Bullshit, Indeed

May 6th, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  8 Comments

I love Libertarians because they love being Libertarians, whatever the cost, and whatever dark alley Ayn Rand leads them down.

This evening’s edition of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” promised to “expose the widely abused nonsense that is ‘handicap parking’ and illuminate the bureaucratic nightmare of the Americans with Disabilities Act by speaking to disabled Americans who think the ADA is pure BS.”

The show’s always been sort of questionable in terms of actually educating people, favoring instead brief shots of an apoplectic Penn haranguing the camera while Teller does the smirk thing in the background. You’re supposed to just take it on faith that because Penn is clearly very angry and because Penn is a talented stage magician, and because a guy from the Cato institute makes some unsubstantiated assertions, whatever Penn hates this week is a good thing to hate.

This evening’s episode was especially incomprehensible to anyone but other Libertarians with functioning Cato-brand implants. Seriously … if politicians use “dog whistle words,” this was more like binary dolphin squealing.

Some of the elements in the show:

  1. We meet a lady who spends a lot of time documenting people who park in handicap parking spaces without a blue placard.

  2. We meet a prolific tech book author who was born with only one leg and three fingers and who hates the ADA “because it has made things worse for handicapped people,” though you never ever hear why.

  3. We meet some terrified small business owners who were threatened with lawsuits over ADA violations by an attorney.

From all that, we get what I guess you could call the thesis:

“The ADA tries to make people be considerate to each other, and that’s not the government’s business. If you didn’t make businesses build accessible ramps and bathrooms, they would anyhow because they’d still want all that business. Plus, people will be more considerate anyhow, especially if we were to get rid of the ADA.”

Which is why, I guess, the lady in item 1 of our list has received death threats for turning in the sort of knuckle-dragger who parks in a wheelchair spot without a handicap sticker … the mean old government made them that way.

There’s no real answer offered (except that handicapped people aren’t the same as people of color, and so don’t deserve legal protection from discrimination against them), and there’s not even really a case made for what the problem with the ADA is in the first place, except that while Penn is comfortable with laws against murder, government mandated handicap parking spaces are an unacceptable infringement on his liberty.

That’s been the general pattern every time I’ve watched the show (less and less lately … I watched the entire first season and have only seen a few episodes since). It’s heavy on assertion and Penn blustering, but light on any substantiation. In other words, it’s written for chowderheads who’re given to repeating things celebrities tell them and people who’re too emo to listen to Rush Limbaugh but like the way he speaks truth to power.

The trick is that by going after the occasional “healing powers of magnets” quack or UFO dip, viewers become comfortable with the general approach, which involves a lot of yelling about how self evidently stupid those people are. When the show’s ideological payload arrives a few episodes later, you’ve either stopped watching because you’d be embarrassed to have your views advocated in such a slipshod fashion, or you’re Penn’s kinda guy and want a few unsubstantiated assertions about the cruel yoke of wheelchair ramps you can parrot at the water cooler.



  1. Michael Burton says:

    May 7th, 2007 at 9:30 am (#)

    Ya, boy. Sue and I watched this one last night, too. I really liked the premise of a couple of outspoken magicians debunking culture. Magic these days (in all days?) is about illusion, and who better to debunk than illusionists? But ya Hall, this last episode just seemed like the sheep’s clothing just basically got tossed onto the floor and trampled on. It was like they barely could muster the energy to keep the show on its standard format even; what was the point of taking the producer around in an iron lung except for a ham-handed gag? Ya, a shame. I doubt we’ll watch it again…

  2. The Blog That Goes Ping » Blog Archive » Best Use of the Word “Emo” Award, 2007 says:

    May 7th, 2007 at 1:17 pm (#)

    […] Bullshit, Indeed: In other words, it’s written for chowderheads who’re given to repeating things celebrities tell them and people who’re too emo to listen to Rush Limbaugh but like the way he speaks truth to power. […]

  3. Tom Rowland says:

    May 8th, 2007 at 10:35 am (#)

    My wife had MS for the 20 years of our marriage. Public accomodation by law is a joke. First, have you ever tried to get from a wheelchair to a toilet seat in the standard handicapped bathroom? Or reach the toilet paper? But most of all we hated it because we knew that we were forcing people without disabilities to be nice to us. Willing, unforced benevolance is one thing, charity at the point of a gun (i.e. “do it or else”) is quite another.

