Where We Were From

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The title of Joan Didion’s personal history of California, Where I Was From, presents you with a wrinkle in time. Don’t we usually say “where I am from”? Why the extra layer of past-ness? What the 70-year old Didion was implying was that by the time she looked back at her home state in 2003, not only had it changed beyond recognition, but so had she. She left home to write for Vogue in 1961, and then life kept happening, mostly in New York but also in Paris, Hawaii, Central America. She could no longer say she was the Joan Didion who comes from California; now she was someone who once came from there.

The realization that you can’t go home again is a common one; you try to go back only to discover it was an earlier, different version of yourself who lived there. The lack of fit is overdetermined: it runs both ways.

When we try to imagine the the world after COVID-19 (the “new normal”), we can easily assume the same naivete Didion sheds in the title of her memoir. We picture ourselves dazed, enervated, bereaved, and disoriented but essentially still who we were before the pandemic. We will blink our eyes and try to work out how far magnetic north has shifted, try to get our minds around where the world’s coordinates have come unfixed. How will we travel? Eat out? Vote? Change jobs? Send kids to camp?

But we will be mistaken to think it is the same old us navigating these questions. Because, like Didion, we will have changed too. And we will have no time to mourn the loss of our old selves. The grief of this loss will slip silently onto those already accumulated. So soon, we will have to say we were from the world before COVID-19.

Historical change is nothing new, of course, and individuals never emerge from it unscathed. My dad was from the world before Vietnam, for example. Lots of things were different after the war, including him. Three books I’ve read recently, alongside Didion’s Where I Was From, have helped shape my thoughts on what is happening to us. In particular, they’ve helped me meditate on how entrenched our assumptions are about who we will be on the other side of this crisis.

Milan Kundera’s Ignorance is a novel about the urge that central European exiles felt to return home when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Kundera himself had fled his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968, so there is a certain amount of factual autobiography that informs Ignorance. I remember that heady time too. The Berlin Wall fell down.

In Ignorance, as communism is swept off Europe’s map with dizzying speed, the novel’s antagonists, living in Paris, are encouraged by their friends to join the “Great Return.” Go home and celebrate the liberation of your homeland, they are urged. There is dancing in the streets. This call is a nearly irresistible force. But Kundera asks why this is the case. The thing is, he has not just been waiting, holding his breath in France. He built a life there. He writes his novels in French, about themes that concern the French, and all of literate humankind. His antagonists in Ignorance follow suit, in their own ways; they have misgivings.

The urge to go home is strong, but unfiltered nostalgia freezes the exile in time, takes no account of the effects of choice and circumstance that have accumulated over the exile’s intervening lifetime. Kundera goes back to the beginning of European literature to locate this paradox. What he finds is revelatory. “In Book Five of the Odyssey,” Kundera writes, “Odysseus tells Calypso [who had captured and held him for seven years in a life of erotic luxury]: ‘As wise as she is, I know that Penelope [Odysseus’s wife] cannot compare to you in stature or beauty. . . . And yet the only wish I wish each day is to go back there.” He had been seeking home for 10 years. Kundera goes on la little later:

Homer glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath and thereby laid out a moral hierarchy of emotions. Penelope stands at its summit, very high above Calypso.

Calypso, ah, Calypso! I very often think about her. She loved Odysseus. They lived together for seven years. We do not know how long Odysseus shared Penelope’s bed, but certainly not so long as that. And yet we extol Penelope’s pain and sneer at Calypso’s tears.

What happens to the life we lived and the world we constructed during our pandemic exile? Do they simply lose all meaning once the conditions of exile have been lifted? Whose attentions will we abandon when we blindly make the same choice as Odysseus?

It strikes me that I spend several hours a day now in intense contact with my son, whom I am home-schooling. This will almost certainly never happen again, depending on how far back to normal we are able to go after COVID-19. I don’t know how long our present routine will last–almost certainly not seven years!–but when my son and I do go back toward normal, we will be different people than we were just a few months ago. The “moral hierarchy of emotions” established by Homer says we must bend our entire will to just going “home.” We will reassert the old ways of school for him, office for me. But  will we not have cause to wonder why not everything fits the same? I imagine a day in my son’s future adolescence when he and I speak to each other not at all. He’s studying for finals and I’m puttering; our paths don’t cross, even under the same roof. Won’t I think of the present days with nostalgia? Won’t he? We used to talk for hours.

In his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Orwell anticipates how the approaching climax of World War II will change the politics of all the warring countries. Even if they win, the western Allies, liberal democrats all, won’t be able to escape the coming darkness, Orwell believes.  Contending against monsters will put them at risk of turning monstrous themselves.

