After my last letter (which took a deep dive into my friends’ research on the “power of doubt”) and with Donald Trump here in Europe for meetings with NATO, the Queen of England and Vladimir Putin all in the same week, now felt like the ideal moment to read and reflect on Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, by Kurt Anderson.
When it comes to the state of the world nowadays, it seems we can’t say anything without the aid of one or more phrases that, until recently, we’d never used before: Fake News. Post-Truth. Alternative Facts. Check Google Trends for yourself: these terms barely existed in our lexicon prior to Oct/Nov 2016. The newness of these patterns of speech enhances the impression that something very new (and, depending on your politics, very disturbing) is happening to our political discourse.
But Kurt’s research (which he began back in 2013, long before the political earthquakes of 2016) argues that the present-day collapse of objective truth isn’t new at all. In hindsight, we’ve been eroding its foundations for 500 years.
By “we,” Kurt means Americans, but I think the U.S. case offers a cautionary tale to every democracy that traces its roots back to the Enlightenment.
It certainly got me thinking.
A Recipe For The American Dream
To summarize crudely: European settlers to the New World brought with them two sets of beliefs that, when mixed together, produced the early American outlook on life: Enlightenment beliefs about the world, and Puritan beliefs about the self.
These settlers had been born into a Europe that was rapidly breaking free from its medieval mindset. In spectacular fashion, the voyages of Columbus, the mathematics of Copernicus and the astronomy of Galileo had all proved that neither the Bible nor the ancient Greeks had a monopoly on truths about the world. Present-day reason and observation could add to—even overturn—the oldest facts about the world.
They had also been born into a Europe that was violently tearing itself into Catholic and Protestant halves. Martin Luther, who began his career as a devout monk, ultimately denounced his Catholic Church for standing in the way between God and Christians. The Catholic Church’s arrogance was to believe that each tier in its hierarchy stood one level closer to God. Ordinary Christians, if they ever hoped to reach God, needed that hierarchy to give them a boost.
Said Luther: Bullshit (or words to that effect). Every baptized Christian had a direct and personal relationship with God, and everything they needed to do to grow that relationship, they could read for themselves in the Bible. Salvation lay not in the grace granted by a priest, but in their own diligent, upright behavior.
Question: What do you get when you combine Enlightenment beliefs about the world (“Facts are findable”) with Puritan beliefs about the self (“I am whatever I work hard to become”)?
Answer: The American Dream (“I can change my reality.”)
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Taken in moderation, Kurt argues, America’s two settler philosophies powerfully reinforce each other. The free-thinker, who believes that the truth is out there just waiting to be discovered, gives the self-made Puritan something tangible to strive toward: Better knowledge. Deeper understanding. A practical pathway toward that utopian “shining city on a hill.”
Of course, Americans rarely do anything in moderation.
Some 2,400 years ago, Aristotle observed that every virtue is a balancing act. Courage is a virtue. But too much courage becomes a vice, recklessness. Confidence is a virtue. Too much confidence, and we begin to suffer from hubris (a recurring theme in my recent letters, here and here). Honor can slip into the zone of pride and vanity. Generosity can slip into wastefulness.
It’s one of the big, recurring themes in human myth and morality. Daedalus warned his son Icarus to fly the middle course, between the sea’s spray and the sun’s heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings. (He fell into the sea and drowned.) The Buddha taught people to walk the Middle Way—the path between the extremes of religious withdrawal and worldly self-indulgence. And so on.
What would happen if America’s founding philosophies were pushed to their extremes, with no regard for the balance between virtue and vice? To summarize Kurt’s thinking, in my own words:
The same outlook on the external world that entitles us to think for ourselves can lead us to a place of smug ignorance. How far a journey is it from the belief that facts can be found to the belief that facts are relative? (I found my facts; you are free to find yours.) How far a journey is it from the healthy skeptic who searches for the truth “out there,” to the suspicious conspiracy theorist who maintains that the truth is still out there? (i.e., Everything we’ve been told up until now is a cover-up, and no amount of evidence is going to shake my suspicion that the real truth is being hidden from us.)
