Sept. 2017 Kurt Anderson
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.”
A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”
Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it. The 1960s were Hell for an Asperger: I was constantly berated and attacked for being a “Fact Nazi” by people who were truly manifesting a “neoteny psychosis”.
Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational.
OMG! This guy is nuts; guilty of the neurotypical nonsense he’s complaining about! Can we PLEASE stop using “spectrum” to “mush together” mental processes (and everything else) into an undifferentiated wad of goo that somehow spans the gulf between imaginary “polarized, black and white” neurotypical stupidity?
We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. OMG! What an idiotic neurotypical “interpretation” of “Enlightened” intellectual freedom.
From the start, our ultra-individualism (this did not exist in foundational colonies, which were the opposite: conformist to narrow religious dogma to the extreme) was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. (OMG! What a garbled string of “factoids” strung together as nonsense. America was founded by “magical thinkers” – highly religious crackpots drummed out of Europe by people fed up with their insane hatred of happiness as a worthy experience. The “rational” element was always a finite minority of self-interested “gentleman” who wanted the riches and rights reserved for the Aristocracy to be available to THEIR CLASS.
Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.
If the 1960s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.
We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more. And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality. We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.
How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Wildly optimistic; and PLEASE don’t include yourself in the reality-based minority. LOL)
Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
When I say that a third believe X and a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the population. Of course, various fantasy constituencies overlap and feed one another—for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and cabals, which can jibe with a belief in an impending Armageddon.
None of this “listing of crazy beliefs” cancels out (by the neurotypical “matter-antimatter” principle of magic word opposition) or precludes ACTUAL conspiracies, predation, cover ups or exploitation by corporations and lobbyists, government agencies, special interests, the “Religion Industry” and political parties for misuse of power.
Why are we like this?
The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible. Typical neurotypical defeatism when faced with a tough question, because “word magic” is the only option for problem-solving, and word magic fails when confronting fact.
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet the institutions and forces that once kept us from indulging the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—have enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades. How naive! It was these very institutions that “lied about reality” (everything is perfect; trust us) while specializing in unethical and immoral behavior at all levels of power, within American government, and in foreign policy.
A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes “miracle cures” on his daily TV show. (The medical industry has always done this) Cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. When a political-science professor attacks the idea “that there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. This is the normal neurotypical condition, and has been, for thousands of years.
Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts (the delusion of “parts” again, instead of integrated systems of activity) – cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and truthiness and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the past several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks, which Donald Trump slid down right into the White House. Oh please! How naïve: this is what passes for analysis? Americans traditionally resort to the knee-jerk superstition that “evil” is an eruption of “chaos” into a perfectly organized neurotypical universe, the existence of which is a fantastical irrational construction; a pathetic denial of insanity within.
American moxie has always come in two types. We have our wilder, faster, looser side: We’re overexcited gamblers with a weakness for stories too good to be true. But we also have the virtues embodied by the Puritans and their secular descendants: steadiness, hard work, frugality, sobriety, and common sense. (And an arrogant, ugly do-gooder, busybody, know-it-all obsession with abusing other humans.) A propensity to dream impossible dreams is like other powerful tendencies—okay when kept in check. For most of our history, the impulses existed in a rough balance, a dynamic equilibrium between fantasy and reality, mania and moderation, credulity and skepticism. Total fantasy: and note the continuing limitation of neurotypical addiction to polarized thinking: Either / or behavior; a tug of war between the devil and angel in your soul; black or white; one extreme or the other; yatta yatta! It’s just plain infantile…
The great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes. The first was a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s; since then, Americans have had a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative. A blossoming of neoteny in Americans.
The second change was the onset of the new era of information. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of the ideological and religious and scientific kinds. Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and “facts” to support them. Before the internet, crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. (Single crackpots are rarely effective; it’s those who gather together in the thousands – or millions – who are dangerous). Opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.