Coming Up For Air is a very pessimistic novel. It postulates that to win the war, Great Britain and the United States will have to adopt as expedients certain authoritarian powers that could prove corrupting of decency over the longer term. Nations will become militarized, weapons massively lethal; police will rule the streets; citizen surveillance will become pervasive; propaganda will condition the masses to hate outsiders; economies will remain on a permanent war footing, beating plowshares back into swords. All the societal movement in Coming Up For Air is downward. The antagonist, George Bowling, looks ahead, to what will happen after the crisis has passed:

But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him . . . . It’s all going to happen.

Bowling believes he just might survive the descent into darkness if he manages to take one last breath of his former innocence, England’s former innocence. And so he arranges a weekend trip to his boyhood home of Lower Binfield. There’s a fishing spot there that he knows, he just knows, no one else has discovered. The fish he had to abandon there one summer day long ago must be huge and unwary, he believes. His anticipation builds for weeks as he plans his escape. He hasn’t fished since he was a boy.

The reader doesn’t find out whether any anglers discovered Bowling’s secret pond and fished it out, and neither does Bowling. The developer’s bulldozer certainly found the pond–and drained it and flattened it for houses to be built on top of it. Lower Binfield is unrecognizable when Bowling arrives. Its center has been dwarfed by new factories, its old, well-formed town boundaries obliterated by sprawl. There are new sorts of people there, drawn by factory work, who don’t know anything about the town’s past. The pubs have fake wooden beams. Bowling comes face to face with an old lover who fails entirely to recognize him. She’s addled, unpleasant and gone to seed.

So Bowling gives up and goes home. The novel ends, or simply stops, one almost feels, with him contemplating which shabby lies he should tell his wife to put her off the scent of the real nature of his trip. (He’d told her it was a business trip, but she sniffed out that part of the lie.)

Is this the plainly bathotic ending it appears to be? Not really. The reason Bowling had kept his getaway secret was because he, a plain, fat, dull and inconsequential salesman, had political motives for trying to take a last gulp of clean air, and he didn’t think anyone would understand his grandiosity. In a changing world that threatened even the common man with propaganda, secret police, and wage slavery, there was no such thing as staying out of politics anymore, even for someone with such a trivial, deadend life as Bowling’s. This was something Orwell said over and over again in his essays of the time: the dynamics of what he called “after-war” dictated that even strong, successful nations would be perpetually in the preparatory stages of new war and, therefore, subject to emergency rule and contingency planning, habits that shade into authoritarianism. We can dream of the world that existed before we all became national-security states, but we can never go back to it. It has been obliterated by things we have done.

If we try to go back to the world before COVID-19, it won’t be there either. Biology is an even more efficient equalizing force than politics, and none of us can escape the tyrannizing effects of a pandemic. As Bob Dylan once put it, “You may be an ambassador to England or France; you may like to gamble, you might like to dance; you may be the heavyweight champion of the world; you may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.” Dylan was making a point about a different threat to our existence, but his reasoning remains solid: no one will be able to escape thinking about, and, in some sense, planning for, contagion in the future. We’ll just have to breathe that air.

Sunday_Afternoon

Memory and longing will always reach backward in time. But as a basis for living, we can only look forward. Orwell knew this, and we are about to know it. The unspoken optimistic message of Coming Up For Air is that, despite the grief of abandoning what is lost, it is always for the best to strike a new course and move forward. That is almost literally the definition of progress. The new normal will improve upon the old normal.

Adolescence is, for almost everyone, a period happily left in the past. It may provide useful marks for measuring one’s intervening life journey, but it usually offers little worth dwelling on as such. My adolescence was particularly a wreck. I was in the grip of a religious “theory” of morality that held up sexual purity as an ultimate ideal. When I wasn’t reading Paul saying that sex was bad, I was reading how Lancelot ruined not just his own life by sleeping with Guinevere, but also his friendship with Arthur and the whole basis for British monarchy, which I took to be synonymous with heroic virtue at the time.

The point is, I was morally serious but entirely misdirected. Because I exhausted all my energy in pursuit of Paul’s ridiculous and sociopathic ideal, I gave myself a free pass on all other issues of moral consideration. Which is to say, I was an asshole. I simply had no conception that morality involved other people and that being kind to them or at least avoiding harming them was an important goal in life. Luckily, I met good, patient people who would lead me out of the wilderness. I also read new books that would raise me up like Saul Bellow’s Augie March to where I could try to navigate “by the great stars, the highest considerations.” I got lucky.

It took me years to understand the moral wreck that was my adolescence. I would recall episodes of casually bullying someone or flagrantly harassing someone else, and they revealed how unreflectively cruel I was. No surprise in retrospect, though: my entire capacity to reflect was absorbed into a doomed, Quixotic scheme for overriding the biological drive that perpetuates the species. Oops. (And which, if piloted with care, gives way to the best things in life.)