Likewise, the inward-looking conviction that we are self-made can, if pushed to extremes, leave us self-deluded. If we follow our belief that “I am whatever I work hard to become” far enough, might we arrive at the conviction that “I am whatever I believe I am”? Might we arrive at the conviction that self-belief is stronger than self-truth?
Unbalanced and unrestrained, the same two philosophies that produced self-made free-thinkers in pursuit of the American Dream (“I can change my reality”) can also spawn a Fantasyland of self-deluded ignoramuses, for whom reality is whatever they believe hard enough.
Keeping It Real
That destination isn’t inevitable. Icarus didn’t have to fly so close to the sun. Enlightenment and Puritan traditions both contained wisdom meant to temper the power of the individual to change things with the ‘serenity’ to accept what he/she could not change. (Most of us have heard the Serenity Prayer, written by the American evangelical, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), during the Great Depression.)
What separates freedom of thought from smug ignorance? The answer, for Enlightenment thinkers, were the virtues of humility, self-doubt and reasonableness. (If the privileged Truths of the past—a flat Earth, a Flood, a cosmos with humanity at the center—had to accept demotion in the face of new ideas and fresh evidence, what right did any of us have to insulate our own favorite Truths from the same tests?)
And what separates the self-made from the self-deluded? The answer, for early Puritans, were the virtues of hard work, discipline and literacy. (Martin Luther told Christians that they could have a personal relationship with God—‘DIY Christianity’, as Kurt calls it. But they still had to get their hands on a Bible, learn to read it, struggle to decipher it and strive to live by it. His was a harder, more demanding path than the Catholic way of collecting communion and giving to charity once every seven days.)
Unchecked By Reality
These are precisely the virtues that are being eroded in U.S. society, Kurt thinks. And not by the recent emergence of social media, or of cable news, or of unlimited corporate cash in politics. It’s been happening for 500 years.
I’m a poor student of American history. I wouldn’t know how to critique Kurt’s take on it. But he does weave a compelling tale of how, over the centuries, repeated doses of epic individualism and religious fervor have built up the population’s immunity to reality checks. The get-rich-quick gold rushes in Virginia and California. The Salem witch trials. The spectacle (speaking in tongues, channeling the Holy Spirit, seizures and shouting) of America’s early evangelical churches. The wholesale fabrication of new religions, from the Book of Mormon to the Church of Christ, Scientist. Pseudoscientific medical fads, from magnetic healing to alchemy to electric shock therapy to Indian Cough Cure. The Freemason conspiracy behind the American Civil War. P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill, Harry Houdini. By the year 1900, reality’s power to impose itself upon the American self or world had been significantly eroded. Or, as Kurt put it:
If some imaginary proposition is exciting, and nobody can prove it’s untrue, then it’s my right as an American to believe it’s true. (p.107)
America’s 20th century was a story of military, economic, social and scientific achievement, but it also saw the discovery of new solvents to dissolve the boundary between reality and fantasy more and more. Orson Welles’s science-fiction radio broadcast, War of the Worlds, caused a real-life panic in New York City. Modern advertising was born, to invent new desires and ways to satisfy them. Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich. In the 1950s, Disneyland opened its doors (so that adults could relive their childhood) and modern Las Vegas was born (so that adults could escape the responsibilities they had accumulated). In the same year, the first James Bond novel and the first Playboy magazine were published. The L.A. science fiction author, L. Ron Hubbard, started up the Church of Scientology. McCarthyism, which accused everyone from leftist filmmakers to President Harry Truman of conspiring with Moscow. The Kennedy assassination, the truth of which is still out there!
Humility and reasonableness; discipline and hard work. These virtues continued to take a beating. In the 1950s, Reverend Norman Vincent Peale (who mentored, among others, Donald Trump) published The Power of Positive Thinking, which Kurt describes as “breezy self-help motivational cheerleading mixed with supernatural encouragement.” It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 150 weeks.
