Magic Man

I enjoyed this piece by Philip Collins in The Times in which he ridicules the antics of religious mystics like Deepak Chopra who is really no better than 'fakir' or an old-fashioned, snake-oil salesman. 

Now Jerry Sadowitz is a great magician who could quite easily pass himself off as possessing some kind of mystical powers, just like that old spoon-bending phoney Uri Geller.

But Sadowitz grew up in Glasgow for God's sake where bullshit has its place, just so long as the people doing the bullshitting don't take themselves too seriously.  


Abracadabra! That’s magic (except we know it isn’t)

By Philip Collins - The Times


It is not every Sunday you sit next to one genius while you listen to another. I am there with Jerry Sadowitz at the 43rd International Magic Convention at the Mermaid Theatre, London, to hear Jim Steinmeyer, the guy who made the Statue of Liberty disappear for David Copperfield. He starts with a card routine of unfathomable brilliance and then shows us how it is done with a combination of made-for-purpose props, sleight of hand, suggestibility and misdirection. Then, having explained it all, he did it a third time and I still had no idea how he’d done it, even though I knew. It was strangely moving. It was almost like magic.

Magic, though, is exactly what everyone knows it is not. This gathering of gothic nerds and weird uncles all exult in the theatre but magicians are never fooled. The great Houdini attended a lot of séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and a police officer. He reports exposing the frauds in A Magician Among the Spirits, a book that cost him the friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle, who simply would not believe that Houdini was not supernatural. As Browning wrote in Mr Sludge, the Medium: “How wisdom scouts our vulgar unbelief/ More than our vulgarest credulity;/ How good men have desired to see a ghost . . .”
Magnetic appeal

The greatest literary magician, Prospero, ends The Tempest by renouncing his magic because of its power to do ill. The memoirs of Robert-Houdin, the French magician who inspired a young lining cutter in New York’s garment district to change his name from Erich Weiss to Harry Houdini, contains a Prospero-like testament to magic.

In 1856, worried about the upstart Marabouts in Algeria who used shamanism to keep the tribe disciplined, Napoleon III tempted Robert-Houdin out of retirement. With the audience dragooned into the theatre by military summons, Robert-Houdin invited the Marabout chief to lift a chest off the stage, which he did with ease. Robert-Houdin then waved his wand and implored the tribesman to try again. This time the chest remained rooted to the stage, which was not surprising because Robert-Houdin had rigged it up to an electro-magnet.

As a pioneer in the use of electricity, which the Marabout had never seen, Robert-Houdin fixed it for the chief to get a shock every time he took the handle. The audience assumed the pain was divine vengeance, which was the only sort of magic they could understand. They soon became less restless. Fishy business

Which takes me back to a lavish corporate conference I attended five years ago and a lecture by the Mr Sludge of ayurvedic medicine, Deepak Chopra MD. Lights down seductively low and joss sticks fragrantly alight, Chopra spouted rubbish like “the person searching for love . . . reminds me of the fish looking for water”. Oh yes, me too. He gets $25,000 a lecture for this stuff. Chopra was at it again last week, publicising his new book The Future of God by denouncing Richard Dawkins. Chopra is such a big deal in the self-help market that I wouldn’t be surprised to see God publish a book called The Future of Deepak Chopra.

“Which is more real,” he asked Dawkins, “that which you see, or that which makes seeing possible?” Jim Steinmeyer’s point at the International Magic Convention is that the thing that makes seeing possible is a trick, a vulgar unbelief, a ghost.

Dawkins has written beautifully about “the magic of reality”. Chopra has managed 22 New York Times bestsellers misunderstanding the reality of magic. That he is flogging magic you can see from titles such as The Way of the Wizard, Lessons from the Teachings of Merlin and Magical Mind, Magical Body, in which Chopra, who was once a proper endocrinologist, tells you to think yourself younger, which he calls quantum healing.

There’s a better word for it. Magic. Trickery. Or, to give it the name that Penn and Teller gave to their debunking show, Bullshit!

