A similar approach to the uses of learning informed Jefferson’s best hopes for the new nation’s colleges and schools, and for the better part of the last two centuries it has underwritten the making of America into what the historian Henry Steele Commager named “The Empire of Reason.” An empire that astonishes the world with the magnificence of its scientific research laboratories, but one never safe from frequent uprisings in the rebel provinces of unreason. It is in the nature of the human animal to seek the visible through the medium of the invisible, the longing for the ineffable as fundamental to the arts and sciences as it is to religious ritual, but as to where to look for the mystery to unfold, the direction is always doubtful, and America doesn’t lack for long experience with the elixirs of spiritualism and transcendentalism similar to those that Mary Baker Eddy locates in the practice of Christian Science.
Like England in the late sixteenth century, America in the early twenty-first has in hand a vast store of new learning, much of it seemingly miraculous—the lines and letters that weave the physics and the metaphysics into strands of DNA, Einstein’s equations, Planck’s constant and the Schwarzschild radius, the cloned sheep and artificial heart. America’s scientists come away from Stockholm nearly every year with a well-wrought wreath of Nobel prizes, and no week goes by without the unveiling of a new medical device or weapons system. The record also suggests that the advancement of our new and marvelous knowledge has been accompanied by a broad and popular retreat into the wilderness of smoke and mirrors. The fear of new wonders technological—nuclear, biochemical, and genetic—gives rise to what John Donne presumably would have recognized as the uneasy reawakening of a medieval belief in magic. We find our new Atlantis within the heavenly books of necromancy inscribed on walls of silicon and glass, the streaming data on an iPad or a television screen lending itself more readily to the traffic in spells and incantation than to the distribution of reasoned argument. The less that can be seen and understood of the genies escaping from their bottles at Goldman Sachs and MIT, the more headlong the rush into the various forms of wishful thinking that increasingly have become the stuff of which we make our politics and social networking, our news and entertainment, our foreign policy and gross domestic product.
How else to classify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq if not as an attempt at alchemy? At both the beginning and end of the effort to transform the whole of the Islamic Middle East into a democratic republic like the one pictured in the ads inviting tourists to Colonial Williamsburg, the White House and the Pentagon issued press releases in the voice of the evil angel counseling Faustus, “Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,/Lord and commander of these elements.” Charles Krauthammer, neoconservative newspaper columnist and leading soloist in the jingo chorus of the self-glorifying news media, amplified the commandment for the readers of Time magazine in March 2001, pride going before the fall six months later of the World Trade Center: “America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”
So again four years later, after it had become apparent that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were made of the same stuff as Eisenheim’s projection of “The Vanishing Lady.” The trick had been seen for what it was, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t emerge from the cloud of deluded expectation, unapologetic and implacable, out of which he had spoken to the groundlings at a NATO press conference in 2002: “The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns but there are also unknown unknowns The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
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