Wishful Thinking and What it Does to Us

My favorite authors are Derrida and Rorty, and when I read them I do to them what they do to others, namely I try to detect in them remnants of religion that do not fit with the majority of their statements. I pick out dichotomies used by them which I think they ought to be compelled by their own thinking to drop – for example Rorty’s split between “public” and “private” which I think derives straight from Augustine’s “sacred” and “worldly” and which I think ties Rorty in knots so that he has to hold that his work is both useful and pointless.

And yet I want a dichotomy myself, one that has a lot in common with that between “rational” and “irrational,” words I often consider nonsense. And I want to attribute a tremendous importance to my dichotomy, something I frequently fault others for. But, what can I say by way of excuse other than that I will welcome correction from anyone able to give it?

The dichotomy I find useful is that between wishful thinking and non-wishful thinking. I don’t think that I mean by this a distinction between “emotion” and “pure objectivity” or anything of the sort. I mean to distinguish not exactly beliefs that fit poorly with a person’s other beliefs and actions, and not exactly beliefs that are pleasing to a person or satisfy some longing in that person, but beliefs that are held because they satisfy a longing and in the face of reasons to some degree consciously recognized by the person for dropping the beliefs.

Determining what is to some degree conscious in a person is not something that can always be done with certainty. And it can be done on the basis of nothing other than the good or poor fit of a belief with its holder’s other beliefs and actions – except in those instances where the holder openly and credibly confesses to wishful thinking. But I think it is most useful to describe wishful thinking in terms of semi-conscious choosing even if it must often remain impossible to state with certainty that such choosing has occurred.

The easiest way to approach wishful thinking is to look at examples of it that are openly acknowledged by the wishful thinker. Perhaps the most famous example is Pascal’s wager. Pascal chose to believe something. When you choose to believe something, people may have as difficult a time getting you to recant as they would with any other belief you hold – including all of those that you don’t think of yourself as having chosen. But you are far more likely to act in ways, and hold other beliefs, contradicting your chosen belief.

That Paschal could choose to believe something may even be doubted by some people, but there are many, many people today who make the same wager and will tell you as much. They will offer you comfort, not tension, as a reward for doing likewise. However, a great many beliefs, I believe, are chosen somewhat less consciously, and consciousness of motivation for holding a belief is often fiercely avoided – an indication of wishful thinking.

Wishful beliefs are the most likely beliefs to be temporarily set aside and then picked up again. This is a description of religious transgression and repentance. When right-wingers today bemoan the alleged expulsion of religion from political discourse, they are recognizing that people are capable of ceasing to believe religion during much of their lives, even while consistently answering yes to “Do you believe in…..?”

Am I just praising something called “the scientific method” as non-wishful? Or am I making wishfulness an ahistorical category long predating the predominance of scientific thinking? Some of each, I think. This may be wishful thinking, but I’m inclined to think that wishful thinking has been on a decline in recent centuries. I also think that there has always been and still is much thinking of both the wishful and the non-wishful variety.

What is a history of thought? We are often told tales of the progress of thought from one mode to another over the centuries (say, magical – religious – rational – pragmatist – ), and yet no one has ever encountered a society in which any of the supposedly past modes of thought does not remain significantly present; nor are many past or primitive societies not known to have contained, or to contain, at least a few thinkers well ahead of their times. Many individuals come of age taking the latest and seemingly final mode of thought as utter common sense, whether or not they have a name to apply to it. For these people, the earlier modes of thought must be studied if their rejection is to be fully understood, and the whole operation takes on the appearance of two steps backward and two steps forward – a net waste of time, if not of research grants. All former patterns of thought look like blatant (however unconscious) wishful thinking, in which one would not have engaged no matter when one was born.