Fakirs, Fraudsters and Shamans (3 October 2014)

David Aaronovicth in this recent piece in The Times draws attention to the shameless behaviour of a 'shaman' who defrauded her victims out of millions of pounds by convincing them that she had magical powers to connect with the spirit world.

Now I find it amazing that otherwise intelligent people keep falling for this nonsense, but then again I find it amazing that so many people are also taken in by the claims of different organised religions around the world.

One good thing about living in the UK though is that David Aaronovitch won't be forced to flee the country and live in exile, in some far off land, for exposing Juliette D'Souza's foul deeds.  

Only the gullible would fall for this woman

By David Aaronovitch - The Times

Those who are willing to pay huge amounts for supernatural healing, or who promote it, really should know better

Last Friday at Blackfriars Crown Court, Juliette D’Souza was jailed for ten years. I’d been following her trial partly because she and most of her victims were locals, but mostly because of its utter weirdness. Now I can write about it.

The conviction on its own is banal enough: 23 charges of obtaining money and property (valued at a million pounds or so) by deception; the offences carried out over a 12-year period between 1998 and 2010. But the nature of the fraud itself is almost unbelievable.

What D’Souza did was to convince a number of people — most of them professionals — that she was a shaman with magic power to intercede with the spirit world on her clients’ behalf. She could get them cured of cancers that hadn’t yet been diagnosed, ward off various demons that she invented, stop their workmates ganging up on them or remove blemishes from their faces.

She could achieve all this, she told them, by putting money into sealed, padded envelopes with their names and birthdates inside. She would give the envelopes to a pilot with the Dutch airline KLM flying to Surinam (the former Dutch Guiana).

Once there, the envelopes were passed to two local shamans called Oma and Pa, who took them to the jungle and hung them on or buried them beneath a magic tree.

The Sunday Times journalist Tim Rayment, who broke the story in 2008, long before the police became interested, described how the money actually helped D’Souza to maintain several flats, a relationship with luxury clothing and accessories, and a capuchin monkey. This cash came from mostly professional people: solicitors, actors, music teachers, photographers and an osteopath. One couple paid D’Souza £350,000. She wrecked their lives.

Several reports of the conviction described her as the “fake shaman” or the woman “who posed as a faith healer”. I found this difficult at first. All shamans are fake to me, and all those who say they are faith healers are posing. D’Souza’s fraud — her knowledge that the tree in Surinam was not magic — seemed almost the only rational part of the trial.

But the prosecution had to prove that she knew her shamanism was a sham and that she wasn’t in touch with the spirit world. And they did. One droll piece of evidence against her belief in magic was her refusal to take a former gangster as a client. The only one she ever turned down, said a witness.

Right now, in 21st-century Britain, there are quite a few people eking out a living from offering supernatural healing.

A cursory internet sweep found me, among others, one chap in his early fifties who “works with a variety of problems; physical illnesses, emotional problems and metaphysical problems, such as curses, demonic possessions and bad luck”. This man claims direct descent from Muhammad on one side and a family of Hungarian witches on the other. He saw his dead grandmother at eight, exited his own body at ten, made “a strong connection to dragons and learnt their language” in a forest before walking through a tree into the faerie realm, where he was taught some neat stuff about herbs.

I think he believes this, which to my mind suggests that he suffers (or enjoys) a very benign form of psychosis.

Dragon-talking sounds like fun. But how could anyone who isn’t delusional possibly complain if they took their problems to him and found they had wasted their money? In other words, isn’t it all their (and D’Souza’s victims’) fault?

As it is, we seem prepared to legally tolerate mediums and psychics who are paid for their claimed intercessions but who, whenever tested, use techniques such as “cold reading” to gull credulous members of the public. Or as the sceptical magician James Randi puts it: “To my innocent mind ‘dead’ implies incapable of communicating.” Why are the activities of “psychics” considered somehow less fraudulent than the “fake shaman”?

