The Austrian government, however zealous it wants to be in battling racial, religious or gender discrimination in hiring practices, cleared the insurance company in beautiful Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, the London Daily Mail revealed Wednesday.
The row began, the Mail Foreign Service reported, when the company placed an advertisement in large Austrian dailies looking for new sales and management recruits stipulating that, as well as being above 20 years in age, they had to have been born only under the astrological signs of Capricorn, Taurus, Aquarius, Aries or Leo.
This limitation, the company officials claimed, was not based on superstition or prejudices of its directors. They claimed the same scientific methodology for making their choices that medical researchers and sociologists routinely use all the time without any dispute or controversy whatsoever: The statistics, they said, proved it.
"A statistical study indicated that almost all of our best employees across Austria have one of the five star signs. We only decided to continue with that system and hire the best workers," the Mail report quoted a company spokesman as claiming.
The case is certainly bizarre and, indeed, sounds ridiculous, but it could have enormous consequences. Austria is a member of the European Union, which consists of 27 nations with a total population of half a billion people. One can easily foresee a legal protest about the case going all the way up to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. And if the Court, headed by its current president, Vassilios Skouris of Greece, finds the Salzburg insurance company and its directors within their rights, star-sign prejudice could sweep across the entire EU. That could drastically limit the professional careers and employment prospects of scores of millions of people from the other -- presumably prejudiced-against -- star signs. In a time of global economic crisis, that would be no joke.
Astrology, after all, is one of the oldest, most durable and most popular of human prejudices. Despite ringing condemnations of it by biblical law codes and prophets alike, it has flourished over the millennia in Christian, Jewish and, for that matter, Muslim societies as freely as in polytheistic and animistic ones. Three-quarters of a century of relentlessly imposed atheism and supposed skepticism by the communist authorities in the Soviet Union failed to eradicate it. It has proliferated in post-communist Russia faster than kudzu in the American South.
There is also, of course, what one might call the Universal Faith or Placebo Effect: The human mind is so powerful and so capable of conjuring up its own internal reality that often, whenever anyone really believes in astrology, it starts working for them, or seems to.
Astonishingly successful people, from politicians and generals to athletes and star entertainers, after all, popularly acknowledge the most remarkable superstitions, or obsess on their star signs and what their personal astrologers predict for them.
Very often, it's the supposedly naive superstitious believers who save the day. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, was convinced she was lucky, and in fact she always was, even escaping an apparently foolproof Irish Republican Army assassination attempt because she was in the bathroom of her hotel room rather than in the bedroom when the bomb went off.
Thatcher also avidly devoured reports that appeared to document that her contemporary Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was unlucky, and Gorbachev's bungled reform program certainly proved unlucky for the mighty Soviet Union. It collapsed after six years of his rule.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, routinely consulted astrologers. And Reagan presided over arguably the most successful U.S. administration the United States had seen for a half-century.
William Shakespeare's character Cassius in the play "Julius Caesar" disputes the power of superstition, and the alleged influence of the stars, in his much quoted line, "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves." But Shakespeare then has Cassius come to a bad end, dying when his attempt to overthrow the power of Caesar and his heirs is crushed. Where Cassius was concerned, the stars had the last laugh.
Is it, therefore, rational to deny the existence or power of irrational forces? As Shakespeare's most famous character, Hamlet, rightly said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Aye, there's the rub.