In the Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant eloquently describe historical trends that seem to have arisen anew to clash in America:
“Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a “conflict between science and religion.” Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.”
I grew up in a society where science was competing with religion, and it seemed that science was winning. The power of science was being demonstrated regularly, everywhere in the last half of the 20th century. in the way it manifests that power through technology. And science was usurping one of the vital functions of religion—the task of explaining why things are the way they are. A portion of the culture held to the notion that science could eventually offer full and complete explanations of all and everything, once we had the proper tools. People were accepting scientifically determined truths as articles of faith without really understanding them. The limitations of science were not understood– especially the complexity of the underlying systems.
In my youth, science and organized religion had at least one thing in common—they both delivered their teachings in a way that represented an ordeal. Scientific and religious forums involved suffering through stoic battles against boredom. We had schools that made us hate learning and religious institutions that blocked spirituality.
One learned to endure the process, and afterward, one joined the social order, as after a fraternity hazing.
In the turmoil of war between science and religion, America began to churn out its own unique distinct new mythologies. Myths are narratives that are understood to be untrue once you attach the label, but they are also understood as serving to illuminate an important kind of truth that is not literal. The narrative is a guide. America’s myths took the form of pulp magazines, movies, paperbacks, comic books, television shows, and rock and roll. In time, the myths would evolve with technology and blend into one another.
I latched on to comic books before I could even read. When Frederick Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent, his infamous condemnation of the comic book industry, he was right about one thing– comic books have the ability to warp and twist young minds. They certainly had that effect on me, even though the only comics available during my childhood were those that passed the puritanical Comics Code. Comics provided a personal engagement with the purely mythic, which is to say that the experience bordered on the religious; it was rhapsodic, serving many of religion’s spiritual and transcendent functions, but in a context that didn’t have to be accepted as literal truth. That gave comics an unfair edge.
In comic books, I experienced a direct connection to what was slowly becoming a vital part of America’s folklore. I was caught up in the early stages of the Silver Age of comics, absorbing its lessons and its dreams.
Today, the folklore that sold for a mere ten cents a shot in my childhood now manifests itself in the form of films with budgets greater than those of many small nations. The fan cultures associated with the comic books industry have transformed into religions unto themselves, fans as fanatics with their own orthodoxies, heresies, sacred rites, saints, martyrs, miracles, and mysteries.
In a Time magazine review of Shazam, Stephanie Zelacharek wrote, “Before comic-book culture was a religion, it was a pleasure… Today it is a kind of tyranny… Don’t ever suggest that comic books are supposed to be fun. You must treat comics and their resident superheroes with utmost seriousness, and you must have the proper enthusiasm [she should have used the term “reverence”] for the multimillion dollar film products they spawn. Critics who disliked Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight got death and rape threats.”
There have long been deep ties between comic books and religion, even the comics that passed themselves off as purely fun or nonsense. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, Superman adopted the goofiness of the character he had vanquished in court, then known as Captain Marvel, now known as Shazam. Superman mutated from a herculean demi-god to all-powerful, all knowing deity, able to rearrange planets and suns as if they were living room furniture, able to fly through time, and possessed of perfect virtues. But the stories reveled in absurdities, presenting iconic images of nonsense, like Superman as a hobo with holes in his once indestructible shoes, hitting the road, ignoring Lois Lane’s pleas to save Jimmy Olson from falling to his death, or Superman wearing a tribal headdress, stirring a boiling pot, about to perform a wedding ritual that would mate Jimmy Olson to a female gorilla; or Superman being forced to write his true name on a chalkboard like an errant schoolboy, after being placed under oath by a judge. This latter point was the main focus of most plot complications—who was Superman really. He had virtually, and virtuously, become God. The devils in this universe were Satans of Science, Luthor and Braniac, or goofy nonsense trolls like Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro. And there was a theological point being made. Who was God really? Did he hide behind a mask of the mundane? Or a mask of the absurd? The efforts to reveal the truth were always thwarted for the participants in the story who tried to root it out, but the truth remained, widely known and transparent to all who read these sacred texts, while the authors reveled in ridiculousness.
In his comedy book, Anyone Who Owns his Own Home Deserves It, Allan King included a final chapter in which his young son retold the Passover story in a way that conflated the Exodus from Egypt with the origin of Superman. As a child, when I read the book, I still didn’t see the deep connection, though it was right there in front of me. I thought it was a joke, the funniest one I had ever read. At that time, and for years afterward, it never failed to make me laugh.