Woodstock. Hippies. Beatniks. The New Age thinking of the 1970s: ‘What we see in our lives is the physical picture of what we have been thinking, feeling and believing.’ In other words, we create our own reality.
‘You are you, and I am I. If by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.’ (Fritz Perls, founder of the Esalon Institute)
ESP. Parapsychology. Science fiction fan conventions and Burning Man festivals. Pro wrestling. Reality television.
The point is this: Yes, new technologies—the internet, mobile, social media—have eliminated the gate-keepers who used to limit the privilege to speak publicly. But how eagerly people listen, and whether people believe what they hear, is a function of audience culture.
Reality Will Triumph In The End…Won’t It?
What stands between belief in the American Dream and belief in a Fantasyland—once the virtues that acted as a barrier between the two have been dissolved?
One answer, of course, is reality. In Age of Discovery, I (rather airily) advised:
‘We are all going to ignore many truths in our lifetime. Try not to. Ultimately, reality is hard to reject. Healthy, successful people—and societies—are those that build upon it.’
Now that I re-think about it, that argument is too simplistic. Much of human civilization up to now has passed in self-deluded ignorance. Our cave-dwelling ancestors believed that by drawing a picture of their buffalo hunt, they caused the kill to happen. By the standards of modern science, that’s ridiculous. But it worked well enough (perhaps as a motivational tool?) to get our species to the here and now. History shows that humanity can be irrational, can be unreasonable, can be deluded into magical thinking, and still survive. Even thrive.
Reality doesn’t always assert itself in human timescales. We can ignore reality, and get away with it. For a long, long time.
Given the sheer scale of humanity today, we’ve now reached that reckoning point. Mass delusion is a luxury we can no longer afford. Unfortunately, it’s also a hard habit for us to break.
No Easy Answers. But Clear Questions
Post-truth. Alternative facts. We’ve introduced these new phrases into our language to talk about our suddenly new condition. Only it’s not suddenly new. It’s just suddenly obvious.
How do we navigate society out of this fantasyland and back to a shared reality? The answer is not simply “social media regulation” or “more technology.” These knee-jerk prescriptions might play a part, but they lack the leverage to stop 500 years of momentum in the other direction.
The answer is not simply to “get involved in politics,” either. Politics is a game of public speech that we play within an audience culture. Victory, as we’ve seen, often goes to those who understand what their audience likes to hear, not to those who ask their audience to hear differently.
Nor is the answer to teach our children critical thinking skills in school (although, again, that might play a part). Lies dressed up as facts in the media is just one symptom, one corner, of the wider culture they’re growing up in—a culture in which Kylie Jenner (of the Kardashian clan) is the world’s youngest-ever billionaire and Fifty Shades of Grey is the most-read novel in America.
Kurt, to his credit, offers no easy solutions at the end of his Fantasyland:
What is to be done? I don’t have an actionable agenda. I don’t have Seven Ways Sensible People Can Save America from the Craziness.
But if his map of the territory is correct, then the only genuine answer is to shift culture. To rebuild the virtues of discipline and hard work, of humility and reasonableness, as a community-owned dam between reality and fantasy. To retreat from self-deluded ignorance back to the healthier zone of self-made free-thinkers.
That sounds nice—and kinda impossible. “Culture” is a fuzzy, emergent property of a population. It’s real, but we can’t touch it.
We can, however, see it—at least, we’re starting to. And, like every other aspect of our social reality (e.g., gender bias, media bias), the clearer we see it, the more it falls under our conscious influence. That’s how cultural revolutions—good and bad, #metoo and #fakenews—happen.
And so, even if there are no obvious exits from fantasyland, the obvious next step is to draw for ourselves clear maps of our current cultural landscape, so that we can hold them up to conscious scrutiny:
1. Who are our heros? Who are our villains? What makes them so?
2. Who are our “priests,” our “thought leaders,” our “social influencers”? What gives them their authority among us?
3. What are our myths—the shared stories that we celebrate and share to exemplify how to be and behave? What virtues do those myths inspire in us? What vices do those virtues entail, if left unchecked?
The more bravely we explore these questions, the better pathfinders we’ll be.