In Search of Magic in America

"Jim had a hairball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. "
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

As Leo Strauss put it in Natural Right and History

What was a tolerably accurate description of German thought twenty-seven years ago would now appear to be true of Western thought in general. It would not be the first time that a nation defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived its conqueror of the most sublime fruit of victory, by imposing on him the yoke of its own thought. Whatever might be true of the thought of the American people, American social science at any rate has adopted the very attitude toward natural right which a generation ago could still be described with some plausibility as characteristically German.

This quote has come to define Straussian thought, and Straussian thought, I can say with tolerable accuracy, has come to define political thought on the Right more generally. Accordingly, it is common today on the Right to suppose leftist thought expresses a linear progression of the success in the academy of modern political rationalism, beginning with Machiavelli and culminating in Heidegger and various splinter derivatives of German philosophic historicism and nihilism. “Conservatism” so defined is a battle of ideas taking place in the universities and think tanks. 

It’s not going well.

But suppose this is wrong. After all, Strauss qualified his statement with “Whatever might be true of the American people . . . [emphasis added]” and American political life continues to be, at least ostensibly, popular. Suppose the struggle with the Left today cannot be adequately explained as a battle waged in the ivory tower. What if the Left today is not really about modern thought, but rather something ancient? I hope to show that, as much as modern philosophy is borrowed by and informs the Left, leftist thought is better understood as magic.

When I say magic I do not mean the legerdemain of pulling rabbits from hats, escape acts, or card tricks. The root of the word “magic” is magi, a member of a caste of Zoroastrian priests who were said to have supernatural powers. By “magic” I mean a category of recognizable and related practices like auguring, divination, cursing or hexing, incantation, et cetera, which seek to compel some unnatural power to a human purpose. 

Some magical practices, such as Jim’s auguring with a hairball, are plainly obvious and risible. But more complex practices are hidden from view, behind a veil of denial. The Bible forbids magic, starting with Leviticus, where in the very least the consultation of certain magicians and certain kinds of magic is prohibited. The Book of Revelation consigns sorcerers, along with idolators and the sexually immoral, to the lake of fire. Accordingly, magic in Western culture, generally speaking, is taboo. 

Nonetheless, the use of holy men and sacred objects to deploy the power of the Divine is integral to each of the major monotheistic religions, to say nothing of Hinduism, Shinto, and other Eastern pieties. This makes fertile cultural ground for the practice of magic. This combination of taboo and fertile cultural ground means magic, when practiced by sophisticated Westerners, is done either unawares or clandestinely.  You will find magic in the West, even in high places, but you have to look for it. 

We might ask, for example, by what art in 1430 did Bishop Cauchon and his fraudulent court determine that Jean D’Arc was a witch? Cauchon conjured the compelling evidence to condemn Jean D’Arc by stripping her naked and dressing her in the clothes of a man. Jean D’Arc was not a witch but whether Cauchon himself was practicing witchcraft in an effort to condemn her is another question. Magic by any other name is still magic.

Calvinism and its derivative threads, which form much of the weave of American culture, having dispensed with transubstantiation and apostolic intermediation, may claim to have expelled magic from Christianity.

Yet what are we to say about the convulsive exertions made by American Puritans to counter unexplained misfortune through the examination of “spectral evidence”? Increase Mather’s Case of Conscience certainly included “spectral evidence” as a serious science, even if he maintained it should not be the sole evidence in a case. In Salem alone, the culmination of this purge—which had been initiated by teenage accusers, carried out by the authoritative ranks of New England society, and led to the prosecution of some 200 persons for witchcraft—ended the lives of 20 persons, mostly older women, in 1692 and 1693. Again, who was practicing magic here? The accused or the accusers and triers of fact? It remains an open question.

The Mormon belief is arguably the most purely American religion. Its revelation originates here in North America. Mormons are a prosperous sect, overrepresented in many industries and fields, most notably at the CIA. This latter fact is a good thing, I suppose. Who can be counted on to be more loyal to the United States than members of a religion who hold American soil, the location of the seminal revelation, to be sacred?

