The Magician and Libertarian Magic

“We don’t really feel your Bern. Now feel my Johnson.”

Penn Jillette, I know him as a Las Vegas magician and comedian. His show Bullshit was brilliant and funny. Now the aged celebrity has fallen for his own bullshit. When he first heard about American libertarianism, it reminded him of his own childhood, hot apple pie, and his very own mother who sent him out into the world with two words of wisdom he continues to live by to this very day, “Who cares?” Here we get our first real break on just why American libertarianism is popular among a certain subset. Like Jillette, it reminds them of their childhood. When libertarians refer to their philosophy as endorsing “freedom” and “liberty,” this is most likely what they mean, the freedom to become a child again.

I also felt this way when I was younger and fell more-or-less into the right-wing libertarian camp.

The freedom to do what you want when you want, sans societal repercussions, is intoxicating. Honestly, I think there are less destructive ways to reach the same place.

Now Jillette’s hooked, but the real definition of libertarianism, as it was told traditionally in Europe, is still illusive to him except for these trite phrases: “let people do whatever the fuck they want,” “small government good,” “business good,” and “don’t hurt me,” or as they say in right-wing libertarian speak, take a NAP.

When you think of American libertarianism, what word comes to mind? Is it revolution, liberty, individualism, cult, religion, pseudo-intellectualism, or fraud? How about fad?

Frank Zappa on Americans and fads.
“Fools have confidence where none is warranted.” — anonymous

Libertarianism in America seems to consist of people who only live inside their heads in a selfish, solipsistic way and nowhere else. It is socialism in one person, an even more malignant form of neoliberalism if that is even possible. They found some way to divorce themselves from the rest of society and live in Neverland while still living in that very society. They foolishly believe you can run a society by having everyone pursue just their selfish desires. In other words, it is just more consumerism, the status quo. What rebels, eh? Notice how most American libertarians are conveniently from the first-world, white, and are exceedingly not poor. They chant in the same manner as Penn Jillette the chant of apathy and conceit, “Who cares? What other people do is their own business. It doesn’t affect me. I do not want to run people’s lives. That’s why I will make the decision to run government out of your personal business just don’t hurt me when I fail to free you, or you will be violating my right to self-determination and free association. Buy my new book. It will change your life.”

Crystallizing the absolute American, libertarian ideal, we take a page from Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.

One of Rand’s heroes, the defiant architect Howard Roark in her novel The Fountainhead, tells us: “All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil…The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices for others….Man’s first duty is to himself…His moral law is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men….The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is — hands off!”’

Psychology Today had a great piece which described American libertarianism’s models of human nature and society as woefully deficient, and if you scroll all the way down to the comments section, you will find libertarians bickering with each other like stuck-up pricks over the definition of libertarianism, practically an experiment proving the article’s premise.

Penn Jillette in his Big Think interview talked a big game about shrinking government as well as keeping public welfare and infrastructure programs (he obviously did not get the libertarian memo), but as usual, it echoed of similar failed policies by those on the right in the Republican Party for over 30 years.

When Jillette talked about what he believes is libertarianism on Big Think, he went in with a Glenn Beck approach saying he could “barely make decisions” for himself and, by extension, nobody else can either; therefore, the government is incompetent in, well, governing, etc. etc. He also seems to believe practicing apathy, as a matter of course, is somehow being responsible, because “Who cares? What people and businesses do is not my deal. I’m just an entertainer.”

“It is a profitable thing, if one is wise, to seem foolish.” — Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound (c. 478 BC), as translated by David Grene.

This is the problem with a lot of American libertarians. Unlike other ideologies which have a clear, concise social purpose and mission statement, American right-wing libertarians are rather obtuse and rely on commonly held beliefs anyone who is not a libertarian can hold. Follow this link to The Advocate website on Libertarianism 101, and you will see what I mean. They make allusions to “liberty” and appeals to people’s individual self-interests, talk about getting the Man off your back, and that’s basically it. That is all it is.

Is it any wonder that a “movement” which appeals to the most fickle, feckless, and opportunistic among us and states we must even abandon our kith for capitalism and entrepreneurship would abandon their own platform to rally behind an authoritarian candidate like Trump, as soon as the politics shifted in their favour?

