Penn Jillette and Tommy Smothers

Penn Jillette and Tommy Smothers October 22, 2009

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

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