PENN JILLETTE ON HOW MODERN POLITICS RESEMBLES A VEGAS MAGIC ACT
Who’s the Real Illusionist? Penn Jillette on how modern politics resembles a Vegas magic act
I’m a Las Vegas magician. One thing you learn doing magic tricks for a living is how close every performance of every magic trick is to disaster. There are no robust magic tricks. They’re all hanging from a thread—sometimes literally.
Now, I don’t know jack about politics or economics. But what’s starting to worry me is just how much what I do resembles American politics and maybe all government. Let me teach you a bit about magic here, and see if you can’t see some similarities.
My stage partner, Teller, says that magic is “the unwilling suspension of disbelief.” When you’re watching Shakespeare and the actor says he’s a king, you just make-believe, the suspension of disbelief is willing. To enjoy the play, you need to feel like this guy who’s done three appearances on “Law & Order” and a Viagra commercial is actually a king. If you don’t, you can’t follow the play. You lose. There’s nothing there.
In a magic trick, on the other hand, you’re supposed to have a chip on your shoulder. There’s no fun in playing along. The magician can’t come out, show a closed box, and say, “Let’s make-believe this box is empty… OK? Presto!”—and then open the door, show you a tiger and take a bow.
The audience wants to see that box empty with its own eyes, but the audience also knows that it has to follow the unwritten rules or the tricks just won’t work. You can see that the box is empty from your seat, but you can’t get up out of your seat, walk on stage and stick your hand in the “empty” box. You would ruin the trick—and probably get your hand bitten off by an angry wild animal who’s been squeezed into a tiny, hidden, 45-degree-angle-mirror compartment. Already, there are some similarities to politics, right? There was that Nevada senator who had his neck badly bitten by a tiger…wait, that was Roy, a Vegas magician…OK, stay with me.
Let’s take a hypothetical, oversimplified card trick (the only kind I will do in a newspaper). I have a perfectly ordinary deck of cards, and for this trick it really is a perfectly ordinary deck of cards. I hand them to you to shuffle. My attitude makes it clear to you that I don’t care how much you shuffle. That attitude will be important later. You give me back the cards, and I offer you a free selection. In this particular case, it really is a free selection, and my attitude makes that clear.
You look at the card, memorize it and return it to the deck. Again, I act like I don’t care at all where you put the card back in. That’s my attitude, but in this case it really does matter. The shuffling didn’t matter, the selection didn’t matter—but where you put the card back does matter. It’s the whole trick.
Every magician has his or her favorite way to “control the card to the top,” but I usually use a “lift shuffle” (you could look it up on the Web, but you won’t). You put it back in the exact right spot, even though you thought it didn’t matter, and that allows me to move the card to the top of the deck. A few false shuffles and false cuts and it’s still on the top. It just sits there on the top. “A few false shuffles and false cuts and they just sit there on the top”—yeah, politics.
How I reveal the card is how you’ll describe this trick, but once I have your card on top, the reveal is easy. My sneaky work is done. You’ve really shuffled the deck, you’ve had a real free choice, you think you’ve put the card back anywhere you want. But now I know it’s on the top. There are lots of good reveals, and I’ll use any one of them.
You’re not going to touch the cards again. My body language and tone will tell you that your card is still lost in the deck, and now I’m going to do the magic. It seems like I don’t care if you touch the cards again. I do care, but I know that you won’t. You just won’t. I might even put the deck on the table between us and let it sit there within your reach. I know that if you grab the deck and give it a shuffle, your card really will be lost in the deck, and Mr. Magic will fail. But you’ll just see the deck there and won’t touch it—and I’ll do a miracle for you.
Is our entire political system built on this unwilling suspension of disbelief? We don’t really have a choice, so it’s sure unwilling. We know somewhere in our hearts that our political saviors are not really magic, but we so want them to be. We could bust every one of them if we just broke the rules for a moment. It’s all hanging by a very hard-to-see little thread.
We don’t pretend they are real kings; we watch our politicians with a certain amount of skepticism, but always within the conventions of the show. We don’t run up on stage during a presidential debate and put our hand in the Social Security lock box—it would get bitten off by the real wild animal of our ignored long-term budget problems.
When the politicians give us their 89-point plans to fix the economy, they know we won’t grab the cards and shuffle. We play along enough that we can feel for a moment that they might have a little real magic up their sleeves. Even though we know there’s no such thing. There’s always an angry tiger hidden somewhere.
It’s bothersome that my best analogy to all of this drama is a cheesy magic trick. But I try not to worry about that too much: To a guy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and I’m a guy with a deck of cards.
—Mr. Jillette is the larger, louder half of Penn & Teller. His most recent book, “God, No!,” was just published by Simon & Schuster.
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