Friday, January 30, 2015

Get a Clue from Magical Thinking

Everybody sneers at magic these days. Because we are all scientists now.

So Richard Fernandez chuckles as he takes a look at the widespread resort to magical thinking abroad in the world today. In Venezuela the government is out of money, but its leader President Nicolas Maduro is promising more free stuff.
Free school stipends, free housing. No cutbacks to social welfare. How would the bankrupt state pay for it?  He said, that while “oil will never cost $100 again but God will provide. Venezuela will never do without.”
Nor is Bolivarian Venezuela alone in this. There is a wave of "anti-austerity" politics in Europe. In addition to the Greek Syriza party, there is the Podemos party in Spain. All these countries are broke, relying on the kindness of strangers. But the politicians assure their supporters that God (i.e., the Germans) will provide.

The truth is that our modern scorn at magical thinking misses the point. If you read the literature you will find that primitive humans did not resort to magic as a first resort. They only went to the rain-man after the rains had failed. The point of magic is to keep hope alive when all hope is lost. Even the modern corporate types discuss how corporate leaders can keep hope alive in difficult times.

An outbreak of magical thinking tells us that things are not going well. Indeed, the outbreak tells us that, absent a miracle, things are going due south.

Fernandez runs the gamut of magical thinking in the world today, from the lefty parties telling their followers that the free stuff will continue to Iranian mullahs that think that the death of a king called Abdullah in the Hejaz "will mark the beginning of a chain of great events that will shock the world." Then there is the ongoing cultural crisis of Islam that inspires its adepts to fly planes into tall buildings and assassinate cartoonists.

The world is full of this. The last months of every war tend to be the bloodiest, and the cornered rat is said to lash out in a final attempt to stay alive.

My point is that when you are in a tight spot, magical thinking is completely natural. When you are toast then you have two options: lie down and let the world roll over you, or double down. If you double down then you either go out in a blaze of glory or, against all odds, you win through.

Observe that this applies in spades to a leader, whether military, corporate, political, or patriarchal. An ordinary person can go into a hole to die, but not a leader. The leader's followers are expecting him to do something. Why? Well, it solves their problem. As long as the leader leads then they don't have to think about what to do. As long as the army is marching down the road, with the hope of supplies a day's march ahead, then the soldiers will go with the program. It is when food runs out and the unit leader has scarpered that the army falls apart. And once the army, or the government, or the family falls apart then people are in real trouble. That's because humans are social animals; we are nothing without the group.

Let us return to firm ground: the president's recent State of the Union speech. A number of commentators, from left and right, have noted the president's magical thinking. Particularly on foreign policy, the president was asking us to believe that everything was hunky-dory. I myself wrote yesterday about the absurdity of saying that "mandated sick leave and maternity leave, another equal pay law, and a higher minimum wage" have anything to do with what the president calls "middle class economics." Middle class economics, I wrote, is about responsible individualism, people taking responsibility for their lives, not government-mandated benefits for the peasants.

All I am saying is this. When you see people descending into magical thinking, whether a gambler in Las Vegas or the president speaking before Congress, it is not the time to sneer. Magical thinking is as human as sex and violence. When you see someone doing some magical thinking, it is just a sign that they are in deep trouble. You should act accordingly.

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