Our shocking Trump moment is just the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history. Hmmm… magical thinking; attributing an election outcome to some “disturbance in the ether” caused by “ghostly persons” that reach out from the past to “f— things up”. It couldn’t be that elections are simply a mirage? A fool’s drama of people casting meaningless ballots in a charade of democracy, which is in real terms, a “slug fest” for power and control by opposing elites?
Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. (From what external entity does this mysterious permission arise?) Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective. And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it. Us and them duality again; I’m right-headed, you are wrong-headed.
Treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously, is not unique to Americans. But we are the global crucible and epicenter. (Rather arrogant assumption. We always have to be the Best!) We invented the fantasy-industrial complex; almost nowhere outside poor or otherwise miserable countries are flamboyant supernatural beliefs so central to the identities of so many people. This is American exceptionalism in the 21st century. The country has always been a one-of-a-kind place. But our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any other nation, practically a synonym for developed country. But our drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country. (Neurotypical Blah, blah, blah! This guy is certainly in love with meaningless verbiage!)
People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, “alternative facts” moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. (No, only deluded control freaks, who think that their version of how reality “ought to be” matches the supernatural template of “absolute best version” of reality, that they thoroughly believe exists, but has never existed, except in their imagination, would think this way.) But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. (What an idiotic string of nonsense) The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
The 1960s and the Beginning of the End of Reason
I don’t regret or disapprove of many of the ways the ’60s permanently reordered American society and culture. It’s just that along with the familiar benefits, there have been unreckoned costs.
In 1962, people started referring to “hippies,” the Beatles had their first hit, Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the Harvard psychology lecturer Timothy Leary was handing out psilocybin and LSD to grad students. And three hours south of San Francisco, on the heavenly stretch of coastal cliffs known as Big Sur, a pair of young Stanford psychology graduates founded a school and think tank they named after a small American Indian tribe that had lived on the grounds long before. “In 1968,” one of its founding figures recalled four decades later,
“Esalen was the center of the cyclone of the youth rebellion. It was one of the central places, like Mecca for the Islamic culture. (YIKES! How typically arrogant!) Esalen was a pilgrimage center for hundreds and thousands of youth interested in some sense of transcendence, breakthrough consciousness, LSD, the sexual revolution, encounter, being sensitive, finding your body, yoga—all of these things were at first filtered into the culture through Esalen. By 1966, ’67, and ’68, Esalen was making a world impact.”
This is not overstatement. Essentially everything that became known as New Age was invented, developed, or popularized at the Esalen Institute. Esalen is a mother church of a new American religion for people who think they don’t like churches or religions but who still want to believe in the supernatural. The institute wholly reinvented psychology, medicine, and philosophy, driven by a suspicion of science and reason and an embrace of magical thinking (also: massage, hot baths, sex, and sex in hot baths). It was a headquarters for a new religion of no religion, and for “science” containing next to no science. The idea was to be radically tolerant of therapeutic approaches and understandings of reality, especially if they came from Asian traditions or from American Indian or other shamanistic traditions. Invisible energies, past lives, astral projection, whatever—the more exotic and wondrous and unfalsifiable, the better. REALLY?
Not long before Esalen was founded, one of its co-founders, Dick Price, had suffered a mental breakdown and been involuntarily committed to a private psychiatric hospital for a year. His new institute embraced the radical notion that psychosis and other mental illnesses were labels imposed by the straight world on eccentrics and visionaries, that they were primarily tools of coercion and control. This was the big idea behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, of course. And within the psychiatric profession itself this idea had two influential proponents, who each published unorthodox manifestos at the beginning of the decade—R. D. Laing (The Divided Self) and Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness). “Madness,” Laing wrote when Esalen was new, “is potentially liberation and renewal.” Esalen’s founders were big Laing fans, and the institute became a hotbed for the idea that insanity was just an alternative way of perceiving reality. Again, this notion of “listing” fragmental factoids as a way of “canceling out by magic word” any possibility of fact, truth, significant connection, importance, results, consequences, or understandable outcomes in human affairs, which might follow logical paths or patterns, demonstrates the neurotypical inability to “think” beyond infantile polar opposition of good and evil as presented in Sunday School lessons.
