Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Crime, Politics, and Magic

People who believe in magic do not ordinarily give up their belief in magic when their magical acts fail. They always have an acceptable explanation for the failure. If my love magic failed it was because my rival had stronger magic, if someone hadn’t found my magical bundle it would have worked, I should have used eagle feathers instead of turkey feathers, and so on.

Crime, I think, especially in the case of repeat criminals, operates in much the same way. If that patrol car hadn’t unexpectedly arrived we would have got away, if he hadn’t snitched on us it would have worked, if the getaway car hadn’t had a flat tire, and etc., etc.

Such explanations always have perhaps a grain of truth in them, that’s why they are used and why the basic beliefs in magic are not abandoned. It is, I think, much the same in politics. One might use, for example, the 48 (or more) votes Republicans in the House have tried to do away with Obamacare. You could regard this as insanity but it could also be seen as an example of magical thinking. But it can also be seen as magical thought when, for example, a losing candidate claims he or she lost because of the weather, or because there was not enough money for ads, or because if so-and-so hadn’t received certain endorsements they would have won, and so on. Losers don’t necessarily give up their beliefs that they might well have won if such-and-such hadn’t happened. They seem to believe their particular beliefs, no matter how out of touch with reality they may be, would have produced victory had it not been for some kind of random or divine intervention. It is not that their particular beliefs or goals are simply outrageously out of touch, it is that something accidentally, randomly, or unexpectedly happened to thwart them. It is not that they are wrong about  “what Americans believe,” but that others mysteriously do not agree with them (they are insufficiently informed, listen to the wrong stations, etc.).

You see the same kind of magical thinking on the part of some when it comes to things like global warming. When 97% or more of all scientists agree on the phenomena, and that it is caused at least in part by human activity, and some still deny it, you are up against magical thinking, “Only God controls the weather,” “It’s just natural that the weather changes,” and so on. We have people, including Congresspersons, who apparently do not believe in science. If they deny science they do so only through some form of magical thinking.

I guess that I, too, believe in magical thinking. For example, I think the problems we are having with Health Care could be quickly and easily remedied. We could have had a single payer system, Medicare for all,  that would have eliminated the problems we seem to be having with Obamacare, would have been far more efficient, more inexpensive, more sensible, and already proven to be successful in many other countries. Perhaps the main reason we do not have such a sensible system of universal health care is because of the apparently magical belief that socialism is the work of the devil, or something akin to a venereal disease, or even worse, the end of civilization as we know it.

Then there are other seemingly magical beliefs that keep us from solving many of our problems. The belief, for example, that unemployment insurance keeps people from wanting to find jobs, or that food stamps contribute to sloth and laziness, or that the poor are poor because they want to be, and so on. As there is no basis in fact for any of these beliefs I suggest they are basically magical, and as such, they are virtually impossible to deal with as magic relies on magical thinking, and magical thinking cannot be easily changed. If it could we would not be in the downward spiral we are now experiencing. Indeed, I would argue that most of our current beliefs are basically magical, we are not “the shining beacon on the hill,” “exceptional,” “the world’s greatest democracy,” “the hope of the world,” “the most indispensible nation,” or whatever. That is all magical thinking, pure and simple.

“[American exceptionalism] is a reaction to the inability of people to understand global complexity or important issues like American energy dependency. Therefore, they search for simplistic sources of comfort and clarity. And the people that they are now selecting to be, so to speak, the spokespersons of their anxieties are, in most cases, stunningly ignorant.” 

 Zbigniew Brzezinski

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