Penn Jillette on Magic and Politics

It’s probably safe to say I enjoy political discussions, interesting similes and metaphors, and magic more than the average person.

Penn Jillette’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal had all those things. It’s an interesting read about suspension of disbelief and how that might apply to the political scene. I appreciate the gist of it, but it would have been great to have a specific example or two of politicians who were caught out. Underlying the column is a disturbing, complete lack of faith in the political process.

Law and Magic Blog (correctly) says,

I like the analysis, but I’d point out that politicians generally cause more havoc than magicians …

But my favorite parts of the article were Jillette’s insights on magic. He spells out two of the things about magic that fascinate me the most, but that I’ve never seen articulated so well.

  1. “One thing you learn doing magic tricks for a living is how close every performance of every magic trick is to disaster. There are no robust magic tricks. They’re all hanging from a thread—sometimes literally.” This is the opening line of a great film or a novel, not a column about politics.
  2. “The audience wants to see that box empty with its own eyes, but the audience also knows that it has to follow the unwritten rules or the tricks just won’t work.” i.e., you can “see” the box is “empty” at the same time you understand if you were to put your hand in there it would probably get eaten off by the tiger crammed inside.

If politicians are like magicians, are we all the hecklers rooting for them to fail or be exposed–or just the spectators who are secretly happy when they do?

In magic, the magician can hand the heckler a deck of cards and say, “Fine. You try it.”

In politics, that’s how the system is designed to work.

Jillette 2012!

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