For those who need to catch up, I’ve written in the past about the strange case of James Randi, the self-proclaimed truth-teller who spent the last 20-odd years living with a man who stole someone else’s identity.
Randi remains a legend in skeptical circles, though the net effect of his high reputation in that crowd is to create an opening for someone like me to point out how little critical thinking skeptics actually engage in when they happen to like the story they’re being spoonfed.
I’m a bit beside myself over this one, though. Because I figured the embarrassment of being caught out with, you know, an identity thief, might cause Randi to back up a step or two from his usual fulminating self-righteousness. Instead, Randi is doubling down on the crazy.
The facts: Randi’s long-term live-in lover, Venezuelan Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga, stole the identity of a man named Jose Luis Alvarez in the 80s, in order to stay in the country and travel with James Randi. Working as a performance artist, Pena Arteaga/Alvarez, posed as “Carlos,” a mystic who claimed to be able to channel spirits, at performances staged by Randi himself.
Randi has yet to fully acknowledge whatever role he played in his companion’s con, but the timeline I’ve laid out elsewhere suggests it is very likely he knew about the theft for a long, long time.
Over the years, the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide in the Bronx, faced IRS investigations because he wasn’t claiming the income actually paid to Randi’s lover. He was himself suspected of identity theft. And when he tried to travel out of the country for his sister’s wedding, he was denied a passport. These sorts of stresses undoubtedly undermine the quality of a man’s life—family weddings don’t occur a second time, and an IRS audit is something I wish upon no man.
At his sentencing hearing, Pena Arteaga apologized for any harm done to the real Alvarez. But not Randi, who was quoted in the newspaper saying: “This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt.”
I have written before that I think there will be little to no blow-back for Randi over this entire affair. The skeptical community granted him sainthood and stopped looking askance at the depth and consistency of his transgressions a long, long time ago. But his statement in a court of law that no one was hurt is deeply offensive to anyone who has ever been forced to deal with identity theft, in general, and to the real Jose Luis Alvarez, in particular.
I think, however, that Randi has gotten away with so much for so long—again, feel free to look over my past work on the subject here—that he essentially feels he can “create his own reality.” This is the sort of thing skeptics often chortle about—how those silly New Agers read books like The Secret to learn how to think or speak the life they want into being. But essentially, Randi has done exactly that: By speaking of himself in self-righteous tones for decades and proclaiming his own status as a truth teller, he has convinced far too many people that he really is deserving of our admiration, that he really is a truth-teller.
But he’s not.
In fact, my own opinion is that he is a candidate for serious psychological examination. Because this line—”No one was hurt”—reveals the distance between Randi and reality.
After all, in reality, claiming that “no one was hurt” does absolutely nothing to undo the fact: Jose Luis Alvarez was caused a lot of needless stress and anxiety by the illegal actions of Randi’s lover.
But as a magician and a longtime manipulator of the skeptical community and the media, Randi knows perception is really the important thing. So, simply by saying, “No one was hurt,” he will leave a certain number of people, who won’t ever dig into the story, in the dark.
To them, Randi will remain a truth teller and all will be right with the world.
Of course, there is also another, even darker possibility, in which Randi is not simply seeking to cravenly manipulate people with an obvious falsehood. It could be, in fact, that Randi has been weaving this tale for so long now, in which everything he does is right, that he actually believes it.
This would mean Randi hasn’t simply conned the skeptical community and most of the media. He’s even fooled himself.
Some people might see this as an attempt on my part to give the story of James Randi some poignancy.
At this stage, he’s simply a virulent presence.
He is the biggest problem the skeptical community has, and yet they just keep applauding him.