“The American experiment, 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. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”
~ Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
It’s hard to have public debate in the United States for a number of reasons. The most basic reason is that Americans are severely uninformed and disinformed. We also tend to lack a larger context for knowledge. Historical amnesia is rampant and scientific literacy is limited, exacerbated by centuries old strains of anti-intellectualism and dogmatic idealism, hyper-individualism and sectarian groupthink, public distrust and authoritarian demagoguery.
This doesn’t seem as common in countries elsewhere. Part of this is that Americans are less aware and informed about other countries than the citizens of other countries are of the United States. Living anywhere else in the world, it is near impossible to not know in great detail about the United States and other Western powers as the entire world cannot escape these influences that cast a long shadow of colonial imperialism, neoliberal globalization, transnational corporations, mass media, monocultural dominance, soft power, international propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, military interventionism, etc. The rest of the world can’t afford the luxury of ignorance that Americans enjoy.
Earlier last century when the United States was a rising global superpower competing against other rising global superpowers, the US was known for having one of the better education systems in the world. International competition motivated us in investing in education. Now we are famous for how pathetic recent generations of students compare to many other developed countries. But even the brief moment of seeming American greatness following World War II might have had more to do with the wide scale decimation of Europe, a temporary lowering of other developed countries rather than a vast improvement in the United States.
There has also been a failure of big biz mass media to inform the public and the continuing oligopolistic consolidation of corporate media into a few hands has not allowed for a competitive free market to force corporations to offer something better. On top of that, Americans are one of the most propagandized and indoctrinated populations on the planet, with only a few comparable countries such as China and Russia exceeding us in this area.
See how the near unanimity of the American mass media was able, by way of beating the war drum, to change majority public opinion from being against the Iraq War to being in support of it. It just so happens that the parent companies of most of the corporate media, with ties to the main political parties and the military-industrial complex, profits immensely from the endless wars of the war state.
Corporate media is in the business of making money which means selling a product. In late stage capitalism, all of media is entertainment and news media is infotainment. Even the viewers are sold as a product to advertisers. There is no profit in offering a public service to inform the citizenry and create the conditions for informed public debate. As part of consumerist society, we consume as we are consumed by endless fantasies, just-so stories, comforting lies, simplistic narratives, and political spectacle.
This is a dark truth that should concern and scare Americans. But that would require them to be informed first. There is the rub.
Every public debate in the United States begins with mainstream framing. It requires hours of interacting with a typical American even to maybe get them to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, assuming they have the intellectual humility that makes that likely. Americans are so uninformed and misinformed that they don’t realize they are ignorant, so indoctrinated that they don’t realize how much their minds are manipulated and saturated in bullshit (I speak from the expertise of being an American who has been woefully ignorant for most of my life). To simply get to the level of knowledge where debate is even within the realm of possibility is itself almost an impossible task. To say it is frustrating is an extreme understatement.
Consider how most Americans know that tough-on-crime laws, stop-and-frisk, broken window policies, heavy policing, and mass incarceration were the cause of decreased crime. How do they know? Because decades of political rhetoric and media narratives have told them so. Just as various authority figures in government and media told them or implied or remained silent while others pushed the lies that the 9/11 terrorist attack was somehow connected to Iraq which supposedly had weapons of mass destruction, despite that the US intelligence agencies and foreign governments at the time knew these were lies.
Sure, you can look to alternative media for regularly reporting of different info that undermines and disproves these beliefs. But few Americans get much if any of their news from alternative media. There have been at least hundreds of high quality scientific studies, careful analyses, and scholarly books that have come out since the violent crime decline began. This information, however, is almost entirely unknown to the average American citizen and one suspects largely unknown to the average American mainstream news reporter, media personality, talking head, pundit, think tank hack, and politician.
That isn’t to say there isn’t ignorance found in other populations as well. Having been in the online world since the early naughts, I’ve met and talked with many people from other countries and admittedly some of them are less than perfectly informed. Still, the level of ignorance in the United States is unique, at least in the Western world.