Look, for example, at the United States today in terms of the four types of thinking listed above. Is there magical thought? At first it may look as if there were mere remnants and oddities: the superstitions of athletes, President Reagan’s wife’s astrologer, 1-900- psychic phone lines, and so on. Once upon a time voodoo dolls could hurt enemies, and dances bring rain (though believers tended, nonsensically, to sharpen swords and store food). Nowadays when a team points its mascot in the proper direction, it doesn’t really expect this to help. We don’t say “Bless you” because we really consider sneezes dangerous. When we smooth out a blanket on which we have been lying, we aren’t saving ourselves from some enemy who might harm us by placing rocks or knives in our indentation; we just happen to like smoothed out blankets. And yet we have a persistent tendency to “think positive” about things over which we have no control. Or we ignore a problem in hopes that it will “go away”. If we mention a hoped-for success, we may be accused of “jinxing” it. If we think about someone, we may cause him to telephone, or vice versa. Taking an umbrella with you prevents rain. Punching a man may hurt his identical twin.

It’s true that in rural America magic seems more prevalent. The position of the cows in the pasture foretells the success of a fishing trip. And it’s also true that in traveling through another country the superstitions jump out at one more noticeably. For example, in much of Italy you must never give a gift with pins in it, open an umbrella indoors, take a shower after (or is it before?) a meal, or drink anything too cold. The gift will kill the recipient; the umbrella will bring stormy affairs into the house; the shower and drink will kill you. But we tend not to notice our own superstitions, of which we have plenty. Aside from such nonsense as lucky and unlucky numbers, ladders, black cats, and so on, many people have their own private magical beliefs based on repetition, e.g. a lucky shirt worn on some previous “lucky” occasion. And precisely our most intelligent intellectuals, among other egotists, may be found secretly to believe that they were magically destined for success.

Magical thinking is not just a scientific theory which has been replaced by a better (more useful) scientific theory. It bears that absurd inconsistency which is the mark of wishful thinking. If I believe that standing on my head on a particular day will make the crops grow well, I may sincerely believe this to the extent of always being quite certain to fulfill that duty. Yet I must explain away or simply ignore the fact that, nevertheless, sometimes the crops grow well and sometimes they do not. And I must find some reason to bother tilling the soil and caring for the crops which in any case are bound to grow well since I’ve already stood on my head on the proper day.

But what if tilling the soil and standing on one’s head are both understood as propitiating a god? What if there is no understanding that the one actually helps and the other doesn’t? Doesn’t wishful thinking require some awareness of futility?

Yes. I doubt there were many cases of this sort with NO awareness of which behavior was useless.

What about religious thought in America today? It, too, seems to have weakened, even among most of its professed adherents. And yet it remains. We believe in Heaven while struggling to stay alive, condemning suicide, crying at funerals, betraying our dead friends’ secrets. We believe in an omnipotent benevolent God who administers a less than good world. Some of us suppose that, though Darwin was right, God set the whole shebang in motion. Even though scientific determinism is so, we’ve still got Christian Free Will. Or, even though God can’t prevent evil, he’s doing his best and ought to be prayed to for various reasons. Or, even though non-believers will burn in Hell, one can happily marry a non-believer and declare toleration the highest political good. Or, even though people in churches other than mine are wrong, we’ll all go to Heaven. And, even though I must accept full responsibility for my actions, I am whatever God made me, and I must obey his will and blame him for my screw-ups and expect his eventual assistance.

A mess, in other words. But most of this is nothing new. Christianity – to take our most popular religion – has always believed in Heaven while inexplicably banning suicide and failing to encourage all Christians to put their lives at the greatest possible risk for some acceptable purpose. The problem of evil has had a long and glorious history. The problem of Darwin can expect the same.

But I should not dwell on the inconsistencies of merely nominal Christians. The merely nominal is not harmful. The danger of religion lies in the establishing of an authority. Christianity is perhaps the greatest force of kindness and inclusiveness we have known. Yet, the other day on television, Pat Robertson declared it God’s will that Americans not risk their lives for mere Yugoslavians who had chosen to engage in “self-holocaust”. Without the part about “God’s will” this would simply be some nut’s absurd opinion, to be weighed against the opinions of others. Those believers who laugh at Mr. Robertson are not so willing to laugh at the concept of “God’s will”, at the idea that such a thing exists and might, in theory anyway, be known. We imagine that there is such a thing as a “right” action, which we do our best to determine by human means with the occasional prayer or meditation thrown in. We are thus quite a ways from losing our religiosity.

