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Will Wonders Never Cease?

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Posted on Jun 30, 2012
Lapham's Quarterly

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

Signed by more than 60 of the country’s most accomplished scientists honored for their work in many disciplines (molecular biology, superconductivity, particle physics, zoology), the report bore witness to their experience when called upon to present a federal agency or congressional committee with scientific data bearing on a question of the public health and welfare. Time and again in the 40-page report, the respondents mention the refusal on the part of their examiners to listen to, much less accept, any answers that didn’t fit with the administration’s prepaid and prerecorded political agenda.

Whether in regard to the lifespan of a bacteria or the trajectory of a cruise missile, ideological certainty overruled the objections raised by counsel on behalf of logic and deductive reasoning. On topics as various as climate change, military intelligence, and the course of the Missouri River, the reincarnations of Pope Urban VIII reaffirmed their conviction that if the science didn’t prove what it had been told to prove, then the science had been tampered with by Satan.

The report spoke to the disavowal of the principle on which the country was founded, but it didn’t attract much notice in the press or slow down the retreat into the provinces of unreason. The eight years that have passed since its publication have brought with them not only the illusion of “The Magic Kettle” on Wall Street, but also the election of President Barack Obama in the belief that he would enter the White House as the embodiment of Merlin or Christ.

To the extent that more people become more frightened of a future that calls all into doubt, they exchange the force of their own thought for the power they impute to supernatural machines. To wage the war against terror the Pentagon sends forth drones, robots, and surveillance cameras, hard-wired as were the spirits under the command of Faustus, “to fetch me what I please,/Resolve me of all ambiguities,/Perform what desperate enterprise I will.”

Wall Street clerks subcontract the placing of $100 billion bets to the judgment of computer databanks that stand as silent as the stones on Easter Island, while calculating at the speed of light the rates of exchange between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.  By way of projecting a federal budget deficit into both the near and distant future, the season’s presidential candidates float cloud-capped towers of imaginary numbers destined to leave not a rack behind.

The American body politic meanwhile dissolves into impoverished constituencies of one, stripped of “profit and delight” in the realm of fact, but still sovereign in the land of make-believe. Every once and future king is possessed of a screen like the enchanted mirror that Lady Galadriel shows to Frodo Baggins in the garden at Caras Galadhon; the lost and wounded self adrift in a sea of troubles but equipped with the remote control that once was Prospero’s; blessed, as was the tragical Doctor Faustus, with instant access to the dreams “of power, of honor, of omnipotence.”

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces “Magic Shows,” the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch, join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2012 Lewis Lapham


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