America Is Afraid of Everything

Cable Hysteria - US vs Canada

This image comes from Digby, Exceptionally Hysterical. What it shows is the coverage of yesterday’s shooting at the Canadian Parliament. On the left is CNN with, “Terrified Capital.” I’m sorry: “TERRIFIED CAPITAL.” On the right is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) with, “Soldier Dies After Parliament Hill Attack, Gunman Also Shot Dead.” Stark difference.

What’s sad is that if I had only told you the headlines, you would have known: the first was from some American outlet. Even right now, The New York Times headline is, After Shooting, Fear and Anxiety Take Over Ottawa. And you would have known that the second headline was from some other country where they still report the news. Right now, the CBC headline is, Ottawa Shooting: A Day of Chaos Leaves Soldier, Gunman Dead.

I have a message for my fellow Americans: stop being such pussies. Constantly flying into fits of terror does not make us look tough. It makes us look like frightened children. As Russell Saunders noted yesterday, “As of this writing, the number of patients diagnosed with Ebola in the United States can be counted on one hand, and the number who have died on one finger.” Is there no threat too small that we won’t freak out?! If Malia gets a paper cut, will the headlines read, “BLOOD FLOWS IN THE WHITE HOUSE”?

The situation in Canada is pretty clear. There was a violent person who the Canadian government already knew about. He killed a man, which is sad in a general sense and a tragedy for those close to him. And now the violent man is dead. It doesn’t mean planes are heading for our skyscrapers. No black helicopters coming. No Ebola epidemic.

But you know what? There are 10,000 germs on every square inch of your skin! What’s more, every year, over two million children under the age of 5 die of diarrheal diseases. If I were you, I’d get to the bathroom fast. Not only can you vigorously wash your hands over and over again, it will also hide you away so that the rest of the world won’t have to see what cowards Americans are! This is why we spend on our military just under what the rest of the world combined spends: because we are terrified of a fair fight. Because we are the few, the arrogant, the pussies.

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Here’s Johnny!

Johnny CarsonOn this day in 1925, the comedian Johnny Carson was born. When I was a kid — a little kid, because my parents were, well, permissive — I liked him well enough on The Tonight Show. Unlike the adults who watched the show, I liked it more when there were guest hosts. Two of my favorites were David Letterman and David Brenner. But I thought that Carson was funny. I enjoyed watching his show. Of course, I remember thinking that Bob Hope specials were so funny and when I’ve had a chance to see them as an adult, I’ve been horrified. (The movies are just fine.)

But Carson did tell one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard. It involves our current governor who just so happens to have been our governor then. In case you didn’t know it, Brown had a reputation for being, well, very California. People referred to him as “Governor Moonbeam.” Having told you that, I will just quote from last year’s birthday post:

The Democratic National Convention was going on. Jerry Brown had run for president and he came in a distant third. But he was still an important presence at the convention. Carson said (more or less), “A reporter ask Brown if it bothered him that a lot people thought he was a new age hippy. And Brown responded, ‘Well, you give good karma out, you get good karma back.’” Okay, that’s a solid joke. But it died. Carson got nothing from the audience. So he ad libbed, “How about: he said it while meditating on ten pounds of raw liver?” I died. To this day, I think it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. No one agrees with me. I guess you had to be there.

Carson started doing magic as a young man. He continued with it through college before thinking better of it. But he clearly never lost his interest as you could see on the show where he often booked magicians — often even good ones. And of course, there was my absolute favorite part of his show, Carnac the Magnificent. The best part of this clip is when Carnac says that he needs quiet and Ed McMahon says, “You’re getting a lot of it tonight.”

I could give you an overview of Carson’s rise to fame, but there really is nothing more boring than than the stories of people who worked in radio and the early days of television. It is always the same, “He did one thing here and then he moved and did a different thing there and then he was at yet another place doing yet another thing.” It ends with, “And in 1962, he reluctantly took over The Tonight Show.” And he did the show until 1992 when they gave it to Jay Leno. Leno, you may recall from the early days of Late Night With David Letterman. That was when Leno worked as a comedian. By the time he took over The Tonight Show, Leno was working in another medium that I could never quite figure out. Carson, on the other hand, could always make me laugh. Here’s a parody of Columbo that I rather like:

Happy birthday Johnny Carson!

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Kurdish Comedy Music Video About ISIS

Kurdish ChildrenWe in America love the Kurds, even though the only thing we know about them is that they aren’t Muslims. Fun fact: the Kurds are actually Muslims. What’s more, they are predominantly Sunni, so I guess Saddam Hussein didn’t gas them because of their religion. In fact, that whole thing just makes no sense. We all know that all Muslims are exactly the same, agreeing on everything including that they hate the United States because of our freedom. (Joke’s on them! We’re getting rid of our freedom fast!) So okay, I guess we have to all agree that not all Muslims are the same. Or continue to believe that the Kurds are some kind of exotic Christians like the Ethiopian Catholics.

My reason for loving the Kurds is that they are a trusting people. When Bush the Elder (the “good” Bush), told them to rise up against Saddam Hussein, they did! And they were rewarded the way American allies are often rewarded: by us doing nothing as they were destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Fun fact: it does not appear that chemical weapons were used against the Kurds at that time, as was reported with certainty in the American press at that time. Hussein did use chemical weapons against the Kurds in the late 1980s, as was not reported in the American press at that time. And we certainly didn’t go to war over that because, hey, they had no oil and weren’t royalty.

But now we all have an especially good reason to love the Kurds. Last week on the Kurdish television station KurdSat, they aired a humorous music video lambasting ISIS. People are calling it a parody, but I don’t know what it is a parody of. I must admit to being woefully ignorant of Middle Eastern music. It seems to me just straight comedy — comedy of an extremely political and pointed nature.

It shows five men with long, comically fake, black beards as members of ISIS. They play their assault rifles like they were guitars (Saz?) and cellos. They swing swords around. And they generally act very silly with a skull and a zurna. It is a welcome bit of humor in the middle of the whole ISIS situation:

It does bring up one serious question. The Kurds are clearly not cowering; why are so many Americans? ISIS actually does represent an existential threat to the Kurds. They are going head to head with the group. Yet the Kurds do not partake in overstating the threat of ISIS. And here we see some of them openly mocking ISIS. Here in the United States — most especially among the chickenhawk Republicans — the group is presented like the second coming of the Third Reich.

Mostly, the video is just meant to tweak the noses of the ISIS leaders, who I can only assume are as full of themselves as any other military leaders. As Mediaite noted, “Beheadings are one way to taunt your geopolitical enemy. But a parody music video is a much lighter, cleverer way to get a point across, as some Kurdish people recently demonstrated.” But there is one line in the song that was wonderfully blunt, “Our pockets are full of Qatari money.” Yep.

The video is very charming. It also has an extremely catchy melody that is now going through my head. Basically, it is just three notes but it works really well. I suspect it is a classic tune, but as I said, I don’t know the music of that region very well. Regardless, it is a video that should make America fall in love with Kurds all over again. And it doesn’t even involve us watching them die. Maybe it will even make the conservatives come out from under their beds.

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2014 Election Will Be No Mandate

Get Out the VoteEd Kilgore wrote a good article over at Talking Points Memo that really can’t be repeated enough, Looking For a Mandate In November? Good Luck. Of course, it won’t matter. Regardless of what happens, pundits will claim that there was a mandate. It’s what they always do. What is most likely to happen is that the Republicans will get a small majority in the Senate. And this will be portrayed as a backlash against Obama’s “liberal” policies.

It’s curious. Pundits are supposed to exist to provide insight into the news. So you would think that the natural thing for a pundit to do would be to note that this election is six years after the huge Democratic wave election of 2008. There are 21 Democrats in the Senate up for re-election — 8 in Romney states. There are only 15 Republicans up for re-election — only one of which is in a state that Obama took in 2012. So what we should expect is that the Republicans would gain 7 seats. And that is exactly what we are looking at, although right now, Nate Silver is giving almost as much chance that they will gain 8 seats.

But I don’t expect to see much of this nuanced view during the evening of the first Tuesday in November. Instead, there will be lots of conjecture about what “the people” think. And it will say a lot more about what the pundit thinks. But the main thing is that we can depend upon the pundits to do whatever is simplest. We can’t have news analysis that’s any more detailed and honest than campaign ads!

Here’s Kilgore’s take on it:

So no matter what happens, 2014 is likely to be a sui generis election with little or no predictive value with relatively low immediate consequences. Logically, then, no national party should be able to claim the results as a fresh mandate, particularly since the issue landscape of Campaign 2014 has been so diffuse and unstable.

To take it a step further, it seems that the only thing that matters in politics these days is turnout. So regardless what happens to the polls, we can’t much say what “the people” think or want. We can say that people are disaffected from politics. And we can say that we make voting far harder than it needs to be, even apart from Republican attempts to stop people from voting.

But part of the problem is just us liberals. The Pew Research report I discussed earlier showed that less than 70% of consistent liberals voted in primaries as consistent conservatives. I continue to grasp onto the hope that some day all my fellow liberals will realize that we have such a bad government that is so disinterested in the concerns of the people because we don’t vote. And not voting in primaries, makes it easier for Democrats to nominate economic conservatives like Clinton and Obama so that even when the Democrats win, liberals lose.

But this election? It means nothing. It looks very much like it is going to turn out exactly as the fundamentals predict. The geography itself is against the Democrats. And the politics are against them this year. If we end up with 48 or even 47 seats, it will be a neutral year. But don’t expect to hear that from the pundits.

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Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post Today

Ben BradleeIt seems that Ben Bradlee has died. He is, of course, the legendary Washington Post executive editor who made the paper into something really great once upon a time. To me, he will always be Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. But otherwise, as usual, I don’t especially care. Celebrity deaths are just like the deaths of other people. Those who knew him grieve, but his death is hardly important. For the last couple of decades, he was better known for his wife Sally Quinn’s very inside-the-beltway cocktail parties.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bradlee doesn’t deserve respect. Not at all! A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, Ben Bradlee and Integrity. It featured a quote from Eric Alterman about Bradlee in his glory days, when he had just started his job as executive editor:

In his engaging portrait of Bradlee, Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman recounts an incident from 1969 in which two young Post reporters, Leonard Downie and Jim Hoagland, had worked for months on a story about racial discrimination in the Washington savings-and-loan industry. Titled “Mortgaging the Ghetto,” it was scheduled to run over a ten-day period. Just before that happened, a group representing the industry went to Bradlee’s office and told him that if the series ran, they would pull all their advertising from the paper—representing, even then, about $1 million in revenue. What did Bradlee tell Downie? “He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, ‘Just get it right, kid,’ and walked away.”

That’s pretty awesome. I understand the economics of newspapers were different then, but I don’t think most editors would have acted as he did. In fact, I don’t think many people have a single example of such integrity and strength in their whole lives. So that’s a fitting obituary for the man.

Martin Longman has a different take on this from the “Bradlee was God!” obituaries that are streaming out. He called it, A Contrary View of Bradlee’s Death. It is contrary, but I think a better word would be “nuanced.” His concern is not Bradlee as a man so much as Bradlee as a symbol:

Personally, for all Bradlee’s accomplishments, and he had many, I find it impossible to divorce him and his salon from some of the worst pathologies of our nation in the postwar era. It’s hard to express how much contempt I have built up over the years for the Beltway consensus on American power and American politics, and Bradlee was literally the eye of that hurricane, the figurative lodestar around which that consensus condensed and revolved…

The permanent leadership in Washington has been failing us on a pretty consistent basis for so long that I can only wish that the passing of Bradlee might mark some kind of end point for hubris and banality.

Sadly, the Washington Post is a shell of the paper that Bradlee created, meaning that things have devolved far beyond the point that Bradlee could even be justly held responsible. Everything good he built has died, leaving us with a legacy of only his worst contributions.

I do wonder how long we are all going to look at the Washington Post and think of the great work they did on Watergate 40 years ago. Yesterday, I was marveling at the Pew Research report, Political Polarization & Media Habits. It contained the ideological makeup of the readers of 36 different news sources (including anti-news sources like Fox News and The Rush Limbaugh Show). It contained a tool that allows you to see the results for each source. And I was shocked to see that the Washington Post had an overwhelmingly liberal readership.

