“But that would cripple our economy,” Mr. Bates objected.
“Rubbish,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Our capitalist economy is a work of fiction; it’s a story we tell ourselves, over and over, until we believe it. Two generations ago, it was a known fact that men worked all day and their wives stayed home to take care of the children. In our own time, it’s an equally unchallenged assumption that both members of a married couple must work, dropping their children off in some convenient storage bin for most of their waking hours. This doubling of the work force would have had dreadful effects on our economy if capitalism were really based on immutable laws; but it didn’t, because that wasn’t the story we chose to tell ourselves. Now, if our economy could absorb an enormous increase of the work force, it could certainly adapt to a decrease in the working hours. As soon as enough of us choose to tell ourselves the story that a work week has twenty hours in it, it will be true, insofar as any statement about our economy can be said to be ‘true.'”
“I just read how much we spent on Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mrs. Bowman said, “and I just about fell out of my chair.”
“We complain that we can’t afford education or health insurance or transit,” said Mr. Magundi, “but we always find money for a war or two. Some day, some president will have the courage to stand up to America and say, ‘I’m sorry, I know how much you want a war, but we just can’t afford it right now. But how ’bout I take you all to Disney World instead?'”
“I guess he’s what they call a New Atheist,” I said. “He thinks God is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us figure that out.”
“He’s not a real atheist at all,” Mr. Magundi replied. “If he really believed God was dead, he wouldn’t spend so much effort trying to kill him. I prefer an honest, old-fashioned atheist who’s comfortable in his convictions.”
“He says he’s an anarchist,” Brielle explained, “cause he says it doesn’t matter which party we vote for, cause we’re still, like, slaves to the rich and powerful.”
“And he’s right about that,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “But we slaves do at least have one power. We can dismiss our masters every two years; we can tell them that we’d rather be slaves to the other masters for a while. The benefits of owning three hundred million slaves are incalculable, so our power of choice may incline our masters to treat us a little more indulgently. There you have my most enthusiastic argument for a republican form of government.”
“I don’t even know what we’re fighting about,” Mrs. Bowman said with a sigh.
“Neither does anyone else,” said Mr. Magundi. “For the first year or so, a war is usually about something—a disputed territory, or a principle, or some other thing that people feel strongly enough about to fight over. But after it’s been going on for a while, the war is about the war. The original cause, in fact, may be entirely forgotten: we just keep fighting because there’s a fight. A few years into the American Revolution, the British offered peace on terms that acceded to every demand the colonists had gone to war for; they were refused, because the war wasn’t about those demands anymore. By the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy was offering liberty to any slave who would fight, and most prominent Southern politicians had acknowledged that slavery—the original occasion of the war—was dead as an institution. Most of the Arab world has been in a declared state of war against Israel for long enough that every single politician who was active when the war was declared is dead. The United States has been at war through a complete change of governments, and if you ask the current administration why we are in this war, you will receive the candid and infuriating answer that we’re in it because we can’t get out. So we fight because there is a fight. The war is about the war.”
“Why do artists think the world owes them a living?” Mr. Bates asked rhetorically.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Why do lawyers think the world owes them a living?
“She does seem to have real integrity,” I remarked. “Not like those corrupt ward bosses we usually elect.”
“I’m not quite as ready as you are to condemn the corrupt ones,” said Mr. Magundi. “Even the most well-meaning politician, if she actually intends to win, must flatter the rich to finance her campaign. Indeed, the truly well-meaning politician may be the more dangerous kind. A corrupt politician can offer his patron a few contracts or a few tax writeoffs, and the debt is repaid. But the politician of real integrity has only flattery to offer. She must tell her patron that he is rich because he is wise and virtuous, and that his ideas alone will save the commonwealth. And she must convince herself as well as she convinces him, or she loses her integrity. Then, if she is elected, she will naturally wish that the government should be run according to the wisdom of its most virtuous citizens. And so the patron of the corrupt politician gets a little money from the taxpayers out of the deal, but the patron of the honest politician gets unlimited influence.”