At the age of eight, I bought the first issue of Fantastic Four off the racks for a dime. The book filled me with a sense of auspiciousness, a sense that the world had changed forever.
When Marvel comics set out to create a rival pantheon, they mantled the universe in horrors, not absurdities. The Fantastic Four, the first Marvel demigods, had The Thing, a monster in their midst, and they fought other monsters—The Mole Man with his legions of underground behemoths, the Skulls, grotesque shapeshifters from outer space, the Submariner, the brutal psychopath from beneath the sea, who used to chuckle to himself when Nazis drowned or burned alive on their ships after being attacked. The next Marvel entry was Ant-Man, who literally began in a horror comic patterned after the Incredible Shrinking Man, only to later don a costume and cybernetic helmet. And then came the Hulk, the cross between Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein. And the theology there was just as plain—that beneath the horror and social dysfunctions of this universe, there is divinity, truth, and moral order.
The same year Fantastic Four #1 was published, I caught my first glimpse of an even older magic, a layer of folklore that formed the very foundation of the comic books I so loved, and it also affected me strongly, but in an entirely different way.
In 1961, the Miami Herald had tracked down a retired author named Robert J. Hogan, and ran an article about an old pulp magazine he had written during the Great Depression, called G-8 and his Battle Aces. The article contained a number of color cover reproductions, and some of the pen and ink interior art. There were a few plot summaries. My father, it turned out, had been a fan of the series. The article filled him with a rush of nostalgia. I longed to get my hands on those books, but in 1961, back issues of G-8 seemed to have vanished from the physical world. They could not be found in the barbershops that warehoused old comic books full of hair, or in used bookstores with their dusty backlog of paperbacks. They could not even be found in antique stores. I understood the pulp heroes were the precursors of the comic book characters I knew and loved, and that they were gone, passed into the stuff of legend.
Slowly, old pulp heroes began to dig themselves out of the dustbins. Doc Savage enjoyed a paperback revival in the 60’s, thanks in large part to a brilliant re-imagining by cover artist James Bama. Robert E. Howard’s Conan also returned, owing a similar debt to cover art by Frank Frazetta. The Shadow tried to launch a similar comeback in the 60’s, but was not as successful. The character had earned a high degree of name recognition from the popular old radio show, but the original pulp version of the character was fading back into the darkness.
As I saw more and more of the old pulps, I sensed a kind of magic at work, some kind of potent, forgotten and half forbidden aesthetic. It was darker, and even more subversive than comic books, and certainly not diluted by the prudish and prissy Authority of the Comics Code. There is a telling passage that approximates what I felt. It comes from the pulps themselves, from a Robert E. Howard tale titled The Footfalls Within, originally published in Weird Tales– about a Puritan swordsman named Solomon Kane, who carried with him a cat-headed staff of ancient make.
“The exquisite workmanship of the head, of a pre-pyramidal age, and the hieroglyphics, symbols of a language that was forgotten when Rome was young–these, Kane sensed, were additions as modern to the antiquity of the staff itself as would be English words carved on the stone monoliths of Stonehenge.
As for the cat-head–looking at it sometimes Kane had a peculiar feeling of alteration; a faint sensing that once the pommel of the staff was carved with a different design. The dust-ancient Egyptian who had carved the head of Bast had merely altered the original figure, and what that figure had been, Kane had never tried to guess. A close scrutiny of the staff always aroused a disquieting and almost dizzy suggestion of abysses of eons, unprovocative to further speculation.”
Some of the old pulp magazines contain eerily prophetic sequences. I’ve written about them in my articles about the Spider and Operator #5, on my website. These strange prophesies heighten the underlying effect of mystical and folkloric engagement. What was going on, exactly? Many of the authors were churning out over a million words a year—the level of productivity that it took for them to earn a decent living during the Great Depression. Did that process produce something akin to the phenomena known as psychograpy, or automatic writing? Automatic writing was favored as a mediumistic experience by occultists, where they released conscious control of the pen or typewriter, and let it become a vehicle for accessing deep and mysterious unused levels of the human mind.