But aren’t we so far that many people have never even doubted that there is a “God’s will”? And, so, aren’t they cleared of the charge of wishful thinking and saddled with that of ignorance?

No, because a failure to doubt can be wishful, as is every selection of what “God’s will” will be.

That the denial of death is inconsistent and wishful need hardly be argued. Likewise the laying of responsibility for one’s fate on “God”. But the concept of “rightness” is still so much with us, and in such a secularized form, that we may not see it for what it is: a wish for permanence. To understand this, we must turn to the next mode of thought: rationalism.

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . . Nothing confused me more, growing up, than this sort of language. If something was self-evident, why say it, much less argue about it? And what was a creator? And what was a right? Well, the point seemed to be that we wanted to establish a political system which would not permit certain abuses against any citizen. Nothing so difficult there. And there I left it. Everybody, I was aware, talked about rights as something we “had,” and I took this as simply a queer way of talking about how we wanted our government to treat us. But then I discovered that people actually believe that rights are things we have, that an intelligent Martian could put a human under a microscope and discover his rights: “Let’s see . . . a brain, two lungs, a liver, and . . . what have we here? A-ha! it’s a right to freedom of religion! And what’s that over by the heart? A right to the freedom of assembly. . . .” People actually believe something roughly along these lines, and have, I guess, since the Enlightenment so enlightened them. The idea, apparently, is that there is an innate “human nature” (as set forth by God, though that may be left unsaid) to which we ought to adhere in order to be properly the humans that we are. When Jean-Paul Sartre says that there is no human nature, and you wonder what in the world he means (are there, then, no universal human traits?!), this is what he is talking about.

We still talk about whether people are actually good or really bad. Nothing is more common in our speech than Enlightenment phraseology. We think there are things (that is, words) which have essential natures we can discover, or at least worry about. Take this passage out of an article in The New Republic of 4 December 1995: “Is it morally acceptable for a liberal democratic society to accept as allies (or worse, to bring into being) authoritarian states which use exceedingly nasty methods, simply because they oppose a totalitarian rival? Is it even politically expedient? And from the standpoint of social theory, of the attempt to understand how societies actually function, is it illuminating to lump the two together, simply because they are both sinful? Or should one go further and class liberal society with totalitarianism, on account of the sins committed by liberal society itself, whether internally or in its foreign policy?” The author of this piece of confusion is caught between realizing that the criterion for judging a description is its ability to illuminate, and expecting yes or no answers from some unknown source to the question of the propriety of his various descriptions.

The answer to his first question is: we need a lot more detail. Likewise to his second the answer is: sometimes. To his third question one must respond by inquiring what in the world he means by the word “actually”. Is there some particular way in which societies ACTUALLY function, above and below our many descriptions of them? To the fourth and final question, we may answer, after ignoring the unexplained reference to “internal” liberal “sins”, that if two different entities both do undesirable things then they have in common having done undesirable things. But then, how illuminating is that? And how, post-Wittgenstein, is it that we go on treating words like ‘democracy’ or ‘authoritarian state’ as if they stood for homogenous groups of identical entities sharing a particular essential nature? Do we really expect to collect all authoritarian states and set forth rules for how to deal with them all at all times? Come on. The author of the quoted piece cannot believe this. And yet his language betrays him.

An example of rationalism can as easily be found in the area of science as in that of ethics. There currently exists a great debate between “realists” and “anti-realists”, who for the most part disagree on absolutely nothing. The anti-realists deny the rationalist Enlightenment idea that we can get at an absolutely eternally true final description of the world in no way limited by our own theories and methods of investigation. They point out that no one has ever so much as suggested suitable criteria for success in this regard, that we have no workable idea of what we’re supposedly aiming for. The realists, on the other hand, deny the idea (held by absolutely no one) that a person can, for example, have type A blood in one country and type B in another. The problem, of course, is that the realists have more or less taken for granted what the anti-realists are presenting as a new and radical idea. (By “realists” I mean to refer primarily to scientists; I’m ignoring those philosophers, now limited to the English speaking countries, who actually are rationalists). One fails to comprehend what it is the anti-realists reject, and so one assumes that they are rejecting the value of science. They call science “arbitrary” and so you assume that they believe people must walk in some countries but can fly in others, whereas all they mean is that whether a whale is a mammal or a fish is a matter of human convenience.