Why then is it that the Washington Post editorial page is so conservative? Well, I think it is that the paper doesn’t froth at the mouth the way the Wall Street Journal editorial page does. It is the very definition of Very Serious Thinking. So very much like Andrew Cuomo, the Post can claim that it is telling hard truths, just as it did during Bradlee’s early days. But then it was more interested in telling truth to power. Now, the Washington Post is all about telling the powerful’s truths.

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Democracy and the Modern American Conservative

More Guns!This morning over at Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper wrote, On Election Day, Let Texas Voters Tip Their Hats to Hong Kong. That headline is a reference to the fact that the Hong Kong protesters — and those at Tienanmen Square before them — made symbolic gestures to American democracy. It is interesting that destroying democracy should be the primary goal of one of the two major American political parties.

Most of the article is about the obsession with guns on the right. Guns are not a sign of liberty. They are a sign that if you have enough power, you can do what you want. And that has always been true. If you listen to people on the right, you will hear a constant refrain about taking the country back — as if the United States is somehow not valid if it isn’t doing exactly what they want. This dates back at least to the 1950s and the John Birch Society, as well documented in Wrapped in the Flag. And the whole point of the ostentatious love of guns is the not-so-subtle message, “If you don’t do what we want, we will make you do what we want.”

You can forget about everything else. The one defining feature of modern American conservatism is that it doesn’t believe in democracy. Yesterday, Bruce Braley quoted a conservative complaining about the politics in her state, “If Iowa gave power based on land ownership, the state would swing 180 degrees.” Indeed it would! And if only we just anointed Ted Cruz King of America, things would swing pretty far in her direction too.

All of American conservative politics eventually leads to Sharron Angle. She said what the majority of conservatives are thinking. Forget the “Second Amendment remedies” quote. In one interview after talking about how sporting goods stores couldn’t keep ammunition in stock because people were arming to fight the government for their “liberty,” she said, “That’s why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?” Someone who believes in democracy would think the next step would be organizing, educating, and generally sucking it up. But that’s not the fantasy of the conservative mind.

Notice how authoritarian this is. There are despots all over the world who are all for democracy as long as it keeps them in power. If they lose the election, well, that just means there was vote tampering and they have to declare marshal law until the situation is stabilized. This is no different than the conservative claim that they will try to “Take our country back!” at the ballot box, but if that doesn’t work, “Armed rebellion!” I don’t think they will actually do this, of course. They are mostly a bunch of chickenhawks who dream of their great guerrilla war. (I’ve got an idea: fantasy guerrilla warfare leagues!)

But these same people who complain that they are losing at the ballot box are the ones that are working so hard to suppress the votes of other people. So even their tepid support for democracy is anti-democratic! But it is based on the same thing that is behind, “Take our country back!” Just as the current America — Now and sixty years ago! — is not valid, many Americans are not valid. High on their list would be people like me and the kind of people who read this site. But it is pretty hard to stop us from voting without going full “King Ted Cruz.” So they go after easier targets — people even weaker than we are.

We have had this democratic republic for 226 years. It is sad that we now have to argue over the very idea of democracy.

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American Revolutionary John Reed

John ReedOn this day in 1887, the journalist John Reed was born. I suppose at this point, he is best known from the 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. But he really ought to be known for his firsthand account of the Russian revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. It was used as the blueprint to Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed died in Russia a year after the book was published in 1919. He was a hero of the early days of the Soviet Union and buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis with much pomp and circumstance.

Reed was a political radical and it is generally hard to separate his journalism from his activism. It is easy to dismiss him. The Soviet Union was hardly a bastion of freedom and equality even when he died. And under Joseph Stalin, whatever dream remained died forever. But given the excesses of capitalism through the time and increasing now, it is hard to see Reed in a bad light. I think the right path was the one we were on until about a half century ago: progressive income taxes, strong unions, a strong social safety net. These are the things that stop young idealists like Reed from thinking a workers’ revolution was necessary.