Or perhaps this sense of the mystic was created by the demands of the pulp market itself, hopelessly crowded and fiercely competitive, where the boundaries of propriety were being constantly tested, and all manner of excess was the principal allure, including all manner of excessive imagination. The authors were constantly being strained to the breaking point in order to produce material that would grab attention. The visions created by stressed and over-exerted imaginations create a filter opposite to that of science— it allows perceptions disconnected from the realm of the senses, inexpressible through language. This is the mythic experience, which provides a mediation zone between waking consciousness and dreams, a shortcut from ego to id.
Perhaps that sense of the mystic came from the basically ephemeral nature of the pulp medium– the paper that was made to crumble and self-destruct after the first reading, the packaging that proudly announced itself as trash. That somehow in its animistic aesthetic, in its veneration of the transitory, it paradoxically touched the eternal.
In his book, Spider, pulp historian Robert Sampson expressed it eloquently:
“The strange red flickering of 1930’s fiction seems distant now. You hold in your hand the product of a time too remote to recall, and feel a slow stir of wonder. The smell of pulp pages, an illustration, an advertisement, these fragile things mark the slow hammering of time and display what it has done. About you are today’s machines, today’s shadows. Outside the window, leaves hang against the sky, as did leaves during the 1930’s. The sound of voices are no different then than now. You hold the magazine and feel something quite delicate slipping past. These solid forms surrounding you are all insubstantial. Time’s hammer will also pass across them, leaving little enough behind.”
America’s myths themselves are changing form through an entertainment industry that dissociates the population from their physical selves. Current technology presents sensory illusions in fantastically vivid fashion, something like lucid dreaming. Interactive features directly engage the viewer in a participatory experience of unreality. Video games and movies have captured the turf dominated by the pulps and comic books. And then there’s a notorious new genre of myth which should have been an oxymoron: Reality TV. The world is drowning in that myth. The American news industry, through its emphasis on entertainment and pandering to the values of its audience, is becoming a kind of national myth as well.
The mythic trappings and aesthetics of pulp fiction have often been used in America as a means of exploring the mysteries, terrors and grandeur that lie beneath all religions. On another level, these works often come across with a comic effect, in both senses of the word. Why would anyone take seriously the mixing of spiritual inquiry with pulp magazine trappings? It is funny to consider the Star Wars phenomena, and the way George Lucas distilled principles taken from taken from Joseph Campbell’s writing about religion, myth and folklore and mixed the distillate with clichés taken from pulp science fiction and westerns— inspiring a group of devoted, cult-like followers. And maybe it the same kind of joke that happened when Ayn Rand used pulp formula apocalyptic adventures and her own brand of demi-gods to create one of America’s most powerful and dominant modern mythologies. Her works are surely masterpieces of their ilk, powered by a purity of passion and artistic vision; they crystallize an extreme view. The many ideas resounding as eternal and self-evident truths through her works serve well as a counterpoint to Marxist crystallized masterpieces that constitute the opposite extreme, like Peter Brooks’ production of Marat Sade or Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Rand’s works are masterpieces in spite of– and perhaps because of– many unintended hilarious moments. But the consequences of Ayn Rand’s mythology on our social and political process have been less than amusing.
The same kind of joke that happens when comic book fans debate whether Thor could beat the Hulk in hand to hand combat, while employing the scholastic seriousness of Medieval theologians talking about dancing angels and pinheads.
Every culture has its own dynamics for determining the truth. These social dynamics involve some level of armistice in the old materialism vs. idealism/ Frankenstein vs. the Werewolf battle that has gone on for centuries with no clear winner. A culture remains stable as long as it maintains an equilibrium between that which can be verified by the senses and that which lies beyond the senses but is none the less recognized as true. Science and Magic. That which exists is informed by that which does not. Our waking life is informed by our dreams. Our realities are continually shaped by what we imagine. We conjure ideals, even in the absence of evidence. Our present experiences contain certainties, but they are only approximations, and these certainties vanish from instant to instant, sandwiched between a fleeting debatable past and an unformed future riddled with conjecture. America’s myths reflect and feed the same kind of imbalance between idealism and materialism (in both senses of both words) that afflicts the rest of the society.
Blind Men at The Elephant
I’m going to perform some magic now, a kind of magic that involves the same trickery that stage magicians use, sleight of hand, and misdirection. Emulating fake magic, I’ll make it seem like I’m talking about something else, like Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Materialism and Idealism, Law and Medicine, Science and Magic. Make it funny. Make it into a joke.
