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Why is the New York Times glorifying the career of lifelong charlatan Uri Geller?
The puff piece downplays the lies Geller has told over the past several decades
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The premise of the show Fool Us is that Penn & Teller watch fellow magicians perform their acts and attempt to figure out the trick(s) involved. Most of the time, they know exactly how the “magic” was performed because they’re students of the craft; they’ve seen it all before. But when someone genuinely fools them, they freely admit it and pay their respect.
What they never say out loud—but what the audience always understands—is that of course there are tricks involved. There’s misdirection and sleights of hand, and people who know what to look for might be able to notice what’s going on, but everyone can still enjoy the show even when we know there’s something we’re not seeing.
Good magicians are honest about the fact that they’re doing tricks.
Great magicians can literally tell you all the tricks and still leave you mesmerized by their ability to make it look so damn real.
Bad magicians try to convince you there’s actual magic involved. It’s one thing to do that to an audience of children, but it’s a serious problem when you’re saying it to adults in an attempt to earn their trust or take their money. (It’s why atheists have such disdain for preachers who insist they can heal you through prayer and their touch.)
For several decades now, Uri Geller has claimed to have supernatural powers. Actual ones. He famously said he could bend spoons with his mind several decades ago and no amount of debunking ever led him to admit the truth. That’s why he’s so reviled among magicians and people with dignity. He’s no different from faith healers and psychics and astrologers who pretend to have special powers while actually knowing they have no such abilities.
For some reason, Sunday’s New York Times includes a fawning profile (gift article) of Geller, and the article by business reporter David Segal suggests that the magic community has finally accepted him as a great mentalist rather than a long-time swindler. The magic world’s “50-Year Grudge” has ended, the headline proclaims, with a subtitle that declares, “Skeptics couldn’t beat him. Now they’ve joined him.”
… Mr. Geller was long shadowed by a handful of professional magicians appalled that someone was fobbing off what they said were expertly finessed magic tricks as acts of telekinesis. Like well-matched heavyweights, they pummeled one another in the ’70s and ’80s in televised contests that elevated them all.
Mr. Geller ultimately emerged the victor in this war, and proof of his triumph is now on display in the museum: a coffee-table book titled “Bend It Like Geller,” which was written by the Australian magician Ben Harris and published in May.
Just because a magician (and “one of his closest confidants for 50 years”) wrote a hagiography about Geller doesn’t mean Geller is a “victor” in any meaningful way. The hook there is that Harris was one a critic, writing Gellerism Revealed in 1985, a book that he now describes as “the work of an angry young man who had missed the point.”
We also hear from another magician whose praise basically amounts to… Well, there are worse people out there.
“I mean this in the most respectful way,” said Andy Nyman, a magician and actor who a few years ago introduced a lecture by Mr. Geller at the Blackpool Magic Convention, an appearance that cemented this truce. “I think the world is aware that if he’s fraudulent, there are bigger lies and bigger frauds out there that are far more damaging.”
If that’s the best support you can find, you need better friends.
The best evidence for Geller’s redemption, we’re told, is that “a mere handful of magicians have left anything close to this kind of imprint.” That may be true. But just because people talk about you doesn’t automatically mean your legacy is admirable.
We’re told Geller is “less dogmatic” about having supernatural powers… which suggests he still pretends to have them. He calls himself a “mystifier,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. He’s also a shameless—his word!—self-promoter.
Which means he’s really just taking a page from the Donald Trump playbook. Always brag about yourself. Lie to everyone. Never apologize for anything, Always demonize your critics. Profit.
And Geller has made a shitload of money from his con, enough to open up his own multi-million-dollar museum in Israel which is full of artifacts and light on biography.
It’s too bad considering how Geller has become synonymous to skeptics around the world with fraud. The late James Randi, who did more than anyone to expose the lies of Geller, doesn’t appear in the article until about 2,500 words into it. Even then, Randi is referred to as the “loudest anti-Geller voice in the world” rather than a guy who dedicated his life to exposing hucksters and scam artists.
… He also called Mr. Geller a “dangerous and insidious figure,” one he intended to stop “at all costs.”
