Pay No Attention to the Man behind the Curtain

I’m sorry, but this just makes me ill. In a post he actually titled “The Magic Ballot,” Arjun Appadurai writes:

The word is MAGIC. On the night of November 4, it felt as if something magical had happened, and perhaps there were others, like me, who used that word. But it is not the biggest word in current public use and I wish it were more fully available to us now.

We’ve chosen someone to work for us. We’ve hired him. For a job. We did it through the (yes, rather nifty) process of democracy. And… That. Is. All. Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

I know that many believe that priests can perform miracles, at least of certain kinds, but Obama isn’t a priest. Tuesday night did not and could not make him one. It’s superstitious, impious, or both, to think that something as common as a democratic election could endow anyone with magical powers.

I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he is has already been vanquished by his foes.

Crowned??? Sir, this is a Lockean republic, not a New-Age theocracy.

But wait, it gets worse:

Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control. Can we deny that the infusion of 700 billion dollars into our banks is a magical act designed to make our banks rain credit again? Has it worked yet? Are we discarding our belief in banks and credit as a result? Magic is a method for deploying modest technical means to address outsize ethical challenges. Human beings have always done this and always will. We might as well have a grown-up word for this set of practices.

If we really just spent $700 billion on magic, then I want my money back. There’s probably a decent First Amendment challenge in there somewhere, wouldn’t you think?

Some of us, when faced with “uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm” do not resort to magic. We turn to reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift. We also note that the government so often tends to interfere with all of these things.

But I guess we don’t have to bother with any of that anymore: The Great Barack is going to save us — magically — from all kinds of disasters!

So the election of Barack [sic]… is also magical in a much more serious way. It has been performed and produced by voting citizens at a moment when America and the world face risks of an enormous order. We have named these risks frequently in the media and the public sphere in the last few weeks: risks of total financial meltdown, of global warm-up, of war without end and terror without faces and sources. And our existing tools for risk management have failed miserably. Should we be surprised that the American electorate has rediscovered magic without knowing it?

Surprised? If you’re right, we should be very, very worried. And no, my objection is neither partisan nor personal. If McCain had won, I’d have made a post mocking the near-religious qualities his followers had invested in him, too.