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Magic and the Machine: Living in an American Age of Techno-Wonder and Unreason

The more uncertain our future seems, the more Americans retreat into magical thinking.

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The New World’s Magical Beginnings (and Endings)

New philosophies call all in doubt, the more so as the accelerating rates of technological advance -- celestial, terrestrial, and subliminal -- overrun the frontiers between science, magic, and religion. The inventors of America’s liberties, their sensibilities born of the Enlightenment, understood the new world in America as an experiment with the volatile substance of freedom. Most of them were close students of the natural sciences: Thomas Paine an engineer, Benjamin Rush a physician and chemist, Roger Sherman an astronomer, Thomas Jefferson an architect and agronomist.

Intent upon enlarging the frame of human happiness and possibility, they pursued the joy of discovery in as many spheres of reference as could be crowded onto the shelves of a Philadelphia library or a Boston philosophical society. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, colonist arriving from France in 1755, writes in his Letters from an American Farmer to express gratitude for the spirit in which Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod -- “by what magic I know not” -- was both given and received: “Would you believe that the great electrical discoveries of Mr. Franklin have not only preserved our barns and our houses from the fire of heaven but have even taught our wives to multiply their chickens?”

A similar approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian Henry Steele Commager named “the empire of reason.” An empire that astonishes the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason.

Like England in the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous -- the lines and letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA, Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s scientists come away from Stockholm nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system.

The record also suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological -- nuclear, biochemical, and genetic -- gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic.

We find our new Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution of reasoned argument.  The less that can be seen and understood of the genies escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.

How else to classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling Faustus, "Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of these elements."

 
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