Those costs, it turned out, were high. Mr. Geller filed defamation lawsuits against Mr. Randi, including one for claiming that Mr. Geller was performing tricks once taught on the back of cereal boxes. The so-called cornflakes case ended with a dismissal, but over the years Mr. Randi burned through most of his $272,000 MacArthur grant covering personal legal expenses. He died three years ago and apparently loathed his nemesis to the end. He once asked that someone throw his cremated ashes into Mr. Geller’s eyes, an obituary in The Economist stated.
The vitriol is a little hard to fathom…
Is it, though? Geller claimed he had psychic powers, which he didn’t. The article even points out that Geller tricked mining companies into giving him millions of dollars because his supposed psychic powers told him where they should dig. (There’s no evidence he was ever successful.)
Randi spent his life calling out professional liars. He hated deception and wanted to give people tools to spot bullshit. He knew that if they believed in supernatural nonsense, they could fall for anything. Geller couldn’t handle that. That’s why he could never respond to Randi’s criticism with honesty; instead, he filed costly lawsuits (which he often lost).
Geller wasted Randi’s time and money, all so he could continue spreading the lie that he had magical powers. I’d be pretty damn vitriolic about that, too. Randi deserves far more credit for at least temporarily paralyzing the charlatan’s career.
But we’re told none of this really matters:
Mr. Geller’s track record as a prospector is not known, and he says he can’t remember. But he never went into faith healing, nor did he charge enough to leave many with a case of buyer’s remorse. He performed live shows and wrote books like “Use Your Psychic Powers to Have It All.”
So he lied to people… but he didn’t pretend to heal them and he didn’t gouge too much money of out them (except for those mining companies). Therefore… who cares? Keep in mind Geller has made millions of dollars through books and seminars in which he claimed to have powers he doesn’t possess.
There’s also this bizarre passage rationalizing Geller’s M.O.:
If Mr. Geller can’t actually bend metal with his brain — and civility and fairness demands this “if” — he is the author of a benign charade, which is a pretty good definition of a magic trick.
Why is Segal suggesting there’s a possibility Geller’s supposed powers are real?! There’s no reason to pretend his claims are legitimate. There’s no reason to include an “if” in that sentence at all.
“Mr. Geller can’t actually bend metal with his brain.”
That’s it. That’s the sentence. To pretend otherwise is a disservice to readers. And then to say his lies about having supernatural powers are “benign” is to ignore the actual harm caused by bullshit purveyors, whether they’re self-proclaimed mystifiers or ministers.
Why is the Times trying to salvage the reputation of a man who has spent his life spreading lies? (Didn’t they learn anything from the Elizabeth Holmes controversy?) Society isn’t better off because men like Geller convince people telekinesis is real. And if he actually did have those powers, what does it say about Geller that he’s spent his entire career performing the most mundane party tricks rather than helping others?
Perhaps the most insidious passage in the piece says that “Mr. Geller is an entertainer, one who’d figured out that challenging our relationship to the truth, and daring us to doubt our eyes, can inspire a kind of wonder, if performed convincingly enough.”
That’s not something to praise! By that logic, we should honor anti-vaxxers and 9/11 “truthers” and Flat Earthers and Kellyanne Conway. Aren’t they also just “challenging our relationship to the truth” with utter conviction?
If you want to give the man credit for doing a good magic trick, fine, but let’s not pretend he’s add anything of value to society. He manipulated countless people at a time when we needed more critical thinkers. As one commenter points out, “Gellar exploited human vulnerability, perpetuated false belief, and undermined the necessity of objective evidence and logical reasoning. It set off a decade-long wave of pseudo-science. All in the name of earning a buck.”
The longevity of his career isn’t a testament to his greatness. It’s a sign of how easy it is to con gullible people when you have no sense of personal ethics. He’s a hack comedian whose act never changed even as the audience’s sensibilities evolved.
If Geller succeeded, it’s only because the rest of us failed. He doesn’t deserve to have his reputation rehabilitated after decades of grifting.
Convincing a Times reporter to glorify his career rather than vilify it is just his latest trick.
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