system. And there will always be evil people.

    Free market capitalism is the only system that can produce prosperity for the masses, and it has proven that ability time and time again. Systems of centralized market control have always produced poverty, time and time again, from the despotisms of antiquity to the socialisms of the 20th century.

    The Founders never envisioned an America that would not need to be peopled by men and women of moral integrity and a strong religious feeling. Even though as XVIIIth century intellectuals, many were Deists, they unanimously recognized the importance of the religious dimension, and were also convinced that the Divine Law was greater than any man-made Constitution.

  • Paul Hughes

    I read this post and the one from December, and there seemed to be a false dichotomy between “Do we attack” because he’s often offensive and vitriolic, or “Do we wait” since he might convert.

    I don’t want to keep identifying with — living — the world’s approach of “attack and withdrawal,” man’s primary mode of action. Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” The goal, surely, and people were beating down doors (or at least roofs) to get to Him.

    But there is no necessary contradiction on this matter. Before Saul became Paul, it would not have been inappropriate to say —strongly — about or even to him, “What you’re doing is wrong, and it must stop.” Not required either, but people seemed to be saying (in comments) that we had to pick on or the other.

    Chesterton was awesome at loving his enemies, and winsome to the point of jovial in doing so. I believe he said most people in error mean well and all of them mean something — but in loving his enemies so, he pointed out that they WERE in error. He retreated not one inch from saying they were fools or just plain wrong.

    Generally I was glad to see this about Mr. Jillette because I didn’t know it, and I’m sure I indulged uncharitable thoughts towards him in the past. I don’t think any of us have to be sorry for saying, though, that his remarks about Teresa were vile for a very good and simple reason: they were.

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  • Doug V

    Thank you, Anchoress. I read your blog occasionally, and though I am not a Catholic, I admire and appreciate your faith, and your belief in conservative principles. This examination of Penn Jillette was very good, insightful, and caring. It’s nice to read someone who is reasonable (understands that we aren’t perfect, on either side of the discussion.)

  • waltj

    Joseph, I’m curious about one of your statements. If I understand you correctly, you say that during stock market crashes, people in the lower end of the socioeconomic scale can’t afford to hold the stocks they may have purchased during better times. Why? Unless the stocks in question are critical to the generation of income and their dividends are omitted, then why can’t these people hang onto their stocks and wait for them to rebound, just as the wealthier people can? The money has already been invested, and a loss isn’t a loss unless it’s realized. I’ve had plenty of stocks that nosedived at some point, and I’ve been disciplined about holding them until they rose above my break-even point. In a very few cases, I couldn’t because the company itself crashed and burned, but mostly, patience won out, and I was able to recover my paper losses. What prevents other people from doing this? Please enlighten me.

  • Joseph Marshall

    Well, the first question I would have is how close are you to the income level that is the 3/5-2/5 breakpoint? [about $65,000 per annum] The second question I would have is how old are you, and how many of these crashes have you ridden out? The third is how much other debt or risk exposures are you carrying? And not just the voluntary ones. Fourth, how disciplined and focused in general do you find your neighbors?

    This separation I am describing is not absolute, like the edge of a cliff, and there is a fairly large psychological component to it. There is also a fairly wide range around that 3/5-2/5 breakpoint. So it is perfectly possible for someone in the middle 1/5 of the income range can buy and hold if the other factors, financial and psychological, favor it.

    The principle however is simple: the higher the level of income the more risk exposure you can afford. There are simply no minimum risk alternatives [like bank CD's] that pay decently.

    If you bought and attempted to roll over CD’s from 1987 forward, your interest rates have steadily fallen from a 1987 high of 6% to a 2007 low of about 1%.

    Would you try to buy them and roll them over under those terms?

    Also, if you are in your 50′s or 60′s, at less than $65,000 annual income, the amount of crash you can stand before you cash out is far less than in your 20′s or 30′s.

    After the crash of ’87, it took seven years for equities to regain the losses, after ’00 the equity recovery was four years [and this despite the Fed lowering interest rates below anything ever seen in the investment lifetime of most of us], and, after the crash of ’08, we are now at approximately the peak values of 1987 [!] and will have to wait another 5-7 years for the losses to be overcome.

