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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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Charles Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the fall six months later of the World Trade Center: “America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

So again four years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The Vanishing Lady.” The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emerged from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns… but there are also unknown unknowns... The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

“Perform What Desperate Enterprise I Will”

The Rumsfeldian message accounts not only for what was intended as a demonstration magical in Iraq, but also for the Obama administration’s current purpose in Afghanistan, which is to decorate a wilderness of tribal warfare with the potted plant of a civilized and law-abiding government that doesn’t exist. Choosing to believe in what isn’t there accords with the practice adopted on Wall Street that brought forth the collapse of the country’s real-estate and financial markets in 2008.

The magnitude of the losses measured the extent to which America assigns to the fiction of its currency the supernatural powers of a substance manufactured by a compensation committee of sixteenth-century alchemists. The debacle was not without precedent.  Thomas Paine remarked on the uses of paper money (“horrid to see, and hurtful to recollect”) that made a mess of America’s finances during its War of Independence, “It is like putting an apparition in place of a man; it vanishes with looking at, and nothing remains but the air.”

Paine regarded the “emissions” of paper money as toxic, fouling the air with the diseases (vanity, covetousness, and pride) certain to destroy the morals of the country as well as its experiment with freedom. A report entitled “Scientific Integrity in Policy Making,” issued in February 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, advanced Paine’s argument against what it diagnosed as the willed ignorance infecting the organism of the Bush administration.

Signed by more than 60 of the country’s most accomplished scientists honored for their work in many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics, zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the 40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn’t fit with the administration’s prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.

Whether in regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile, ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River, the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the science didn’t prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been tampered with by Satan.

The report spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but it didn’t attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication have brought with them not only the illusion of “The Magic Kettle” on Wall Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.

 
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