That much can’t be doubted. Other serious thinkers might have differing explanations for why the US has diverged so greatly from much of the rest of the world, from its level of education to its rate of violence. But one way or another, it needs to be explained in the hope of finding a remedy. Sadly, even if we could agree on a solution, those in power benefit too greatly from the ongoing state of an easily manipulated citizenry that lacks knowledge and critical thinking skills.
This isn’t merely an attack on low-information voters and right-wing nut jobs. Even in dealing with highly educated Americans among the liberal class, I rarely come across someone who is deeply and widely informed across various major topics of public concern.
American society is highly insular. We Americans are not only disconnected from the rest of the world but disconnected from each other. And so we have little sense of what is going on outside of the narrow constraints of our neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, social networks, and echo chambers. The United States is psychologically and geographically segregated into separate reality tunnel enclaves defined by region and residency, education and class, race and religion, politics and media.
It’s because we so rarely step outside of our respective worlds that we so rarely realize how little we know and how much of what we think we know is not true. Most of us live in neighborhoods, go to churches and stores, attend or send our kids to schools, work and socialize with people who are exactly like ourselves. They share our beliefs and values, our talking points and political persuasion, our biases and prejudices, our social and class position. We are hermetically sealed within our safe walled-in social identities. Nothing can reach us, threaten us, or change us.
That is until something happens like Donald Trump being elected. Then there is a panic about what has become of America in this post-fact age. The sad reality, however, is America has always been this way. It’s just finally getting to a point where it’s harder to ignore and that potential for public awakening offers some hope.
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by Kurt Anderson
Why are we like this?
. . . The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.
A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience. Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that , then certainly we can believe this.
Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland. . . .
When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule.
This is not unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds. Sure, the physician whose fraudulent research launched the antivaccine movement was a Brit, and young Japanese otaku invented cosplay, dressing up as fantasy characters. And while there are believers in flamboyant supernaturalism and prophecy and religious pseudoscience in other developed countries, nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.
This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for developed country . But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.
People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history—and really, from its prehistory. . . .
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
I hope we’re only on a long temporary detour, that we’ll manage somehow to get back on track. If we’re on a bender, suffering the effects of guzzling too much fantasy cocktail for too long, if that’s why we’re stumbling, manic and hysterical, mightn’t we somehow sober up and recover? You would think. But first you need to understand how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.
Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. For Andersen, these are not momentary perversions but habits baked into our DNA, the ultimate expressions of attitudes “that have made America exceptional for its entire history.” The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality. So your right to believe in angels and your neighbor’s right to believe in U.F.O.s and Rachel Dolezal’s right to believe she is black lead naturally to our president’s right to insist that his crowds were bigger.
Andersen’s history begins at the beginning, with the first comforting lie we tell ourselves. Each year we teach our children about Pilgrims, those gentle robed creatures who landed at Plymouth Rock. But our real progenitors were the Puritans, who passed the weeks on the trans-Atlantic voyage preaching about the end times and who, when they arrived, vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores. They were zealots and also well-educated British gentlemen, which set the tone for what Andersen identifies as a distinctly American endeavor: propping up magical thinking with elaborate scientific proof.
While Newton and Locke were ushering in an Age of Reason in Europe, over in America unreason was taking new seductive forms. A series of mystic visionaries were planting the seeds of extreme entitlement, teaching Americans that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true. In Andersen’s telling, you can easily trace the line from the self-appointed 17th-century prophet Anne Hutchinson to Kanye West: She was, he writes, uniquely American “because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” a total stranger to self-doubt.
What happens next in American history, according to Andersen, happens without malevolence, or even intention. Our national character gels into one that’s distinctly comfortable fogging up the boundary between fantasy and reality in nearly every realm. As soon as George Washington dies fake news is born — the story about the cherry tree, or his kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Enterprising businessmen quickly figure out ways to make money off the Americans who gleefully embrace untruths.