Wednesday, February 17, 2016

monthly newspaper column

This thin bit of gruel ran today in the local newspaper under the headline "Crystal Ball Follies Across America."

It is not entirely clear to me why Madame Zuzu’s fortune-telling parlor should excite more legal and personal animosity than a political system that positively encourages its practitioners to pretend they can see into the future.

Wouldn’t it be more even-handed if politicians, like the fortune-tellers of Pennsylvania, were legally required to advertise their endeavors as being “for entertainment purposes only” if they wanted to remain on the right side of the law?

As State College, Pa., lawyer Matt McClenahen put it in an email, “Calling [fortune telling] ‘for entertainment purposes only’ creates plausible deniability. It is akin to an escort saying in an ad ‘any money exchanged is for my time and companionship and not for sex.’ Here in PA, the police do not seem at all interested in enforcing the law against charging money for fortune telling, communications with the dead, etc., whether or not the psychic uses the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ disclaimer. In fact, a lot of cops do not even know it is illegal. I suspect a lot of the psychics do not know it is illegal either.” 

Here in Massachusetts, the statutes make no implicit or explicit reference to the plausibility of fortune telling. Instead, fortune tellers are granted free legal sailing as long as they have obtained a license. 
Telling fortunes without such a license can cost up to $100.

Personally, I like Pennsylvania’s willingness to suggest its skepticism with the use of the word “entertainment:” Where fortune-telling is just a bit of fun, there is less need to exercise the heavy hand of either credulity or the law. But perhaps Massachusetts took a more cautious approach as the state considered the potent fortune-tellers lobby.

Whatever the case, it still strikes me as unreasonable to look skeptically at Madame Zuzu while listening with credulous awe to the political debates or stump speeches in the run-up to the 2016 presidential vote.

How much difference is there between communing with the dead and foreseeing what will happen “after I am president?” There is a difference between taking any of this seriously and recognizing that it is “for entertainment purposes only.” 

On the political front, consider trickle-down economics, the theory that what benefits business interests and wealthy individuals must trickle down and benefit the working man. To the best of my knowledge, there is no supporting evidence that such a thesis is actually true. Instead, as suggested by the International Monetary Fund, “[I]f the income share of the top 20 percent (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. In contrast, an increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth.”

How significantly different is trickle-down economics from Madame Zuzu’s promise of a tall, dark stranger in your future? The only economics involved in either prognostication seems to be that you will end up paying for it.

Nor can the left rest on its smug laurels. How different is Bernie Sanders’ “change we can believe in” and Madame Zuzu’s channeling of Uncle Harry’s voice from the far side of the grave? People can and have believed anything they like and if the past is any indication, belief has not proved to be a guarantor of solutions.

Where both fortune-tellers and politicians are legally obliged to wear a “for entertainment purposes only” button, solemnity can take a holiday and people are less likely to get royally duped.

There are those who may argue that Madame Zuzu is not a serious woman — that she is getting rich based on the gullibility of others; that she has no wider purpose and agenda; that she isn’t civic-minded; or that she is a fraud and civil society deserves not to get defrauded.

Try rereading the above paragraph while replacing “Madame Zuzu” with a favorite politician.

Civil society deserves not to be defrauded and yet, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, so much energy is given over to asking for the truth while demanding to be lied to.

“No one can predict the future” is not just a figure of speech.

But it sure can be fun.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. As Clint Eastwood said in "The Unforgiven", deserve's got nothin' to do with it.