Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Thaumaturgy

As part of Crooked Timber's fascinating series on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell : A Novel by Susanna Clarke, John Holbo posts Two Thoughts (About Magic Christians and Two Cities) and paraphrases Isaiah Berlin:
those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming thaumaturgy, like the final triumph of white magic or victory over the Dark One, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into magical ones
(Thaumaturgy is the study of miracles). It's interesting to consider this line in reading about intelligent design, or when we read about the Blue Valley School Board's struggle over whether Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon should be taught:
Some parents want Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" pulled from the curriculum because it contains sexual references, bad language and violence.
Much like life, one might point out.

This is like the people who think that teaching about common descent will produce immoral children. Intelligent Design Creationism is exactly the sort of thaumaturgy that Berlin is talking about, and that's what the Wedge Strategy is based on.

Instead of talking about reducing teen pregnancy, we talk about abstinence only education. The facts themselves are irrelevant (whether solution A actually reduces problem B), because solution A (e.g., censoring school libraries, vouchers, invading Iraq, teaching abstinence only, "just say no," Intelligent Design) is all that matters.

The original Berlin quotation says:
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.
Holbo rightly establishes the opposition between phenomenology and thaumaturgy. In between the two we find room for belief in a higher calling (why do we care about teen pregnancy, anyway?) and the understanding of the natural world (what policies actually reduce teen pregnancy?).

An example can be found in a Canadian prison. Prison tattoos are an ancient tradition, and one can have serious debates about their merits (they encourage gang violence and can make it harder for prisoners to reintegrate into society). The black-market tattooing in prisons also offers a path for disease transmission.

Recognizing the danger, a Canadian medium security prison has created its own tattoo parlor. Prisoners can use the machines and get sterile tips, preventing the spread of disease. On top of that, the prison officials can monitor the tattoos and can prevent obscene tattoos or tattoos advocating violence.

It won't eliminate all the problems, but it will reduce them. And at $20,000 a year to treat a Hep. C positive inmate, reducing the risk can save lives and money, while bringing moral standards to bear. It's moderate, it's effective, and it's smart. It's not purely technocratic (what Berlin parodied), nor purely thaumaturgical (what Holbo parodies).

Pete Seeger says "Moderation in all things, even moderation." Not a bad motto.