These influential critiques helped make popular and respectable the idea that much of science is a sinister scheme concocted by a despotic conspiracy to oppress people. Mental illness, both Szasz and Laing said, is “a theory not a fact.” This is now the universal bottom-line argument for anyone—from creationists to climate-change deniers to anti-vaccine hysterics—who prefers to disregard science in favor of his own beliefs. How infantile: how Sunday School! Judgements that other people are “mistaken” without any acknowledgement that “my illusions and delusions” are contributing to “the mess”, or that I can possibly be the object of my irrational “superiority”.
You know how young people always think the universe revolves around them, as if they’re the only ones who really get it? And how before their frontal lobes, the neural seat of reason and rationality, are fully wired, they can be especially prone to fantasy? (Dumb inaccurate pop-science clichés) In the ’60s, the universe cooperated: It did seem to revolve around young people, affirming their adolescent self-regard, making their fantasies of importance feel real and their fantasies of instant transformation and revolution feel plausible. Practically overnight, America turned its full attention to the young and everything they believed and imagined and wished.
If 1962 was when the decade really got going, 1969 was the year the new doctrines and their gravity were definitively cataloged by the grown-ups. Reason and rationality were over. The countercultural effusions were freaking out the old guard, including religious people who couldn’t quite see that yet another Great Awakening was under way in America, heaving up a new religion of believers who “have no option but to follow the road until they reach the Holy City … that lies beyond the technocracy … the New Jerusalem.” That line is from The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, published three weeks after Woodstock, in the summer of 1969. Its author was Theodore Roszak, age 35, a Bay Area professor who thereby coined the word counterculture. Roszak spends 270 pages glorying in the younger generation’s “brave” rejection of expertise and “all that our culture values as ‘reason’ and ‘reality.’ ” (Note the scare quotes.) So-called experts, after all, are “on the payroll of the state and/or corporate structure.” A chapter called “The Myth of Objective Consciousness” argues that science is really just a state religion. To create “a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities … become the arbiters of the good [and] the true,” he writes, “nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific world view, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness.” He welcomes the “radical rejection of science and technological values.” Note the belief in the POWER OF WORDS to form, change and dictate “reality”. This irrational delusion is due to a neurotypical dependence on the principles of magic.)
Earlier that summer, a University of Chicago sociologist (and Catholic priest) named Andrew Greeley had alerted readers of The New York Times Magazine that beyond the familiar signifiers of youthful rebellion (long hair, sex, drugs, music, protests), the truly shocking change on campuses was the rise of anti-rationalism and a return of the sacred—“mysticism and magic,” the occult, séances, cults based on the book of Revelation. When he’d chalked a statistical table on a classroom blackboard, one of his students had reacted with horror: “Mr. Greeley, I think you’re an empiricist.”
As 1969 turned to 1970, a 41-year-old Yale Law School professor was finishing his book about the new youth counterculture. Charles Reich was a former Supreme Court clerk now tenured at one of ultra-rationalism’s American headquarters. But hanging with the young people had led him to a midlife epiphany and apostasy. In 1966, he had started teaching an undergraduate seminar called “The Individual in America,” for which he assigned fiction by Kesey and Norman Mailer. He decided to spend the next summer, the Summer of Love, in Berkeley. On the road back to New Haven, he had his Pauline conversion to the kids’ values. His class at Yale became hugely popular; at its peak, 600 students were enrolled. In 1970, The Greening of America became The New York Times’ best-selling book (as well as a much-read 70-page New Yorker excerpt), and remained on the list for most of a year.
Previous two paragraphs and actually, the rest of the article:
Social blah, blah, blah which never interested the average American, but was epidemic in upper and upper middle class Americans, fixated on their pretentions to superior intellectual and social status. There was widespread denigration of “blue collar” working Americans by these classes at the time; it continues today.
You are on your own from here, should you chose to read the “rest of” the neurotypical nuttiness….