In his quietly devastating novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s antagonist Tony Webster looks back on a youth 40 years gone by. He has long understood his adolescence as merely conventionally awkward, or maybe squalid around the edges, at worst. He had girl trouble, yes, he was slightly pompous and insecure, but wasn’t everyone? Then, tracing the lines of an old love triangle that led to the suicide of a boyhood friend, Webster comes face to face with documentary evidence of his own blatant cruelty. Stung by love betrayed, 20-year old Webster wishes the worst on his friends in clear, vigorous terms, and it comes to pass. Tragedy ensues in a way that ruins the lives of people who appeared nowhere in young Webster’s moral calculations. They couldn’t have: he was so selfish and stupid–blind, really. Like I said, he was twenty.

When we sketch out the new, post-pandemic normal and inevitably look back to the old one for reference points, we will be forced to see how ill prepared we were for the shock. Then we will realize how little moral fiber ran through our national character when our time of trial arrived.

Here is what the post-COVID-19 world will bring sharply into focus: We, the generations that have shaped political culture since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have built a system that seeks an upper limit on depriving people of the means to care for themselves. And after we’ve watched them on reality TV, we condemn the same people to the impersonal forces of social Darwinism to render hard but just rulings on them. Back when we came up with this arrangement, we thought of it as a capitalist Shangrai La. It was so fraudulent in its inception that we needed a movie–a movie!–to produce its slogan: “Greed is good.”

The_Triumph_of_Death_by_Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder
Where we are from

If the real-life truth of the matter could be put into a novelistic document like the one that jolts Webster out of his moral complacency in Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, it would be a letter from us–the ruling class and its close aspirants–to the other 80 percent of our fellow humans, telling them, why don’t you just fucking die? If you don’t like the $8.00-an-hour no-benefits service jobs that retail provides you, please take the suicide pills that the pharmaceutical industry so generously supplies you.Or maybe a gun in the mouth is more your style. Or eat your way to diabetes and wait to be priced out of insulin. Many of your fellows take a long turn in a prison run for profit. But in any case if you can’t hack it, just get out of the way. The future does not need you.

When we stopped believing that society existed, we stopped investing in it. Many moral outrages like the few I just alluded to took root. I agree, by the way, with Reagan and Thatcher that society does not exist. But unlike them, I believe it is one of the best and deservedly most robust fictions we have come up with. It is what the historian Juval Noah Harari would call a shared fiction worth believing in. The thing about shared fictions, though, is that they abhor a vacuum. Stop believing in one, and another will rush in to take its place. So, we may have weakened our collective belief in society, but oh, boy do we believe in corporations now. That’s who came rushing into fill the vacuum created by Reagan-Thatcherism.

Society is the bedrock of democracy. If individuals fail to identify with a national group with whom they are willing to pull together, they cannot define any national interests. So those interest get defined for them. In our case, the defining of interests is done by organized money in the form of corporations. This is all fine for the few who own the corporations, but for the rest of us it means we are living in a failed state. Don’t believe me? Try this brief summary of our symptoms on for size (from an Atlantic Monthly article by George Packer):

When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.

The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.

Our moral past–like Tony Webster’s, like my own–is a mirage. It never existed as we pictured it. What we thought of as the mere, regrettable side effects of greed–a little functional poverty here, a decline of infrastructure there–came into focus over the years as the essential aims of the system we invited to take over our lives. Greed is good?–That’s the system. The undeniable fact that we are presently subjects to corporate profit-seeking, not citizens in a democracy, should tell us that our past is not what we thought it was either. It was a different country.

 

Review of “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History” by Kurt Andersen

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This seems like as good a time as any to admit that we are batshit crazy.

It’s not the pandemic. The Clorox briefings. The conspiracy theories.

It’s everything. For all the good traits that make America great, there is a dark side to our exceptionalism. It is nearly impossible here to grow up to become a sane adult. Something in our culture wars against it.

In America, a child born today has a one in three chance of growing up to believe UFOs are visiting our planet and the government is covering it up. One in five will believe in alien abductions. Ditto for chemtrails. Eleven percent will believe the government is trying to achieve mass mind control through new kinds of light bulbs. A whopping sixty percent will believe that end-time events foretold in the biblical book of Revelation will actually happen, and forty percent will believe the Jesus-versus-Satan apocalypse will play out while they’re still alive. (They will take no lessons from recently dead generations who believed the same thing.)

Speaking of smackdowns, many millions of new American adults 25 years from now will tune into professional wrestling, suspending belief in the distinction between real spectacle and fake sport. Many millions more will forget or never notice that “authentic” sports such as football are also staged fantasies that mix real violence with simulations of warfare. Hordes of new adults will acquire the belief that monster truck rallies are awesome. And so on.

