Beyond Belief

It may not help us cope with the bizarre political fuck-up in which we find ourselves, but Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History explains how we got here better than any other book I’ve read. Andersen follows the path to Fantasyland from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century all the way down the rabbit hole to the election of “a pure Fantasyland being,” a “creature of the fantasy-industrial complex” who is (as are many of his followers) “driven by resentment of the Establishment” and who has no use for experts “because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.”

The frontier of Fantasyland is found in the willingness of many Americans to believe things simply because they want to believe them, regardless of truth or reality. For example:

Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.

Fewer than half of us are “more or less reality-based,” but it is not merely a willingness to believe in the untrue that characterizes Fantasyland. Rather, it is the distinctly American glorification of individualism, the inalienable right to believe any falsehood: “If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”

The belief in the right to believe anything can have grave, even deadly, consequences. The danger lies not in harmless fantasy but in a more serious derangement and malfunction of our politics. Calling it “Fantasyland” is an appellation too benign for our dangerous haywiredness. We now reside in “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a more sinister domain and closer to the mark (I learned of the place, I suspect, from my father, but we owe its coinage to Aristophanes).

Echoing in rhyme throughout our history is a tendency to define reality based not on truth but on what one chooses to believe. Underlying the Civil War were “pernicious and complicated fantasies” of white supremacy that remain alive today: “After our Civil War, the fever never entirely broke, because the losing side in its heart and mind never entirely surrendered. The North forgave, but the South didn’t, and neither side completely forgot.” In 1915, the epic film The Birth of a Nation revived fantasies of the “mythical Old South” and the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and nostalgia for “unquestioned white supremacy,” and by the early 1920s “probably 5 percent of white American men were in the KKK.”

In our times, movies, television, video games and advertising have become “a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal.” The 1960s and 70s, revered by many of my generation for countercultural notions of awareness and engagement, liberated the full ideological spectrum. The era of “anything goes” meant “anything went” and that included “extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed and more.” Do your own thing, Andersen observes, has a lot in common with every man for himself.

The legacy of the Age of Aquarius is the perpetuation of the perceived right to believe whatever you want. It is “a notion of individualism…as old as America itself, liberty and the pursuit of happiness unbound: Believe the dream, mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth.” And ironically, this “believe-anything-you-want ethos…has powered the political right more than the left.”

The Internet and especially so-called social media have fueled our national flight from reality. In the online world, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods” spread fast and wild, so rampantly that it has become difficult for “reason and reasonableness” to compete, much less to prevail. Exciting falsehoods fare better than dull and often complicated true facts in a world where each click pushes any assertion—true or not—into self-validating prominence. Andersen laments:

…way too many Americans now bother with reason hardly at all, give themselves over too much to the deliria of crazy imaginations, believe too many untrue and impossible things, and are losing the ability and the will to distinguish between real and unreal.

It is now possible, Andersen writes, to “imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into disarray and decline.” Or are we at an inflection point where those of us still capable of distinguishing truth and reality can find a way to alter the course? Although we have entered a “winter of foolishness,” our situation is not hopeless, and “we in reality-based America must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and the next generations.”

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Getting a Sense of Washington

“Washington, D.C” has become synonymous with dysfunction and division, an international punchline if it were not so tragic and so consequential. Why then visit the place, as we did this year in April?

One good reason is that there is so much there to see and to experience. Indeed, the experience of being in the nation’s capital, especially now, feels oddly redemptive. Despite political divisions and rancor, despite scars that remind us of our past and the unhealed wounds of a Civil War that continues to rage, there is much to be proud of here. It is hard not to feel at least a tiny pulse of patriotism so close to the Capitol dome.

Capitol Dome
The Capitol Dome
The Capitol Rotunda
The Rotunda

And so much to see—too much to do. We are grateful for our friends in Arlington for their advice and guidance that made our visit so much more enjoyable, for their friendship most of all, for their guest-room that became our temporary home, and for the generosity to let us borrow their car for a two-day side trip to Gettysburg.

Before we came, we made a list of places we wanted to visit. In the end, subtracting some and adding some, we made more than 15 stops in and around the National Mall. Fifteen must-see stops in nine days is too much, but we could not help ourselves. How do you not visit the Lincoln Memorial, or the Capitol building, or the National Gallery of Art, or the new Museum of African American History and Culture (opened in 2016, it is just one of the 19 museums that the Smithsonian comprises), or the Vietnam War Memorial, or Arlington National Cemetery? Each of our 15 stops told a story that we could not miss, that we just had to make time for. Our days were full trying to do it all, and we pushed ourselves to the edge of near-exhaustion—and maybe, a day or two, right over that edge.

I come back to the experience of the place. The experience is a living thing, an enormous presence that immerses you when you are surrounded by these museums and monuments and magnificent public buildings. It is the American heritage that overwhelms you. It is a heritage that transcends the political moment.

Maybe the most memorable part of our trip to Washington was not Washington at all, but our side trip to Gettysburg. It is a special place in America. As we toured the battlefields, we could feel Lincoln’s words. It is “consecrated” ground. In our own day and age, we find ourselves still testing whether a nation “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure.

Gettysburg Battlefield
Gettysburg Battlefield
The Hallowed Ground of Gettysburg
The Hallowed Ground of Gettysburg
A Final Resting Place
A Final Resting Place

The Civil War became the subtext of our visit. We could feel its closeness to our time, reinforced by images of the 16th President. He was our greatest president because his vision and power of will ultimately held the nation together, though our battles continue.

Lincoln Portrait, National Gallery
Lincoln Portrait, National Gallery, by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1860
Lincoln Bust
Lincoln Bust (Gutzon Borglum), Capitol Building
Lincoln Portrait
Lincoln Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, by George Peter Alexander Healy
Lincoln Statue, Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Statue, Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln Memorial

The city is haunted by the souls of great men and women. Their spirits live on in the place and give us hope. One spirit is Frederick Douglass, who fled from slavery, taught himself to read and write, and became an eloquent advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s right to vote. Lincoln welcomed Douglass to the White House in the midst of the Civil War where he discussed the recruitment and fair treatment of black soldiers. We visited Douglass’s home in Anacostia.

Douglass House
Douglass House

Franklin Roosevelt, the country’s 32nd President, led the nation out of the Depression and through World War II. In his 1941 State of the Union address, he articulated Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want (“economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants”), and freedom from fear (“a world-wide reduction of armaments…that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor”). He thought that this vision would be “attainable in our own time and generation.”

FDR Statue (with Fala)
FDR Statue (with Fala)

A few blocks from the Capitol stands the Sewall-Belmont House, which became the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party in 1929. The NWP had been formed in 1916 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to be an organization dedicated to securing the right of women to vote, a struggle that eventually succeeded with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Alice Paul Bust, Sewall-Belmont House
Alice Paul Bust, Sewall-Belmont House

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, shocked the nation, and for me at the dawn of my teenage years it was a kind of political awakening. In 1961, his inaugural address called for us to ask what we could do for our country. I heard his words as a summons to public service, and it may well have influenced my career choices throughout my working life.

Kennedy Gravesite
Kennedy Gravesite

The Martin Luther King Memorial was completed in 2011, more than 40 years after his assassination in 1968. The centerpiece of the memorial is a 30-foot high statue of the civil rights leader that emerges from three granite boulders representing a “stone of hope” transcending the “mountain of despair.” The imagery comes from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Martin Luther King Statue
Martin Luther King Statue, Martin Luther King Memorial

King delivered the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, three months before President Kennedy was assassinated. The dream lives in this place, in this time.

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