Sunday, October 17, 2004

Magical Thinking II

Jeff Sharlet, co-author of Killing the Buddha and editor of The Revealer, asks: "Is George W. Bush the first magical president of the United States?"
What’s surprising about Suskind’s summary of Bush’s “walk,” to borrow an evangelical term, is how small a role Jesus Christ seems to play in it. God gets a few cameos, but even he’s a supporting player. Front and center, though, is faith.


Believing, it seems, is more important to the President than the substance of his belief. Jesus Christ’s particular teachings -- well, those are good, too. But what really matters is that if you believe you can do something, you can.

What Suskind misses, and what Bush’s more orthodox Christian supporters seem to dodge, is that this is not Christian doctrine by any definition. It is, in fact, a key element of the broad, heterodox movement known as New Age religion.

A common aspect of many New Age schools of thought (though not all; plenty of them blend numerous philosophical traditions in a sophisticated manner) is a gentle disdain for perceived reality. Many New Agers argue that their beliefs are actually ancient; and, despite the fact that the superficial characteristics are often of a recent vintage, there’s some truth to that assertion. New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what’s been called the disenchantment of the world. Another word for that process is the Enlightenment, with its claims of empirical accuracy.


Bush does seem to be a descendent of the Enlightenment: He’s Rousseau’s noble savage, operating on the pure, animal instincts that’re true because they are, and are because they’re true. The noble savage does not live in what Bush’s aide contemptuously calls “the reality-based community”; he is in and is of a “nature” more real than reality, which, in an unexpected nod to postmodernism, Bush believers seem to dismiss as a social construct.


Much has been said about his subtle use of scriptural citations as "coded" signals to his base. But every account of his worldview suggests that he sees no need to be sneaky. He is not sending secret messages. When he speaks of "wonderworking power" (a reference to the gospel standard "Power in the Blood"), as he did in his now infamous "mission accomplished" speech, he is drawing that power into being, to make his desires into reality. Politics, strategy, books, the Bible -- everything falls away in the realm of magical realism.


I happen to like the idea that faith is a path away from easy certainty, but I know it’s just that -- an idea. *** It's not an idea shared by many New Age religions. Such beliefs emphasize that certainty is easy, if you'll just give up the illusion of reality, since certainty is as close to you as your own heart. One need not investigate with the tools of rationalism, but rather, simply -- the simplicity of it all is key -- feel.

Bush feels. The press, so far, does not. In grappling with Bush’s presidency, it has expanded its range, developed a more nuanced understanding of traditional Christian fundamentalism, recognized liberal evangelicalism, and acknowledged the limitations of Enlightenment thinking. But it still can’t account for the kind of magic that says, If you believe you can do something -- become president despite losing the popular vote, launch a war without evidence, and maybe, if you REALLY believe, get re-elected anyway -- you can.
I really don't like how this analysis seems to explain so much of the Bush administration's inexplicable behavior.

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