As forecasts, these claims are, of course, off the cuff. They warrant the usual caveat, “On current trends, . . . .” After all, who’s to say that a quarter century from now Americans will be just as likely to believe in UFOs or that new light bulbs will even be a thing? Before I propose a response, though, consider this observable fact: our tendency to believe in fantasies sets us off sharply from most other people who are otherwise like us. In most countries in the developed world, a child stands almost no chance of growing up to believe even a single instance of the lurid flimflammery our children will believe about end-times, alien abductions, or the UN’s master plan to rule the world, let lone the whole shebang. In the rest of the Global North, the institutions of society seem to coordinate–or conspire, if you like–to shield children from believing exciting untruths and indulging in louche cons and quackery.

You can actually see it. Or rather, not see it. Just as there are simply no WWE matches or faith-healing tent revivals to attend in, say, France, there is a corresponding lack of false, histrionic ideas about life, the universe, and everything designed to indoctrinate children. There are no support networks of creationist home-schoolers, because–guess what–no one keeps their kids home to avoid what they think are the dwellings of Satan but which are really just schools. In these nice places, where one is unmolested by charlatans at every turn, it is possible to actually grow up. (Indeed one does better than merely grow up. Most European and east Asian high school students significantly out-perform American kids on all key educational indices.)

About those current American trends, though, and the question whether they will hold steady–if anything, Americans will likely proliferate newer, nuttier beliefs than the ones we have now. New avatars of what Kurt Andersen calls America’s “fantasy-industrial complex” will emerge with even more outlandish myths, conspiracies, and lies for the up-and-coming generation to believe in. Our children don’t stand a chance. Grown up, they will go sweaty and red in the face defending preposterous nonsense like the Prosperity Gospel while Koreans and Finns coolly do math and science.

How did we get here? According to Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, we have always been here. We have always had a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” as he puts it. Sure, new things like the internet happened along the way that accelerated and expanded it, but for Andersen, excitable credulity is in our DNA.

Fantasy

European settlers came to America in the 17th century for two reasons: to find gold and to establish religious utopias. Both groups, the gold seekers in Virginia and the Puritans in Massachusetts, based their ambitions on wild hopes for the future. They were gullible by definition. The Virginians were a self-selected crew of schemers “wide-eyed and desperately wishful enough” to believe the hyperbolic ad men of the Virginia Charter Company shouting in the streets of London that the New World positively gleamed with gold.

The Puritans, for their part, came to America determined to fulfill the religious revolution begun by Luther in 1517. All over western Europe, “Millions of ordinary people,” reading Gutenberg Bibles hot off the presses, “decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything.” This revolution would continue to be fought over in Europe until at least 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, but the American Puritans escaped this contest and brought their radical new faith to a place where it would suffer no friction. There was no popery or any other kind of adult supervision waiting when they landed on Plymouth Rock.

The most interesting thing about the Protestant revolution in America is how quickly it became the new establishment. Rather than having to fight back against official repression by kings and popes, it was forced to deal with unruly spinoffs of its own, led by new, more extreme rebels. So began a pattern of innovation and fracturing that continues to this day. America blooms with ever-daffier religious sects. Waco’s Branch Davidians spun off the Seventh Day Adventists, who could trace their line of religious entrepreneurship all the way back to the the founding.

Of course reality set in in colonial America and tempered our fantasies. Not all roads would lead to Waco. Reason largely held sway; science thrived, especially in cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Look only to the secular, pragmatic character of founders for evidence that America did not go all-out gonzo crazy when it had the chance. Benjamin Franklin was officially a Puritan, but you couldn’t tell it from the way he attacked Cotton Mather’s religious establishment in his newspaper columns. Ben philandered, opined freely, and did science experiments. For him, all that was left of the old Puritan ways was a keen work ethic and a desire to get ahead.

But it is not Andersen’s contention in Fantasyland that we’ve ever gone all-out crazy. Rather, he argues that a large-enough number of our fantasies have survived the winnowing process of reality to tip us toward an anything-goes epistemology that could swamp what’s left of our objectivity. The kind of society that reserves the right to believe the fabulous is fun at times but ultimately cannot serve the purposes of human dignity, which include being governable by democracy. We’re not in a good way. “The American experiment,” Andersen writes,

the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies–every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will.

