Think magical thinking isn’t potent? Magical thinking is threatening our democracy in real time! Left unchecked, it will bring down the greatest experiment ever in human self government. To be fair, magical thinking now threatens lots of the world. Maybe it just feels like the bulk of its focus is here. Right wingers don’t look to the future with any hope. They call themselves “conservative” for a very good reason. It may be the only honest thing they do or say – that they’re “conservative” and want to conserve. What they won’t be honest about is WHAT they want to conserve.
The Past – A Magical Land
This is where the ravages of a conservative’s magical thinking kick in. A kind of Oz mixed with 1950’s American television mixed with Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill floods their brain like a tsunami of ooga-booga, all focused intently on the past. The past is what conservatives ache to conserve: a thing that isn’t anymore. They’ll insist the past held to better values. It had morals and principles. The future? It’s all dread and uncertainty – two things best avoided.
Conservatism aspires to make the future exactly like the past – a time when conservative white people ran everything. They wrote the laws and the legislation from a delusional “white people are superior to all others” perspective. Just because they got that completely wrong doesn’t mean we have to. And it definitely doesn’t mean we have to keep thinking the same completely wrong way.
Example: America’s founders wrote and stood by the sentence “All men are created equal”. The problem: they didn’t mean what they wrote. They definitely didn’t mean it universally as we now do. We have rethought it to include all people. Originalism wants us to understand the present the way America’s founders understood their past. Forget about everything that’s happened in between. Think of it as “Zombie Democracy”. It needs our brains to feed on.
Originalism granted full American citizenship ONLY to white, Christian, landowning men. That’s what the white, Christian, land owning founders meant by “All men are created equal”. Oh, the irony! America’s founders considered themselves French enlightened, predominantly deist. In their own minds, they were cutting edge and outside the box. Progressive even. But, two hundred sixty years has give us perspective on the founders. We see now that their thinking was well-intentioned but compromised by racism, bigotry and ignorance. They still thought “white people are superior to all others” and that “European culture – enlightened by Christianity and therefore superior to all others – deserved to rule the world.
Such magical thinking is threatening our democracy! And it’s utter bullshit. The American experiment wasn’t perfect at the start (and neither were its founders). It isn’t perfect now and probably will never will be. That doesn’t mean we give up on it or let those who never believed in it destroy it. America’s “big idea” stood apart from magical thinking. Democracy relies first of all upon a common foundation of truth. If we can’t agree on something as basic as “what is versus what isn’t”, we’ll never agree on how to govern ourselves.
Our Demagogue Can Beat Up Your Demagogue
The whole point of living in a democracy is the DIY component. We ditched the idea of kings being anointed by God to run the place and looked to ourselves instead. Some Americans still lament that we stopped being run by a king. They’d hand back every right they have just for what they perceive as “security”. By “security” they mean “protection from the other”. By “the other”, they mean everyone who isn’t white and Christian like them.
The right demagogues far better than the left. Collective government of any kind terrifies the right. That’s why conservatives lean toward fascism, authoritarianism and dictatorships. They hate the whole idea of governments of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Facts, Feelings & Contrition
The only data point any conservative worries about is their own feelings. Equality scares them. Taking responsibility for the past – where they bullied everyone else – makes them feel bad. The thought of reparations – having to give up (even some of) the money white hegemony put in their pockets? Horrifying and unacceptable.
As any good Christian can tell you however it’s all about contrition. Taking ownership of all your own bad shit. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, it’s the rare Christian who even knows anything about their own faith. They think it dropped from the sky as is and that contrition is for others.
Magical thinking sets its thinkers up for failure. How can it not? It makes up or changes its rules on the fly. Everything can change just like “that”. The rules come and go as needed. Can’t explain something easily? Consider magic.
But. just because we can’t explain a thing or why a thing happened doesn’t mean they’re “magical”. It just means we can’t explain them yet. There was a time, not that long ago, where a person who understood eclipses seemed like a wizard to those who didn’t. But, the informed person didn’t have magic at their disposal, they had information. Being informed gave them all the advantage in the world. Facts will always have an advantage over feelings.
Even Atheists Can “Do Unto Others”
Atheist though I am, I don’t see religion necessarily as “the enemy”. I consider myself a “Fan o’ Jesus”. To me, Jesus was a Jewish guy preaching a very Jewish message to other Jews. “Do unto others” is a distillation of the Jewish idea of “Tikkun Olam”. Tikkun Olam obligates every Jew to make the world a better place just for having lived in it. That’s it. That’s the whole deal. HOW any Jew makes the world a better place, that’s entirely up to them. It’s their one obligation to do it while they’re here.
It’s going to start – naturally – from a place of doing unto others the way we’d like them done unto us.
If Christianity could stick to Jesus and Jesus’s teachings (I’d entrust scoping out Jesus from “not-Jesus” in the texts to The Jesus Seminar), it’d be so agreeable! Alas, Jesus didn’t invent Christianity, Paul did. How do we know? Paul, not Jesus, wrote more than half of the New Testament. His letters and epistles to the burgeoning Christian communities across Asia Minor describe Paul’s thinking almost in real time. I’m not judging his thinking here, I’m simply pointing out that he was the one doing “the thinking”.
Beyond Here, There Be Monsters!
Christianity is an idea. My friend, the Presbyterian pastor Randy Lovejoy, calls Christianity a promise. Fair enough. It’s not a promise to me. It doesn’t have to be. The world’s a big place, filled with lots of ideas, many of them contradictory. We have vague ideas how the whole contraption works. It must matter to some of us though. We persist in our questions.
That’s the biggest difference of all. It’s the dividing line between people of faith and people who question faith. How do we respond when we reach the ends of our knowledge?
Do we nod to ourselves and muse, “I don’t know the answer today, but give me some time to work on it”? Or do we back away, terrified that we’ve reached the end of our knowledge? On old maps, drawn before humans circumnavigated the globe, the drawing would end where literal knowledge of the actual geography ended. Beyond there, the maps often warned, “There be monsters”.
Or magical thinking.