What I find most interesting about Reed is how he continues to fascinate people. He did lead an amazing life that is very much in keeping with his Romantic hero reputation. The film Reds didn’t much exaggerate what he did — including his treks between Russian and Finland. And he just happened to be at the center of the biggest political event in more than a century. And then he died young, still in the middle of it all. It’s impressive to me, because it is so different from any life that I could ever imagine living. And I’m fine with that.

Happy birthday John Reed!

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“Free” Voter-IDs Cost More Than Poll Taxes

Vote Baby Vote!This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote about some research that concludes something that I’ve been pushing for a while. It is that voter-ID laws are just a new form of poll taxes. If the people pushing these laws were really concerned about in-person voter fraud, they would have provided funding for photo identification. And they didn’t. They only added this when the courts made them. This is because the truth of the matter is that voter-ID laws have never been about supporting democracy; they have always been about tearing it down.

I’m not saying that the people who are concerned about voter fraud are actually anti-democratic. I think it is simply that in their minds shadowy people running around voting multiple times takes on a mythic quality. The rational concerns about voter disenfranchisement are nothing compared to what has become an existential threat to democracy in their minds. Of course, I’m talking about the Fox News viewers here. I think the Republican operatives who are pushing these laws are doing it as cynically as the people who created the poll taxes.

Here’s Chait’s summary of Richard Sobel’s report, The High Cost of “Free” Photo Voter Identification Cards (pdf):

The report aptly presents voting restrictions as a modern form of the poll tax, which was outlawed in 1964. Indeed, the costs of contemporary voter ID requirements, even in inflation-adjusted terms, is many times the level of the poll taxes that existed before they were outlawed in 1964.

And this isn’t even including the fact that some people don’t have the necessary documents to get photo-ID. For example, if I had to do so, I have no idea where either my birth certificate or my Social Security card is. But I’m sure I could manage getting photo ID if I didn’t already have it. I’m motivated and I have a lot of resources. But that’s the whole point of voter-ID laws. It isn’t to stop people like me from voting. It’s just meant to make it an bigger pain to vote for a certain kind of person — a poor person — a person more likely to vote Democratic.

But I’m not surprised that Republicans would look out at the electorate and decide that their best chances were to stop people from voting by creating the Poll Tax V 2.0. What I am surprised about is how conservatives in the federal court system would not find this a clear violation of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. Let me just quote that amendment in its entirety. It ain’t complicated:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I suppose that we can quibble about exactly what a tax is. But the sad thing is that we have to. Republicans have been complaining for decades about liberal judges “legislating from the bench.” And I certainly think that some of that went on in the 1960s and 1970s. I still think that erring on the side of the weak is a relatively small sin. But during my entire adult life, it has been the conservatives who have “legislated from the bench.” And they have done it most abusively in giving more and more rights to companies and fewer and fewer rights to individuals.

And now we have five members of the Supreme Court who will twist themselves into knots to avoid seeing that the new voter-ID laws are just an update of the old poll taxes that were meant to disenfranchise a certain kind of voter. Will we need a Twenty-Eighth Amendment? The Twenty-Seventh Amendment took over two centuries for ratification. I don’t think we have that long.

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James O’Keefe’s Tired Cons

James O'KeefeI have a visceral hatred of James O’Keefe. You should know him as the con man who managed to get ACORN defunded by pretending to be an ethical investigator. His work has never shown what he has claimed, and the press could never be bothered to check out his claims before reporting them. My hatred is not primarily about the effects of his work. It is rather that as partisan as I may be, I still have a commitment to the truth. It bothers me when people try to finesse an argument. But when they knowing lie — in a way where it absolutely goes past any question of self-delusion — I go crazy. It doesn’t help that O’Keefe has been shown to be a fraud time and again, yet mainstream news still treat him as though he had something to offer. You don’t need any other information to conclude that such news sources are primarily interested entertainment.