For a long time, we kept our will to believe woo-woo in a kind of rolling stasis. Beliefs in snake oil, tongue-speaking, rapture, levitation, and so forth would ebb and flow (for example, though the course of three “Great Awakenings” of fundamentalist religious faith), but for the most part, sober-minded adults steered and sustained the institutions that kept (many of us) tethered to reality. Then, in 2004, one of the adults, the political operative Karl Rove, announced a dramatic shift. He told a reporter that solutions to American political problems no longer “emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We create our own reality.” At that moment, Andersen thinks, we witnessed a disruption in the woo-woo/reality stasis so powerful that it should have warned us things might not go back to normal. “America,” he writes, “was the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious, some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing.” This appetite, not the judicious study of discernible reality, would define us.

By 2004 the unquestioned default setting of most Americans was a preference for the amazing over the non-amazing. As luck would have it, this was also when the necessary bits of machinery for delivering non-stop information miracles–smart phones and social media–converged, approximating Arthur C. Clarke’s definition of technology so whiz-bang it was indistinguishable from magic. This convergence put America’s time-tested, highly refined capacity for merging reality with fiction–what Andersen calls our fantasy-industrial complex–unassailably in charge of our culture, politics, and everything else that makes us who we are.

As a philosophy student, I would have appreciated a precise definition of the FIC by Andersen, but he doesn’t provide one, instead using his highly absorbing narrative of credulous America to draw out its main attributes. That’s fine, though. He’s a journalist and novelist by trade, so Fantasyland is probably a better book for following the forms he’s good at. Still, the idea of the FIC is the centerpiece of the book and deserves some precision. Basically what Andersen says is that America has an FIC, and that’s what sets us apart from everyone else.

The bedrock of the FIC is the belief that everyone can believe whatever one wants. It’s a basic right. The Puritans brought this belief in belief with them., and Thomas Jefferson was the first prominent America to analyze it. He wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that his compatriots were free to hold any zany articles of religious faith they wished (or none at all) so long as believing them didn’t “pick his pocket or break his leg.” This idea became one of the most durable of American values. In fact we have expanded on it since Jefferson, broadening it out to apply to many things outside religious faith. Today we believe that any private belief is permissible–in Wicca, chakra healing, past lives, Bulletproof Coffee, what have you–so long as it has no negative public externalities. For a short while in the mid-2000s, California’s courts even recognized people’s right not to believe in childhood vaccination safety on “personal” (not necessarily religious) grounds. That was, until kids in California started getting childhood diseases in droves that hadn’t threatened humanity in 100 years. Then the courts reversed the ruling. In a nice touch, Andersen calls the Californians’ (short-lived) opt-out the “just because” exemption. As Americans, we consider ourselves entitled to believe almost anything just because.

And we tell ourselves that this kind of cognitive promiscuity is okay, because the impersonal forces of nature will bring our beliefs in check if they go too far (as in California). Maybe. You can indeed find people voicing this kind of attitude, but much more prevalent is America’s broad embrace of ever-weirder magical thinking, which reinforces and multiplies our set of just-because beliefs. From the Salemites’ belief they were being bewitched at every turn to the New Ager’s nostrum that you can make anything happen by believing it, to Dr, Oz’s belief in homeopathy, we are addicted to the idea that we can will unreality into reality.

Magical beliefs that seem whispy are abetted in America by real, concrete actions taken to turn fiction into fact. We lead the world in the production of fictional breasts and artificially young faces. Only a few decades ago most women over 50 had gray hair; today, virtually none do, thanks to the ubiquity of hair dye. It’s a harmless vanity, of course. In a much more bizarre vein, though, a portion of the ever-growing community of cosplay gamers in America strive for a transformative level of immersion in their fictions. They call it “bleed” when they inhabit their fantasy worlds to such an extent that they experience real, comprehensive emotional lives whose referents exist only in the game.

The threshold to magical thinking has been lowered in great part, according to Andersen, by the compromise of America’s intellectual gatekeepers. Back in the day, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine all said sure, go ahead and believe what you want, but they said it in full confidence that if you let wacky truth claims “be submitted to a candid world,” the sober facts would win out. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. Well, it was a long, strange trip, but by the 1960s our intellectual gatekeepers were saying there was no such thing as facts (of the kind Jefferson & Co. had in mind), and furthermore the proper judges of what was “true” and “false” were not  a “candid world” of clear-eyed observers but a wised-up clan of social theorists who squinted at “reality” and saw that it was a figment of our collective imagination. This was the upshot of several widely influential books by highly respected scholars in the 1960s, including The Structure of Scientific Revolution, published by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 and  The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman  in 1966.

