If the Reagans were the only ones seeking guidance from the pseudoscience of astrology, their tragicomic “star wars” would not be worth mentioning except to note that Mrs. Reagan enjoys one of the many vices that amuse the idle rich while the malls are closed. But Reagan was twice elected by landslide margins because millions see him as one of them, and that invites us to linger over the ironies, and perhaps draw some larger meaning from the spectacle.
The Reagans have been star-powered at least since he was governor of California (Reagan’s own book, deliciously titled Where’s the Rest of Me?, is one source). Back then, they were under the thrall of superseer Jeane Dixon; now they’ve moved on to a San Francisco socialite who helps them chart the course of the most powerful nation on earth. (Was Jimmy Carter any worse off with brother Billy?) This is Reagan, the man who was elected as a conservative, moralizing force and a defender of traditional values: a guy who flitted around Lotus Land trafficking with soothsayers. Middle America, call your office.
Speaking of traditional values, there is another strain of tradition that has run strong in American life, but doesn’t seem too popular around the White House these days: the scientific, rational tradition. The humanist tradition. Generations of scientists and thinkers-Copernicus, Galileo, Voltaire, Franklin, Jefferson, Darwin, T.H. Huxley, Freud-crafted an understanding of the universe that did not depend on the whims of anthropomorphic gods growling from volcanoes, or the relative positions of Jupiter and Mars.
But modern America has become a smorgasbord of beliefs, and we waddle down the spiritual buffet line choosing to have it all. Astrology. . .numerology. . .Baptism. . .New Age. . .pyramid power.. .reincarnation. Heck, they’re small, gimme one of each. On this festive table science is just another hors d’oeuvre, spiked with a strong, assertive taste that does not suit every palate. Our president has railed against the decline of traditional beliefs; he has shown an interest in the apocalyptic “predictions” of the book of Revelation. Now we see that Reagan, like so many others, was just building a Dagwood sandwich of irreconcilable ideas: a little of this, a little of that…
Thus he is truly one of us. In a society that has made reason take a back seat, in effect giving license to anyone to believe anything-however baseless and nonsensical- we have pretty much given up on good reasons and proof. We think it is bad manners (“never talk about religion or politics”) to ask people to support their beliefs. Science is certainly no panacea, but at least its claims are subject to independent verification by the stoniest skeptic, and it has no automatic reverence for the past or for ancient authority. No scientist would argue that something is true merely because Newton said it was; it’s true only if it can be verified through the scientific method.
Sadly, science is a minority report. So Mrs. Smith believes in astrology, and Mr, Jones is pretty sure he was an Aztec warrior in another life, and Junior is into some obnoxious rock group that uses satanism as a gimmick to bilk more money from legions of brain-fried dolts. Before you know it, we’ll have millions of people believing in a man-god who was born of a virgin, was crucified, and rose from the dead.
If we have no rational touchstone for evaluating different beliefs, then we are left with a limp relativism that puts all ideas on an equal footing. We are at home with prayer and penicillin, lucky numbers and electrons. So when the Reagans are revealed as true believers and astrology is ridiculed, respectable newspapers like The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News rush to present the other side (or is it the Other Side?). Jeane Dixon weighs in on behalf of her cult, chiding Donald Regan (“a typical Sagittarius”) for not having his own astrologer, who might have kept him out of this pickle. And while she’s up, Ms. Dixon proclaims that George Bush is more in sync with the country than Michael Dukakis because- brace yourself-the United States is a Cancer, see, having been born on July 4, 1776. Well, Bush is a Gemini, and Cancer and Gemini just really do get along, you know. And tough bananas for Dukakis, who is one of those Scorpios. They just can’t get along with this country. But we should be relieved to learn that, according to Dixon, “the outcome of the 1988 election, unlike those of 1948 or 1980, is not predestined. Its outcome is in the hands of the voters.” Thanks, Jeane. Now let’s get out the vote.
Assume for a moment that astrologers could prove their unproven first premise-that planetary movements shape human character and destiny, and that they know how to chart those effects. Even granting that, does it take a Rhodes scholar to detect a little difference between the birth of a person and the “birth” of a nation that consisted, at the time, of thirteen states and multitudes of people? This bit of lunacy alone should demolish any credibility this faker has left, and yet-she was once guru to the president, and she is given op-ed space to promulgate her nonsense. Of course we have a duty to be tolerant of the beliefs of others. But at the very least we must draw the line somewhere and realize that not all goods peddled in the intellectual marketplace are of equal value. Otherwise, come next March, I want equal time for defenders of the Easter Bunny.
In this carnival of idiocy, is it any wonder our young people have trouble learning to think? The real failure of our educational system is not that 30 or 40 percent of ninth-graders can’t identify Napoleon or rattle off the dates of the Civil War. Facts can always be learned. But what kind of example do we set when college-educated people in high positions can believe in transparent nonsense and not even be conscious of a problem? The mental rigor is not there.
In the last century poets like Tennyson andMatthew Arnold, torn between traditionalreligion and the teachings of post-Darwinscience, wrote haunting dirges to their dyingfaith. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is just oneproof that the Victorians knew the steepprice of both faith and doubt. They knew thatif science was true, then many other thingswere not, and they could not see how to haveit both ways without committing intellectualsuicide. They faced their dread. We justchange the channel, hoping to catch ShirleyMacLaine on the Carson show.