Penn Jillette is one of my heroes but I have almost no interest in stage magic. My fandom for him comes from his outspoken Libertarian views. And more than anything, for his ability to present those views in a way that reaches people who would sometimes not be reached otherwise. His TV show “Bullshit” was a masterpiece of communicating Libertarianism in a way that was entertaining and approachable.
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So I was pretty surprised when the twitterverse suddenly came alive with angry Libertarians being pissed off at Penn Jillette. Turns out Penn told CNN that Bernie Sanders was the “one person in this race who’s actually genuine and not crazy”. He also said he was “disappointed” in Rand Paul for not being Libertarian enough.
This all sounded very unlike Penn. Had his recent massive weight loss affected his mind?
As it turns out, I mostly worried for nothing. Penn Jillette has NOT endorsed Bernie Sanders, and he later admitted to Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch that his praise was a bit over the top.
Now, Welch was very right that Bernie is in NO way a Libertarian, and that any Libertarians who think he’s on their side are fooling themselves. But Penn had a certain point too. Most of the people who just retweeted the headline and didn’t look at the actual interview missed the very start, where Penn isn’t talking about Bernie, he’s talking about Hillary Clinton.
He says, and I quote, “Hillary Clinton is just Nixon. I mean she’s precisely Nixon.” And he’s damn well right about that.
Hillary is a pathological liar; she’ll say anything she thinks will get her to the White House. And she has no real reason for getting to the White House other than an absolute conviction that she “deserves” to be president; that it’s “her turn.” She has no convictions, no real beliefs. In the debate on Tuesday night, she claimed to be against a half-dozen things she’d voted in favor of as a senator. She was against gay marriage until a couple of years ago, when polls suggested to her that most Democrats were for it, and then she suddenly became a retroactive lifelong supporter of it. She stands for nothing but herself.
She’s not precisely Nixon; she’s worse than Nixon. At least Nixon really believed in fighting the communists.
And, in comparison to that, Sanders is definitely genuine. I pointed it out myself in an earlier article where I said that Sanders actually believes in what he’s saying. He’s not a socialist of convenience, he’s just a socialist. He’s wrong on almost everything, but he is actually honest and has convictions — which makes him way better than Hillary. Not that it’s hard to be better than Hillary (though Jeb Bush is certainly trying).
Now one of the things I really admire about Penn Jillette is that willingness to be straight about what he thinks, and his response to Welch’s article proves he’s also willing to admit when he didn’t get something right. What really surprised me about his CNN interview wasn’t what he said about Bernie, though. It was what he said about Rand Paul.
You see, Penn said something a few years ago that changed how I thought about Libertarianism. I wish I could share it with you verbatim but I don’t even remember where he said it (maybe some smart reader will be able to link to it). He was responding to the unbelievably stupid “what about the roads” argument a lot of people opposing Libertarianism always try to bring up. This is the argument that starts by pretending that all Libertarians want absolutely no government at all, and then talk about how government is needed to build roads and that in a Libertarian world we’d all just be sitting around in the mud with nowhere to go. Never mind that there are many degrees of Libertarian thought: some of us (probably most of us) think that government can legitimately engage in infrastructure building within some limited guidelines. Others think that local government could be in charge of local infrastructure. Yet others believe groupings of business interests could build roads. Absolutely no Libertarians I know of think there shouldn’t be roads.
And most Libertarians answer this question with one of those arguments, even though the question itself is a trap. Jillette answered it a different way: he said the roads aren’t what we should worry about right now. There are tons of other things to fix that Libertarians can find common ground on with each other and with non-Libertarians. Libertarians shouldn’t be going around talking about abolishing all public works, they should be talking about free speech, legalizing drugs, opposing discrimination, cutting big corporate subsidies, cutting taxes, reducing government waste, opposing pointless wars and runaway military spending, and any other points that a lot of people on the right and the left could get behind.
That’s the right answer. Basically, a lot of Libertarians are so all-or-nothing that they lose the plot and alienate people. People who could be allies with them in getting important things done. Let’s get people in government who agree with us on a lot of things, even if they don’t agree with us on everything. And let’s worry about convincing people about the other stuff later. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
All of which is why I think that the real thing Libertarians should be calling out Penn on is not talking about Bernie Sanders being sincere, and being a slightly better human being than Hillary. What we should really be calling him out on is Rand Paul.
I don’t agree with everything Paul stands for. He’s not as much of a “small government guy” as Penn might like, or indeed as I or many other Libertarians might like. And yes, right now he’s been tempering his Libertarian message to try to survive the early stage of an election dominated by bluff imbeciles like Donald Trump (I called Rand out on that too. But if you want a guy who’s mostly “genuine and not crazy,” Rand’s your man. He is, from a Libertarian point of view, the living embodiment of “let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Libertarians have a real chance of making a mark on the biggest political stage around, and that’s what we should be focusing on instead of screwing around with third-party nonsense that never gets us anywhere. Paul may not be the end point of an ideal situation, but he is an important step toward getting there; because if we ever have any hope of “getting there,” Libertarian ideals must make slow and steady inroads to becoming the dominant influence of the Republican party. The more influence we gain in this presidential election, the further we’ll be able to get after that. This is the only way to get the values we hold into a place where they can actually be applied. Especially now that the Left is moving further and further away from those values it once shared with us on things like free speech and personal liberty.
Penn, you had the remarkable guts to admit you were wrong on Sanders. Will you consider revising your opinion on Rand?
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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