I’m not going to talk about politics, at least not right away. People are sick of hearing about politics, though they can’t stop talking about it, and probably shouldn’t, though they need to talk about it in different ways. Instead, I’m going to talk about something personal, problems in the healthcare industry that I’ve dealt with directly.
The current healthcare system has a bias for specialization, and the bias feeds a spiraling negative feedback loop. The payors reward it, and the higher reimbursement rates encourage more providers to specialize. The more providers focus on their limited areas of inquiry, the more information they generate, and it becomes almost impossible to maintain competence in a general area of practice. There are many positive aspects to increased specialization. Because of the greater scrutiny given to each area of study, we find ourselves continually surprised by solutions to what had seemed unsolvable medical problems. But our world is rigged for uncertainty, and every strength has a way of turning into a weakness.
Every solution creates a new problem. Too much information is as cumbersome as too little. Healthcare progressively splinters into more and more highly specialized compartments, with patients moving through the system as if through a factory conveyor belt, passing from specialist to specialist, each focused on his or her own area of expertise.
With many specialists working on different aspects of caring for a single patient, they often end up approaching the patient like blind men at the elephant, and they miss the unifying explanation that would account for the patient’s problems. You might have a cardiologist focused on treating a patient’s tachycardia, and a psychiatrist treating the same patient for anxiety, and a pulmonologist treating the patient for shortness of breath, with all of them missing the fact the patient was bleeding to death internally, or had an undetected infection, or a tumor, or was suicidal from depression. They might not even agree about which one of them should be responsible for grasping the totality. It is not uncommon to see specialists take aim at one another in a circular firing squad when the case gives rise to a lawsuit.
Psychiatric nursing units are reluctant to deal with patients that have multiple or complicated physical ailments, like uncontrolled diabetes, while medical nursing units are reluctant to deal with patients that have complicated psychiatric problems– even though the medical and psychiatric issues tend to blend into and complicate one another. The same kind of specialization myopia blurs the focus when I.V. drug abusers are admitted for wound infections. It has become the standard of care to admit these patients to a hospital, though outpatient therapy is the standard treatment for all other patients with the same conditions. Infectious Disease specialists will treat the infections. Surgeons will debride the wounds, if needed. The patients will be discharged once the infection is resolved. But no one treats the source of the problem, which is the addiction itself.
You might have each specialist applying a quick fix to a problem in the system he or she is treating, but the solution causes a new problem somewhere else, setting off a cascade of complications. This happens frequently, since homeostasis involves the interplay of complex and easily disrupted systems. Antibiotics work well for treating infections, but they wreak havoc on healthy bacterial needed in the gastro-intestinal system. Steroids work well to control swelling or asthma, but they wreak havoc on the immune system, as does chemotherapy, which both cures and causes cancer. Every solution creates a new problem. Most of the time, it isn’t considered an error to cause other problems with these focused cures. Most of the time, it is the standard of care. New solutions will be presented for each new problem, keeping the matter under the sovereign authority and jurisdiction of the medical system, while charging as the problems and solutions cascade. Hospitals are dangerous places.
Specialization of knowledge yields similar results across our culture. Technology changes the intellectual landscape, fostering a process of extreme intellectual specialization. We lose sight of the nuances and complexities of problems that lie outside of our individual specialties. We resort to generalizations about areas we don’t fully understand. We tend think in absolute terms, like whether our economic system should be capitalist or communist, whether our morals stem from scientifically or religiously understandable origins, whether we should be driven by the spirit of competition or cooperation. As a civilization, we polarize in our views and lose the ability to communicate effectively. We lose sight of the basic truth that these social influences and philosophies are inseparable and entirely interdependent on one another, and must be maintained in appropriate balance in order for us to thrive as a society. The social structures can’t keep pace with the changes. We have a whole society of people approaching problems like blind men at the elephant. Some of us grasp at the trunk of the spirit and think they have a full understanding, while others grasp at the tail of the material and think likewise.
This is going to sound weird, but it is coming from me, so what do you expect. There are ongoing conflicts at the border between what is tangible and material and what is dream and ideal, and you might label these conflicts as a fight between science and magic. Both are true, and we need both to work in balance.
