Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Penn Jillette's God, No! is hit and miss

I wasn't expecting the pure reason of Richard Dawkins or the elegant, staggeringly beautiful prose of Christopher Hitchens when I picked up this book. That was kind of the initial attraction, actually. I was hoping for a discussion of atheism and religion that was a bit more earthy and geared toward the layman than either of those two gentlemen are known for, and Penn Jillette seemed to fit the bill. God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales is not an imposing book as it comes in at a modest 230 pages, so I figured it for some fluff reading. If it wasn't great, no big deal.

Yep, it was no big deal.

The first half of the book is okay. Jillette rambles from anecdote to anecdote, many of which either only touch marginally on religion or not at all. Though being pedaled directly toward that atheist and skeptically curious crowd, the subtitle does say it also contains "Other Magical Tales," so the case for bait-and-switch would be difficult to pin on him. My biggest complaint is how the back half of the book is so loaded with his libertarian drivel. Now, anyone who knows enough about Jillette to want to pick up a book by him will also know he's a rabid libertarian, and I would have had to be stupid to have assumed he'd be able to make it through the book without it cropping up in a number of places. I was prepared for his incessant use of the phrase "The Free Market of Ideas" throughout, so I breezed right by them, and some of his comments made me laugh out loud (He states "Now, I love Ayn Rand as much as the next guy..." and I snorted as I thought that if the "next guy" is me, I can guarantee he loves her a HELL of a lot more), but I guess I was naive enough to think he might be able to get through the book without dedicating good chunks or the entirety of chapters to espousing his hatred of government, public schooling, and liberals in general. He uses some choice profanities to describe the Far Right as well, but his contempt for the left is far more lovingly nurtured here.

Even that I could breeze through if it weren't for the fact he is so terrible inconsistent in his view, even is the sparse 230 pages of the book. In the first part of the book, he gives an anecdote on how he proudly lied to his parents to get them to take money from him so they wouldn't have to go to a nursing home. He supposedly threatened a nurse with physical violence if she didn't tell his parents that they were allowed to stay in their home because of state moneys. They accepted this because they were too proud to take money from their rich son.

Wait, doesn't Penn say throughout the book that he got his rigid self-reliant attitude from his folks? Yet, they'll take tax dollars to stay at home rather than from him?

And he's cool with that?

Later in the book he states that the ends never justify the means. Never. How does he reconcile both the lie and the threat to the nurse?

Even when I agree with him on an initial point, he takes it over the line to a place I just can't follow. I agree with him that security at airports is a joke, and the inconvenience it causes is pointless because no one is made more secure. I agree that it is a serious infringement on civil rights.

We're good to that point.

But the solutions he comes up with range from being just as infringing to being simple, outright lunacy. One might argue that he's a comedian, and he's simply trying to be funny is manner of Jonathan Swift. If so, he fails utterly. Swift brought a white hot focus on the problems he was mocking with his words. He could take an existing concern and stretch and enlarge it until its flaws are evident from outer space. Penn simply comes up with alternatives that sound like they were thought up by two stoners in the back of a van. Nothing in this book even approaches what I would call satire. It's just dumb if he only wants it to be thought of as funny, and if wants it in any way to be taken seriously, it's just plain insane.

There are points that I really, really enjoyed in the book. Penn comes across as a completely honest asshole, and I think he'd be happy to read me use that description. He's a snake and a cheat, but only when he feels the rules allow it. He cheats fairly. He's also crass, rude, and fairly disgusting, but he comes across as possessing a child's joy of life in his vulgarity. Others may disagree and I'd completely understand, but I find his repulsiveness kind of life affirming.

Without a doubt my favorite part of the book is his story of the Orthodox Jew who'd become an atheist in part because of Penn's influence and came to Vegas to ask him to witness his first bacon cheeseburger. There's a couple more really good stories in here, a lot of filler, and some frothing at the mouth bat-shittery. Whittled down, this would make for a very entertaining booklet.