I used the S-word in a column last week (“shamanism”), and received from my readers so many puzzled queries that I will now try to explain myself further. I said, alike of the post-Christian, self-styled “middle class” in the West, and of the post-Islamic “middle class” in such a country as Pakistan, that they are animated by “a touching faith, at its roots shamanistic.”
Both, alike, confuse words with things, and imagine by manipulating words they can manipulate reality. They believe things like public order and safety just happen without human intervention—that they grow on trees, like money. And that the source of all evil is the unfair distribution, of money in particular. They are given to magical invocations when things go wrong, and to other behaviour that would be more clearly identified as shamanistic, were it not instead identified as “liberal” and “progressive.”
Unable to fathom the mysterious reality of evil, and its contamination of all human nature, they create scapegoats who can be blamed for any disturbance of their peace, and then ritually cast them out. For instance, when suddenly impinged upon by terrorists, or by bank failures for that matter, they consult the entrails of birds (or equivalent), and select “Bush” and “Cheney” to be demonized, assigning them qualities worse even than those of the perpetrators of such things. Then a shaman, named Barack Obama, is selected for his charismatic personal qualities, to purify the public domain.
A sure sign of shamanistic behaviour is the use of incantations. For several decades now I have been a kind of amateur anthropologist, watching the descent of the “enlightened” types, in the media and elsewhere, into ever more absurd verbal formulas or slogans to comprehend the issues of the day. A magical phrase, such as “global warming,” can be invoked to explain almost anything to this class, and spook them all. I have watched politicians hit upon arcane phrases, and ride them to power. When still a child, I was amazed to watch, for instance, the late Harold Wilson secure power in Britain with the utterly meaningless words, “the pound in your pocket.” Later, George Bush the Elder clinching an election with, “read my lips.” Of course, such magic cannot last, for then the politicians do things that are counter-productive.
To be fair to traditional shamans, they are often more rational than their post-modern equivalents. They will often try something that has worked before, and just might work again. Whereas, the post-modern shaman seems invariably to choose public policies that have never worked, and for reasons that are known.
What the ancient and post-modern shamans have in common is the belief in “quick fixes”—that rather than do something prolonged and painful to deal with our problem (dig irrigation ditches, say; or root out all the terrorists) we should wave a wand.
The very expression, “middle class,” is currently in vogue as such an incantation, here in North America. Electoral candidates now sound it as a mantra. It used to refer to shopkeepers and the bourgeoisie; now it means something like, “You, the people who will be obtaining benefits, as opposed to Them.” It is pure hocus pocus, for by the magical use of this phrase, the entire “working class” evaporates, and the social order is reduced to only middle class, higher, and highest—in the same way doughnut shops reduced coffee to only medium, large, and extra large.
I am myself guilty of using the expression “middle class” in a somewhat novel way, to mean, “People who have made themselves comfortable in a society organized around material consumption rather than personal salvation.” I might myself feel more comfortable with one of several alternative phrases, but alas, I can’t think of one that is printable.
That I am making a grand generalization should be obvious. The purpose of such generalizations is to call attention to the forest, as opposed to the trees. Note that I do not name any middle class person or persons, for I subscribe to the principle Jonathan Swift expounded, in his famous panegyric on himself: “Yet, malice never was his Aim; / He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name.”
G.K. Chesterton famously observed, that “when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” As badly as this saying has been received by atheists, I have found it largely true, though especially true of people who don’t fully realize they are atheists, who think they are something impossible, such as “agnostics.”
I am not selling Christianity today, incidentally; I am only selling mature religion, as the cure for shamanism. That was my point, last Wednesday, when I called attention to the Pakistani middle class, in whom traditional Islamic belief is dead. Faced with a mortal threat from Islamist terrorists, they think they can solve it by looking away, by being chic, by being fashionably anti-American, by waiting for somebody else to take care of it, by demonizing and then bringing down the one reasonably honest man (Pervez Musharraf) who was prepared to do what he could.