Nor, if we’re being rigorous, can we be nasty only about unconventional beliefs.

Organised religion buses people to Lourdes, parades holy relics, proclaims miracles and asks payment for people to intercede with an invisible being. That this is subject to abuse was the subject of some of the oldest writing in the English language.

In the prologue to his tale, Chaucer’s pardoner consciously fools the late 14th-century commoners into parting with their groats.

I stand there in my pulpit like a clerk,

These ignorants sit down, and right to work

I go, I preach as you have heard before

And tell a hundred silly stories more.

So caveat emptor, no? They have no one to blame but themselves and so on. To an extent — but most of us try to behave properly and are prone to believing that others act in good faith. So it does matter whether the shaman believes in her own powers. And I would certainly extend fraud prosecutions to psychics who can be shown to act fraudulently.

But almost always before intelligent people will commit to absurd things, there has to be some process of normalisation of the irrational. There has to be softening up for the woo-woo. And here, often enough, the people involved ought to know better.

James Randi always points out how the big US psychics would be nothing without the TV shows that showcase their dubious abilities. In the case of D’Souza, one of her earliest converts, possibly even the person who gave her the idea about shamans, was a north London osteopath with a good, reputable practice.

Fakirs and Fraudsters (25 August 2013)

Here's an excellent article by David Aaronovitch which appeared in the Times the other day.

Seems to me that for the most part at least the world's secular countries have 'tamed' religion - so that it has a proper place in society which allows ordinary citizens to believe what they like and worship freely, if they want to of course - so long as they don't try to impose their religion or religious outlook on others.

Which is, of course, as it should be - the great escapologist, Harry Houdini, might well have met the same fate as Dr Dabholkar, sadly, because he too was committed to exposing the false fakirs and fraudsters of his own era - who fleeced lots of American citizens with staged seances and bogus claims about being able to communicate with dead loved ones - who had passed to the 'other side'. 

So, I tip my hat to Dr Dabolkhar - because standing up for the truth, as you believe it to be, can be a very uncomfortable experience, but it is something that people should be able to do in civilized countries - without paying a terrible personal price or, even, forfeiting their lives.      

He argued and argued. So he was murdered

By David Aaronovitch

The death of a brave Indian rationalist reminds us that people are still killed simply for opening their mouth

On Monday night Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a man in his late sixties, took an evening train from Mumbai to Pune. He arrived after midnight, but still got up early the next morning to go for a walk in the Sambhaji Garden. Shortly after 7am two men, who had parked their Honda motorbikes by a Hindu temple, walked up to Dr Dabholkar and shot him four times in the head and body. By the time the police arrived he was dying.

To some of the people who knew of him Dr Dabholkar was a hero of an unlikely kind. For years he had led a campaign against superstition in India, against the false fakirs and miraculous charlatans, who took the money of the credulous and left them with nothing or — often — worse than nothing. He died as his home state of Maharashtra was, finally, about to pass an anti-superstition bill outlawing the most dangerous practices of the various babas and yogis who infest that place.

Dr Dabholkar relied on one weapon alone. Reason. He never hurt anyone, never threatened anyone, never roused a mob to attack a building containing his enemies. He published magazines, articles, appeared on television and argued, argued, argued. And for that cursed arguing he was murdered.

India, though prey to superstition and various mumbo-jumbos (or perhaps because it is prey to these things), has given birth to a vigorous and often brilliant rationalist movement. Times readers may remember the report of the activities of Sanal Edamaruku, the head of the Indian Rationalist Association. When a celebrated tantric guru claimed on television that he could kill a man using only his magical powers, Mr Edamaruku challenged him to prove it. In front of millions the berobed guru Pandit Surender Sharma chanted, sprinkled, waved a knife and fluttered his hands for hours, and Mr Edamaraku simply smiled. And lived.

But Mr Edamaruku has always run risks by interfering with people’s beliefs and the economy that feeds on those beliefs. He had a burning clay pot smashed in his face by a faking fakir and was threatened with arrest by the government of the state of Kerala when he revealed that it was their officials — like baddies in Scooby-Doo — who were behind the flaming apparitions that drew many money-spending pilgrims to behold the miraculous fires.

