I picked up Penn Jillette’s new book God, No!, yesterday, and am already most of the way through it. It’s pitched as an atheist’s version of the “Ten Commandments”. (This apparently was prompted by an exchange Penn had with Glenn Beck that resulted in Penn dashing off his own version of the Ten Commandments and Beck distributing them at his right-wing rallies. I’m still not entirely clear how that makes any sense.)
In fact, the book – like most of Penn’s stuff – just turns out to be a loose collection of breezy anecdotes and rants, dubiously organized thematically around his “Ten Atheist Suggestions”. It’s basically a compilation of Penn’s show-biz stories and video-blog ramblings, apparently intended to illustrate how his “Suggestions” work in his daily life – the connections are thin in most cases. The first chapter is a lengthy and utterly pointless, but fascinating, profile of Vegas performers Siegfried and Roy; it has about one paragraph of material that even mentions religion, and ends with Penn paying several thousand dollars for a pair of tight leather pants as a kind of tribute to Roy after he was injured in his tiger-taming act. That also makes no sense, and sets the tone for the rest of the book. Many of the chapters are hilarious (his story about being one of the first to ride the civilian “vomit comet” zero-g plane, while doing a striptease with a member of ZZ Top and a woman with huge breast implants, is indescribably bizarre; his visit to one of San Francisco’s infamous gay bathhouses at the height of the gay-bar scene – in which he couldn’t get a single gay guy to hit on him in a place that exists only for men to have sex with each other – is equally whacky). Many are touching, especially when he talks about his family. But many have virtually nothing to do with religion, or even with the moral principles that open each section of the book. (He includes a long story about his $100 bet with radio host Alex Bennet – that he couldn’t have sex while SCUBA diving with a fashion model – that is clearly in there only for the purpose of bragging. He even includes the text of his unpublished letter to Penthouse magazine about it.)
On only partial familiarity, my reaction is that the book is vintage Penn – funny and irreverent and not too rigorous. I am enjoying reading it, but I don’t think it contributes anything to the “New Atheism” or to any understanding of atheism or religion. Fans of Penn & Teller – and I am one – will find it a lot of fun, but I don’t think it rises above that level. And that’s what really gets me – not so much about the book, but about Penn himself.
Let me say, first of all, that there’s no reason I should care about any of this. Penn is a cool but exasperating character; he brings a lot of attention to his pet causes, some of which I support and some of which I don’t, but so what? He and Teller are the best in the world at what they do best, in part because they’re the only ones in the world who do just what they do. They’ve worked tremendously hard to build an unique act, and it’s made them rich and famous and given them the chance to do a lot of other cool stuff most people can’t. (Such as? Penn explains that one of the greatest benefits of being as successful in show-biz as they are is that they don’t have to work New Year’s Eve anymore.) They deserve what they’ve earned, and they’re entitled to use it to promote their other causes and interests. I’ve never met either of them, but I can’t help feeling a strange kind of connection, in part because Penn is friends with people I do know, and in part because he’s tight with a lot of the kind of people I wish I knew, like Richard Dawkins and James Randi and a lot of the skeptics crowd. Part of that, too, is simple jealousy, I realize. I really shouldn’t care what he does, and he certainly doesn’t need my approval.
But because Penn dabbles in areas that I think are important, and which hinge on objective questions of fact and logical processes of reasoning – especially areas related to science and morality – I want him to make more sense. I want him to take himself and his issues seriously, and treat them seriously. One thing I like about Penn is that he respects and admires science and logic and the people who are competent with them. (The book notes that he once called Richard Feynman long distance to ask him where to get a container of liquid nitrogen for a special effect. Feynman pointed out that, as a theoretical physicist, he doesn’t use liquid nitrogen, but promised to help. He doesn’t say whether Feynman asked why the hell he was bothering a Nobel laureate in California with a bullshit issue like that. But half an hour later, Penn got a call from a very puzzled community-college science teacher in Brooklyn.)
Penn freely acknowledges there is a lot he doesn’t know, and he advocates admitting “I don’t know” as a skeptic’s virtue. This is right on, and I really admire it. But he also goes off on issues he clearly hasn’t thought deeply about, either believing that he really understands better than he does, or just not caring. Either way, he puts himself on the same plane as the hacks he sets himself against. I thought the P&T Bullshit! show was a brilliant concept, but, though I haven’t seen many episodes, the ones I have seen are often very superficial – an observation that applies in cases when I agree with them as well as ones in which I do not. Very often, their “arguments” are really just illustrations, at best, of some more complex point that they never really make. They rarely acknowledge the complexities of the issues they address – which works for issues like homeopathy, on which there are no complexities (it’s just . . . bullshit), but not for ones like gun control, on which there are. Something similar happens in God, No! – he offers a series of vague value statements (“The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity, and love”) that serve less as an atheist’s moral code than just as sloppy organizing themes for his funny stories. I’d have happily bought into this book if he’d simply pitched it as the sequel to How to Play With Your Food – but he’s pitching it as the latest accession in the New Atheist library. It is not, or at least it should not be, because it doesn’t try do the intellectual work that Dawkins and Hitchens, or even Sam Harris, have been doing. It’s hip and funny and sexy, but from the perspective of someone seriously interested in an atheist view of life, it reads more like those insipid Bible tracts, filled with stories of dippy Christians finding joy by heeding the word of God – though in this case it’s a crazed atheist finding joy in extra-large silicone tits. That’s a cool way to live your life, but it’s not a responsible way to represent atheism as a worldview. And I think Penn is too smart not to understand that, and too honest with himself not to know his own limitations and work around them (something he goes to lengths to do in areas he really cares about), so I have to ask why his approach to intellectual issues is often so half-ass.