In simple terms, scientific truths are those which are confirmed by the senses and verified by repeatable sensory information. Magical truths are those that lie outside the senses, but are accepted as truth nonetheless. They might come from an unquestionable authority, like a deity, or the State, or a king who is the representative of the former, or an elected president who is a representative of the latter. Or that invisible, indefinite, all powerful force we call The Law. Or the unquestionable authority might be a work of Art that through its self-contained universe shatters pre-existing notions and forces a re-examination of the world. Not the magic of fantasy novels, which works according to rigid rules, as if it were an alternate version of science. Not the stage magic of illusionists, which is science masquerading as its opposite. Rather I’m talking about the actual magic that is an intrinsic part of human consciousness—the manipulation of tangible reality with intangible information. Things like medicinal placebos, or talismans that are supposed to bring good luck and achieve that result by inspiring confidence. In this sense, one could think of Art as magic. Or the Legal System. Or Religion. Or Marketing.
The Random Nature of the Universe as Proof of Intelligent Design
Magic and science are always in a state of flux in the collective consciousness of any society. It is part of the homeostasis of social health, and two must be maintained in proper balance. But Science and magic do not mix well; too often they are confused with one another, and each is ill suited for performing the other’s intended functions. Magic, be it in the form of Art or Religion, yields up too many half-baked notions, convenient anthropomorphic explanations of complex phenomenon, too many blind spots and errors. And Science? Science is incapable of transmitting morals and codes of conduct. Science offers no comfort in the face of life’s overwhelming constant tragedies. Science cannot lay the iron rails that guide one in the ways to ignore the senses; it doesn’t teach one to rise above instinct and its urges. It can’t teach morality.
We need both values to work in balance. It might be tempting to exalt oxygen over carbon dioxide, because of the obvious terrors of not being able to breathe, but it is the continual exchange of the two gases that keeps life going, and this applies to the exchange within our individual bodies, as well as the exchanges between plants and animals in the surrounding environment. Continually, the need will be greater for one or the other.
Religion represents a higher, irrefutable truth, a way to access transcendent information, things that lie outside the realm of language, a purity beyond our fragile, temporary, and ever challenged lives, so that we can’t really discuss it in ways based on what our senses tell us, or based on logic, or science, or rationality. Religion provides a mindset that enables us to make decisions in a way that blanks out these things. This is a strength, because people are constantly tempted by their senses and can always find a way to logically, scientifically, and rationally justify loathsome behaviors in surrender to those temptations. But of course, this property makes can be a weakness as well, because some decisions should be made on the basis of logic, rationality, or science. The trouble is, the fastest growing religion in America today is politics.
Modern America is suffering from an excessive reliance on Magic in the form of Marketing. The content has ceased to matter, and the packaging has become all important. Americans have been conditioned to accept this state of affairs since childhood. We all grew up watching television commercials in which toys were presented as magical objects that would provide hours of amusement, though the actuality was that the allure would promptly fade the moment the object was possessed, and the true hours of amusement would come from the process of accumulating more and more of these objects. We crave garbage that has been disguised through enchantments. The magic of marketing has overwhelmed everything else, our news, our science, our arts, our politics—even our medicine. We watch with interest and fascination as medicinal panaceas are presented for our consumption, all the while being told of the disasters that may follow if we actually use them. The content and results become less important than the packaging.
At times, though, the packaging, through its effect on our perceptions, assumes a kind of control over the content and the results. That is part of the interplay of ideas and material.
Money is kind of an unreal thing, a sort of shared hallucination. Money is magical in nature, mythic– pure and simple. It is tangible pieces of paper and bits of metal that can be transformed into anything—goods, services, sex, visions, drugs, dreams and delusions. It doesn’t even have to be tangible anymore, and its power can be invoked through mere symbolism.
Bullshit as the mortal that binds the bricks of the material world. (this caption contains a typo, left uncorrected)
Money represents a prime example of how the border between the material and the immaterial are shifting. We’ve become so accustomed to the convention, we confuse it with actual reality. We have a cultural bias that goes so far as to measure value, virtue, and need on the basis or tangible dollars and cents. We might look at a forest where people rarely venture and the value of keeping it as is might be judged as nothing because it generates no income to anyone. The cultural bias favors a future use based on cash return, converting what is immediately real and beautiful into planks of wood, or pulp, or a gated community, or a strip mine. This is happening, right now.