  4. Ed Heil says:

    May 8th, 2007 at 11:51 am (#)

    I guess the idea behind disabilities accommodation laws is that it isn’t “charity,” the same way that letting blacks sit at the front of the bus isn’t “charity.” It’s simple, basic equality.

    That’s the theory anyway.

  5. mph says:

    May 8th, 2007 at 9:34 pm (#)


    Willing, unforced benevolance is one thing, charity at the point of a gun (i.e. “do it or else”) is quite another.


    “It’s simple, basic equality. That’s the theory anyway.”

    First, Tom, you’ve got me there: I have no idea what the ergonomics of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are like. I’ve never been in a wheelchair.

    That aside, I see nothing “benevolent” involved here. As Ed notes, the intent is to create better opportunities for people who might not otherwise get those opportunities. It’s not charity, it’s not people being forced to be nice to anyone. They can continue to be crabby bastards and secretly despise all the wheelchair people if that’s what they’re into.

    I have no problem discussion on the failings of the implementation. I even wish Penn & Teller had bothered with that. They didn’t though. All they did was present edge cases (a wacko lawyer, the inability of someone in an iron lung to fit into a corner restaurant) and argue that showed the whole thing should be scrapped.

    The. Whole. Thing. That’s not me exaggerating their position … their position was clear: The ADA is bullshit and we should get rid of it.

    Sorry, but I’m lost here.

    Why does bad implementation in some cases mean we need to get rid of the parts of the ADA where libraries, courthouses, hospitals, and safety systems (fire alarms) are required to be accessible to everyone? That doesn’t seem like “forced niceness” to me … that just seems like a noteworthy portion of our taxpaying citizenry (about 3 million in wheelchairs, almost ten million using walkers or canes and no doubt benefitting from ramps) getting access to services they paid for.

    The issue with businesses is less clear cut to me on some levels. On the other hand, I don’t care that much because I only have so many cycles to spend each day. I’d take poor implementation of a law that, at worst, is costing some business owners extra over the alternative Teller was proposing, which was nothing at all.

  6. k. says:

    May 9th, 2007 at 2:04 pm (#)

    Libertarians are a strange bunch – an odd mix of back-to-the-land-ers who just want to grow their own (in the broadest sense), and pro-business types who think the invisible hand of the market is a reliable ethical compass. My favorite liberatarian story is the one about the liberatarian who called the fire department when his house caught on fire. When asked why he called upon a tax-funded, government agency for aid he said: “Just because I called the fire department doesn’t mean that I don’t believe a private company couldn’t provide better service for cheaper. And also my house was on fire.”

  7. Trey says:

    May 9th, 2007 at 8:38 pm (#)

    Absolutly we should force people to spend their money on items that we mandate. I have MS and as such am restricted to a wheelchair. I absolutely love it when I arrive at the grocery store to find that there are 15 spots for me to choose from. The individuals on this site did not really listen to the show. It explained that forced mandates make it worse for me. I am hard pressed to find a job because people think that I will sue at the first chance. When I do get a job, I have to sign a statement that says I can be let go at anytime for any reason and cannot sue. However, that doesn’t stop my boses from being scared to actually coach me to perform better. I am never given quality feedback because I “might try to sue.” That is the point. The ADA was a horrible law, sure there were good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Remove the law, it just makes it difficult for everyone involved.

