The Years of Magical Thinking

When I heard on March 9 that Ernest Shackleton’s sunken ship, the Endurance, had been found, I remembered reading that Shackleton had begun the expedition to cross Antarctica from sea to sea by quoting the Roman Stoic Seneca: “I will find a way or make one.”

When the Endurance got frozen in an ice floe in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his crew ought to have perished by the law of averages. But he courageously led his men to one island and then another and went back for those who didn’t get in the lifeboat.

Generations have seen the Endurance story as one of extreme self-empowerment, but Shackleton failed to bend reality to his will. He didn’t get from sea to sea. What he did do was prevent tragedy by getting most of his men home alive (perfect timing, as my friend the German historian pointed out, for them to be slaughtered in Flanders fields). I think Shackleton, who died of a heart attack on a subsequent expedition in 1921, marked the start of a century where belief in the power of oneself eclipsed belief in one’s empowerment by God.

After writing my last post about the pervasiveness of magical thinking, I’ve been thinking about how much more there is to say about its stranglehold on this historical moment—especially the ascendance of magical thinking about ourselves.

From Shackleton’s 1916 ordeal to 1952, when Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, the groundwork was laid for a long self-empowerment ride that shows no sign of slowing. For decades, we’ve been laying track to make Nietzsche’s will to power travel in every direction—from The Secret to Badass to dressing for the job you want to Daniel Kahneman Inc. to 7 Habits and 12 Rules to the ubiquitous “manifesting.”

Americans have a maniacal national character of self-invention. It comes from the white settler notion of being reborn in a “new” land, purified. What we have more of than Western countries is the capacity for belief. Faith comes before understanding, or so said Augustine, and we have a deep spiritual thirst for the former at the expense of the latter. From Emerson’s Divinity School Address to Miracle on 34th Street, American belief evolved to become more important than any God it was based on.

For many people over, say, fifty, the triumph of science over religious belief has left lingering anxiety—even for nonbelievers. As William Deresiewicz has observed, “Secularism . . . doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live; it doesn’t connect us to anything larger than ourselves; it doesn’t bring us into relationship with other people. It leaves us alone with our terrors, our confusions, our despair.”

Still, I can see a pattern in American history over the past century whereby we subconsciously prepared ourselves for the end of God. We definitely saw this coming, but we refused to choose secularism as the new factory default. We have evolved into a patchwork of agnostics and atheists with a vestigial compulsion for belief.

The problem, of course, is that without rationalism and logical skepticism, believing in the auto-divination of your desires is pure fantasy. You end up believing in the magic of your own belief—in tandem with believing in a consumer culture that reflects your self right back to you in an algorithmic portal to social disintegration.

While I have always respected and admired Oprah Winfrey, something Kurt Anderson pointed out in his 2017 book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire has stuck with me: that she “is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more.” And that “for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.”

Magical thinking in regard to the self runs across the political spectrum. It wasn’t the exclusive preserve of Republicans before Donald Trump, but they appear to have become aware of its pervasiveness among their base way before the press began writing about QAnon. And now they have brilliantly aligned it with their decades-long efforts to achieve permanent minority rule by an ever-shrinking minority.

You just know that the reptilian opportunists who have clung to Trump’s coattails do not “believe” in the man the way that people in Massachusetts believed in David Ortiz. But you wonder if any of them become intoxicated with their apparent ability to bend reality to their will. Given the party line of “doubling down” against any revelation of moral or ethical failing, you wonder if their talents at Excalibur-izing pathological lying ever make them feel as invincible as Shackleton.

It’s uncanny the way these mouthpieces perfectly channel the American tradition of tent revival preachers and snake oil hawkers. They just can’t stop shredding democratic norms without also selling something under thirty-five dollars. Sure, their brand requires that they maintain a contrarianism bordering on oppositional-defiance disorder, but you’d think that when they get swept up within the frenzy of their verbal powers, they might experience some kind of epiphany. But no one ever seems to transcend the paywall.

In a recent Atlantic essay bemoaning the way social media has laid waste to the past decade, Jonathan Haidt cites “at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” Social media, he argues, has weakened all three.

But even before social media, these three forces were on the ropes. Since the cultural critiques of Alexis de Tocqueville and later Charles Dickens, America has had a serious problem with culturally sanctioned immaturity. Fortunately, this vulnerability has always been kept in check by a confluence of mainline Protestant faiths and national civic groups operating at the local level. As Andrew Delbanco and others have argued, the Rotarian Center (that’s my phrase) was critical to the social capital that gave us our identity as Americans and kept our democracy strong. I’m not saying that this de facto departure from our written Constitution was ideal, but it inadvertently kept us from falling into chaos.

Now we can see that the Rotarian Center was a fluke and not the norm—just as Thomas Piketty has argued was the case with America’s postwar economy—and without the Rotarian Center’s guardrails, we have large numbers of people believing in personal magic to our common detriment. With the shared stories of the Rotarian Center now trampled, we have two universes with their own origin stories. They are so absolutely separate that the discord and debate lies within the parties.

It’s tempting to compare these universes to Marvel and DC since that cultural phenomenon is also a product of our group surrender to fantasy. But if a hero from the Blue universe ever popped up to help save the day in the Red one, there’d be no squealing from an audience of fanboys.

We all love a good story. If you were lucky enough to get tucked into bed with one as a child, it’s easy to see how that love would continue on into adulthood, especially when the story involved magic, and especially when, without a God, the story might be all you had to believe in. It’s also easy to see how you might prefer to hear your magic story told over and over, all through the years of your life, rather than seeking out the truth. §