Commentary

Prestidigitation and Politics: How Do They Do That?

This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times on October 8, 2003.

I’ve been a professional magician for 28 years. I’m not the best magician in the world or even the best magician in Penn & Teller. Those “bests” are the same guy, my partner, Teller. He knows his magic — he can lie, cheat and steal on stage better than anyone I’ve ever known or heard about.

But I’m the theoretician. So I’m going to try to explain something. You know how people love to use lingo from disciplines they don’t understand? It’s fun for a non-musician to talk about a “groove” and for a guy who’s never double-clutched to “put the hammer down.”

Lately, people have been wondering whether a word from my discipline — “misdirection” — can be applied to another world altogether: the world of politics. Misdirection is when a magician directs the attention of the audience away from where the trick is going on.

I’ve got a friend who doesn’t know magic — he wouldn’t know a double-lift from a classic palm, or a dove harness from a box jumper — who has been bugging me for months to write about misdirection and how it applies to the political situation in our country. The problem is, my friend doesn’t appreciate the skill and nuance of the magician’s art. His idea of misdirection is pointing to the other side of the stage and, when everyone looks, do something sneaky.

In stage magic, that just plain doesn’t work. Even at tennis matches and NASCAR crashes, not everyone looks at the same place at the same time. And if they did they’d know something fishy had happened as soon as they looked back. They don’t trust you because they know you’re tricking them. George Washington said, in his own way, that you should treat government like stage magicians.

OK, there is one place in the show where I point to Teller on the other side of the stage while I do something sneaky with my left hand. The pointing is a little private joke for Teller and me; I don’t have to point; it’s not part of the move. The audience doesn’t have to look where I point for the trick to work. I’ve practiced it over and over, and you won’t catch it — Teller has checked. You can stare right at my hands and you still won’t see me do it.

And the sneaky thing that I do doesn’t pay off until the very end of the bit. No one remembers the pointing by then, and there’s nothing they can figure that I could have done that would have helped the trick. But I do point.

Teller talks about misdirection being “the little lie that hides the bigger lie.” (He doesn’t talk on stage, but as everyone always suspected, he’s the brains of the outfit.) It’s the little trick that rules out the big trick.

If you hook some hard-to-see wires to an underweight, underage, underpaid, under-credited, overworked teenager in a glittery thong and a blouse that hides the harness, and you lift her up, everyone figures there are wires. But if you then bring out a hoop and pass it around her while she yawns and some white-boy-rip-off-Motown-music blares, the audience thinks, “Well, there can’t be any wires. Hmm, must be real magic, like that guy, David Blaine, you remember — from back when there were slow news days before Sept. 11.”

The misdirection works by having gaps in the hoop so you can pass it over the teenager without hitting the strings. You make the audience think the hoop is solid beforehand by pretending to rotate it in your hand while you really just move your hands in a way that looks like the hoop is rotating, but really you’re always hiding the gap.

That’s just a little sleight-of-hand trick. And people start thinking crazy thoughts like, “It is magic!” or wild “Mr. Physics” stuff. My buddy, Amazing Randi, went to a magic show with MIT professor Marvin Minsky one time, and Minsky wondered if the hanging woman trick was done using liquid nitrogen to cool everything down to superconductivity. Superconductivity or a gap in the hoop? Did Occam live in vain?

OK, so I hope I’ve explained the idea of misdirection to you political people. But I have no idea how to tie it in with what the government’s doing. It’s hard to concentrate on writing this, what with everything that’s going on. But it must tie in somehow, don’t you think?

Penn Jillette, the louder, bigger half of the magic/comedy team of Penn & Teller, is a Cato Institute fellow.