Christmas is routinely characterized as a magical time and the stories of Christmas certainly have plenty of magic in them. So, perhaps, it’s not completely inappropriate that magical thinking has been on my mind these days. Magical thinking is seeing connections where none can actually be demonstrated to exist. A shaman curses an enemy and the bad things that happen to that enemy are due to the magic power behind the curse. A plant with a bud that looks like an eye can be used to treat diseases of the eye (the law of similarity). You can heal a wound by anointing the weapon that caused the wound (the law of contagion).
But the kind of magical thinking that I’m talking about is the perception of a relationship between thoughts and events. The sad truth is that no matter how fervently you may want something that (or, perversely, fear something), that of itself that will not cause the desired (or feared) event to happen.
I’m seeing an enormous amount of that sort of magical thinking going on these days.
Europeans who believe that the power of law and public opinion (and, presumably sending good thoughts) will stop genocides and wars in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Somalia, or the Congo, or will stop the Iranian mullahs from developing nuclear weapons are engaging in magical thinking. Proponents of liberal democracy in Iraq who believed that anything other than a Shi’a majority government would result from democratic elections in Iraq are engaging in magical thinking, too. Whether a Shi’a majority government in Iraq is a bad thing and a burgeoning Islamic Republic in the style of Iran still remains to be seen. People who are absolutely convinced that it will be may be engaging in a mite of magical thinking themselves.
People who think that we’re going to invade Iran in force to prevent the mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons are engaging in magical thinking. It is not politically possible at this time (and may well not be militarily possible). We may bomb, we may blockade, we may try to impose Security Council sanctions. We won’t invade in force. I tend to think that we won’t do anything about Iranian development of nuclear weapons and that nothing will be done unless the Israelis take it upon themselves to stop it by whatever means are possible to them. And that, in turn, will cause much more damage than its proponents predict. That may be magical thinking on my part.
People who believe that President Bush will be impeached over the wiretaps that he apparently authorized are engaging in magical thinking. No matter how fervently they wish that it will happen it will not for reasons I’ve already discussed. It is not politically possible. I don’t know whether they can keep the issue up in the air until the midterm elections or benefit by it if they do. That might also be magical thinking.
Democrats who believe that the road back to control of the federal government by their party lies in being an opposition party are engaging in magical thinking. Historically, the presidential candidate who has the most positive view of America and its future wins here. You don’t get there by being an opposition party. Republicans who believe that they will have a permanent majority or permanent control of the federal government or, particularly, that they can achieve either of those things without good governance are also engaged in magical thinking.
In this magical holiday season I’ll engage in a little magical thinking of my own. I’m going to wish with all my might that the leaders of both political parties start using their energy and creativity to come up with real world solutions to the many problems we have before us both at home and abroad. After all it just has to happen. And that would be magic worth thinking about.
More about Magical thinking:
Skeptics Dictionary article (with an extensive bibliography)
Sigmund Freud’s article, The Uncanny
Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough