Candice Keller and Ron Hood had a moment in the media spotlight last week when they introduced Bill 413 in the Ohio House of Representatives. The proposed legislation is one of the most radical anti-abortion bills ever proposed in the United States. It would not only ban all abortions – the bill legally defines a fertilized egg as an “unborn child” – but it would allow the authorities to charge anyone involved in terminating a pregnancy with the crimes of “abortion murder” or “aggravated abortion murder.” Anyone convicted, from the doctors, to hospital staff, to women as young as 13, could face a death sentence.
In some ways it’s easy to shrug this kind of thing off as just another example of cruel conservatives being cruel. Although it gathered 19 cosponsors among Ohio legislators who appear to agree with Keller and Wood, the odds of Bill 413 making its way through the Ohio House are very slim. And even if it manages to land on the desk of Governor Mike Dewine, a misogynistic anti-abortion zealot who would certainly sign it into law, it is highly unlikely that it would survive the inevitable court challenge.
The conventional wisdom is that this bill, like all the others, is not actually meant to be passed and enacted; rather, it is part of a full-court-press to make the assault on reproductive justice an irresistible tide, paralyze pro-choice activists, and sweep the issue to the Supreme Court of the United States where the conservative majority will overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s all part of a larger Christofascist strategy to enact the Dominionist white nationalist agenda. And in that sense, it merits close attention.
But the thing about Ohio’s Bill 413 that everyone was talking about last week is that, for all of its appalling misogyny and Christofascist bigotry, it is also very, very stupid. The law would allow the authorities to prosecute any physician for murder who does not take every step to “preserve the life of the unborn child,” including “attempting to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman’s uterus.”
In the world of people who, you know, know things, everyone gasped. An ectopic pregnancy – when a fertilized egg implants in a woman’s fallopian tube – cannot produce a viable birth and, untreated, inevitably leads to catastrophic bleeding, infection, and other complications. Untreated ectopic pregnancies account for as many as 10 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths, and they are the leading cause of first-trimester maternal death. The only way to treat an ectopic pregnancy is to remove the embryo – a procedure that Bill 413 defines as abortion-murder.
Yet, under this legislation, the only way for a physician to avoid a murder charge would be to reimplant the embryo in their patient’s uterus. Unfortunately, as every medical doctor has pointed out in recent days, such a procedure is impossible; it cannot be done. So the Ohio bill demands that doctors either watch their patients suffer and possibly die – since they cannot legally remove the ectopic pregnancy – or treat their patients and face a death penalty because they cannot do the impossible.
Commentators have noted that this provision of Bill 413 is, prima facie, absurd. Surely, Reps. Keller and Hood, and every Christofascist conservative like them, must know that their proposal mandates the impossible. No one can be that stupid, can they? While I share the sense of horror that people like this are in a position to set the legislative agenda and make laws in America’s seventh-largest state, I think it somewhat misses the point.
The point is that they believe it is possible, and that is all that matters.
This bill reveals one of the basic truths of American conservatism: that magical thinking is one of the central organizing principles of conservative thought in the US. Moreover, Christofascists – the Trumpist vanguard – are even more disposed than most conservatives to believe in the miraculous, occult, and magical. These are people who are convinced that Satan is real, that there is a war on Christmas, and that they will be whooshed away in the Rapture at any moment now. They kind of can’t help it.
Magical thinking or, as Freud put it, “the omnipotence of thought” is the belief that one’s interior emotional and psychological states shape and transform what we experience as reality. To Freud’s mind, it is the most primitive way in which humans interact with reality, in both an athropological and a psychological sense. Spirits “and demons were nothing but the projection of primitive man’s emotional impulses,” he wrote. The primitive human “personified the things he endowed with affects, populated the world with them and then rediscovered his inner psychic processes outside himself, quite like the ingenious paranoiac Schreber, who found the fixations and detachments of his libido reflected in the fates of the ‘God-rays.’ which he invented.”
While Freud’s ethnographic Victorian eurocentrism is enough to elicit shudder a century later, his point bears noting. The kind of thinking that allows people to believe – really believe – in a reality governed by demons, spirits, and angels is rooted in an incomplete individuation from the natural world. Freud failed to recognize that this could be a good thing from the perspective of culture, and a survival adaptation for people deeply embedded in a physical environment over which they had no control. Indeed, we could probably do with a little disindividuation as we face our environmental catastrophe; it might help to be able to project our guilt and fear onto a wrathful Mother Nature.
But the other part of magical thinking – the psychological part – where the neurotic’s “omnipotence of thought” grants them control over the world outside, is well worth considering here. In this kind of magical thinking, it rains because they are sad, it is sunny because they are happy, and all that they need to accomplish or acquire something is to want it. This is “primitive” because it corresponds to the earliest stage of infant development, where the child’s entire universe is a self that encompasses their mother and the instantaneous gratification of their basic physical needs. The great achievement of individuation – becoming an individual in a universe of other individuals – requires setting aside this omnipotence, and learning that mother’s breast might be otherwise occupied, and that other people have legitimate needs of their own.
It’s hard to learn that you’re not the center of the universe, but most of us do it. Yet, there are traumas that can send us running back to the comforting fantasy, and regressing to the simple verities of infantile omnipotence.
These are traumatic times; they have been for decades. We are uprooted, socially and economically. The triumph of economic growth, stability, and prosperity heralded by Daniel Bell and Arthur Schlesinger turned out to be myth; jobs are not plentiful, our politics are not sensible, ideology did not end. Science undermined faith, and decentered “Man as the Measure of Things.” Old binaries and old hierarchies fell apart, the center did not hold. For most of us who were trapped by hierarchy – people of color, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and so many others – the breakdown of certainty produced a protean moment of liberatory possibilities.
But for those of us whose social, economic, and cultural identities and power had been cradled in those hierarchies, it seemed that “mere anarchy was loosed upon the world.” And that was trauma.
The narcissistic regression began early enough, in the collapse of cultural certainty following Watergate, Altamont, the Fall of Saigon, the Killing Fields, the Symbionese Liberation Army, recessions, oil crises, and Three Mile Island. It was a marginal thing at first; something that you’d do on a weekend at an EST seminar, or something that you’d occasionally hear about, like Jerry who’d gone clear and then joined the Moonies. But then, following disappointment and shock upon disappointment and shock, it spread.
Ronald Reagan promised the white middle class “A New Day,” but as much as they tried to believe it, it seemed like the same old days. They entered a networked future of immediate consumer gratification but, as much as they tried to satisfy one desire after another, the pangs never went away. And the future frankly sucked. It was a future out of Mona Lisa Overdrive or Blade Runner, where fleeting gratification came with a foreign label, where they took meals at street-side noodle shops in the rain and, most ominously, where their inferiors demanded the same opportunities and, above all, recognition of their humanity.
The trauma worsened as the old regime and the old certainties of gender, sexuality, white privilege, churchgoing, and American power crumbled, irretrievable by either a contract with America or imperial wars in the “New American Century.” And the neurotic regression spread.
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly when magical thinking became mainstream, mundane, a thing that normal people do. Maybe it was in the early-1990s, following on the cult mania and the hysterical fever of the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the previous decade. Maybe it has to do with the end of the Cold War. By 1993, sober, white, middle-class Americans breathlessly discussed James Redfield’s book The Celestine Prophecy at the water cooler as if it was an episode of Twin Peaks. Marianne Williamson’s 1992 book Return to Love resurrected Helen Schucman’s A Course on Miracles, which mined a century-old vein of theosophic thought running through Blavatsky and Gurdjieff. The notion got an even bigger boost from Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book The Secret, which sold 30 million copies, followed by a $65 million-grossing documentary.
This “New Thought” or “Christianity Improved” presented a message of desire and gratification, of egoism and greed, called the “Law of Attraction.” And this message is the very definition of omnipotent narcissism: Good things will happen if you want them to, you only need manifest them. Bad things happen because you attract “negative energy.” It’s all about you. You are the center and and controller of the universe, and your inner emotional and psychological state shapes reality.
This is magical thinking writ large, and it dovetailed perfectly with the Prosperity Theology that had begun to dominate the brand of Evangelical Christianity peddled by Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and Pat Robertson. All you need to enjoy “blessings” is to pray, and your prayers will be better answered if you pass the blessings to your TV pastor. Magical thinking comes as second nature to the Christian battalions that Jerry Falwell had signed onto the rolls of Republican Party in order to seal its commitment to God and His Dominion.
As the times changed around them, the conservative Christians who had become the solid base of American conservatism dug-in with what has become one of the central tropes of early-21st century, middle-class American thought. They found themselves in a disenchanted world, where the blessings of whiteness no longer seem to fall like manna from heaven, and magical thinking allowed them to regress to omnipotence and re-enchant and reshape reality with a thought.
It doesn’t matter that Christians remain the dominant faith group in America, and their beliefs and practices are permanently etched in the fabric of American culture and the rhythms of the calendar; Christians are an oppressed minority and there is a war on Christmas. It doesn’t matter that their children are abused by the white, cisgendered, heterosexual men in whom they placed their trust; accommodating transgender people will put their children at risk. It doesn’t matter that they have lost well-paying jobs to automation and right-to-work laws; the real enemy is immigrants and the unions. It doesn’t matter that their Dear Leader is a venal, mendacious, adulterous grifter who – every bit of testimony and documentary evidence shows – has undermined the Constitution for his personal gain; Trump is a heroic, Christian champion of all that is good and decent and he is threatened by a “deep state” coup.
In this context, it makes perfect sense for Christofascists like Candice Keller and Ron Hood to insist on a medical procedure that does not exist and enshrine it in law, on pain of death. Magical thinking makes all things possible – they need only to wish it, and it it will be. To the American conservative mind, it is but a little thing.
Photo by Elvert Barnes