The same could be said of the disproportionate compensation paid to top level corporate executives, because it fails to account for the fact that there are limits to what even the most exceptional of individuals can achieve, and greatness comes from the organization itself, collectively, and the best leader is one who is aligned with a superior corporate culture, drawing authority from that alignment.
Consider these sales: A million dollars for a copy of the first appearance of Spiderman in Amazing Adult Fantasy number 15. Three million dollars for a copy of Action Comics number 1. 58 Million Dollars for a Jeff Koons. One Hundred and Five Million Dollars for an Andy Warhol. Now, I love Art. I mean love, with a capital “L” in the sense of value without price. And I love comic books, too. But what greater proof can there be that our society has directed too much of its resources into too few hands? The comic books were created to be disposable literature. The Koons and the Warhols were created as jokes.
These items have devolved into symbols of having money, symbols of symbols, representing nothing.
Many books that are sold go unread, sort of like the mint condition comic books that must remain locked within their plastic cases, lest any physical contact cause a blemish. But books don’t have to be readable to achieve greatness. Consider hallowed classics like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon—long and arduous works that barricaded themselves against accessibility, and owe their canonized status to the efforts of experts who have read, digested, and interpreted them for us. We admire them on the basis of their reputations, not our own experience of them. All over the country, books end up on shelves out of some collective and collectors’ impulse, as if the physical objects could impart their teachings through mere presence. The intent to read these shelved books never entirely goes away, and lovers of literature continue to buy new books, the gesture being akin to making a charitable donation to a cause reputed to be worthy, or the dropping of a dollar into the hat of a street musician without pausing to hear the music.
The entire American economy itself is dissociating from the material world. Consider the bit coin, which shouldn’t be worth two bits. Corporations are valued primarily on the price of their stocks, not some other inherent but more difficult to measure value, such as whether they house cultures of innovation, or cultures of contributing to the communities they serve, or cultures of treating their employees well. Disproportionate amounts of social resources are being allocated on the basis of accounting and legal manipulations, such as hedge funds, or stock buy backs (a solipsistic manipulation, an illusion of value), or debt masquerading as wealth. America’s so-called present “healthy” economy draws its vitality from a growing accumulation of debt, the flare of a supernova about to undergo gravitation collapse, turning into a black hole that could suck the wealth of our nation into its event horizon. We have a pharmacy industry that is rewarded for creating dependence rather than wellness, a legal system that is rewarded for consuming as much in the way of resources as the value of the matters in controversy it is supposed to resolve, a journalism industry that is rewarded for inciting and pandering, playing to the biases and informational preferences of the readers because that is the way to sell news, creating a cleft in the very notion of truth, and a political system that keeps itself in power by sowing and reaping discord while shirking the functions it is supposed to actually perform.
There is a segment of the entertainment industry —a core mythology— that exists mainly to advertise its trademarks, where the value of the merchandising is more important than the values embodied in the stories. And yet they are all viewed as great—or the greatest—because their value is measured according to the myth that money is the ultimate measure of worthiness.
The labels of socialism and capitalism, or The Left and The Right—even what is real and what isn’t—are often used as emotional triggers, over-simplifications of complicated factors in continual interaction. If you buy into the notion that all of these factors must remain in balance, they become more useful if you regard these generalities as a tool for gaining orientation, like points on a compass to navigate. The environment they map constantly changes. Even familiar territory transmutes into the unknown. Sometimes you need to go north, or east, or double back, sometimes taking a left turn, sometimes a right. Sometimes the turn needs to be suddenly and sharply made, veering to the extreme. And sometimes the turn needs to be taken slowly and carefully.
To consistently overvalue the Left against the Right, or vice versa, under all instances, is sure guarantee of an upset in balance. A healthy economy contains intermingled elements that might be labelled as capitalistic or socialistic, and the weighting of those elements should shift from time to time, depending on circumstances. To insist that it must be exclusively one or the other misunderstands the nature of our complicated economic systems.
You can see how a combination of confused values over government spending and the veneration of private industry combined in toxic fashion to fuel the opioid epidemic in America.
The government, though the Medicare and Medicaid programs, paid for pain killers in communities where there were few other assets. Opiates became the currency of a black-market culture, much in the same way that cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and other addictive products functioned in the black markets of post-war Germany.
