As newspapers throughout the U.S. go belly up, there are only a few—actually one—that still represent high-quality journalism. And that one is The New York Times. Yes, it is still the go-to paper if you want substance and intellectual viands, but it seems to me to be on the decline as well. The science pages are slowly going downhill, dominated by superannuated writers (with notable exceptions like Carl Zimmer and Natalie Angier), and are increasingly heavy on “health and medicine” rather than pure science. Its opinion columns, too, seem lamer than they used to be.
Perhaps this is a “get off my lawn” moment, but having people like Ross Douthat as the best of conservative opinion speaks poorly for either conservatism or the paper itself.
But what cannot be excused is the Times’s signing of anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann from Stanford as a regular op-ed columnist. I had thought that her lucubrations appeared only online, but I read a paper copy of the Times yesterday and, to my shock, saw a completely lame column by Luhrmann called “Ghosts are back!”
Apparently this is supposed to be some Halloween-themed piece that yields some serious conclusions, but it seems totally muddled to me. Read it: it’s very short. Maybe my faculties are dulled by a miserable cold, but I can’t make heads or tails of what she says.
Here are her points:
1. Before the 19th century, ghosts were perceived as solid spirits.
2. After that, ghosts were transformed, as in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” into translucent spirits. This change apparently has great sociological import for Luhrmann.
3. This change in the solidity of ghosts, says Luhrmann, may reflect the decline in belief of the supernatural, so that ghosts became less tangible. She has another theory that is hers, too: the fake “spirit photography” of the era needed a way to distinguish ghosts from real people, so they were made transparent.
4. Changing gears, Luhrmann notes that modern culture is saturated with supernaturalism in the form of ghosts, sci-fi stuff, and the paranormal. One explanation (mine) is that the Internet has disseminated this stuff, as it has cat pictures and atheism. But Luhrmann has another theory:
Scholars sometimes talk about this supernaturalization as a kind of “re-enchantment” of the world — as a growing awareness that the modern world is not stripped of the magical, as the German sociologist Max Weber and so many others once thought, but is in some ways more fascinated than ever with the idea that there is more than material reality around us. In part, I think, this is because skepticism has made the supernatural safe, even fun. It turns out that while many Americans may think that there are ghosts, they often don’t believe that ghosts can harm them.
Well, first of all I’m not sure that the modern world really does entertain more belief in the supernatural component than, say, it did 50 years ago. Seances and Ouija Boards are out of fashion, and past-life regression seems to be disappearing. Where’s her proof that “supernaturalization” is increasing? And what is this about making the supernatural “safe and fun”? This seems to be an idea pulled out of one’s nether parts. Really, we believe more in ghosts (an unevidenced assertion) because we now think that they can’t hurt us?
This is apparently what passes for Deep Thought in the New York Times’s op-ed columns. Remember, Luhrmann gets paid actual money to write stuff like this. Can the Times find no writers that can actually have meaningful things to say?
But the worst part of Lurhmann’s column is its ending
There is, however, a deeper reason. Just as spiritualism became a means to hold on to the supernatural claims of religion in the face of science in the 19th century, the supernaturalism of our own time may enable something similar. The God that has emerged in the post-1960s “renewalist” Christianity practiced by nearly a quarter of all Americans is vividly supernatural — a Jesus who walks by your side just as Jesus walked with his disciples. This assertion that the supernatural is natural helps to make the case for God in a secular age, because it promises people that they will know by experience that God is real.
Perhaps technology plays a role as well. Our world is animated in ways that can seem almost uncanny — lights that snap on as you approach, cars that fire into life without keys, websites that know what you like to read and suggest more books like those. The Internet is not material in the ordinary way. It feels somehow different. Maybe this, too, stokes our imagination.
This suggests there may be even more supernaturalism in years to come.
What? We have a revival of supernaturalism (which, by the way, is in her characterization nonreligious) because there is a new brand of Christianity that makes Jesus your personal friend? What the hell is that about? The recognition that people accept the supernatural (the religious brand) because they have a personal, transformative experience was the thesis of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book published in 1902. It is nothing new to claim that Jesus walks by your side, for that concept of a personal God has been going on for decades. And it’s not a claim that “the supernatural is natural,” either, regardless of what Luhrmann says. It’s a claim that “the supernatural is right here with you.”
As for the paragraph about automatic light switches and websites, that’s just padding. Really, does the existence of the Internet and advertiser-tracking really promote a belief in the supernatural? “Wow, Amazon suggested that I buy a book by Christopher Hitchens. That’s supernatural, dude!”
One gets the feeling here that Luhrmann is either casting about for things to fill a column on deadline, or that she’s trying to apply her studies on one Christian sect to other areas where they don’t belong. Either way, she’s filling up newspaper space with tedious and unsupported speculations. There is nothing here to stimulate one’s thinking.
I’ve written a fair bit about Luhrmann (see here, for instance), not because I dislike her—though I don’t sense a particularly deep thinker—but because I think she instantiates a new phenomenon: a secular analysis of religion conducted in a way that allows religious people to remain comfortable with their beliefs. Although Luhrmann’s stance is one of an objective anthropologist who just gives us the facts, in reality she is more like Elaine Ecklund, someone whose research implicitly buttresses the importance of religion. Both Ecklund and Luhrmann, I think, know exactly what they’re doing, and what they know is that espousing “belief in belief” will bring them renown, like getting columns in the New York Times. You won’t see someone like Sam Harris writing regularly in the NYT op-ed section, for his thoughts aren’t soothing enough for Times readers.
“Happy Halloween,” indeed!