Having said that, who would argue in seriousness that the Mormon faith—with as just one example the powers of the Salt Lake Temple—is incompatible, no matter any Mormon protestation of my saying it, with magic? Does the CIA have an affinity for magic? If you are curious, look here

Catholics like myself are accused of practicing magic all the time. We are used to it. And it is no slight to the Catholic, the Calvinist, or the Mormon, or any other faith for that matter, to observe that despite prohibitions the culture informed thereby may tolerate, even encourage, in greater and lesser degrees and at different times, magic.

One should not assume that the adjacency of magical practices to true faith, or their errant pursuit in the name of true faith, or their adjacency to governmental institutions or their use in the pursuit of legitimate objects of government, renders such practices any less magical. Nor should one confuse the absence of the easily recognized abracadabra words and materia magica with the absence of practice of magic. Magic can take many guises.

The Political Ambition of Magic

Let us pause here and observe as well the practice of magic is not irrational, not entirely at any rate. Magic among the more sophisticated is not called upon as a first resort, but where normal and natural means are incapable or unlikely to produce a much desired result. An intelligent man who accepts the practice of magic (whether or not he uses the word and adopts magic consciously) would not, for example, turn to it to heal an injury over available conventional medicine.

But in the absence of an available non-magical technology to accomplish an otherwise out of reach, but important goal, magic may, from the perspective of the practitioner, appear to be a rational option. 

In the simplest form, this might be to curse—today we call this canceling—a scapegoat (perhaps by stitching an “A” into her garments) or to employ a phylactery to ward off an unpredictable evil (like grasping an iconic medallion in hopes of finding things misplaced).

In a more societally complex example, magic may be called upon to defeat an enemy, like the Caananites of the ancient city of Jericho. Otherwise impregnable defenses might be overcome only with the aid of specific motions and incantations. President Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer “With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy” may not be magic, but it may also be a lot like it.

The practice of magic does not have to be repulsive. Where it is not, it may fail to attract interest (to the great relief of manufacturers of disposable medical disguises the power of which has become talismanic). But it may also be abhorrently perverse, as in the burning of that angelic soldier, Jean D’Arc, the dangling of women from ropes in Salem, or the sacrifice of children in Tenochtitlan. 

Magic has been practiced historically, it has been practiced widely, it has been practiced here, and it is still practiced today. 

So how ought one look for the practice of magic, not as someone who believes in the power of magic, but rationally? If magic is often practiced where a culturally important goal cannot be obtained by other available means, in search of magic we might look for urgent cultural goals influencing American politics. What frustrations, we ask, might impede resolution by non-magical technologies and thus induce a turn in the direction of thaumaturgy?

As John Winthrop sailed to America he enjoined his flock:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

It is a clarion cultural message. America must be ostentatiously moral or it will be destroyed. This cultural injunction has endured almost 400 years. It is expressed in the American Revolution in its universalism and ostentation. Echoing Winthrop’s “eyes of the world, ”the Declaration of Independence is addressed to the opinions of mankind. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg address we encounter again the moral exhibitionism: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The injunction is a driving force in the reform movements of the progressive Christians. And results vary. These impulses culminated in Prohibition, a political mistake which plunged America into uncontrollable crime.

Ronald Reagan chose Winthrop’s sermon as the central theme of his political life, and the anchor chain of his Farewell Address. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all at one time or another quoted Winthrop’s sermon or alluded to it. While Showtime’s “City On A Hill” series may have been canceled, the idea is everywhere in the air in America today. It’s a cultural fact of great urgency.

Original sin is also a cultural fact of great urgency. It is often said that slavery is the original sin of America. It is not clear when this usage, the original sin of slavery, began. By some accounts, Thomas Dew of the College of William & Mary first used the term to absolve slaveholders of accountability. If slavery were an original sin, those who wrung their bread from the sweat of other men’s brows had no fault in it, he reasoned. Others not taken in by such prestidigitation, used the term differently. The original sin of slavery is the fundamental flaw of the United States to be corrected through the moral—and martial—effort to end the terrible peculiar institution, and through the power of section 2 of the 13th Amendment, to erase its badges and incidents.

In 2015, the New York Times would write:

Seven years ago, in the gauzy afterglow of a stirring election night in Chicago, commentators dared ask whether the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for the original sin of slavery by electing its first black president. It has not. Not even close.