But the realists have not clearly articulated for themselves what it is they take for granted. So, while they have never even considered the idea of an ultimate Truth in the Enlightenment sense, they may hold on to various remnants of that notion. They may be found insisting that there is something more to truth than consensus. If so, they are usually talked out of that idea very quickly. When everyone took it as True that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, and Galileo changed their minds, he changed both the consensus and (therefore) the truth. That the earth is round is a consensus, and therefore a truth. There is not something in addition to consensus which makes it more profoundly True. Or if there is, no one has yet explained what. This does not, of course, mean that the theory changes the facts, that Galileo’s words altered the behavior of bodies. It means, rather, that a theory is falsified only by the emergence of a theory we prefer, and verified only by our continued adherence to it. Rationalism believed in human nature, natural rights, and the absolute extra-human value of scientific truths. (I naturally employ the past tense precisely for that mode of thought which is least past). It did so even while continually creating the nature of humans, devising new rights without any explained empirical basis, and revising scientific methodology ad hoc without any foreseeable limits.

The inconsistencies are glaring. But why is this wishful thinking? It is wishful thinking because it represents a longing for something eternal, something outside the fleeting contingencies of human history. The facts, of course, are that humans are born, exist a few moments knowing they are doomed though usually avoiding the thought, and cease to exist. They would like, or some of them would, to be in touch with something longer-lasting, and perhaps also to contribute something longer-lasting to a cultural heritage. If political societies are never absolutely right, future ones may view ours with scorn. If scientific paradigms are ever-changing, our scientists may be laughed at not long after they are cold. It certainly looks like that is the case. Some recent artistic trends may be seen as (morally despicable) attempts to produce something bizarre enough to keep the future’s attention regardless of how much they do for us today. “Morally despicable” here means “I don’t like it”, and nothing more. I don’t like it because it is selfish. And you won’t like it if you don’t like selfishness. But what the “will of God” would have to say is beyond me. What would be “right” is an empty question.

I have moved from rationalism to pragmatism in my discussion of the former. To some this may be common sense, to others scandalous. Changes in “modes of thought” are like that. They are gradual, making their way into children’s books before all the PhD’s have even heard of them. A pragmatist (or postmodernist) may say something like: “All great thinkers are just symptoms of their times”. This sounds like he’s saying that there is no great thinking, that all the alleged thinkers really just collected ideas current among the educated of their day. But that’s not at all what he means. He simply wants to deny that each new philosophy was a step closer to some ultimately perfect philosophy. You may never have imagined any such thing. Or, on the other hand, you may be shocked by his denial. You may assume that there is some perfect philosophy out there, even though you can’t begin to specify how you would know when you had it. Meanwhile, however, the pragmatist has left you behind with the assertion that not only will there never be an ultimately true philosophy, but neither will there continue to be any philosophies at all, pragmatism itself being simply an anti-philosophy.

This sort of talk has gotten itself something of a bad name, in so far as every author wants to be personally the first non-philosopher. Nietzsche rejected almost everything that went before him. Heidegger lumped Nietzsche together with what he had rejected, and then rejected the whole. Derrida has added Heidegger to the mix, and rejected the group again. No doubt somebody will soon reject Derrida. There is something to all of this, beyond the egomania, at least in Nietzsche’s and Derrida’s cases (Heidegger was basically wrong), but it all just confuses the important point. Which is: No longer will we accept any wishful thinking! The first religious thinkers, to stick with our simplistic schemata, could have said the same in response to the magicians, as could the first rationalists in response to the religious (in fact, they did), and as will any future brand of thought which overcomes pragmatism. How can we be so sure that pragmatism is the answer? Is it enough that what pragmatism is is an assertion that there are no answers? Basically, yes. Pragmatism asserts that nothing will last. Thus, whether pragmatism lasts or not, as long as it is not replaced by its predecessors, it – in effect – lasts. It is incapable, therefore, of not lasting. To pragmatism, the future is an unimaginable innovation to be produced by brilliant human creativity. It will be pragmatist because everyone has always been pragmatist, whether they called themselves magical, religious, or rationalist. These three types are to be rejected as a whole because they are not, any one of them, consistent. They substitute desiring for believing, and false-comfort for utility.

