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   a retro-feudal society of local strongmen
Friday, March 30 2007
Because of the new teevee version of This American Life, I've subscribed the household Tivo to the Showtime cable network. And because Showtime has lots of other stuff on it, I've been trying to make the subscription worthwhile by catching movies and other Showtime programs on the Tivo. One program for which I'd obtained a Tivo "season pass" was the Penn and Teller program Bullshit. All I'd known about Penn and Teller was that they were competent magicians and that Penn Jillette is a rather outspoken atheist, a rare thing to be among public figures. Bullshit is a program that purports to debunk faulty conventional wisdom, but I was unimpressed by the first show I watched, one debunking the "myth" that obesity is a problem. Part of this debunking involved a "fat guy olympics" in which a clearly out-of-shape "normal weight" guy was pitted against several tubby people manifesting tell-tale familiarity with various athletic events. And of course the normal weight guy performed badly because, for example, he didn't know how to land a long jump. In an effort to be funny, Penn Jillette laced his narration with large helpings of profanity, but the show remained unfunny and nearly unwatchable. And then at the end we were treated to Penn's wrap up, in which he summarized for us why weight really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. As he did so, a couple of bare-chested women fed him and Teller food, Roman-orgy style. Gretchen was disgusted, and not just by the pointless objectification of women. This was, she pointed out, an unwittingly-ironic moment, because neither of these women were the slightest bit overweight.
This week's Bullshit was to debunk something whose "bunk" is very near and dear to my heart: the evil of Walmart. I don't know how any rational person can look at the aggregate behavior of Walmart and say it is a good thing, particularly in small towns where it can drive out local competition, essentially becoming a monopolistic "company store" able to charge whatever it wants for products. But there was Penn Jillette calling bullshit on Walmart hatred. Though I was heartened by the sheer amount of Walmart hatred Penn and Teller were able to find, I was infuriated by the half-truths they used to "debunk" Walmart's evil. Penn made the claim, for example, that average Walmart salaries are around $10, a little less than twice the federal minimum wage. And though he admitted this was only for full-time employees, he didn't mention Walmart's policy of having as few full-time employees as possible so as to minimize benefit obligations. In the end I couldn't watch it any more, and I deleted it from the Tivo after only about eight minutes.
Then, gradually things started to gel in my head. Atheism. Sticking up for massive corporations. Could Penn Jillette possibly be one of that rare breed of Republicans who doesn't believe in God? A libertarian? So I did a Google search of Penn and Teller and Cato Institute, and sure enough, Penn Jillette is in thick with those Cato assholes, the ones who evidently want to restore a retro-feudal society of local strongmen. If Penn Jillette is so fucking good with magic, why can't he make the Federal Government disappear or else shrink it so small that it can be drowned by a Category 5 Hurricane?

Later I was checking in with a controversy of mild interest to me, the one in which Rosie O'Donnell of the television show The View questioned whether or not the Iranians might actually be right about Britain illegally entering its territorial waters. She then launches into a wild theory that perhaps bombs had been involved in the felling of one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings. While her 9/11 theory sounded a little like a Bigfoot sighting, I thought she was making good sense when it came to Iran; ever since Colin Powell went before the United Nations with that vial of baking soda, no one with any sense has regarded anything said by a spokesperson for the "Coalition of the Willing" without skepticism. Predictably, of course, her comments ignited a firestorm of Tokyo Rosie accusations from all the usual right wing blowhards who thought the Dixie Chicks were traitors back when they were only calling things as they turned out to be. But what I actually found more disturbing was the way video excerpts of the View had been edited by Fox News for use on Hannity & Colmes. As Rosie would get to the end of a clip, the Fox News editor would make a quick digital-zoom directly at O'Donnell's throat, as if the viewer were a knife reaching for her jugular vein. The effect was viscerally disturbing and, I suspect, an example of emotionally-manipulative video editing. What, were we supposed to want to rip her throat out for what she was saying?

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