Thursday, June 12, 2014

Recurrent Disappointment

In my book, I write quite a bit about how conservatives co-opt libertarian rhetoric. I also write about how the libertarian movement is itself a scam. I am not closed to the notion that they are unwittingly doing a number on themselves, but somebody is getting fooled either way.

Now, I also recognize that there are different kinds of libertarians just as there are different kinds of conservatives. The racist paleo-libertarians in the Ron Paul crowd are very different from the staff of Reason magazine, which investigated Ron Paul's infamous racist newsletters. But they are all called libertarians for a reason and many of them share a lot of the same sloppy arguments.

One of the people I look at to make comparisons/contrasts within the movement is famous atheist magician and Cato Institute fellow Penn Jillette. As I wrote in the book, I am a fan. I have been a fan of Penn and Teller since the 1980s when I saw them in that Run DMC video, "It's Tricky." Their skeptical magic comedy was a lifeline to isolated atheists like me and I honor that. But his doctrinaire libertarianism is deeply disappointing. I have "small-L" libertarian friends, but Penn Jillette ain't small-L. He is an enigma in that he is a brilliant man who makes consistently stupid arguments. Take this old video that I just stumbled on today, for example:

In it, he argues that you cannot say an organization or movement is racist unless they say they are racist themselves and he cites the Klan as an example. Penn has not seemed to notice how the Klan now likes to deny they are racist by saying things like "We're not anti-black, just pro-white." Some Klansman will claim to honor Martin Luther King. Ted Nugent says Rosa Parks is one of his heroes when not calling Barack Obama a "subhuman mongrel." etc. I am afraid that Penn puts too much faith in "truth in advertising." 

Indeed, saying that you cannot call bullshit unless you can read minds (or "look into someone's heart," as he puts it) is not a little ironic coming from the star of a debunking show called "Bullshit." I cannot perform either of these supernatural feats, but when Tea Party protestors depict Obama as a witch doctor on their signs, I think deductive reasoning is pretty handy. I cannot look into Vladimir Putin's soul any more than George W. Bush could, but I can gather evidence of past and present behavior, look for any patterns, and venture a fair guess.

Now, in fairness, Penn was ranting in stream-of-consciousness rather than carefully crafting an argument in advance. Moreover, this video was uploaded May 24th of 2010, before the Tea Party took over the House of Representatives in November, and he may not have seen all the warning signs (excuse the pun) and Confederate flags at their rallies.

But on the other hand, he sniffed out that they were social conservatives pretty quick despite their initial denials. The Tea Party had pledged to focus on taxes and economic issues, but once they took the House they started churning out anti-abortion bills. Penn Jillette saw Glenn Beck's religious rhetoric before then and chose not to ignore it. From there he drew his own conclusions. So why does he ignore Glenn Beck's (and Rush Limbaugh's) racist rhetoric? Both of these characteristics of the Tea Party movement were evident fairly early on. That parallel alone totally torpedoes Jillette's reasoning.

And if that's not enough, just mentioning Lee Atwater's name should sink it. The Reagan/Bush campaign strategist had warned his bosses that hard hats and "populists" were "liberal on economics" and needed the culture wars to distract them as a "compelling reason to vote Republican." And then there was Atwater's brutally candid explanation of the Southern Strategy back in 1981.

Of course, the Tea Party is not "liberal on economics" - and therefore not populist.
Yes, Seth MacFarlane was mistaken by assuming that the Tea Party was predominantly made up of duped working people. That was a common initial misconception about their ranks - many of them were better heeled than first believed. But, in fairness to MacFarlane, the Tea Party movement's politicians and spokesman do spout bogus populist rhetoric of the type that Thomas Frank had chronicled during the 1990s. Their anti-corporate act is flatly laughable. But there are also many working people who got taken in. In fact, as Frank found, the GOP has found a way to turn class antagonism on its ear. Indeed, they are still doing it

But Penn Jillette did not point out Seth MacFarlane's mistake because he was operating under the same assumption. What Jillette objected to was MacFarlane's claim that these people are being duped. Well, since that 1981 Lee Atwater interview, it has been a pretty open secret.

And I am not even going to get into Jillette's
bizarre parting argument that MacFarlane supporting health care reform is actually self interest because it somehow means that he can control more money.

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