But in rejecting these things, let’s not fall victim to the popular nihilist idea that this constitutes some kind of a loss. Without God everything is permitted. Of course, and everything always was permitted, including the inventing of God, and the partial belief in that invention. To recognize this is a gain in clarity, a loss in nothing at all. Without life eternal, life remains what the vast majority of people have all the time known it was: something both horrible and joyful, as joyful as we make it. Without permanence, we are granted the dream of infinitely different futures, to which we selflessly contribute our bit, though it and our fame will eventually be lost in the ceaseless flow. Those of us who never believed in any of what is rejected, obviously lose nothing. What remains is not a permanent solution to human life, something to leave future generations out of work and bored to death. What remains are art, science, ethics, politics. That we cannot have a perfect art keeps art alive. That science is never finished is the salvation of future scientists. That there is no longer the question of whether the poor have a “right” to the help of the rich, allows us to ask more clearly: “Ought the rich to give a damn?” and to answer as we choose. We are left with a courageously human utopia.

I highly recommend an article by Raymond Williams called “Advertising: the magic system” which argues that “If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly. A washing-machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward-looking or an object of envy to our neighbors.”

In a biography called “Tecumseh” I recently read “Today we can be more charitable to Lalawethika. The witch hunts were not the creations of the Prophet, and however regrettable they were, to the Indians of that time – and it is only by their standards that he can fairly be judged – his purpose was commendable and his course rational. They believed that sickness was being caused by sorcery, and that its practitioners had to die to ensure the survival of the community.” Did they believe that? I doubt it. Can groups never be judged? Can I not judge Lalawethika by my standards? Is it not wishful thinking to imagine that I can view him as his peers did? It may sound open-minded to pretend such power. Certainly it is encouraging that the author recognizes that what is considered rational is constantly changing. And, after all, on what basis do many of us adhere to our beliefs in the powers of current medical practices? Well, largely on the basis of experience and testing, I think. I don’t think the Indians believed in witches any more surely than my neighbors believe in God. They didn’t believe in witches in the way that they believed deer existed. The “belief in” that they held for witches was motivated by a desire to control things, to express anger, and to attack personal enemies. Those named as witches often happened to be rivals of those doing the naming. I would call this sort of belief, and nothing else, irrationality.

Later in the same book: “Tecumseh siezed upon the appearance of the comet, alluding to it as an omen that boded ill to his enemies. To the Creeks it was a powerful argument. Consider, here was this celebrated Shawnee, brother of the Prophet, his very name – Tecumtha – signifying the Shooting Star. His appearance coincided with that of the comet, and while Tecumseh remained, visiting Creek towns, the splendor of the heavenly visitor intensified. No sooner had he moved on than it faded, disappearing as mysteriously as it had come. No Creek could be blamed for believing that this man had truly been favored by the spirits.” No? This claim betrays itself with the word “mysterious.” If the Creeks had seriously BELIEVED that Tecumseh had caused the light in the sky, then there would have been nothing mysterious about it. It was only because they didn’t know what caused the light (and therefore called it mysterious) that they could choose to try to believe that Tecumseh had caused it. The Prophet, like all other Indian prophets had made predictions that proved false and asserted abilities that could not be demonstrated. I blame any Creek or Shawnee who believed in that TYPE of thing, just as I blame ANYONE who “believes in” anything, that is ANYONE who relies on metaphysics.

Various accounts in “The Golden Bough” make clear the emptiness of any distinction between what is today acceptable religion and what we imagine to be abandoned superstitions – things like bad luck from breaking a mirror, the joining as blood-brothers by mingling blood, any import other than aesthetics in not eating with an open mouth, leaving buildings only the same way one came in, the designation of certain words as bad, not cutting one’s hair until some victory is won, etc. These are things a lot of us still take seriously, along with our respectable religion of drinking the blood of a god born to a virgin human or our rebirth of paganism or our scientology or whatever.

