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. 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. Kurt Andersen writing in The Atlantic
Before the 2016 the British satirist John Oliver did a piece in which Trump came out with a shocking revelation before the November election. It had all been a hoax – he had just been trying to show how broken the system was. Alas, Trump’s victory is no joke. Kurt Andersen started his new book Fantasyland before Trump had even entered the presidential race. Nevertheless, it provides an indispensable historical guide to recent events. Andersen looks at the long-running tension between Enlightenment values and magical thinking that has characterised has the former British colony in nearly 500 years of history. On leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex”. In this book Andersen is more worried about the “fantasy-industrial complex”, the news business, religious, political, and entertainment organisations that have created this Fantasy world. What Andersen shows us is that in America there has been a strong tradition of magical thinking, anti-elitism, scepticism of authority and a desire to ignore reality. This book gives us a historical background. We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the enabling power of the internet. I am not going to write about the whole book; rather I am going to look at a couple of the influences that Andersen mentions.
I realise that the term American exceptionalism may be a bit of a cliché, but there is something bizarre about American religion; nobody does religion quite like the Americans. Their society is a product of a country founded by the Puritans in New England who sought to create a Christian utopia, a City on the Hill. This was a theocracy as the faithful waiting for the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end times. America is a huge, vibrant religious marketplace. Two of its more bizarre creations have been Mormonism, which Andersen describes as the “All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith”, and Scientology. But it goes beyond this. It is such things as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the prosperity gospel that give certain strands of American Protestantism its unique flavour.
A part of the book I found fascinating was his exploration of the 1960s. A profound shift in thinking emerged in the ’60s – anything and everything became believable. Many in academia turned away from enlightenment values; in particular, we saw the rise of postmodernism. Andersen is not arguing that Donald Trump read Foucault and came to the conclusion that truth was all relative. Indeed, many Conservatives have attacked relativism. Nevertheless, this fast-and-loose attitude towards the truth has been adopted by the right to promote climate-change denial, black helicopter conspiracies*, and increasingly hysteric gun-rights activism and a general anti-science bias. Andersen expresses it like this:
“The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”
I found this book a stimulating read. However, the USA does not have a monopoly on magical thinking. This American idea of reinventing yourself is also what makes America great. What intrigues me is that you have the greatest scientists in the world alongside people who believe that dinosaurs shared our planet and that Noah was able to fit hall the animal species onto the Ark. bout Ben Carson embodies this duality. A candidate in the Republican presidential primaries and currently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, Carson came out with the outlandish claim that the pyramids were built to store grain. He has a science background. He was the Director of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 until his retirement in 2013. Indeed, he was a pioneer in developing a procedure for the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head, and many other innovations. The guy is not stupid.
All this magical thinking has not prevented this country from becoming the world’s leading superpower. Conservatism is not an illogical ideology, but I have to agree with Andersen that in recent years the adoption of magical thinking has been asymmetric. It is frightening the way in which the Republican Party has taken on board this flight from reason. Just look at the recent 2017 special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General. Trump’s candidate was actually preferable to the eventual winner, Roy Moore. Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Ayatollah of Alabama’s” ideas:
- Moore has stated that the September 11 attacks were a divine punishment for Americans’ declining religiosity and the Sandy Hook shooting was “because we’ve forgotten the law of God.”
- He has been prominent in the anti-Obama birther movement, which claims that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. He has also argued that the previous president is secretly a Muslim.
- He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil should be outlawed. It is an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it. Moreover, the legitimization of “sodomy” will cause suffering in the United States.
- He opposes the theory of evolution, arguing “There is no such thing as evolution. That we came from a snake? No, I don’t believe that
This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. To be frank now I’m feeling nostalgic for George W. How did we come to this? Just imagine if Trump were impeached. I can’t say that the thought of President Pence makes me feel any calmer.
*Wikipedia defines it thus: Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies. Rumours circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws.