Penn Jillette: entertainer, commentator, libertarian. The vocal half of the Penn & Teller magic team might to some exemplify a sharp-witted, laudable North Americanism in the face of nonsense – part Mark Twain, part James Randi. Despite Jillete’s simplistic libertarian civics, his show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! does its bit to roll back credulous mindlessness of many sorts.
But when Penn’s subject turns to a faith called Islam, the bravura evaporates. Mention a mosque and the clever iconoclast vanishes into the sea of tens of millions of flabby, terrified morons convinced of their impending doom at the hands of jihadists – the tiniest minority among a tiny minority.
Are there any groups you won’t go after? We haven’t tackled Scientology because Showtime doesn’t want us to. Maybe they have deals with individual Scientologists—I’m not sure. And we haven’t attacked Islam because we have families.
Meaning, you won’t attack Islam because you’re afraid it’ll attack back … Right, and I think the worst thing you can say about a group in a free society is that you’re afraid to talk about it—I can’t think of anything more horrific.
Of course, it might please some Islamic fundamentalists to hear you say that you won’t talk about them because you’re afraid … It might, but you have to say what you believe, even it if pleases somebody you disagree with—that issue comes up all the time in moral discourse.
Not to further terrify Mr. Jillette, but it should be pointed out that there are problems in his bringing that up. Moral discourse as suggested by the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg features the concept of stages of moral development, placing the highest stage as a person’s conforming to a set of morals to avoid self-condemnation. This is as opposed to lower stages avoiding the condemnation of others, or of institutions, of of sky beings. The very lowest stage of moral development? Conforming to avoid punishment.
Which is exactly what Penn’s childish (and very popular) panic indulges in.
In this astoundingly lame justification for avoiding discussing Islam, the big, burly libertarian at once wets his pinstriped trousers while simultaneously validating the current, driving and interchangeable enemy myth of the military-industrial complex. We are treated to another twist of that meat grinder’s handle, as if it was really needed. What stance could be more reactionary, or more embracing of pernicious bullshit than to blubber thus over the infinitesimally small threat individuals pose to a superpower?
You know, libertarians just don’t get it. We live in a world where political and economic realities of our own making exist that cannot be expressed adequately (or at all) in terms of the individual. A system is running. Our parts to be played within it happily include many of our own choosing, but the lingering, aggregated effects of these choices are mainly external to us as individuals. That means that the libertarian ethos – calibrated as it is to the individual’s freedom – is spectacularly ill-suited to oppose a system it cannot even see. Theirs is the philosophy of the spreadsheet cell, in denial of the spreadsheet’s existence.
The horrifying irony is that libertarian blindness has always served as the perfect cover for the corporate enfeebling of the individual. The libertarian credo – personal freedom – is totally at odds with this state of permanent war and war economy. The evidence is unambiguous: freedom after freedom is lost to this permanent war as the years drag on. The only way this system can be countered by individuals is by exercising their sole advantage over the inhuman: adherence to moral or ethical principle. And these should be of the very highest grade, not the lowest.