Jillette talks about ending “Crony-Capitalism,” a typical red-herring and classic misdirection, using the same rhetoric the right has always used, lower taxes and smaller government. Gee, how original! No plan, no specific policy for ending corruption, just shrink the size of “government,” and it will all go away. Lobbying, pork-barrel, ALEC, you name it; it will all magically disappear in a puff theatrical smoke. All you have to do is vote Libertarian in the next coming election, or “Feel my Johnson,” as they say. It’s a tactic which does not appeal to people rationally or to their collective interest. It appeals to people as selfish, irrational individuals.

In the interview, Jillette never gets specific at all. He instead appeals in the same way most libertarians do; he appeals to people’s irrational, selfish desires and fears by making emotional arguments and saying, “We will not take away your stuff! If elected, we will prevent the government from taking away your stuff and give you more freedom and less government control!” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

This reminds of what Austin Petersen said during the 2016 Libertarian Convention, “Ah! The old ‘who will build the roads’ argument. Roads, roads, roads, where we’re going we don’t need roads. Because the truth is in the future we will have a jet-pack. You see the statists are unimaginative. They do not see a future where FREEDOM can solve the problems that are created by government.” One has to wonder, but the puerile nature of Libertarian politics is strangely appealing in an age of individual consumerism.

It’s the magic of this particular brand of libertarianism. Its philosophy and so-called movement can mean whatever you want it to, so long as you adhere to pro-business, right-wing policies.

When it comes to government, specifically the federal government, libertarians like Jillette think of it as a hostile, foreign entity or over-mind with a monopoly of force completely separate from the public at large. This is because they do not believe people can make decisions as a collective voluntarily. To them, society is just a collection of individuals, not groups with a common interest. This is why some radical libertarians believe democracy is tyranny. There are some sinister, corrupt individuals ruling over them rather than a democratic, collective group of people rationally making decisions which benefits the greatest amount of people. Government is how the weak become strong, and human-beings in general are pretty weak. Libertarians hate that idea. Their cognitive dissonance prevents them from comprehending it.

“We don’t really feel your Bern. Now feel my Johnson.” — Penn Jillette

American libertarians have the miraculous ability of selective ignorance and childish duplicity. The less they know of their chosen leaders and the origins of their much maligned philosophy the more confident they feel in its infallibility and righteousness. They will merely say to their skeptics and critics, “We are for freedom of the individual and the non-aggression principle. You are not against freedom, are you? You are not for state violence, are you? Sure, we are for state violence in some situations, such as protecting people’s property and defending our way of life.” They conveniently sweep under the rug such pesky facts as Milton Friedman and Hayek supporting Pinochet’s Chile or Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard advocating deadly force against protesters and rioters during the LA riots, even at the hands of the state. Ron Paul even referred to the people in the riots as “animals.” About a couple of years ago, Peter Schiff gushed positively in an interview on London Real about the “glory days” of the British Empire and how there was “more capitalism and freedom under a monarchy.” You could just see the smile leave the interviewer’s face, as he looked on in shock and wonderment. I am actually not that surprised. Medieval fantasies and dramas have always held a special place in American culture. Previous generations may have fought against monarchy, but the appeal of living under one just will not die. Millions of Game of Thrones fans agree. Medieval politics is just so damn gripping and cool.

“Only a mediocre person is always at his best.” — W. Somerset Maugham

I often wondered where the psychology of the right-wing libertarian position came from. In the documentary The Century of the Self, it discussed psycho-analysis used to manipulate a person’s psychology. In the 60s and 70s, new techniques devised by liberal intellectuals to break the self free from social constraints was being used to change society from the inside out rather than through political action or direct action. They succeeded, and life coaches used these techniques to help people realize they could live in themselves as a new form of individual, self-contained as a kind of socialism-of-one. These new individuals filled themselves with the trappings of the consumerist environment which surrounded them. Erich Fromm calls it the marketing orientation. According to Fromm, we relate everything in terms of markets and business. Business and markets are to be revered, and all our problems and personal responsibilities can be resolved and pursued through the market. After all, it is easier to allow the market to define you as a person than to build your own experiences and character from scratch.