    So if you bought into the market in the ’86-87 euphoria when you were 30, you are now looking at your stocks being in the same place as they were when you started, and you are 52.

    You will be somewhere between 56 and 59 when stocks finally recover their losses. And if you want to retire well off at 67 [which is when your Social Security and Medicare will probably be starting], you will have to be shrewd enough to move to more stable holdings than stocks sometime between the ages of 61 and 64 to minimize the effects of the next crash.

    How many people in this country are capable of that much intelligent discipline for 25 years with incomes from labor lower than $65,000 annually? Not many.

    If you consistently continued to buy and hold more stocks during the troughs with the income you make from labor, your net worth would, of course, be greater, but the farther away you are from that $65,000 income break point the harder this is to do because housing, food, utility, child raising, transportation to work, and all other costs will take a greater % of your earned income.

    Now, consider other debts and risk exposures. Let’s say you bought a $150,000 home in 1997 at age 40 with a $20,000 down payment from your previous home’s equity and a thirty-year fixed rate loan. From then until you are 70 your total debt service on that home will be, at an absolute minimum, around $250,000-$300,000 for the life of the loan–a minimum of $8500-$10,000 annually coming off of your earned income.

    You could have done better with refinancing, or buying up between 2000 and 2005, but only at the cost of extending the years of debt service and the continuing strain on your income into your middle 70′s to early 80′s. So now the odds are that tens of thousands of dollars will vanish from the estate you leave your children to resolve that debt.

    In addition, your home’s resale value has declined, maybe even lower than the $150,000 it was worth in 1997 and you are now operating at a net loss of equity on the principal, though you must still pay the same total debt service.

    Moreover, you got your student loan debt, of thousands of dollars, paid off about 1990, but your children will be starting out just about now with 3-5 times your debt level at age 22-24. And they can’t bankrupt out of it under any terms. So it’s even worse than home forclosure: if you default you obliterate your credit rating and still carry the entire debt with interest for as long as you live.

    Now those are the disciplined and responsible debts and risks you have assumed and, since you are disciplined and responsible, you haven’t done anything really stupid during the euphorias of 1986-87, 1999-2000, and 2006-2008.

    You’re a very lucky man.

    But there still are other debts and risks you can’t avoid. The further away you are from that magic $65,000, the more likely you have been to have lost a job in any or all of the recessions. You then go on unemployment at 50% of your previous income at the snap of a finger.

    What happens then? Until you get adjusted [applying for food assistance and so on] you have to live off your credit cards until you max them out at interest rates far, far higher than that of your home loan or your student loan. And you have six months when you can carry your health insurance at both the premium you paid and the premium your employer paid or about 2.5 times more than when you were working.

    And if you just lost your job at 52, you’re very likely to need that coverage.

    Average wages steadily fell from 1972 to 1994 so if you lost your job in the 1987 recession, the odds are very good that you made up only 80-90% of your prior wages when you returned to work, and had a lot more debt to carry.

    You did make up ground the second time you were thrown out of work and were re-hired in 2003 at age 46. But now you are 52 and since there is a virulent prejudice in this country against hiring anybody with gray hair, you will be lucky if you get up to that 80% of your last job’s wages this time.

    But still, you are hanging on like glue to those stocks, waiting for the upturn.

    You’re an iron man!

    There are still other risks that lurk. If you live in that $150,000 home in my town [1997 dollars, remember, so a pretty nice suburban or exurban home] you may have a 30 minute commute to and from work at an average of about 40 mph and 15 mpg. So you use 2.3 gallons of gas a day for work and, let’s say, 0.7 gallons a day for shopping and other chores.

    Then your gas prices spike up to $5.00 a gallon from $2.00 a gallon. Twice. So, during the spikes, you’re paying an extra $56.00 a week to the oil companies. At 3 months of spike, that might be $500 extra off your annual income.

    And the lower that income, the more that $500 means. I know a number of Home Health Aides, who are in the lowest 1/5 of the income pie and drive as much as 100-125 miles a day to service 2-3 clients. During the gas spikes they were actually losing money at their job!

    And this is why 89% of the stocks are held by the wealthiest 10% of the population. And, as I said before, the vast majority of us aren’t invited to the party and are simply barred from serious wealth accumulation.