The other thing is his libertarian ass-bug. He mentions in the book that he actually has pages of handwriting by Ayn Rand mounted on his dressing-room walls as artwork. That’s fucked up. More than that, he just goes off into bizarre rants on occasion – like right in the middle of a story about a magic show or something, he tears off for 2 pages on how much he hates liberals and the government. It’s cranky and annoying, but in addition it often makes no sense. Penn’s books are obviously written on the fly – they reek of Penn’s personality and his speaking style (I wouldn’t be surprised if he dictated them free-form, and just had the tapes transcribed). That’s fine, but again it demonstrates a lack of self-criticism or cogent analysis when he leaves it in as part of his longer chapter, apparently not noticing that it’s non-sequitur, or that it often betrays a stereotypical and idiotic notion of what liberals or liberalism are about. Sometimes he just comes off as a complete asshole.
There’s one chapter that details the death of his father: he was in the hospital, due to be discharged on Christmas Eve, obviously to die, needing considerable nursing support. The hospital was going to send him to a nursing home because there was no way to arrange for home nursing at the last minute on a holiday. Penn offered to pay whatever it cost, including bonuses, to get people to come in. But his father didn’t want his son to spend the money on him; one of his father’s lifelong values was always to take care of his son and never to let his son take care of him, even after Penn had become insanely wealthy. Penn details this fact charmingly and lovingly. But in the case of the nursing home, he asked the hospital social worker to lie to his father, saying that a government program had paid for the care so his father would accept the home nursing and be able to die at home with his family. Penn is scathing about the social worker – he repeatedly refers to her, hatefully, as a liberal, mocks her appearance, and rants about what a terrible person she was because of her liberal values and professional standards. When he asks her to lie to his father – her client in her professional role – so that the father would do what he, the son, wanted, she tells him that she can’t lie to a patient. This is, indeed, the liberal values of truth-telling and self-determination (recognized as bedrock principles of medical ethics as well), but nominally libertarians respect this also. However, when Penn can’t get her to do something dishonest in order to trick his father for him, he threatens to beat her up. Yes, literally (or so he says in the book): Penn – a huge man – said to her “I’ll hit you as hard as I can . . . I’m pretty sure I can do some damage“, if she didn’t lie to his father to make him do what Penn – but not his father – believed would make his father happiest. He kind-of excuses it by saying that this was a way to get the social worker to overcome her own scruples, allowing her to think that she had no choice so she could bring herself to do what he asked, but there’s no evidence she was really playing along with the gag – to all appearances she complied because an angry, selfish, 6′ 7″, 280-pound man threatened to beat her.
Now, look at this for a moment: the threat of violence is appalling, but that’s only part of the problem. Penn rants about how terrible “liberals” are, but the liberal in this case is upholding his father’s right to make his own decision. The reason Penn needed to lie to his father was that his father would refuse to allow Penn to spend the money for home nursing. The reason his father felt that way had to do with his own deep-seated personal values. Penn thought his father would be more comfortable and happier at home with his family than in a nursing home, but he also knew his father would prefer a nursing home paid for out of his own insurance than to be more comfortable at home at someone else’s expense. That’s his father’s evaluation of the competing factors of the case. That’s his father’s decision to make in light of his own values. Penn vacates his father’s right to act on his own values – taking every aspect of the situation into account – in order to impose his own preferred outcome; that outcome is one that will make his father more comfortable in accordance with the aspects of the situation Penn decides are important, even though he knows his father would disagree in light of all the facts as they stand. Penn uses a threat of violence to force a professional to violate established rules of medical ethics and her own professional responsibility, in order to commit an act of dishonesty, in order to trick someone into violating their own values by making a decision on false information, in order to get them to go along with the outcome Penn himself prefers for them. And then he complains about the liberals, who stand for legal procedure, honesty, professionalism, and autonomy, against his own libertarian violence, lying, and paternalism. (This is not even to mention the irony that libertarian Penn appeals to “a government program” to justify tricking his father into expensive nursing care against his will. Apparently Penn’s father believed that his taxes entitled him to a decent minimum of necessities as a member of an affluent civilized community. Penn of course disagrees, but he’s happy to go along if it helps him violate his father’s autonomy.) This is not just supreme assholery (as well as criminal), it’s grossly dishonest.
And that, in the end, is what bugs me about Penn. He sets himself up as a skeptic, but is often as superficial and self-justified as any religious crank. He often doesn’t seem to take himself or his beliefs seriously enough to ground them on defensible fact or argument. I expect that from creationists and bigots; I want better from people like Penn. It’s disappointing to see that in his skeptical arguments, but it’s infuriating to see it in his libertarian reactionary ranting. I think Penn is so cool, and smart, and bold, that I want to see the best in him, and I especially want him not to be like the kinds of people he – and often I – stand against. I don’t think God, No! shows him in the best light in that way. It’s still funny, though.
Oh, and he’s wrong about one other thing, too: there are superstar jugglers.