The marketing orientation describes the mindset in which a man perpetually molds himself into society’s image in order to fit the expected norms of society. He sees the world as a marketplace, where new symbolizes good and desirous, whereas old becomes ugly and useless to him. Fromm described this mindset as saying, ‘new is beautiful,’ as opposed to the historical mindset which has been one of keeping and maintaining possessions for later, commodity — oriented use: ‘old is beautiful.’
 Marketing characters exhibit signs of extreme conformity and solve their problems as if they were simply manifestations of the market. These people look for mates as commodities to be scrutinized for positive traits which may have little to do with love, and create barriers between themselves and others defined by abstractions such as religiosity, monetary value and social status. Families which own or manage businesses or encourage conformity and a scholastic focus on the job market — that is, most families in industirialized nations today — tend to create marketing characters. This personality, Fromm said, only started to emerge with contemporary society and its focus on marketability.” —

In a world such as this, our strict adherence to our conditioning as consumers and relating human matters as matters of business and “rational,” irrational self-interest controls society. Our role as consumers and our so-called infinite desires are in control, not us, not the people.

“The pickpocket is usually very well dressed and of prepossessing appearance.” — Harry Houdini

Jillette’s candidate of choice to usher in this new libertarian “Golden Age” is the former Republican, hippie governor of New Mexico and authoritarian extraordinaire, Gary Johnson. When it comes to civil liberties, the Libertarian candidate is mum on religion in schools and is for giving tax dollars to voucher programs and private religious schools. He is for eliminating government involvement in education. So, goodbye Department of Education and public schools. He is for keeping Guantanamo Bay open. He is for racial profiling. He also has a strange obsession with banning burqas. I wonder what his thoughts are on habits and traditional Hebrew wear? What about Mormon or Amish clothes? Those are pretty restricting. Would allowing those somehow restrict our freedoms? He absolutely adores the idea of cutting spending on every single department that actually does any public good to the point of irrelevance. His biggest sticking point, of course, is medicare and healthcare reform.

During a discussion of his open-market plan for health care reform, Johnson envisioned an America teeming with minute-clinics. “If we had a free market model for health insurance, we would have insurance to cover ourselves for catastrophic injury and illness and we would pay-as-you-go in a system that was very, very affordable,” he said. “Stitches ‘R’ Us! Gallbladders ‘R’ Us!” —

Stitches ‘R’ Us?! That certainly sounds like a back-alley clinic if ever I heard one. Yeah, if I need some lifesaving procedure, I will be sure to look up Stitches ‘R’ Us! in the phone book right next to Gallbladders ‘R’ Us! and We Do Mastectomies on The Cheap! with what looks like a street address to someone’s garage.

This is from Kill La Kill. Back-alley doctors are a popular TV trope in dystopian and comedic science-fiction. They are not recommended as a platform you run public policy on.

But do not let that dissuade you. He is, at least, for people smoking weed in front of cop while holding a gay marriage license, which makes him edgy and cool. However, he does support a kind of “salt tax” called FairTax which is a national sales tax of 23% to replace all taxation, including capital gains and income taxes. Traditionally, this type of taxation weighed heaviest on the poor, but not to fret! He will give the burgeoning precariat and poor classes a “prebate” on all necessities. What a guy! Through the magic of right-wing accounting, he believes he can fund government activities through sales taxes alone without borrowing a single cent! Of course, this means corporate taxes will be cut to the bone, if not eliminated, and he is for “free trade.” “Free trade” and free-trade agreements like the TPP make Johnson just blush like a school-boy on his first crush. He wants to de-regulate the market like its 1889! What about the banks? Zero regulations! He is that tough on corporatism and corporate corruption. How is this any different from the consumer democracy bullshit which has crippled every aspect of human life since neoliberalism became a “thing?”

Those were Johnson’s recorded statements on policy. Who exactly is running his platform, and what about his actual record as governor? Let us see what this says about the supposed, now reformed, libertarian politician.