And now we begin to detect the frustration at impediments to the realization of the twin cultural goals of ostentatious moral superiority and redemption from the original sin of slavery. Though Barack Obama won popular and electoral majorities twice in a nation which depending on measures was 70 percent white and no more than 14 percent black, his presidency nonetheless signaled to many that America was incorrigibly bigoted. No conventional means could erase it. The expression “stay woke” appears to have emerged in the lyrics of Lead Belly in the 1930s, but it was roused in force at the close of the aughts. If the election and reelection of the first black president did not redeem America of its original sin, then the means of redemption must be found outside of usual practices.

Magical Seduction

One of the most common historical practices of magic is aphrodisiacal. To win an unattainable love, to compel a heart which frustrated a courtship, practitioners of magic through incantations and potions would transform a spurn to a yearn. From the point of view of the practitioner and client, the magic works. Or, rather, it appears to work better than the alternative non-magical means—e.g., poetry, song, and possibly, a breath mint—and where it fails there are explanations. The incantations had been wrong. The materia magica, a lock of hair perhaps, was insufficient in quality or quantity. And so the practice continues with success dependent on accident or a psychological response to the ritual of the magic. 

Woke, it seems to me, functions in a similar way. To be woke is to see the world differently, in an extraordinary way. To succeed, woke must cause the non-woke to transform their hearts no less than the target of a love spell must be compelled to return the love of the spell maker.

One might object, this is not magic but ambition and hope. At first, maybe, but one has to follow the action further. Magic is not the goal but the means of obtaining it.  In the face of difficulty changing hearts, —which in and of itself has a “spectral” ring to it—new methods of changing hearts emerged beyond the staid legal and moral conventions. Following the shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, woke activists began to merge notions that, up until then by all ordinary appearances, were thought unrelated.

In 2015 the Supreme Court handed down Obergefell v. Hodges. In its majority opinion Justice Kennedy extrapolated from Loving v. Virginia, among other precedents. Loving  had dealt with the right to interracial heterosexual marriage, but Kennedy found a right to gay marriage in it, ignoring the procreative ground of heterosexual marriage at the center of Loving (“Marriage is . . .  fundamental to our very existence and survival,” citing Skinner v. Oklahoma [involuntary sterilization]). From that point on, the imperative cultural goal of ostentatious moral superiority and redemption of the original sin of slavery increasingly became dependent on an elaborate reconstruction of sexual mores. 

We can set aside for our purposes judgment of the independent social value of new sexual mores and tolerance. But in our search for magic we can’t so easily ignore the observation that the urgent cultural demand to redeem the original sin of slavery or face destruction induced the promotion of the new sexual mores as acts to bring about redemption. The barest examination of woke writing on intersectionality reveals that for the woke the new sexual mores and the defeat of racism—“antiracism”—are causally connected. Auguring the gender of children, altering their endocrinology, and performing cosmetic surgeries to conform their bodies to such divinations with the alleviation of the oppression of other otherered people in mind, even as a secondary object, is something that cannot be explained without recourse to extrasensory evidence. And if you say so, you’ll be hexed. That’s magic, with the bodies of children as materia magica and with a host of abracadabra words often forced from the mouths of bystanders. One must not be deceived by claims that this extrasensory evidence is “scientific.” Increase Mather’s “spectral evidence” was also couched in scientific terms.

Alakazam! Presto Chango! Xi! 

There is a lesson in this. Opposing the yoke of German historicism and nihilism and opposing magic are two different things. One cannot oppose magic with critiques of dialectical materialism or Heideggerian nihilism any more than one can fight a fire in the kitchen by watering the garden. It’s magic, degenerate, desperate—and I would argue, in its desire for righteousness, even well-intentioned—dark age magic. 

So my advice for the Right is to refrain from these more intellectual arguments about postmodernism. Point out that woke is as magic as the use of “spectral evidence” to pursue devilry and is just as dangerous and unproductive. It promotes the charlatans who practice it for fees, often inducing clients to harm themselves, their children, and other people’s children. And it permits nefarious political and economic actors to benefit from the useless churn of sortilege, turning our attention away from realistic policy solutions to what are, in fact, important problems that can only be solved by sober, real world acts. 

(N.B.:  This essay refines as well as adds to my thoughts here, here, and here.)

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About Jay Whig

Jay Whig is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Whig practices law in New York and a resides in Connecticut, specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

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