As Emily Witt, expressed it while reviewing Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones, “In small towns where independent commerce had disappeared, addicts would shoplift goods from under the noses of unmotivated, underpaid Walmart employees and trade them for pills. Pill dealers would keep stores of stolen goods, where pills could buy everything from stolen televisions to nappies to laundry detergent, all at a discount. ‘Some large though immeasurable amount of the merchandise supporting addiction, as the opiates settled on heartland America, was mined from the aisles of Walmart, where Main Streets had gone to die,’ A Blizzard of Prescriptions , LRB, Vol 41, No. 7, 4 April, 2019
The American conflict between science and magic has subsumed our politics, which is becoming a religion in itself. If the term “magic” is troublesome, the term “spirit” might also apply, because I’m still talking about materialism and idealism, a debate as old as humanity.
The struggle between science and magic plays out in the ways that American culture makes important social decisions. You can see it in the way the court system deals with scientific questions. Consider medical malpractice litigation. The plaintiff’s experts present their arguments, then the defendant’s experts argue for contrary conclusions. These experts are often conjecturing about things that haven’t really happened, like what result would have been reached in hypothetical situations—like whether a gravely ill patient would have survived if the physicians had pursued a different course of action. A panel of lay people, chosen at random, decide which expert is correct. The truth becomes a matter of theatrics. Statutes and Administrative Regulations are developed through a similar theatrical battle of competing experts, with the final decisions being made by elected officials and their appointees, based on the greater weight of scientific (or financial) authority.
The division between America’s two political parties as science and magic based is very clear. There’s a stark example in the issue of climate change. A large portion of the population of America is deeply convinced of the need for immediate action because the evidence has been labelled as scientific, even though the exact science isn’t really understood by many calling for immediate action. And a significant portion of the population reject the need for immediate action to halt or slow climate change because it runs counter to their established, customary routines, and the evidence calling for a drastic change in those routines is remote and technical. The science is there, but the magic isn’t, and both forms of argument need to be present to convince the population.
No form of rhetoric more persuasive than self-interest.
There’s a cultural crisis in America, that’s the truth, though much of the crisis revolves around the nature of truth. Most commonly, people propose solutions that involve changing the political party in power. What should be incontestable is the problem is the contest of American politics itself which only deepens the turmoil. Opposing political parties no longer view each other as merely mistaken or misguided. The Left sees the Right as followers of a demonic cult. The Right sees the Left as brainwashed products of an educational system absorbed in the narcissistic study of itself, training its participants to skillfully deploy nonsense. Both sides view each other as liars or fools or villains.
We have a Republican president who bases his actions on deep intuition, who isn’t fooled by the evidence that befuddles the opposition, who has the power to transform reality by his very pronouncements, even if they change from day to day. He speaks in jumbled phrases that work like incantations. His adherents understand that the truths he pronounces might be not always be true in the literal and material sense, but they sense the deeper meaning and the way it is operating to advance a certain goal. Like Art. And he advanced himself upon a platform of a personal mythology that resonated as deeply true to a portion of the population, and deeply false to the remainder.
Likewise, the Democratic party has advanced the notion, as its core value, that scientific approaches and empirical evidence should be the basis for solving every problem and answering every question. And so, it offers candidates who present statistics, analysis in a way designed to appeal to those who have been trained in the same methodology. But this notion of truth—in isolation—is also a myth. The 2016 presidential election was surely a contest between one candidate who lacked material substance and one candidate who lacked magic.
Beneath the arguments lie suggestions as to who will profit. My side or yours.
The enemies of America have already deployed a highly effective weapon sapping us of our greatest strength, the ability of Americans to fuse and reconcile their conflicting views, to merge opposing opinions into creative and effective action. America has many enemies and they fit into a number of generalized categories. We might argue about whether Russia is our friend and Ukraine is our enemy or vice versa. But those categories of our enemies and the labels we put on them do not include Democrats and Republicans or Liberal and Conservative.
One of failures of the current political system is that it successfully creates divisions between Americans and exploiting the fact of division to promote the agendas of both political parties. Our challenge is, how do we defeat that promoted goal when opposing it tends to feed it?
It is infuriating, isn’t it? And that is the point– to divide America into factions, and label them liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, and make them fight each other because there has to be a winner and loser. The fight has become more interesting to watch than the dull process of making decisions about things that really matter. It isn’t about the content. It isn’t about whether the critics think it is a good show! It isn’t about doing something moral– it is a package that purports to show a contest. It is marketing. It is a package. It is a reality TV show. It is all about is the ratings. Not what people think about what they are watching, but how many of them are watching.
