The Myth of the Magic Bullet

I’ve long been seeking one thing–a song, a poem, a quotation, even a book–that once found will magically save all people–save them from their greed, their fear, and their unnecessary antipathy for one another.

One day I met my anti-prophet, who told me this:

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and most certainly won’t. It hasn’t been made, it won’t be made, it can’t be made. Perhaps, having made these proclamations, it is incumbent upon me, the prophet, to provide good reason that such a claim is true.

Don’t forget that people still hate, kill, steal, and rape–literally and figuratively–other people. If a peaceful and harmonious world hasn’t arisen in the 5000 years of Abrahamic religion, in the 5000 years of Buddhist tradition, in the 2000 years of Christian practice, and the 1300 year since the death of Muhammad, religion certainly is not the magic bullet. Pogroms, crusades, jihads, and all stripes of fundamentalism show viscerally that religions are both the cause of and reason for a great deal of strife.

The secular heritage of science and the academy have always offered some refuge for those distrustful of religious strife. But it’s also hard to deny that some of the most intelligent people in this world are also the most driven to do things that are, at best, morally abhorrent. Hitler was no academic slouch–even if he was a poor writer–nor were the scores of scientist, Nazi and otherwise, who advocated for the eugenics-based policies of population control that only Hitler was ever powerful and audacious enough to carry to its deeply unsettling climax.

The public sphere–typified by democratic politics in most countries of the world–is hardly much in the way of grace giving. Surely democracy is a good form of government and when exercised in open societies it’s the very articulation of the desires of a society’s public sphere. But you don’t have to look far to see that politics, even the most open and democratic, leads to no small measure of strife and systematic unrest, both in its home and elsewhere.

But surely, you’re saying, the most grievous failures of monolithic institutions aren’t sufficient to mean that there can be no magic bullet. After all, most of the best ideas come from hermits, writers, and philosophers divorced from religion, the academy, and the public sphere. You are not wrong in think that, but your missing a crucial point. Those divorced from religion, the academy, or politics lack a crucial element in the magic bullet equation–a gun. Without a pulpit, conference stage, or spaker’s podium from which to spread their transformative message, they’re effectively impotent. Were they to ever create a bullet, or even some insight into how to make it, they would lack a mouthpiece through which to tell the good word.

There can be no change, for the world is lead by dreadfully dull paper-pushers whose very survival depends on sustaining the status quo. They’re both powerful and unwilling to accept even the smallest change. Their power disempowers the rest of us, who can aspire to no better than a peaceful life for ourselves. We can’t give others such a life, we just have to do our best to wrest one for ourselves.

Having listened to the anti-prophet, I wasn’t sure what to think. Part of me wanted to surrender immediately. To give in, say he was right all along and that I was a fool to hope for something different.

Part of me wanted to condemn him as a hopeless cynic. A man sure of nothing but the impossibility of anything worth doing. He was, after all, oversimplifying. Certainly the world hadn’t changed as much as I’d like over my lifetime, but some steps had been made. Poverty and hunger are less rampant than they were 20, 200, or 2000 years ago, and that’s certainly a change.

He did make me realize that I would probably never find a magic bullet. That no single thing is likely to suddenly make all citizens of the world come to their senses and stop hurting one another. He strengthened in my mind the resolve that change is always and necessarily gradual, but it’s absolutely not impossible.

The anti-prophet wasn’t completely wrong, but for now my optimism has won out. I hope it’ll manage to holdout for 5, 15, or 50 more years. But in my weaker moments I can’t help feeling that it’s easier to give in and give up than to hold out hope.

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2 responses to “The Myth of the Magic Bullet”

  1. Much easier to give up and accept the status quo, no doubt.

    And there is no “magic bullet”, no question.

    But, in the end, you called it: we have seen significant change in the last few generations. Why is it impossible for the progress to continue?

    No matter how stacked the odds may seem, no matter the momentum the “paper pushers” seem to have built, there will always be a counter culture, a resistance.

    When the inequality grows too great the power balance will right itself.

    Hopefully peacefully.