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Contra Penn Jillette


Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) obviously considers himself a very smart person with a lot of courage.  He is undeniably big and loud and obnoxious, and maybe in his own mind this is a suitable stand-in for courage.  But it seems to me that a courageous debater on any of the contentious topics he has so publicly chosen to address would actually dare to come face-to-face or at least word-to-word with his opponent. 

     Instead, Jillette likes to do all his debating on camera, with just his little mime friend prancing about, and his real opponents a safe distance away off-camera. 

     Let me take as an example his video segment against 911 conspiracy theorists.


He leads with a lot of trash talk and then quickly graduates to arguing by emotion.   That is to say, he tells the audience that about half of New Yorkers believe in the 911 conspiracy.  A large percentage of Americans also believe in a JFK conspiracy.   Many (the percentage is now dumped) also believe that we never landed on the Moon.  “Are people just fucking stupid?” he asks. [This from a guy who is the illustrious graduate of Clown College. Seriously, check Wikipedia. I am not sure if that is considered to be more or less elite than refrigerator college.] 

      He has led with his conclusion, lumped a lot of issues together indiscriminately, and pre-defined his opposition as not even worth talking to.  That turns out to be very convenient for him, since he never ends up talking to anyone he disagrees with or addressing any factual questions.   Instead of engaging in conversation or debate, he shows little ten second clips and then makes sophomoric remarks about them. 

      Moving from trash talk to emotion, he shows the collapse of WTC2 and says that, “We should never have to see this again.”  He says he is only showing it to us so that he can put to rest some crazy claims.  But he doesn’t say why we shouldn’t have to see it ever again.   He treats the audience like a bunch of weepy children who can’t face tragedy and shouldn’t have to.  But this is just emotional misdirection.

      In fact Jillette is reinforcing the official desired event-reaction, which is the look-away reaction.  This is the desired reaction, since, while seeming to offer sympathy for the victims and for the gravity of the event, what it really does is prevent analysis.  You shouldn’t have to look at it, because if you do you may eventually notice that it looks very strange.  It doesn’t look like a falling building should look. 

      But Jillette diverts the audience from that possibility very quickly.  He cuts to the retired fire-chief Dan Daily, who is here to tell us that all analysis of the event is “an insult to those who died.”  More emotionalism, that is.  Jillette introduces Daily with honey in his voice.  He switches from saying “bullshit” every other word to speaking with softness and deference.  We only lack violins in the background. 

       What Jillette doesn’t tell you is that a majority of firemen in New York City disagree with Chief Dan.   Jillette doesn’t bother to interview any of the firemen who are angry, who have been treated like garbage by Guiliani and Bush, who have published many controversial things in their trade magazines, and who believe that explosives were set in the buildings.  I guess he believes we shouldn’t have to hear that. 


Finally Jillette gets to the “meat” of the video segment, which is a couple of short clips of Jimmy Walter and Eric Hufschmid*.   Admittedly, these two guys aren’t very photogenic.  Or, they are about as photogenic as Jillette himself, but not nearly as loud.  Although they are heroes of the Truth movement in many ways, Walter and Hufschmid are better behind the camera than in front of it (a fact they would readily admit, I imagine). Jillette chose these dregs of his interviews in order to make all 911 questioners look goofy.  But this is a really cowardly method.  I could dig up some people who agree with Jillette, catch them on a bad hair day with a cold, edit in the worst few seconds of their interviews, and run that as proof that only geeks agree with Jillette.  Would I have therefore scored any points?  Of course not.


Not only is Jillette basically dishonest, he is also wildly inconsistent.  As proof, I take these three quotes of his from an interview. 


As much as the population of the United States is blind, there is a very strong sense that we like to hear people out.


You are supposed to hear from people you disagree with.


The major reason [narrow-minded] people are telling people to shut up is so other people don't argue with them, so they don't have to accept the fact that they are wrong.


Now go to his 911 video with those quotes in mind.   Does Jillette impress you as someone who likes to hear people out?  Only if  “hearing them out” means taping them, editing them into gibberish and then adding snide one-liners later. 


If Jillette were really smart and brave, he would interview or debate Webster Tarpley, or at least, say, Ed Begley.   People who are used to being on camera and who can speak with ease.  He would argue substantive issues, avoiding emotionalism, ad hominem remarks, debating tricks, and snide post-commentary.   That is what a real debate is about.  It is not about your strongest man against my weakest man.  It is about your strongest man against my strongest man.  A strong man is not afraid to fight on even ground.  But Jillette prefers to be a bully, a hulking loudmouth who only picks on the weak.  And he can’t even talk to them like a real man.  He has to add his comments later, possibly to avoid getting thrashed by someone half his size. 

        Jillette is so unbelievably vile he finds it amusing to suggest to his audience that they push people they disagree with “down a flight of stairs.”   So much for hearing people out.   He says that if a person is carrying a 911 conspiracy book, you should treat them with prejudicial contempt and violence.   Yes indeed, don’t read the book and dismiss it for factual or logical reasons.   No, burn the book before you are tempted to read it, and attack the carrier for tempting you.   The rational recommendations of a "vocal atheist."    Interesting to see that the atheist Jillette can be just as illogical, exclamatory and obnoxious as the various deluded deists he loves to slander. It would appear that atheism is no guarantee of an open mind, or a well-functioning one.

*Unfortunately, Hufschmid has since gone off the deep end. I recently emailed him to ask a simple question and he responded by asking if I were a Jew and quoting Mel Gibson. Hufschmid has crossed far over that line between questioning the nastier manifestations of Zionism, as Norman Finkelstein does, and being a frothing racist. It would appear that Hufschmid left cogent analysis far behind several years ago, in favor of delusional paranoia.