These days, James O’Keefe is more known for sting operations that get revealed. For example, there was his creepy attempt to make some kind of a secret sex video of his attempted seduction of CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau. But most recently, he’s been sniffing around Colorado where he’s been trying to entrap the Democratic Party with his typically obvious stunts. Here is Andy Kroll at Mother Jones, Colorado Dems: We Caught James O’Keefe and His Friends Trying to Bait Us Into Approving Voter Fraud:

Last Tuesday, a man who appeared to be in his 20s showed up at a Democratic field office in Boulder wanting to volunteer to help elect Udall and Rep Jared Polis (D-Colo.), according to a Democratic staffer who met with him and asked not to be identified. The man introduced himself as “Nick Davis,” and he said he was a University of Colorado-Boulder student and LGBT activist involved with a student group called Rocky Mountain Vote Pride. Davis mentioned polls showing the race between Udall and Gardner was tight, and he asked the staffer if he should fill out and mail in ballots for other college students who had moved away but still received mail on campus. The Democratic staffer says he told Davis that doing this would be voter fraud and that he should not do it.

On Friday, Udall campaigned with Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. After the event, a woman calling herself “Bonnie” approached a different staffer and, according to this staffer’s boss, asked whether she could fill out and submit blank ballots found in a garbage can. The staffer, according to her boss, said that she told her no.

That same day, the guy identifying himself as “Nick Davis” returned to the Democratic office in Boulder. He was accompanied by a man wearing heavy makeup and a mustache, according to the Democratic staffer who had met Davis three days earlier. Davis introduced his friend as a “civics professor” at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the faculty adviser to Rocky Mountain Vote Pride. Davis and the professor, who said his name was “John Miller,” picked up Udall campaign literature and canvassing information.

Rocky Mountain Vote Pride is pretty clearly a fake group. Their URL is held through a privacy company — not something that a grassroots group would do, but very much what an astroturf group would. It was created only on 10 July of this year and as the article noted, there is no contact information on the site. And I’ll add this: it looks exactly like just about every other astroturf website I’ve ever seen.

The “civics professor” wearing heavy makeup was James O’Keefe as shown in the photo above. O’Keefe tweeted it out himself, probably because his attempt to apparently plant incriminating evidence at the nonprofit group New Era Colorado was foiled. The tweet claimed, “I went in Disguised as 45yo, this time people may lose their jobs.” This time?! Like thousands of people didn’t lose their jobs as a result of his ACORN con?

Regardless of all this, what I think is interesting is just how unsubtle O’Keefe is. I think this is because as a Republican, he just assumes that the other side must be as unethical as they are. Consider voter fraud. Republicans are the only ones pushing it as a big deal. Yet the only major cases of it recently have been perpetrated by Republicans. So I don’t doubt that Republicans think voter fraud is a big deal; they know they’re okay with it. And O’Keefe thinks that Democrats must be just chomping at the bit — waiting for a college student to come in and suggest that they ought to vote for people who have moved away.

This is the state of Republican thought. The truth is that O’Keefe’s exploits are an embarrassment. They are very much akin to the John Birch Society and Robert Welch’s The Politician. But that caused the Republican establishment — National Review most especially — to turn on the group. But the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally has lost all grip of what a republic is all about. This is why I call them proto-fascists: all that matters is power. And as long as the mainstream media are gullible enough to believe James O’Keefe’s newest scam, he will be embraced as a hero. Because he helps the Republican Party gain power. To hell with the truth.

Afterword

O’Keefe claims that big things are coming in the next week. And what are we likely to see: a heavily edited video with comments taken out of context. It will ultimately be the same thing it always is: nothing. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t get a lot of coverage.

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Are Magic Secrets Always Ugly?

The PiddingtonsRadio Lab recently produced an episode called Black Box. As always, it is great. I think Radio Lab is the best thing on the radio. And this episode is about black boxes: situations where you know what comes in and you know what goes out, but you don’t know what happens inside to make the change. The second segment is about “The Piddingtons” — a husband and wife mentalism act from Australia that was huge on BBC Radio in the 1950s. The story is told from the perspective of their grandson and his search for how they did their act.