Last year Mr Edamaruku offended the Roman Catholics of Mumbai by showing how a “miracle” involving a water-dripping statue of Christ on the Cross was no such thing. They then sought to have him arrested for having broken a section of the penal code outlawing “outraging the religious feelings of any class”. The penalty for such outraging of feelings is up to three years in jail. Fearing there was a reasonable chance of him ending up in Mumbai chokey, Mr Edamaruku decamped for Finland.

Rationalists don’t make good martyrs, though enough of them have been killed over the years. In Paris a friend recently came across the statue of a rather casual-looking young man known as the Chevalier de la Barre. This particular monument replaced another removed and melted down during the Occupation at the behest of Marshal Pétain. The original had shown de la Barre being burnt at the stake and had stood outside the Sacré-Coeur church in Montmartre.

In the summer of 1765, in Abbeville, a large wooden crucifix was damaged by a vandal. Popular opinion was outraged, but no one knew who had done it. A local 19-year-old rake, Chevalier de la Barre had, however, been seen ostentatiously not doffing his hat to a Corpus Christi procession. When his room was raided he was discovered to possess erotic literature and, worse, a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

For this he was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his legs crushed, his head cut off and to be burnt at the stake together with his copy of Voltaire. A statue was erected before the Great War, then moved to somewhere less offensive to the Church, destroyed and then, finally, remade in 2002.

The French at least have a statue. Britain’s last rationalist martyr, Thomas Aikenhead, has, as far as I know, no memorial at all. A student at Edinburgh University, Aikenhead had had the gall to tell friends that he thought that the holy scriptures were fables and poetical fictions, that miracles were just pranks and that the idea of the Holy Trinity was preposterous. For this he was prosecuted for blasphemy and sentenced to be hanged. The Church of Scotland, who had the power of intercession, refused, citing its fear of “abounding impiety and profanity”. On January 8, 1697, the boy was put to death in front of a large crowd.

Even when it was just one young student, the threat to the beliefs of the society around him, to the “feelings” of the pious, had been too great to permit him to live. There was no question of him hurting anyone or raising rebellion. He had argued, and the thing that could not be borne was argument.

In modern Pakistan and Iran people are still being persecuted for the crime of blasphemy — for the sin of saying or doing something that offends the sensibilities of believers. This week the Muslim cleric in Islamabad who was accused of framing a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, for having burnt pages of the Koran, was freed and charges were dismissed. By then the girl and her whole family had fled to exile in Canada and the other Christians who had lived in the area had felt obliged to move out. Out of fear.

The case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blaspheming against the Prophet as part of a village argument by a well, has led to the killing of one — if not two — Pakistani politicians. Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging and her case was taken up by the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer argued that the Pakistani blasphemy laws, which among things outlaw the “wounding of the religious feelings of any person” by any word, any sound or any gesture, or placing “an object in the sight of that person”, should be repealed.

For making this case Taseer was pilloried in the Pakistani media, threatened by clerics and in January 2011 murdered by one of his own bodyguards. The assassin-bodyguard became a hero. Taseer, wrote his son Aatish, though religious, had wished for “a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity” and was killed, said Aatish, by a man “whose vision of the world could admit no other”.

Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who upset the Taleban by wanting an education, very nearly became another such martyr: for arguing, not for hurting anyone. In the country she left, Asia Bibi is still in prison under sentence of death, being moved from jail to jail in case someone piously slits her throat. No one in the Pakistani Government dares to call for her release.

I daresay Narendra Dabholkar, the elderly doctor murdered on Tuesday morning, had never heard of Thomas Aikenhead, the Scottish student — separated as they were by those miles and those years. Before his execution, in his dying statement, Aikenhead wrote: “It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure.”

And if it isn’t, it should be. Long live the ideas and the memory of Dr Dabholkar!

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