Sir James Frazer believed in a single human development from a single natural or primitive or rude or uneducated state to that of civilization. Admittedly, I believe that there may be such a thing as life without wishful thinking, although I’m not sure how to prove when one’s reached it. But Frazer’s belief in the single male natural human derives from a belief in divine creation. His belief in completely positive progress derives from a belief in a divine desire or plan.

His accounts of people dying of fright as a result of the violation of some wishful taboo are highly suspect. In many cases his anthropologist sources are quoted by him as asking ridiculously leading questions, and the time it takes these people to die is long enough for a refusal to drink or eat to have killed them.

But let’s assume that you can “die of fright” as a result of a belief for which there must necessarily be a bulk of evidence against and little if any for. Does this suggest a totality of belief inconsistent with an accusation of wishful thinking, justifying only a judgment of honest mistake? Maybe.

I went skiing with some friends from UVa, and had a discussion with a guy named Petar on the way up a lift. Petar was a self-professed Derrida disciple. That is, he declared that the most important thing to do was to study the writing of Jacques Derrida, “until the next great thinker came along.” I myself think that reading Derrida is one of any number of worthwhile things to do. I lump Derrida in the relatively small tradition of great rejecters of traditional philosophy and, therefore, of religion – in other words, of all the stuff that might be called metaphysics. But Petar was fond of those Platonic and mystical threads in Derrida of which I am least fond. On the way up the lift I told him that I couldn’t accept certain things in his master because to me they were religious.

I next saw Petar on a stretcher in an emergency station. He had lost all memory of the day, apparently due to falling and banging his head. He later jokingly blamed me for the accident.

I have no way of knowing whether I was to blame for the accident, but I do know that certain types of things said to certain people with the best intentions can have catastrophic consequences, and I wish that weren’t so. Working at a newspaper in a small right-wing town, I attend governmental meetings which begin with prayers to Jesus and pledges of allegiance to a flag. People use “Christian” as a synonym for good and decent. The county board of supervisors makes decisions based on what will best promote religion. These things are not supposed to offend me. Nor are editorials alleging (bewilderingly) that religion has been uniquely singled out for banishment from public life in this country. Nor are pleasant reminders that “Jesus is the reason for the season (and please buy our products).”

Yet, rejection of this stuff is deemed offensive. It is impolite to assert that one is willing to accept responsibility for one’s own behavior and to recognize death for what it is, namely death. This is impolite because people hold their beliefs to the contrary dear. It is not nice to disagree with dearly-held beliefs.

But this description is misleading. Beliefs are or should be things we hold or not based on evidence in support of them. There should be no desire or reluctance to hold beliefs. We ought to hold dear our loved ones, our projects, our enjoyments, and our goals, but not our beliefs, for Pete’s sake. Those beliefs which are “held dear” are those which are not stated thus “I believe X,” but thus “I believe in X.” To believe in is not to believe something. It is to want to pretend something. And disagreeing with a belief in is not simply disagreeing; it is undermining the pretense. Hence the offense. Whenever we feel threatened by someone’s beliefs, we ought to question whether it is because they are undermining something we are trying to pretend, such as that death isn’t really death or people aren’t really responsible for themselves.

Five to ten hundred years before the common era, in many parts of the world people believed in souls and in spirits in trees and animals and crops. They believed, as well, in sympathetic magic. By pouring water on some wheat, rain could be caused. By caring for a king, a nation could be cared for. Human sacrifices were common. A man who represented a god would in many cases be killed in his prime so that his soul might pass into another before he grew old and weak. Others were sacrificed as presents to gods. In certain latitudes festivals of death and rebirth were common around what we call the 25th of December. The azimuth angle of the sun is the reason for the season.

Through the centuries we have progressed to the point where we don’t sacrifice humans, at least not in the same way. We eat the flesh and drink the blood of our reincarnated virgin-born magician king only by the magic of transubstantiation. We even reduce this religious belief to the simple statement “I believe in God.” We equate this with whatever any religion may profess, so that we are instantly in agreement with all the cultures of the globe except that of atheism. This reassures us by an enormous argumentum ad populum and allows us to love and marry anyone we please without worrying about who’s going to burn. Some part of us may even be glad that our belief doesn’t seem to amount to much.