(One of the more adventurous books I’ve ever read from this genre is Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend. All I really knew about Feyerabend before I read Fantasyland was that he was a philosopher of science at Berkeley, and you could tell. Against Method is basically Feyerabend saying that scientists, rather than being paragons of objectivity, play professional games with the truth all the time based in fudging data and outright lying and even bullying. I will be forever grateful to Andersen for revealing just how weird a dude Feyerabend was. I had no idea. He grew up in Austria in the 1930s, and when the Nazis annexed his country, he saw the occupation and war as an “inconvenience, not a moral problem.” He joined the Wehrmacht and commanded troops in combat. After emigrating to the US after the war and landing a job in Berkeley as a philosophy professor, he had what Andersen calls a “full 1960s conversion.” Feyerabend had always been “excited by the world falling apart around him,” according to Andersen, and this side of him came out big time at Berkeley, even though he played things pretty straight early on, giving dull lectures about the scientific pursuit of truth. “It dawned on me,’ Feyerabend wrote in a memoir he called Farewell to Reason, “that the intricate arguments and wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeeded in enslaving everyone else with their ideas.” Reason was no steady, reliably guide to the truth. It was the man keeping everyone down, man. Feyerabend was trying to pull down the pillars of the temple of science and reason, and, as Andersen writes, he was celebrating the very chaos he was trying to sow.)

Once the weirdness lid came off mainstream academia, it was off to the races for less noted but still notable scholars. Take C. Peter Wagner, a prominent Christian theologian and one-time professor at the (relatively) staid Fuller Seminary. Until he died in 2016, Wagner led a movement of pastors who preach the “dominion” gospel to millions–the idea that Christians should dominate American society and seize control of the government. (Basically the dominionists want to be the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale, but in real life.) In a 2011 NPR interview Wagner went on the record to claim with a straight face that Japan was suffering from demon possession because its emperor had arranged to have sex with the sun goddess. (I  normally don’t take a position on this kind of thing, but I say if you can figure out the logistics of the deal, by all means have sex with the sun goddess, because–sun goddess!) Millions of Americans thought of Wagner as a normal, sane adult, and, judging from the strength of the dominionist movement he left behind, millions still do. If this does not have your cognitive disaster light blinking red, you should probably get it checked.

In 19th century you had to be a nobody and a self-conscious fraud to sell snake oil. But the erosion of gatekeeper standards means that today, you can come out of the closet and stay out, cultivating enough credibility to both be a real, celebrated expert in something and also propagate childish nonsense. Deepak Chopra, for example, trained as an endocrinologist in the 1970s and then taught medicine at Tufts and Harvard while rising to become chief of staff at a large Boston hospital. Today, though, he believes that all ill-health is an illusion, which people can disabuse themselves of if they tune into their bodies’ “quantum mechanical” energy fields. He writes books about this which are bought by millions of Americans, and he has been heavily promoted by Oprah. It is safe to say that tens of millions of Americans believe the loony things Chopra says. And, in a new, very American twist, he may just believe what he says too. This is a new place for us. Back in the snake oil days, the impresario knew he had to hotfoot it out of town after making his sales, but today he sticks around and builds an empire of outlandish credulity which he cohabits with his dupes. But since we create our own realities now, it’s all good, right? Also see Doctor Oz.

Another outstanding feature of Andersen’s fantasy-industrial complex is the outsized role the 1960s played in our cognitive decline. While the eggheads at elite universities were busy bashing truth, science and objectivity, other groups were working away at eroding other conventions and cultural power structures across all of society. Andersen argues that the burgeoning use of marijuana was a good proxy measure for just how much the times they were a-changin’. “In 1965,” he writes, “fewer than a million Americans had smoked pot; in 1972 the number was 24 million. In 1967 only 5 percent of American college students had smoked; four years later it was a majority, and a third were getting high every day.” The use of psychedelics increased too. Woodstock happened, plus Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles turned on, and they also wanted to turn you on. No wonder so many young Americans suddenly found it so natural and appealing to commune with one another. The “Gestalt Prayer”–written in 1969 at Esalen, a fake, and highly successful, psychological research “institution” in California–is a wonderful distillation of the times, with its standing invitation to what Andersen calls a “concoct-your-own-truth” society:

I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.

(Here is an excellent profile of Esalen from the August 19, 2019 New Yorker. Yes, Esalen still around, as strong as ever. Many of the tech gurus who bend our attention wherever they wish go there to learn wisdom.)

Surprisingly, increased grooviness was not the only outcome of the 1960s. A vastly underappreciated side of the onslaught against the establishment was how it boomeranged back around to aid and abet precisely those Americans who were rooting for the establishment all along. The buzzcuts over in DoD started doing data-heavy “systems analysis” showing that nukes were a force for good and we were actually winning the Vietnam war. Even hard data could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Somehow, the hippies and Berkeley professors missed the fact that anything-goes relativism was a game that anyone could play. The establishment never went away, of course, but it sure did learn a thing or two from the left-leaning cultural revolution of the 1960s, as Andersen observes:

In fact, what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flipsides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more. Anything goes meant anything went.

