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Commentary: Magical thinking won't solve our nation's complex problems

Solomon D. Stevens

Solomon D. Stevens 

When I was a child, I loved magic. I found magicians fascinating — they could amaze others by making things happen that seemed impossible.

Inspired by the power of magic, I figured out as a young man how to do some magic tricks to amuse myself and my friends. Later, when I had children of my own, I showed them some of the tricks I had learned, but I also taught them that magic isn’t real. I didn’t want them growing up confused about the difference between what is real and what is pleasant but imaginary.

Today, I see more and more people — liberals and conservatives alike — falling in love with what the great Jewish thinker Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once called “magical thinking.” This is the fantasy that one person or one group will solve all of our problems and that some other person or group is the cause of all of our problems. This is a very seductive belief, and it is pleasurable in the same way that watching magic tricks is pleasurable.

But life is complex, and countries are complex. The real world is, unfortunately, just that way.

The appealing thing about magical thinking is that it provides an escape from this reality. But this is also what makes it so dangerous. In the real world, magical thinking can harm those who take refuge in it as well as those who are targeted by it.

The United States today is not united, and this is reflected in the different ways that people are responding to the election. The fact is that the election, like the election in 2016, was very close.

Trump barely won the election in 2016, and he barely lost in 2020. Republicans and Democrats alike need to face this. But for some, it is hard to accept this unpleasant complexity. It is easier to embrace magical thinking: the election was stolen; a conspiracy is behind the events of the day. No amount of fact-checking will ever dissuade those who want to cling to notions like these. But they do not help the people who believe them, and they do not help the country. The conflict in our country cannot be magically erased by one person or one party.

There are many divisions in the United States that must be addressed: rich vs. poor, white vs. black, Christian vs. non-Christian, urban vs. rural.

We need to transcend the view that we are wholly good and that those with whom we disagree are wholly bad and that magical forces are the cause of this and can be the solution to this. We need to reach out to our neighbors and even our enemies and find ways to work with one another for a greater future.

The national motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum,” which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” It proclaims an aspiration for us that we have yet to achieve and that seems further away than it has been in many years. We are all different and yet we can be one people who live together in peace.

We need to turn away from the tempting notion that the complexities we are facing can be wished away or ignored. Rather, we need to admit that this is a time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Much needs to be done, and if we pretend that we don’t need to work, our problems will only get worse.

I loved magic when I was a child. But as it says in 1 Corinthians 13:11 of the New Testament, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” It is time to set aside our love of magic and see the world as it is.

Solomon D. Stevens received his Ph.D. in political science from Boston College. He has published two books, "Challenges to Peace in the Middle East" and "Religion, Politics, and the Law" (co-authored), in addition to a number of scholarly articles on philosophy, politics and jurisprudence. He lives in Ladson with his wife, Michelle Sklow Stevens. 

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