  8. mph says:

    May 10th, 2007 at 7:41 am (#)

    The individuals on this site did not really listen to the show. It explained that forced mandates make it worse for me.

    Yes. I listened to the show. No, it didn’t explain jack doodly shit. It asserted a lot of things, and there’s a big difference.

    Maybe I’m expecting too much of anything that’s only 30 minutes long, but I don’t think Penn saying “It makes things worse! Here’s a fucked up lawyer and some guy from the Cato Institute! They say so too!” counts as substantiation of the assertions. No numbers, no anecdotes beyond the crazy lawyer story. Just wild-eyed Penn, and a professional free-lancer who has not, near as I can tell, ever punched a clock talking about how bad the ADA is for working disabled people.

    Thanks for chipping in, but consider for a moment that your intimate awareness of the situation could be the first useful information anyone who saw that show and had not thought about this issue before had.

    And anyone who earns a paycheck can be let go at anytime for any reason and not sue. I have to mail in a signed form to my employer every single year that includes among its provisions my complete and total vulnerability to arbitrary termination. Human resources specialists combine the essential bloodlessness of attorneys with the ruthlessness of a corporate raider … they’re paid good money to think of fucked up things for you to sign, and we all sign them.

    I worked in a school system in Virginia for four years. I knew of one African-American teacher who was frequently drunk on the job. Everyone knew it. He’d been found in a puddle of his own piss in the staff bathroom. I asked how it was he had such a thick file of disciplinary incidents and the answer I got was a muttered “Uh … look at his skin color. We don’t want the NAACP lawyers down on us like a ton of bricks.”

    That’s so fucked up I don’t even know where to begin. They finally got rid of him when he was arrested for a DUI on the block before the school entrance, after nine years of everyone standing by while a troubled and broken person fell apart in front of their eyes.

    The whole time, they blamed their inability to deal with the situation on the pesky codification of civil rights. I bet other black faculty felt similar to you, to the extent they knew of a sort of persistent, low-grade and racist resentment that kept them from getting anything other than mediocre treatment from their evaluators. I bet they would not want the Voting Rights Act struck down because it emboldened civil rights attorneys.

    Remove the law, it just makes it difficult for everyone involved.

    O.k. And then what? That’s the second time I’ve asked this question. Mr. Rowland’s web site explains that his enthusiasm for Ayn Rand is such that he can’t even be relied on relate it accurately. I know his answer is “Anything that’s voluntary on the part of all concerned parties,” and I reject that … a rejection that would only grow in vehemence if Mr. Rowland got what he really wanted, which would be the eventual withering away of most government function and most likely the privatization of many other functions Americans have accepted as the concern of government institutions.

    So we get rid of legal requirements that grocers provide an ample amount of parking (almost always full with vehicles properly tagged at my neighborhood grocery store, which serves an older population), what about services and institutions that should be made as universally available as possible? I mentioned courts and libraries. I mentioned that other provisions included access to emergency safety devices. People don’t fail to build ramps because they’re malicious … they fail to build ramps or widen doors or make sure a fire alarm is where anyone could be reasonably expected to reach it because they don’t always think.

    Fine … so we trust people to just remember to do that stuff because you can’t legislate “niceness” … maybe we only shop for remodeling contracts and new buildings at architects who proudly sport a (completely voluntary, adequately demonstrative of its freely self-imposed nature) “handicap aware” badge on their (wide, wheelchair-accessible) front doors.

    But I just saw Penn assert at the end of that show that people in wheelchairs aren’t like people of color because the thing keeping them down is not the color of their skin but “Newton’s laws,” and that they should man up and realize not everything should be made available to them. The guy was sneering at wheelchair accessible public transportation. So I ask again … at what point along the continuum between “hands-free trapeze school” and “courthouse” can or will a line be drawn in the ADA-free, Cato-certified happyfuture of tomorrow? What things simply should be made as accessible as possible?

    Where would you want the line drawn, Trey? I’m honestly asking.

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