The conquest of talk radio by conservative voices in the 1980s and 90s was just one consequence of this shift. There was never a need for Rush Limbaugh to slow down for fact-checking because, hey man, facts are like totally made up anyway. (He might not have believed this “argument,” but all of his audience had recourse to it, and likely used it liberally.) Today a popular conservative broadcaster closes his news cast with the line, “Even when I’m wrong I’m right.” Whether he knows it or not, the 1960s helped gift him this bounty of fantasy.

Anything-goes relativism also did heroic work for Biblical literalism, which had been receding steadily for the decades between the Scopes trial, in 1925, and the 1960s. Genesis Flood, a 1961 book laying out the literalist “theory” that the earth is only 6000 years old, “almost single-handedly retrieved creationism from the dustbin of Christian intellectual history–just as the academic mainstream was starting to say that science couldn’t necessarily be trusted as the arbiter of truth.” Today, 76 percent of Americans believe god created humans; half of these believe creation happened literally (clay, Adam’s rib and all that) as described in GenesisAnother poll indicates 40 percent of Americans believe the young earth theory espoused in Genesis Flood. Virtually no one else in the Global North believes these things.

The Intelligent Design movement has its own body of “science,” some of which is impressively complex. This is the point. It is written to inspire the faithful, cajole the skeptical, bamboozle everyone. Intelligent Design “science” is emblematic of a broader characteristic of American fantasyland, according to Andersen–its hybridity. Fact and fiction are made to incorporate one another in an endless feedback loop reminiscent of The Matrix, so that no one can tell what’s real and what’s not. This was perhaps inevitable for a country that literally wrote such fictions as human rights into existence. Human rights were made real by real people’s collective recognition of them, and a damn good thing, too. They are great. I’m all for this kind of boundary-crossing creativity if you have the wisdom of Aristotle or at least the realism of Thomas Hobbes, but we are not Aristotle, or even Hobbes. We are us, so we also pour great, slopping buckets of error, cant, bigotry, schlock, and malice into our hybrid inventions. We created reality TV. “Professional” wrestling. And a reality TV-pro wrestling president, which should not surprise us. We created Disneyland and then suburbs made to look like Disneyland. Or was it the other way around? Who knows.

Open admission: I pretty much hate the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, mostly because he wrote a ridiculous book claiming that a biggish war I happen to have fought in, the Persian Gulf War, did not actually take place. He says it was all done with mirrors and CNN. Whatever. If you dial Baudrillard back from a 14 to an 11, though, here’s one thing he most certainly got right (and which Andersen draws out): America’s mind-bending capacity to create fantasies and blend them with real life has reached disorienting proportions. Beaudrillard calls it hyperreality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines hyperreality as a world

in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, virtual reality games, social networking sites, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior.

Well, ain’t that America?–except I would definitely add megachurches to the list of Disneyficators that dominate our landscape. I usually don’t like avant garde intellectual terms, but I think hyperreality is a good one. If it strikes you as a joke or an exaggeration, consider this: Baudrillard coined it two decades before the tech wonks decided to call the real-time blending of maps (or images) with textual information (and who knows what else) augmented reality.

But prominent Americans have been augmenting reality for a long time now. In a world where you can uncritically combine fact with fiction, message is all that matters, especially if you communicate for a living. It doesn’t matter whether your claims are true or false, or even where your terms come from. Do you know that famous speech by Ronald Reagan where he called the Soviet Union the evil empire? Reagan didn’t just cherry-pick one made-up term from Star Wars for that speech. It was a cornucopia of fantasies wrapped in a smorgasbord of fakery. Andersen recalls it:

Reagan delivered his “evil empire” speech in Orlando to the National Association of Evangelicals, an hour after he had been at Disney World. “I just watched a program–I don’t know just what to call it–a show, a pageant, . . . at one point in the movie Mark Twain, speaking of America, says, ‘We soared into the twentieth century on the wings of inventions and the winds of change.'” He’d seen Disney’s The American Adventure, featuring an animatronic Mark Twain saying things Mark Twain never said.

Americans loved that speech.

The fact that the USSR really was an empire and it really was evil kind of deflates any quibbles about truth and historicity in this case, right? I mean, Reagan was right in every way that counted. Maybe message really is all that matters.

But America’s hybridization of fact and fiction is not all about political speeches. Some of it matters. In the 1960s the LAPD created the country’s first SWAT team. They trained at a Universal studios lot. After the TV show S.W.A.T. came out in the 1970s, police departments started copying what they saw on the show according to investigative reporting by the New York Times. This hybridization led to the proliferation of SWAT units across the country and eventually to America having the most militarized police force on earth. It also connects to other hybridizations that led to real-life increases in life’s nastiness and brutishness here in America. Fictional apocalypses and sadistic crime dramas helped lead to real prepper movements and advocates of “guns everywhere” laws. Rather than having to stop playing army as kids, hundreds of thousands of adults now play it much better, with entirely-realistic-looking Airsoft paintball guns, and loads of cool military accessories. The Second Amendment language about “well-regulated militia[s]” was reinterpreted to mean that U.S. citizens have the right to formed armed bands to fight back against their own constitutional government, which the NRA described in 1995 as “jackbooted thugs.”

