Democracy And The Age Of Magical Thinking

Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/10/10


  We have become a nation of thoughtless rushers, intent on doing before thinking, and hoping what we do magically works out.  If it doesn’t, we rush to do something else, something also not well thought-out, and then hope for more magic.

  Thus, we are leaving Iraq to the Iraqis after spending three billion dollars just on electrical projects, and the result is: in July, Baghdad had five hours of electricity per day.  The U. S. has spent about 58 billion dollars to re-build Iraq, and we didn’t get a deal.  We are pulling out of the cradle of Western civilization, leaving behind a semi-functioning army and police force, a government with “leaders,” who, if they were all put in the same room, couldn’t decide if manure smelled bad, and who can’t decide if they want a real government or not, a nascent oil industry—which produces enough of the black gold to power a Harley for a couple of weeks,  with a bunch of signed contracts, but no stable political and social system to pump and deliver oil, and a group of fierce and independent Kurds in the north who want to run their own country, and—not least—a restive populace which doesn’t  trust politicians, its own government, America, democracy—and therefore, their own minds. 

  We have jumped into the deep end of the pool in two wars and when we find out the water is cold and we can’t touch bottom, we are surprised—because all we thought we had to do was rush into Iraq chanting “Democracy,” crash its infrastructure, throw money around and magically bring freedom, Twinkies, and re-runs of “Bonanza” to a backward people.  We paid off the bad guys and then, expected the rabbit to appear out of our helmet.  But it didn’t.

  We rushed into Afghanistan—with very good reason—but apparently didn’t read any history books beforehand, and thought that if we used the magic incantation of “democracy” it would be enough to make everything better.  It wasn’t.  And now we are stuck with our own misconceptions about a word which we think is a universal concept, a word we don’t really understand and a process we don’t know how to administer.  The bombings, attacks, and murders escalating into even more violence and disorder are committed by those who never heard of Thomas Jefferson and who are immune to Merlin’s Magic Democratic Wand. 

  We have forgotten what the Founding Fathers knew and experienced:  implementing democracy is time-consuming, on-going, damn hard work.  It can’t be invoked by a ritualistic chant or a wish or some banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” or pulling down a statue, or a fine speech about the goodness and purity of American exceptionalism.  We have forgotten what nation-building is all about: building.  You don’t put up a house by wishing it up.  You build it by skill and sweat and frustration and taking out nails and putting in new ones, by measuring and re-measuring, by working hard and adjusting as you go.  It’s more “Hurt Locker” than “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” more about making land disappear to build a bridge than making pigeons disappear to entertain an audience.

  What’s really perplexing about the lack of foresight, the headlong rush to do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong, is that there may be no single greater repository of experience, knowledge, and hands-on expertise than is located in the United States.  We have no need to trust demagogues or fools who promise us that the magic beans they hold will, for example, turn into a working, stable nation—we can go to our stash of people who have studied and worked and lived in any particular place, who know the language, are familiar with the culture, and ask them to give assessments, probabilities, and to estimate outcomes of certain actions.

  So when did we become a nation of magical thinkers?  When did we give up reason and planning and consideration of future outcomes to present actions?   It was surely not born with our republic, and it IS surely manifested in our classrooms, where children open their glossy texts and read a linear, sanitized account of democracy’s inevitable rise and eventual, predictable, success.  It IS manifested in our popular culture, which is also mostly linear, where almost every story has a rough beginning and a glorious ending, and all in thirty minutes  or an hour or two.  Magical thinking is dangerous if you’re sending people into a war to die, or planning what to do about glaciers turning to mud, or what to do about the economy and bringing back jobs.  Planning and rational thinking are essential and serious—not Mickey Mouse.


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