Monday, August 30, 2010

Obama vs. The Magicians

cross-posted at Dagblog

President Obama's response to crazy conspiracy narratives about him is predictable and cool. He doesn't want to wade into the nonsense, and in that much he's absolutely right: you can't argue people out of their irrational beliefs. And in general, Obama has put his faith in the public's preference for real-world results over conspiracy theories.

"I trust ... the American people’s capacity to get beyond all this nonsense and focus on, ‘Is this somebody who cares about me and cares about my family and has a vision for the future?’ ” Mr. Obama said. “And so, I will always put my money on the American people."

Obama is right. Americans prefer results over crazy mumbo-jumbo. And that's why Obama's in trouble.

If Obama's going to overcome the nutty mumbo-jumbo with practical results, he needs an actual plan that will lead to practical results. Reason trumps fantasy by bringing home the groceries at the end of the day. If all reason has to offer every day is yet another sensible, pragmatic explanation for why the cupboard is still bare, fantasy starts to look like the only game in town.

The various strands of right-wing lunacy over the last two years, the birther conspiracies and "secret Muslim" fantasies, the scapegoating and hatemongering and Glenn Beck's chalkboard and the recent Palingenetic "Rebirth of a Nation" rhetoric (h/t Digby) are all just various kinds of magical thinking: attempts to deal with overwhelming or insoluble realities through acts of belief. Can't deal with the fact the President of the United States is black? Believe that there is a piece of paper somewhere, a secret document, that will undo the election. (The giveaway with the birthers is that they don't demand that Biden be sworn in, but fantasize about overturning the last Presidential election entirely and getting rid of the Democrats.) Can't cope with the rubble of our economy? Blame a conspiracy by ACORN or The Tides Foundation or the Jewish Freemasons, a conspiracy whose effects can be reversed if you can just find and punish the conspirators.

People indulge in magical thinking for the same reason people once believed (or still believe) in magic, because it helps them deal with things they can't control. Drought killing your crops? Sacrifice a ram to Zeus, or dance the Rain Dance, or make an offering to the crocodile god. Mysterious illness killing your livestock? Use a ritual to redirect the evil magic onto a goat, and if that doesn't work, find the witches who've caused the illness and kill them.

Magic doesn't do anything, but it makes you feel like you're doing something. It takes away feelings of powerlessness before they become intolerable. And it allows you to release your fear and rage in the unholy pleasure of the witch hunt.

People give up on magic when they get better options. If you can irrigate your crops and take your cattle to the vet, you don't bother making sacrifices to the gods or dunking witches in the pond. You don't need magic to make you feel like you're doing something, because now there's actually something you can do. Modern people still resort to fantasy and superstition, of course, but mostly when their circumstances make them feel powerless or when science fails them. Superstition seems much more attractive when you can't see your way out of poverty, or when you depend on someone else for your livelihood. The anti-vaccination movement is a classic example of turning to magical thinking when science disappoints; medicine hasn't got a great list of solutions for autism yet, and so frustrated parents of autistic children look for a scapegoat to attack, and that lets them feel like they're doing something.

The sorry truth is that a large percentage of the human race, even those of us surrounded by modern technology, don't quite believe in the principles of science and reason. It's more that people believe that the bus comes in the morning, and that food you put in the fridge stays good for a few extra days, and that if you point the remote at the TV it will show you the channel you want. The average person on the street doesn't necessarily believe, deep down, in anything that happens at the Large Hadron Collider, because those things can't be seen or touched. But if the Large Hadron Collider eventually leads to, say, a new generation of tiny, powerful batteries, people will totally believe in the batteries. Reason beats superstition because it's better at miracles.

Our country is full of anxious and frightened people, who are right to be anxious and frightened. Our economy is broken. Our foreign military engagements look bleak. The future is unpredictable, so few people feel safe. People need to know that there is a plan for them, and their family, and a vision of the future, and they need a little more than that. They need that vision to start paying off.

Telling voters that the stimulus saved the economy from being much, much worse isn't useful. That statement is true, but it's only a description of the past. It does not answer the practical question, "How will we make this better?" If you're the smartest and most pragmatic leader in the world but unemployment is at 10% and you don't offer any way to fix that, people are going to start looking for someone dumber and less pragmatic. And if there are genuinely no rational solutions, you might as well sacrifice a chicken or two.

Glenn Beck is a huckster, but he's not just a huckster. He's a shaman. A white-bread witch doctor. He offers to solve his followers' problems with political voodoo. He's going to bring back the buffalo and make everyone impervious to bullets. He's going to make Obama disappear. He doesn't have real solutions, but he promises the illusion of solutions, and an illusion with no real solution looks better than no illusions and no solutions either.

Obama and his Administration can no longer appeal to "confidence" or "optimism" about the economy over the long run. Nobody pays their rent in the long run. And if the only solution people are offered is magical thinking, people are going to flock to those who can at least make that magical thinking entertaining. Obama is never going to beat our country's political witch doctors at their voodoo game.

Nor can Obama wait for the nation's economy to fix itself. The whole country can't bear to wait and do nothing. So if they're forced to wait, more and more people are going to gravitate to the magicians' tents and listen to what the magicians tell them. That has already started. And sooner rather than later, the magicians are going to tell them what every shaman or witch doctor says when their spells and and chants don't work fast enough: Someone must be interfering with the magic. Someone is keeping the spell from working. Then the magicians will send their followers to cast out the sinners, the witches, the evildoers responsible for the evil magic, and to punish them. And once that hunt begins things will happen that no reason can repair.

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