With their faith in exciting TV fabrications, deep government conspiracy theories, and nostalgic Daniel-Boone individualism, these movements evince another key feature of our fantasy-industrial complex as Andersen interprets it–the open borders of fantasyland. Belief in weird theory X is often linked to belief in weirder theory Y. If you believe, say, that you actually sup each week on the blood and body of a Bronze Age mystery cult god who is also your lord and savior, equally preposterous fictions will come easier too–maybe Q-anon or power-line epidemiology. Indeed the polls indicate this kind of overlap, and they have for a long time. In a survey of people who listened to Orson Well’s prankish broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, a clear majority of those who freaked out were also devout religious believers.

In a way, this is good news. Our cognitive bottom-feeders will tend to sort themselves and thus the nonsense they believe into one place–the bottom. It’s possible but pretty unlikely that your cardiologist will also be a Reiki master healer or that a federal judge will spend her nights feverishly connecting the dots of the next Pizza Gate conspiracy. This is not rocket science. Even in fantasy-besotted America, plain old education helps keep crazy down. The same Pew poll that showed 40 percent of Americans believe Jesus will come blazing down from the sky during their lifetimes indicated that people with no college were three times more likely to believe this than than college grads.

The bad news is: that murky place where lunkheads, troglodytes and enthusiasts get together to cross-fertilize outrageously stupid ideas?–It is HUGE. It contains multitudes. Our basement may only make up the bottom quarter of our house, but it remains a very big house. We clearly lead the world in producing and propagating mad fantasies and then connecting the dots that link them together into stupendously false worldviews. Think Alex Jones here. It’s embarrassing.

Obviously, I like Andersen’s book. I think, in the tradition of Orwell, he faces up to a lot of unpleasant facts. But I think Andersen misses one key feature of America’s obsession with exciting, irrefutable beliefs in fiction. That is, these kinds of beliefs are massively empowering to the individuals who hold them. Do you know those memes of Sam Elliot where he’s looking at you with that wonderful, omniscient gaze and telling you you’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to believe in immigration statistics, or climate change science, or some other dogma that the elite establishment wants to force on you? Thanks to a convergence of technology and a widespread corruption of intellectual leadership in America, that attitude is now available to everyone. Each American can now be and feel smarter than anyone who dares to tell him the facts just aren’t on his side.

Why have I written a 5,000-word review of Andersen on this gloomy topic? Is it because I think real, concrete harm is being done by Americans’ obsession with connecting random dots into self-flattering fabricated pictures of a non-world? Sure. You can count up a certain number of innocent parties who will suffer or die because of our willful stupidity. That’s bad, of course, but I doubt the danger of our faith in nonsense is all that worrisome compared to real problems that we’re actually tackling in intellectually honest ways (for example, the link between prisons for profit and skyrocketing incarceration rates).

Ultimately, fantasyland is repulsive because it is harmful to human dignity. It perverts the one thing that sets us off from other big mammals, our ability to mentally represent complex things happening outside our heads–the real world. Our intoxicating ability to add our own thoughts to the ones impinging form the outside world is, I believe, turning toxic. And, worse, the toxin is a cheap one. It openly advertises its fraudulent character. But nonetheless, we prefer the delusion to honesty. Andersen quotes the alternative-history fantasy writer Philip K. Dick at length on this dreary condition, the outcome of our peculiar addiction to the habitual blending of fact and fiction:

The problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups–and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener . . . .

I consider that the matter of defining what is real . . . is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans–as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. . . . Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. . . . It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

This, I think is the real horror of our passionate faith in nonsense. It’s nothing that picks my pocket or breaks my leg. Our belief in life-coaching, end-times, young earth, the prosperity gospel, speaking in tongues, commodity bubbles, crop circles, reptilian overlords, porn fantasy and so on probably doesn’t draw a lot of blood. But it is all so degrading–a  pathological attempt to dodge our adult responsibilities. The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as intellectual emancipation, the conscious recognition that we have no thought supervisors, supernatural or otherwise. Kant thought it was a great and beautiful moment for mankind and that enlightenment would help us stand up straight to face the world anew. Our insistence instead on slouching toward a hell of fantasy and delusion is repugnant to this tradition. It is a willful return to what Kant called our “self-caused immaturity.” It is inhuman and inhumane.