Obama’s Touch Cured Me of Scrofula

Arjun Appadurai (of “Magic Ballot” fame) has replied to my recent post. I think it’s at least worth clearing up a few misconceptions:

I assume Mr. Kuznicki is sympathetic to the mission of the Cato Institute, whose name can be traced back to Cato the Younger, implacable foe of Julius Caesar. Alas, he sounds a lot more like Cato the Elder, also known as Cato the Censor, famed for his rigid moralizing, his ascetical approach to public spending, and his brutal approach to war against the enemies of Rome.

I don’t care for moralizing, and still less for war, but I’m guilty as charged when it comes to asceticism in public spending.

I believe that the government should live within its means, and that whenever possible, workers and investors should keep what they earn. Call me a penny-pincher, but I think that terming a $700 billion bank bailout “magic,” as Mr. Appadurai did, is the single weakest justification I’ve ever heard for any government project, ever. And I’ve heard some doozies before.

Calling acts of government “magic” gives our political leaders way more credit than they deserve. Our leaders may be intelligent, or charismatic, or honest, or judicious. But even the best of them are not magic. To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought this a controversial idea.

Mr. Appadurai continues:

Mr. Kuznicki is keen to remind me that the United States is a Lockean republic, that Barack Obama is not a priest or magician, that the Presidency is just a job (presumably like employment at Kinko’s) and that Obama was elected and not crowned. Well, where do I begin? I do know these facts. My essay was an interpretation of what seemed to us (not to Mr. Obama) so special about this election.

But his essay was the first to use the word “crowned,” not mine.

This election certainly was special: We shattered a racial barrier, and I’m thrilled to see it gone. We repudiated neoconservatism, our ill-conceived foreign wars, and the big-spending Bush administration. So much the better. But none of this is magic, and we don’t need the vocabulary of mysticism to express it. (In fact, I believe I just did express it.)

Mr. Appadurai also gets the following wrong:

Mr. Kuznicki is the kind of “secular” libertarian to whom the entire world of non-secular feelings, sensations, experiences and actions makes no sense, indeed it makes him sick. Well, in that case, 90% of humanity makes him sick, and perhaps 80% of the American electorate, including those who believe in faith-based philanthropy, religious calls to dialogue between faiths, and I assume the entire family of words from grace and charisma to hope and redemption also makes him sick. I am afraid there is no easy cure for this ailment.

It’s a bit silly to think that because I won’t call Barack Obama “magic,” I must have some deep-seated problem with 80% of the American electorate. I’d think, rather, that Christians would be on my side: Obama is a man and a sinner like any other, and all magic – excuse me, all glory – belongs to God.

In fact, the only thing I object to here is magical or mystical thinking about the government. The government has to serve people of all religious faiths, and of none. It can’t play favorites, and it can’t be some strange mysticism unto itself. If it were, it would alienate much of the public, and make tyrants of the rest. That’s what I object to.

A government of, by, and for the people is a huge advance over the divine rule of kings, kings who in former ages claimed that they really were magical, and whose touch was said to cure scrofula. Our leaders are human like the rest of us, and they should be open to our criticism, just like the guy at Kinko’s if he ruins our copies. That’s the genius of America: having a government we’re not afraid to criticize.

America is also about celebrating individual virtues. These virtues, however, take a pounding from Mr. Appadurai:

…Mr. Kuznicki knows the answers already and is sure that what makes the world go around are: “reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift.” I assume that when things go wrong, it is due to a deficit of these things. Well, there’s his answer to global warming, the biggest financial meltdown in the world’s wealthiest economy, military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan for the world’s most sophisticated army, not to speak of Avian flu, sudden infant death and Katrina.

“[R]eason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift” are virtues. Virtues aren’t “the” answer, but they’re the beginning of one, and it’s a weak theodicity that gives up on virtue when the going gets tough.

(Ask yourself: Can there be a solution to global warming or Avian flu – without reason? A solution to Iraq – without courage? A solution to the financial crisis without hard work and thrift? Well, yes, there can be such solutions, but we wouldn’t want to implement them.)

And you know, it’s funny. I’d imagined that liberals would really go for the “reason” line, having plausibly accused the Bush administration of waging “war on science.” But I suppose that for at least a few liberals, when their guy wins, “reason” is out the window, and “magic” is what it’s all about.