The trouble is that it does amount to much, and we haven’t changed much in thousands of years. We wear our lucky shirts and make our “superstitious” gestures. We avoid jinxing things by talking about them. We have a thousand and one little quirks that we call “superstition” and a million others that we should but don’t. Our science, our politics, our art, our history, our economics, are thoroughly metaphysical. I am speaking against metaphysics because I believe its rejection would do us a lot of good in all of these areas, not because a “merely intellectual” mistake bothers me or because I have no compassion for those whom such mistakes allegedly comfort.

In this little town I work in, the members of the government want more and bigger sprawl the faster the better. Quality of life has been sacrificed to their desire for growth, but they are not obliged to defend their desire for “growth.” They don’t have to because they have declared it inevitable and “natural.” The possibility of refusing it does not occur to them, and so they see their frantic attempts to promote it as not a choice at all but simply proper behavior in accordance with the natural progress of things.

Many people in this little county and town work three jobs and don’t sleep much, and are still unable to pay their bills. But wage rates, which were much higher thirty years ago, are declared correct by the magic of the market. If businesses thought they could survive and reduce turnover and increase morale by paying more, they would do so, wouldn’t they? They haven’t done so, therefore doing so would be wrong.

Homosexuality is wrong, too, and to a certain degree so is having skin of certain shades. Worrying about the destruction of the planet is not so much wrong as not considered at all. And the welfare of those in other counties and other countries is just not on the radar screen.

The way things are is generally right and good. It could use a little tweaking, even stuff wrongly called “innovative thinking” now and then, when it gets off the proper course, but radical change would be simply wrong, in the same way that ending slavery was wrong until after it was ended – at which point it retrospectively has been becoming right, the same way that allowing women out of the home was fundamentally against the laws of nature until after it was tried, at which point it began becoming right and divinely decreed. Darwinism is no longer altogether wrong outside of Kansas schools. Even God is sometimes a she or a neuter now, maybe 10 percent of the time – the same percentage as the number of women on the boards of Fortune 500 companies.

All of this is metaphysics, no more or less dismissable as wishful thinking than is dancing to cause rain. It just happens to be OUR wishful thinking. Marxism was wishful thinking of the same sort. In one sense I don’t distinguish Das Kapital from The Book of Mormon. Both are ridiculous fairy tales. But there are parts of Marx that are well-intentioned, and useful precisely in opposing one of our biggest extant fairy tales, that of the Wisdom of the Market. When wisdom is placed in something other than a brain, it should be a clue to get suspicious.

Saint Nicholas threw bags of money through the windows of three poor girls so that somebody would want to marry them. Merchants in Lombardy hung three gold balls outside their shops so that Saint Nick would make people shop from them. In America the three gold balls identified pawn shops. Thus an image of generosity became one of capitalistic exploitation of those in trouble.

We now think we’re doing well. We almost impeached our president recently for doing an “unnatural” act, but decided against it because he was taking such good care of the economy, presumably by stuffing his face with food, jogging regularly, and leading an active love life. Yet, there’s more poverty in the country than there was when he took over for the previous millionaire who allegedly wasn’t caring for the poor as much as his successor would and who was something of a wimp.

Within this country we have individuals who own as much stuff as half the population. Just imagine how many people in the third world it would take to accumulate the financial wealth of Bill Gates. We spend in the first world more on cigarettes or makeup in a year or on weapons in four days than what it would take to provide basic nutrition and medicine to everyone in the third world (according to the World Health Organization, which also believes that such efforts, to the degree that they have been made, have reduced population growth by assuring parents that infants would live).

Recorded history is now, as it always is, a little longer than it was before. And we have destroyed many many species and places which can never be restored. But I say we are at a starting point. We are young newcomers. We are such because we have the possibility of putting wishful thinking behind us and taking responsibility for ourselves and each other. This is not a story of loss, but of gain. We have gained the opportunity to be a period of change more significant and beneficial than was Athens or Florence or London or the many great cities of Asia, America, and Africa in their heydays. Try to distinguish thinking from wishing. I wish you a merry christmas!

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