Everything I’ve said might give rise to rebuttal and endless debate—except maybe the part about there being too much information to make sense of any given topic, but if that were true, then nothing would make ever make sense, which doesn’t make any sense. That’s the heart of the old dismissal I made as a freshman in college when asked to address the philosophical question of materialism vs idealism in my essay on Frankenstein vs. The Wolf-Man. That’s also the quality of truth these days.
What are we supposed to do when there is too much information, and we can’t tell what is true, and it doesn’t matter anyway because everything is true? That means there is no answer, which also means there is an answer. Everything is true. You only need to find the context in which a given proposition is true. Though you might disagree, recognizing the contradiction and paradox is a good way to confront a problem, and to arrive at a solution, and come to terms with those who disagree with your solution.
Everything is true. Really.
We don’t need to know what is true, because nothing is untrue. But we still need to do the right thing.
If you buy into the notion of a supreme creator, then it is pretty clear he or she or they created a universe full of unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems. And if you don’t, if you believe only in what can be verified through scientific method, you are forced to the same conclusion about the universe, only without the part about how it was created—unless you believe that science will eventually solve every problem and answer every question, in which case you’ve got faith in something as intangible as prayer. In fact, prayer might be the perfect solution for unsolvable problems and the perfect answer for unanswerable questions, as long as it isn’t used as a strategy to avoid doing the work it takes to deal with hard problems and hard questions.
Science can’t solve spiritual problems, so we shouldn’t make a religion of science. And prayer won’t answer problems involving physics, chemistry and biology.
We don’t need to know the truth. But we need to do the right thing.
If you’re in freefall from twentieth floor of a skyscraper, prayer may be your best option. But don’t go dancing on the edge of a balcony twenty stories up and expect that prayer will save you if you fall. Yes, I’m metaphorically talking about Climate Change.
The idea that everything can be true is one of the American culture’s most enduring and meaningful and useful myths. It is a democratic vision of truth, that reality can be altered by majority vote.
Actually, this notion is a simplified version of the way the first amendment of the U.S. constitution works. The government can’t ban speech based on whether not or it is true—every statement being treated the same, whether it is absolutely and perfectly true or whether it is absolutely and perfectly false. Instead of asking whether a piece of information is true or not, the legal inquiry asks what action it leads to in a specific context. Information can be filtered or prohibited based on what result it might cause.
One might view one of the virtues of American culture as arising from a legal structure that forces competing values to balance against one another, while channeling the tension and energy of the conflict to productive ends. That has been America’s past, and the solution to many of its problems. But no solution is permanent. Today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.
The fictitious but real organization I talked about in “The Hospital and the Shadow” could be viewed as a microcosm of America, and America as a microcosm of the world, and my personal and subjective perceptions as a microscopic contribution to a world view. We live in a democracy. Our leaders are important, but they have to be connected to the culture and in a democracy, our leaders are us, and our culture is us. The culture is shaped by and shared through its mythologies, and we are the creators of our own mythologies.
Perhaps, at an early age, I had what felt like a mystical experience involving American pulp magazines and comics as a result of my youthful rebellion against religion. Perhaps it is a reflection of the way that those cut off from spiritual experience will find it anyway, because it is an inescapable part of the human condition. It is everywhere around us, and will manifest itself in whatever holds our prolonged interest. We give different names to it, but the experience is the same. It happens whenever we reach the point where intense contemplation forces us to look beyond ordinary experience, whether the focus of that contemplation be a story, or science, or art, or music, or philosophy, or the transitory passing moment, or trash. Different individuals wax rhapsodically over matters that leave others cold. Deep examination might lead one to leap from topic to topic, subject to subject, discipline to discipline, as this essay does, sometimes coherently and logically, sometimes losing its way, groping towards obscure, inchoate connections in its consideration of matters as diverse as law and medicine, comic books and pulps, politics and theology. Or it might lead one to deeply ponder one single aspect to exclusion of all else. A flood of information, or a shutting out. A choice between the infinities that populate the empirical world that lies without, and the infinities that populate the endless depths of that lie within– that which is and that which is not, endlessly combining and recombining. The endless number of things to be discovered and the endless number of things that can be imagined. The universe is strewn with windows into its mysteries, and they all ultimately lead to the same place.