“The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.” — J. Agate

Boosting his friend George W. Bush to reporters, Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico recalls a conversation they had at a conference on state government: “George turns to me and says, ‘What are they talking about?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘You don’t know a thing, do you?’ And I said, ‘Not one thing.’ He said, ‘Neither do I.’ And we kind of high-fived.’ — New York Times, July 28, 2000

To spin himself as the “principled, more progressive” libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson based his campaign office in the same building in Salt Lake City as Ron Nielson. This was the same place as Nielson’s NSON Opinion Strategies polling firm. Interesting. “For one thing, NSOM has a history of working with GOP right-wingers including crotchety Mormon asshole Orin Hatch and ex-witch and masturbation-denier Christine O’Donnell, as well as the Koch’s ‘Reason’ magazine. They also worked on a smear campaign against Harry Reid in the run up to the 2010 election…”

So far, this looks rather fishy for someone trying to pass himself as a “progressive.”

Gary Johnson is all for transparency when it comes to campaign finance and wants candidates to wear their biggest sponsors’ logos on a NASCAR jacket for good measure. Let us oblige Mr. Johnson and see what his coat looks like.

Maureen Otis, a man with deep ties to the far-right Texas Minutemen, personally filed the paperwork for Johnson’s non-profit, “Our America Initiative.” Otis’ own office address is the mailing address for this non-profit.

Otis served as board secretary for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described as a “nativist extremist” group that “targets individual immigrants rather than immigration policies.” That Minuteman outfit collapsed after donation funds went missing, much of it paid to Maureen Otis’s own private company, “American Caging,” a company that specializes in “caging” as the name implies.’

American Caging’s clients includes an assortment of various Christian homophobic groups. You could easily link their activities with non-profits setup by televangelists like Jerry Falwell and other hard right-wing sorts.

Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary, how many times must you learn this fatal lesson all right-wingers must learn at some point? If you are going to accept support from “extreme nativist,” white supremacists, make sure to not leave a paper trail, or someone like Mark Ames or myself will be sure to find it and air your dirty laundry all over the place.

If Maureen Otis were the only hard-right operative involved in Gary Johnson’s campaign, her confused allegiances might just seem odd. But as you’ll see, extremist right-wing operatives like Otis are all around Gary Johnson, beginning with the “Our America Initiative” nonprofit that launched his campaign.
The lawyer who incorporated the “Our America Initiative” charter documents, an A-list GOP dirty tricks operative from Orange County named Jim Lacy, also worked with and supported the same Minutemen outfits as Maureen Otis. Like her, Jim Lacy also operates a bland-sounding direct-mail business called “slate mail” that targets Democratic voters with mailers purporting to come from fake liberal groups with names like “The John F. Kennedy Alliance” with a soothing photo of JFK on one side, and a slate of supposedly “Democratic” candidates on the other side. In reality, Republican candidates pay to have their names and faces secretly mixed in with the liberal candidates whose names and faces appear to give it a semblance of authenticity. Lacy’s slate order business is, he claims, the largest in the state of California, if not the entire country, and it wreaked so much havoc on California local elections that even Orange County residents revolted with a ballot requiring slate mailers disclose. Lacy fought to have the courts void the will of Orange County’s voters, and the courts agreed, saying that putting restrictions on how badly Lacy could deceive voters violated his First Amendment rights and constituted a form of tyranny.
So both lawyers whose names are on Gary Johnson’s main campaign group since 2009 are not only associated with right-wing extremists and violent nativist vigilantes, but more importantly, both of them specialize in fraudulent vote schemes that help their Republican Party clients win elections by deceiving Democratic Party voters.

Are you beginning to see the picture? Hard-right tricksters with ties to violent extremist, vigilante groups are running the show. This only makes the star an even bigger mystery. Just what are Gary Johnson’s politics?

Mark Ames wrote a lengthy piece about the real Gary Johnson, and I used some of his material here. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize that Johnson’s time as governor of New Mexico was one of “law and order.” He was purely authoritarian. He slashed taxes, social programs, and privatized the schools and prisons. His divisive, law and order policies caused some of the worst prison violence in decades.

Whether it was a political stunt to get noticed or a smoke screen to hide his actual authoritarian record, the libertarian Johnson during his second term turned his nose up on the failed War on Drugs and decided to ease-up on incarcerating drug offenders, particularly pot-smokers.

This did not change his record issuing authoritarian policies against drug violators. He said he would veto bills for state spending on drug treatment facilities because it would raise taxes. He also would not issue any blanket pardons for those already serving time on drug charges. He privatized the state prisons and received money from the corporations which managed them, such as the group Wackenhut now called “Geo Group.” The harsh sentencing and privatized prisons created a spat of riots and deaths which invoked even harsher measures from Johnson. He sent a 100 prisoners to the notorious super-max prison in Virginia, some of whom did not deserve to go.

There is more, but this should at least dispel the myth that Gary Johnson is “socially progressive” in any sense. I would go as far as to say he is a dyed-in-the-wool paleolibertarian, maybe even a Bircher.

Libertarians want to use their special brand of incompetence in service of the individual. They hate government after all. What better way to bring it down than by duping the people into putting a bunch of sloven, narcissistic incompetents in high government offices. It’s a twisted brand of logic I have become all too familiar with. “Hey, everybody! Let’s elect this seemingly ordinary, yet strangely famous and charismatic, Everyman to office. He knows absolutely nothing about running a country, but he says the country is in bad shape. He also says the government is too big, but he probably couldn’t tell you how many branches or departments there are or what they do. He probably couldn’t even find Iran or Ukraine on a map, but GOSH DARN IT if he doesn’t make a whole lot of sense!”

Usually when a man uses the power of brands and the media, as well as his own star-power, to say, “Hey look! I am just a regular slob like everyone else,” I tend to just shut off at that point. I have no doubt the only job Penn Jillette is qualified for is being a Las Vegas magician/comedian. He does not need to oversell his position that he is unqualified for managerial or government work, but to say that is somehow evidence that there is no one qualified because it is impossible for him is stretching things quite a bit. Yet he does say he’s qualified to at least vote, even though he just said in the interview he can barely make good decisions and does not want to make decisions for anyone else. He is, however, a Cato Institute H.L. Mencken Research Fellow. Oops! The cat’s out of the bag now! Maybe his book the video was advertising for will mention it. That’s right! His drippy story about mom, apple pie, and American freedom was him shilling for his new book, Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. If you are a big fan of Jillette or you just think he is an interesting guy, then have at it! You will probably find his book a hoot. But this is a terrific example of how politics currently works in this country. It has become more or less marketing and business in sating people’s desires and nothing more.

People’s identities and politics have become just as shallow as the brands they identify with. Libertarianism in America is just a brand, the same with being a Republican or Democrat. It is a rather assiduous truth which I find inescapable.

“Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.” — Harry Houdini

Current-day politics is all about using polling and focus-groups to find out what people desire and want to hear and then providing it to them with the power of private enterprise. It is a magic show which provides constant spectacle through reality-TV style debates and constant marketing with catchy sound sound bites, such as “Going forward,” “Madame President,” “Feel the Bern,” “Feel My Johnson,” “A Hand Up, Not A Handout,” etc., etc. Marketing and advertising like PR is not democratic, competitive, or informative. It removes choice and leaves no room for rationality, criticism, skepticism, or even patiently collecting one’s thoughts. They are a form of magic and trickery to cajole and seduce people into believing in anything. It is a style of propaganda originally devised by the Freud family and currently used by the business elite to manipulate the public consciousness.

The Century of the Self is a documentary which “describes the impact of Freud’s theories on the perception of the human mind, and the ways public relations agencies and politicians have used this during the last 100 years for their engineering of consent. Among the main characters are Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in advertising. He is often seen as the father of the public relations industry…. The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitude to fashion and superficiality.” —

We have seen this form of propaganda before at one time or another. During the post-war boom, propaganda was all the rage to manipulate public opinion on government and government policies and programs. Industry and the elite took full advantage on a population weary and sick from war. Research on National Association of Manufacturers and Visual Propaganda Research on National Association of Manufacturers and Visual Propaganda

Young people never stood a chance against decades of constant propaganda promoting this nonsense. American libertarianism is just a natural progression from this as it continuously promotes the same propaganda as novel, moral, rational, natural, and inevitable.

“What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” — Harry Houdini

When it comes to carnival magic, deception and misdirection are key implements in the magician’s bag of tricks. You would think a keen man like Penn Jillette, who has been in showbiz for decades, would know the real magic is making people believe in bullshit without evidence and without reason. Yet he fell so completely for a con which should have been obvious, especially with someone so intimate with the subject. But as Jimmy Buffet would say “there’s a little fruitcake left in everyone of us.”

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