Fantasyland for Real

Fantasyland for Real

 

I listened to a short but fascinating interview  conducted by the tireless Charlie Rose on PBS. He interviewed someone I had never heard of before. His name is Kurt Anderson. He was flogging a book he has just written that is only being published next month called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire–A 500-year History. I must buy the book

Anderson talked about modern America and how it got to be as it is–whacky. That is my word, not his. He laid some of the blame for the bad state of America on religion. Religion and the blue smoke and mirrors of American business. America was always a country of big dreamers and true believers in the fanciful and dubious. That gullibility was always combined with practically, pragmatism, and Yankee clarity, said Anderson. This is an interesting combination.

According to Anderson things started to go seriously wrong in the 1960s. That was my time. The time of music, love and flower children. It was also the time when everyone was permitted to find their own truth and create their own reality. People were not allowed to be judgmental however. Everything was permitted. Everything was permitted except judgmentalism.

Anderson claimed that these ideas of the 1960s came from academia and New Left. Yet interestingly, these ideas empowered the far right! This kind of thinking permeated America from top to bottom. It was dangerous because “it allowed preposterous thinking all over the map,”[1] said Anderson.

Contrary to such thinking Anderson recommended we think like Patrick Moynihan who famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Anderson admitted there was probably no going back to the days of Moynihan. It is too late. In fact, Anderson acknowledged that there might not be any light at the end of this tunnel. He, at least, saw no hopeful end. Instead we now live in the age of Donald Trump. This is very different from the time of Moynihan. Trump in effect says that anything that is inconvenient to me or that I disagree with is, fake news. Don’t trust any “truth” you don’t believe in. That is dangerous thinking especially for a person who gets to appoint the leader of the CIA, or uses intelligence sources to determine what to do with the most powerful armed forces with the most awesome weaponry imaginable. That is outright scary. If there are no objective standards for truth we are dangerously bereft.

Since the 1960s the relativist position had become deeply embedded in American society. This attitude that there is no objective truth has seeped into a large portion of American thinking. As Anderson stated, “it is part of the American operating system.”[2]

Later with the advent of the Internet Anderson believes things got even worse. “The Internet gave the alternative fact universe its infrastructure.”[3]

Part of the problem, says Anderson, is that the Internet through its search engines “rewards the excitingly false.”[4] Wild conspiracy theories are just one example among many. “Like religion it is exciting to think that there is a puppet master out there pulling strings.”[5]

The Internet, like conspiracy theories, distorts.  That  makes the world seem simpler than it is. Anderson state, “Conspiracy theories make a tidy fiction in the way that reality is not tidy.”[6]

Donald Trump is of course the person who has taken massive advantage of the Internet. He has manipulated it. Anti-elite thinking and anti-establishment thinking has always been a part of America, Anderson said. It is not new. But Anderson believed that in the 1960s it got out of control like never before and America has never recovered. Rebels are good but they can go too far.

An interesting thing about Trump, Anderson said, is that he learned after studying him for many years, long before he became a big player in American Presidential politics, is that he has never met anyone who craves attention like Donald Trump. “Donald Trump needs attention like a drug addict needs drugs.”[7] And now he has the attention of the public in spades. In fact, Anderson pointed out, “perhaps now Trump has got more attention than anyone else in the history of the world.”[8] I hate to admit it. that is probably true.

In trying to understand America Anderson went back 500 years. He went all the way to Martin Luther. America has since the contact of Europeans been diffused with religion. According to Anderson, “America has always been exceptionally religious compared to the rest of the world.”[9] Among the first settlers to America were Puritans and others who had fled religious persecution in Europe, but they were themselves “theocratic religious nut cases.”[10] In fact, it has been said that they escaped religious persecution so that they would be free to persecute others. In any event, Americans are, as Anderson stated, “Outliers in our religiosity compared to the rest of world, not just a little bit, but a lot. We are not like the rest of the developed world, we are much more religious.”[11]

All of this, as I have been saying for some time, has serious consequences well beyond religion. Anderson put it this way, “Once as a culture you are more inclined to believe in magic, in supernatural events, it won’t stay in its religious realm. It will leach out into not believing in climate change say.” [12]

Anderson says that we are shaped by a “fantasy industrial complex.”[13] This includes not just organized religion but everything in the entertainment industry. In the US, he pointed out, everything becomes entertainment. Real estate business for example, become entertainment. Everything becomes part of show business. Religious leaders are show men. This fantasy industrial complex uses modern technology skillfully to convince us of dubious truths. Then the Internet comes along and compounds that effect massively. This is the age in which we live.

As a result we should not be surprised when ordinary people believe outrageous claims. Ordinary people are part of a culture that leads them to believe. When critical skills are lost and we learn to believe without evidence we turn ourselves over to fake news and the demagogues that take advantage of it.

[1] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[2] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[3] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[4] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[5] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[6] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[7] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[8] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[9] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[10] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[11] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[12] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

[13] Kurt Anderson, on Charlie Rose, PBS August 7, 2017

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