Penn Jillette and 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.

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  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Joseph, my husband and myself own no stocks, and have frequently made less than $65,000.00 per year-(we’re self-employed), and we aren’t poor, and have a pretty good standard of life. Our student loans, and mortgages, were paid off long ago. People really can do well, and live well, even without stocks, and the 65,000.00 per year breakpoint (which sounds a bit arbitrary, to me.)

    And, as waltj points out, many people simply ride out the stock market, and are not impoverished, even if their stocks dip at some point. And, of course, stocks aren’t the sole source of wealth.

    Gas prices are a problem, but that’s not entirely the fault of capitalism; it’s a long story: British backing of the house of Saud, Middle-Eastern monopoly of oil supplies and our own failure to come with real, alternative energy sources, or to drill here in the USA, among other things.

    Capitalism has its faults—it’s a human system, run by flawed human beings, but I still prefer it to all the other systems I see around me.

  • Steve Baker

    Very glad to say I was not the only one who felt this way when I watched this a few days ago!

  • Joseph Marshall

    Once again, despite The Conservative Catechism, I am not comparing “capitalism” to something else.

    I am comparing the way a capitalist economy was run from 1937 to 1980 with how it has been run from 1980 to 2009. And I am asserting that the older way of running it was better.

    Now if you’re going to try to tell me that the United States was anything but a capitalist economy between 1937-1980 I can make only one reply.


    we aren’t poor, and have a pretty good standard of life.

    From the vantage point of the Census Bureau, you are poor as a householding couple if you make less than $14,500 per year total family income. Now I strongly suspect that if you are successfully self-employed, and own a home free and clear, you make considerably more than that.

    This standard of poverty is well within the lowest 1/5 of “after tax income”, no more than $17,900. $65,000 [actually $67,500] is the beginning after tax income of the highest 1/5. It is also the approximate [actually $71,200] lowest “real family income”–a before tax measure–for the top 2/5.

    I lowered the figure to a compromise figure of $65,000 to make sure that I was actually including the top 2/5 in my analysis.

    Between 1979 and 2005, if your current real family income is $65,000+ it has actually increased by 42%. Below $65,000+ rfi it increased 8.5% [I had to recheck my figures from the second post above and I made a clerical error using the 16% figure]

    In other words the top 2/5 of us over the past 25 years have increased their income five times more than the rest of us. This is why I am not talking about “living well”, I am talking about “accumulating wealth” which is something different. It can be reasonably said that everybody over about $25,000 real family income [the top 4/5's of us] is probably “living well”. In the absence of greed it doesn’t really take that much. Accumulating wealth, however is something different.

    If you do not own stocks, do you have any type of investments or savings? If you do not then you are not “accumulating wealth” beyond that produced by your labor. If you do, you are accumulating far less wealth than someone who can buy-and-hold stocks. Absurdly less, in my view.

    Why accumulate wealth? First, unless you plan to drop dead on the job, your income from labor will cease at least 5 years [and maybe 20 years or longer] earlier than your life. Without accumulating wealth you will probably be living far less well then than when you were working. Second, if you have children, your accumulated wealth will benefit them after you die.

    My father was absolutely desititute during the Great Depression, at his worst a teenager living on one mustard slathered hot dog a day while his father looked for work. He retired in 1984 owning his home and with accumulated wealth in totally safe Certificates of Deposit that just about equaled his home value, around $150,000.

    He lived just as well from then to his death in 1998 as he had when he was in his last years of working. So you can say that his accumulated wealth over 50 years of work increased by about 150%. From 1947 to 1980 every income level increased their wealth by 100% or more.

    Today, only those in the top 1% get even close to 100% increase in wealth over the past 25 years and they have increased their wealth by 228%. That is over five times more than the top 2/5 and over 20 times more than the rest of us.

    He was a perfectly ordinary fellow who merely worked and, after about age 50 began to invest in CD’s. No one could do what he did today. Absolutely no one. Safe investments simply do not pay enough.

    The year 1980 is the break point. From that point forward our capitalist economy has been systematically deregulated.

    That’s why you can’t do what my father did. And that’s why we are in the economic mess we are in.

  • Ruth Ann

    I don’t exactly know what to say, except this is one of the most thought-provoking and interesting posts I’ve ever read by anyone. This may come as a shock to you and the other commentators, but I had never heard of Penn Jillette. But I am referring to what you had to say about him as interesting. And I watched both the UTube videos of him that you referenced, and I liked them. I hope to find time to read all the comments, too. I read a few and appreciate the variety of responses.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Ruth Ann, I had heard of Penn Jillete. I liked him when he was talking about the illusions of magic shows, and truth and falsehood; I dropped him when he started trashing Christianity, and bad mouthing Mother Teresa. I wish him well on his search for truth, but I’m no fan.

