In the Middle Ages people took potions for their ailments. In the 19th century they took snake oil. Citizens of today's shiny, technological age are too modern for that. They take antioxidants and extract of cactus instead.
If people like their placebos, that's their business, you say. Well, not quite. Once, if you took shark cartilage for your cancer, it was your business. It is now becoming public business. As of Jan. 1, it is illegal in Washington State for health-insurance companies to deny payment for licensed "natural" health care. Blue Cross will be picking up your massage and herbal doctor bills.
And Seattle has voted to set up the country's first government-subsidized "naturopathic" (a.k.a. nontraditional) health clinic. Members of the King County council came to their decision unanimously, reports the New York Times, after "rhapsodizing about garlic pills and the healing power of ginkgo-tree extract."
Though relatively harmless, there is something disturbing about these little adventures in New Age shamanism. They are symptomatic of a more general and potentially ominous recent phenomenon: a flight toward irrationality, a retreat to prescientific primitivism in an age that otherwise preens with scientific pride.
It is not, of course, that New Age romance with irrationalism is new. We have had pyramid power, astral travel, channeling, tarot, crystal therapy, even homeopathy for decades now. They constitute a kind of a behavioral aftertaste, a ritualized residue of '60s psychedelia.
What is new is that irrationalism is gaining official sanction. It is not just Washington State subsidizing naturopathy. In 1992 Congress ordered the National Institutes of Health, the premier biological-research organization on earth, to establish the Office of Alternative Medicine. It now directs $14 million of public moneys to study, as it were, the effect of potions on prostates.
And while one can wink at this kind of officially sanctioned primitivism, there is one outbreak of officially sanctioned primitivism that is not benign and that cannot be winked at: the sensational "abuse" trials in which teachers and parents are jailed on the most improbable charges of ritualistic, orgiastic Satanism since the Salem witch trials.
The list of alleged crimes (usually against children) is long and literally unbelievable. It comprises everything from bizarre rituals involving "magic rooms" and robots (R2D2 makes an appearance in one) to coprophagy and rape with sharp objects (in one case, a "sword in the rectum"). Fantastic physical traumas (e.g., the sword) yield not a shred of physical evidence. One child said her teacher had turned her into a mouse. For a myriad of such offenses, New Jersey preschool teacher Margaret Kelly Michaels was given 47 years. (Her conviction was overturned in 1993--after she had served five.)
Most evidence comes from highly suggestible, scandalously pressured children; some from that newest pseudoscientific fad, recovered memory. "We should not be dragging people through the courts on folklore," protests psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus. Well, folklore reigned in Wenatchee, Washington--Has anyone checked the state water supply?--site of perhaps the most notorious such case. There, Pastor Robert Roberson and about a dozen parishioners were said to have lined up to have sex with young children in front of the altar while shouting, "Hallelujah, there goes the devil!"
Roberson was acquitted last month of all 14 charges, but not before 28 townspeople had been jailed for similar crimes. These cases recall nothing so much as medieval witch-hunts, but with a progressive twist: men too may now be burned at the stake.
Perhaps these outbreaks of irrationality should be expected in an age in which, 70 years after the Scopes "Monkey Trial," many Fundamentalists are trying to force schools to teach the crank "science" of creationism. And what should we expect of an age in which John Mack, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, publishes a book on the abduction of humans by aliens--he is particularly fascinated with the way aliens inseminate our womenfolk--and...What? Is fired? Denied tenure? Hardly. Finds himself with a best seller, a spot on Oprah and a fistful of Rockefeller-family research money.
Why these outbreaks of irrationalism? Because in a highly technological age, where not just production but now information and thought itself are being mechanized, the need for escape is powerful. The world is too much with us. William Wordsworth yearned "to be a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn." We're not immune. Indeed, an age in which we carry around 6-lb. boxes that can digitize information and rationalize thought at 133 MHz is an age even more susceptible to the call of the wild.
After endless days of commuting on the freeway to an antiseptic, sealed-window office, there is a great urge to backpack in the woods and build a fire. Call it recreational primitivism. But the mind needs its rest too. So we go intellectual backpacking: We dabble in potions and auras; we give rapt attention to bearers of tales of alien abduction and Satanism in schools. "I can stand brute force," wrote Oscar Wilde, "but brute reason is quite unbearable." Ah, the relief.