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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