    Joseph, I honestly think those who depend on stocks to make them wealthy are as misguided as those who put all their reliance on a rich relative remembering them in their will. Neither inheritances, nor the stock market, are reliable, and it seems to me there is no such thing as a “safe” investment, just as there is no guarantee that your rich, single uncle isn’t suddenly going to get married—or leave all his fortune to charity—or his cat. That’s just the nature of the market, which government really can’t control.

    As for the economy. . . I’m not sure more regulation is really what’s needed. Our dependence on Middle-Eastern oil, the rise in food prices because of the switch to ethanol, the Freddy/Fannie Mae fiasco have all played a part in the current fiasco, and some of this stuff has been caused by too much government interference, not too little.

    And I know you’re going to despise this as just part of “The Catechism”, but, seriously, where do you think a nation’s wealth comes from, if not its natural resources, and the labor of its people? Government only makes money in the sense that it prints it up in mints. It produces nothing on its own. This isn’t out of some sort of conservative rule book; (I didn’t know there was a “conservative catechism”, by the way; where can I get one?), it’s the plain truth.

  • Joseph Marshall

    it seems to me there is no such thing as a “safe” investment…..just the nature of the market, which government really can’t control.

    Bank CD’s are covered by FDIC up to the coverage limit. For moderate sized investment they are virtually risk free–at least as far as the principal goes–no matter what happens to the bank, and the CD rates [within a range] are controlled by the Fed interest rate. So the government also has control over what they pay.

    That such an alternative pays so little while stocks pay so much is simply a matter of Federal economic policy. CD’s paid well under a regulated market and pay well no longer. There are limits to what government can control in a market. But, in fact, within those limits, there is a considerable amount of control. That is why institutions such as the Federal Reserve exist–because they can, in fact, influence the market quite strongly.

    where do you think a nation’s wealth comes from, if not its natural resources, and the labor of its people?

    We each are using “wealth” to mean somewhat different things. A more precise term for what I mean is “individual net worth”–this is the value of everything you personally own. By “accumulating wealth” I mean increasing your individual net worth–which you can do by means other than labor, particularly investing–which is something far different than “gambling”.

    Gambling is risking money in a arbitrary game of rules independent of the real world, and risking it where the odd of success are known and are never in your favor.

    Investing is risking money in a real world market where the exact odds are usually unknown, but are in your favor far more often than they are against you. And the levels of risk vary from near certainty that you will make some money beyond what you are risking, to a large possibility that you will lose all you are risking. And you have real choices about how much risk you assume.

    What you mean is “gross domestic product” [GDP]. In that sense of “wealth” you are quite correct. But if a country’s resources and labor are untapped, they produce no wealth. If resources and labor are not used effectively, or are managed badly, they produce far less wealth than they are capable of. The mere availability of them guarantees nothing.

    Also, even when these resources produce wealth, it is perfectly possible that the wealth they produce can largely end up in the hands of only those who are already very rich, instead of the average many who actually do the vast majority of the labor.

    The issue is to what degree and in what way does government need to intervene in how wealth is created, and who that wealth benefits.

    What I am calling The Conservative Catechism [with tongue in cheek] are those things that conservatives believe and either cannot produce evidence for when asked, or those things they believe despite the availability of considerable evidence to the contrary.

    In this case, the beliefs are three:

    1. That labor and resources produce the maximum amount of wealth in a market completely unregulated by the government.

    2. That such a market operates to the benefit of all persons fairly, no matter how much prior net worth they have.

    3. That any government regulation of a market for any reason whatever not only inhibits the growth of total wealth, but actually reduces the access to wealth as increased net worth for everybody.

    My point is that we now have an incredible amount of evidence available that all three of these assertions are false. We have the perfect test case: an American economy that was systematically regulated from 1937 to 1980; and an American economy that was systematically and intentionally deregulated from 1980 to 2009.

    Availability of real world evidence doesn’t get any better than that.

    Deregulation of the economy produces less wealth in total, and less growth of net worth for everybody except for about 300,000 people out of 300 million who live here. All of these people have yearly after tax incomes of over 1/4 million dollars and total net worth that can be measured in the millions of dollars.

    Everybody else loses capacity to increase their net worth. And the less net worth you already have, the more capacity you lose.

    A sensibly government regulated economy produces far more wealth and produces it equally [by percentage] for just about everybody. In the process, those same 300,000 millionaires do just as well as everybody else, though only about half as well as they do when the market is deregulated.

    Here is where the evidence is compiled: “Working Group On Extreme Inequality: How Unequal Are We?” at Anybody who is willing can go there and find it displayed in very clear and readable graphic form.

    No one here has or can refute this evidence. And they all must retreat into pure unsupported faith that this evidence does not matter and that the three assertions above are still “revealed truth”.

  • driver

    “Tommy Smothers says, ‘Making wine is so close to show business. Wine like comedy, is subjective. Either people like your wine—or your songs, or your comedy—or they don’t. Each is a creative process and you’re only as good as your last effort.’”

    I too was fascinated by Jillette’s account of his smothering. Interesting that Tommy recognizes subjectivity in wine and in comedy, but not in other important aspects of life.