The act was pretty much the same every time — just like every other mentalism act. Mr Piddington was on stage with an audience. He got some random bit of information from the audience. For example, an audience member picked a passage from a book. And then Mrs Piddington, who was some place far away (in one case in an airplane), read her husband’s thoughts and revealed the passage. This sort of act can be done with a code — and codes can be remarkably subtle. But in one of the examples, Mr Piddington hardly speaks — certainly not enough to transmit the the amount of information that Mrs Piddington reveals.

Supposedly, the grandson could not find anyone who could tell him how the trick was done. Well, that’s a magic thing. Magicians have this thing about revealing secrets. But it’s nonsense. The most sensible thing I’ve ever read was Teller writing on an old internet newsgroup. He said that he doesn’t tell people how the tricks are done because they don’t want to know. If they did want to know, all they had to do was go to the library and get a book of magic tricks. That is very true. The Tarbell Course in Magic was published in 1928. In terms of the technique of magic, nothing has changed since that time. There is nothing you will see David Blaine or Criss Angel do that isn’t explained in those books.

The Radio Lab crew went to Teller’s partner, the generally very annoying Penn Jillette. (He’s actually kind of charming here.) They wanted answers. That was probably a smart move. The one really good thing about Penn and Teller is that they aren’t pretentious about magic. Jillette said something interesting about magic secrets: they are always ugly. He said that the reason tricks are hard to figure out is that people are looking for an “Aha!” moment when they should be looking for an “Ugh!” moment. While that is generally true, it isn’t always true. There are quite beautiful tricks like the Elevator Cards that would indeed give a spectator an “Aha!” moment.

I have a better rule of thumb that is totally true of The Piddingtons’ act: the trick is over before the audience knows it started. This is especially true with slight of hand. Once the audience is engaged with the trick, there is too much “heat” on your hands. Despite what you may have heard, the hand is not quicker than the eye. One of my favor tricks to perform for an audience was always Daryl’s Twisted Aces. It was a refinement of an older effect, Twisting the Aces, where the magician works with a packet of four aces. One at the time, the aces are “magically” turned face up. Daryl’s innovation was to cause the final ace to disappear completely from the packet and land face up in the middle of the deck that had been set aside. It blew people’s minds. Needless to say, that ace was stolen out of the packet long before the audience really understood what was happening.

So how did The Piddingtons do the trick? If you want to know, Radio Lab provided an extra bit of audio explaining it, The Ugly Truth — Don’t Click This. Of course, it isn’t news. There is a 1989 Columbo episode that explains one permutation of it in some depth, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.” Is it really ugly? I don’t think so. I think that the Radio Lab people are just following from Jillette’s lead. If you want a single word explanation, the trick is a “force.” If you want a whole sentence, “Mrs Piddington is told the phrase ahead of time, and Mr Piddington forces the audience to pick that phrase.” And if you want even more, click on the link, although you really ought to listen to the episode first.

One thing that wasn’t discussed is that because mentalism acts (and to a slightly lesser degree all magic) is incredibly repetitive, performers tend to mix things up. For example, a performer might do a trick using a code early on in the act. That might even heighten the effect of later tricks that don’t use a code. In the end, magic acts are exactly the same as any other kind of performance: the performer must be interesting. Every performer has his own techniques for holding the audience’s attention. Magic is actually very bad in this regard and that’s why so many successful magicians are little more than comedians or storytellers. But The Piddingtons weren’t, nor are David Blaine or Criss Angel — which is why I have no use for the lot of them.

Update (23 October 2014 12:34 am)

I found the Columbo episode. If you want to get the full effect, watch the first act of the video — the first twenty minutes. And then you can skip to the 1:15:00 mark to see Columbo recreate the effect. At 1:22:00 Columbo shows how it is done, including a couple of interesting subtleties. I’ll just add one thing: the blindfold of the volunteer is critical to the effect; it couldn’t be done without it. But the audience is told it is to make sure that the volunteer picks a truly random location so that there can be no collusion blah, blah, blah. That’s another important thing to remember: all magicians are con artists. The whole episode is good. If you like Columbo, you might watch it. It was directed by Leo Penn — the father of Michael and Sean. Although I will warn you: as is true more often than not, the ending is stupid.

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