Friday, September 8, 2017

Unreason in the USA

This is a long-form article that traces the trajectory of anti-rational, magical thinking in the US.  It confirms a lot of my observations of the state of our thought and discourse in the States.

One point that occurs to me after reading the article, and that the article itself doesn't really touch on, is that the rise of magical thinking is perhaps in part due to an increasing disempowerment of many people in many aspects of life.  In a hyper-industrialized and hyper-globalized context like the modern US, most of us don't have a direct connection to or control over the different components of our material reality.  Not just the food we eat and the clothes we wear, but even the houses we inhabit, the cars and other machines we use, the very landscaping surrounding us, are very rarely the result of our own doing.  Our food or clothes have long come from other producers, but in the past most of us knew at least something of gardening, sewing, knitting.  Nowadays I feel like fewer people know how to fix things in their house, repair or maintain their car, prune and care for their yard.  Even those of us who do know are limited in our agency by the industrialized nature of things--being handy these days often just consists in buying a replacement part for something, not necessarily being able to manipulate the faulty part yourself.

I haven't done any exhaustive, rigorous study on this, but I know that a great deal of my own feelings of empowerment in life have come from being able to directly affect things around me.  My yard looks the way it does because I make it that way.  I'm able to identify and pick fruits from trees I cross.  I can fix a toilet or an electrical appliance when needed.  In short, I feel that I understand something about how the world works, and this extends to higher-level, abstract things like policy-making, economics, social organizing.  This is probably in large part because my job requires me to participate with communities and businesses trying to effect economic, political, or social change.  Because I understand the complexities of how this change comes about (or fails to come about), I don't ascribe the workings of the world to mysterious unseen forces and conspiracies.

But I think a lot of people in the US don't enjoy the privileges, autonomy, and empowerment that I do.  If you didn't understand or have any say in how your community and your nation is run, you'd probably be likely to think it's run by an opaque cabal.  If you don't even know how your food gets to your plate, or don't have the knowhow or the agency to fix household items, the world probably looks pretty bewildering.  I think that ultimately magical thinking and conspiracies are a sign of helplessness.

This disempowerment that is prevalent in an industrialized, globalized society like ours, where most of the material reality around us comes to us as if by magic, is further exacerbated by the rising inequality in the US, both economic inequality and inequality in access to political power. Even in my privileged case, I have to admit that I often feel powerless.  This doesn't lead me personally to resort to magical thinking, but the resignation I feel at times when I see entrenched socioeconomic and power structures perpetuating a problem, does bear some of the same traits as the magical thinking of conspiracy theorists.

I don't have a solution to all this, but I do think that perhaps if people (starting with youth?) became more involved in issues of local governance in their communities, they may start to better understand the complexities of government, of the economy, and of social structures, which would at once empower them and illustrate that the real world is a complex but comprehensible place with no need of magical thinking to explain it.  Granted, there are plenty of delusional people that get involved in local politics in order to push Creationist textbooks or perverse policies like segregation.  But I have to believe that if more people got involved in the running of their own communities, it would bring them a bit more down to earth.

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