The coast-to-coast solar eclipse that crossed the US in 2017 revealed some interesting insights into some people’s thinking. One rapper, perhaps attempting to emulate a similar reported feat by president Trump, deliberately stared at the sun without protective glasses with unfortunate effects. Others took precautions against retinal damage but not of the right kind. Bruce Lee at Forbes reports that some patients were admitted in Ohio for putting sunscreen on their eyeballs. “This is not the way you are supposed to use sunscreen. The directions on a sunscreen bottle typically do not say: 1. Open bottle 2. Squeeze some sunscreen on your fingers and hands. 3. Put on eyeballs.”
We might be tempted to laugh at other people’s ignorance but should we? The Great American Eclipse drew an estimated audience of 220 million people. “It’s so far the largest crowd to witness the rare total solar eclipse in the history of eclipses.” Never in history have so many of the ordinary been exposed to the extraordinary. When 200 million people look up at the sky some of them are going to smear sunscreen on their eyeballs.
Can the common man cope with the esoteric? Two hundred years ago the average person probably understood virtually everything he encountered in daily life. Today the average person is surrounded by objects far more complex than the Apollo 11 guidance computer. Under those circumstances, as help desk workers all over the world will attest, technical ignorance is the rule rather than the exception.
Modern smart devices are purposely designed to be operated even by an idiot. Technology has allowed the burden of intelligence to be shifted away from the user to the machine. As a result people routinely use tools they barely understand implicitly believing they will work. It works but there’s a danger. As Arthur C. Clarke famously observed, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In our high technology present an increasing percentage of the global population must relate to their world in terms of magic.
The classic characteristic of magic is wish fulfillment. Sigmund Freud argued that “the motives which impel one to exercise magic are easily recognized; they are the wishes of men … At bottom everything which he accomplished by magic means must have been done solely because he wanted it.” Psychologically it is a most unscientific world. Desires replace the laws of physics.
Ironically that primitive attitude accurately describes the contemporary public attitude toward technology better than rationality. The idea that people ought to know better than to apply ointment sounds bigoted. Things should simply just work. The politically correct solution is to create sunscreen that YOU CAN apply to your eyeballs so you can watch the solar eclipse in safety. The morning after pill, the eat all you want but never get fat diet, the bottomless credit card, “affordable healthcare” despite accepts all preexisting conditions are applications of this principle. The preferred solution to today’s problems is no longer to intelligently avoid injury but to abolish its consequences.
This idea we should be protected from our own choices may have taken deeper root than commonly realized. The right of everyone to be stupid AND avoid the consequences has become mainstreamed as the equality of outcomes. Liberation from causality is the cornerstone of “compassion”, consequently it is the fundamental positive right offered by all paternalistic states.
It is also a perfect definition of magic. The recent war on statues and the media obsession with formulaic speech recalls the magical principles of similarity and contagion. As every believer of magic knows enchanted objects and special words are the key to changing reality. One destroys white supremacy by toppling statues of Stonewall Jackson, just like a voodoo doll. To use “hate speech”, like an infernal spell, risks resurrecting Nazis from the dead. Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough observed that:
If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.
The principles of similarity and contagion partly explains the immense sensitivity to symbolism among left wing activists. How better to explain the banishment of sportscaster Robert Lee from an ESPN game, the guilt by association of anyone who is a friend of a friend of someone who was once a “white supremacist” than sympathetic magic? The belief that a college degree provides an exit ramp out poverty, whether the recipient of the degree received any substantive education or not is eerily similar to the cargo cult belief that “ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth”. It is “the error of mistaking ideal analogy for real analogy”, but it’s an easy mistake to make when no one understands how a cell phone works and only that it does.
While some of this magical thinking can be blamed on the usual Marxist dogma part of it may be due to the growing gulf between the frontier of understanding and popular culture. The Age of Enlightenment enabled the common man to access knowledge formerly reserved to a few. It allowed people to understand for the first time why things worked. However the recent technological revolution has created the opposite effect. Fewer know how anything works. This has widened the divide between the ordinary person and the principles that power his world.
It may get worse as technology become ever more subtle, built in many cases on quantum and other effects that cannot be grasped by “common sense”. The relative percentage of people who actually know how things work may gradually diminish. If Artificial Intelligence ever takes the lead in scientific inquiry, as many predict, the market may see appliances that no one — no human being at least — even understands. It may be no coincidence that two of the most popular entertainment franchises of the early 21st century, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones attract audiences of millions.
The age of magic isn’t dead. Perhaps it has only just begun.
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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency , by Chris Whipple. The book offers an essential portrait of the toughest job in Washington. Through extensive, intimate interviews with all seventeen living chiefs and two former presidents, Whipple pulls back the curtain on this unique fraternity and revises our understanding of presidential history.
The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, by David Aaron Miller. The book explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and its politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue, too rare to be relevant in the country’s current politics and, driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable. The preoccupation with greatness consistently inflates people’s expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. The book helps readers understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it’s gone, and how they can better come to appreciate the presidents they have, rather than being consumed with the ones they want.
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