Monday, August 29, 2022

American History Explains Alternative Facts

 Kurt Andersen's brilliant survey of magical thinking in the American historical psyche finally explains to me the evolution of how we got to Trump, Q Anon and all of the current madness.

He explains that it starts with the Enlightenment period in Europe where individuality and intellectual freedom permitted people to believe any damn thing they wanted. They founded the Age of Reason in Europe.  That included freethinkers but it also included the tightly wrapped Puritans who settled in the northern part of what became America and fortune seeking capitalists populating the southern part. Puritans were separatists from the Anglican church, whereas the Pilgrims believed they could coexist with Anglicans and possibly reform that Church.  The latter group populated New England later than the magical thinking Puritans.

Thus, the creation of a sort of Christianity- believing colony which was to be a Utopia, also dedicated to the myth that their religion would be the eternal salvation of the "savages" who greeted them on the eastern shores. Puritans were full of zeal about the end times and certainty about their path to god.  Andersen's analysis of history cites the Puritans as the founders of the Age of Unreason and the tribe to whom we can trace our current Fantasyland segment of society.

And the settlers of Jamestown whose vision was a commercial boom town there and endless riches from  finding vast quantities of gold, neither of which worked out for them, at least, right away. Their legacy is associated with the current capitalist segment of our modern society who have their own form of magical thinking about the pursuit of riches.

Andersen traces our history's connection to the evolution of Protestantism from stiff necked communities of worshipers to charismatic preachers introducing deep emotion and passion into belief and worship with many settlers attracted to camp meetings and chaotic gatherings of believers anxious to find the secret of their salvation through praising and pleading with a deity to grant them eternal life and forgiveness. In the early American years,  snake handling and speaking in tongues came in to vogue as means of worship.

This populists approach to religion and worship led the creation of all forms of bizarre new belief systems such as Latter Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists and Evangelicals, side by side with mainstream protestant communities. 

In early colonial life great fear of so called satanic behavior enveloped communities leading to Witchcraft trials and marginalizing of women.

These aberrant communities of colonists developed side by side with groups of pragmatic realists who began the the process of founding a country based on enlightenment values of freedom, rationality, the rule of law, self governance and freedom from religion for those so inclined. The founders were representative of the reality-based segments of our culture.

From the aberrant communities and the inevitable con-artists in every society came quack medicine, side by side with science-based medicine.  Also, faith healing came into vogue, a weird confluence of religion and medicine.  During this period, as Euro-Americans pushed west, lo and behold the gold so many fantasized would enrich them was discovered and the gold rush had a pretty formidable run.

Andersen equates a prophet of the 17th century named Anne Hutchinson who asserted whatever you want to believe is true to our Kayne West.  Boundaries between fantasy and reality are fogged up, blurry. Thus the creation of myth stories such as Washington's Cherry tree and the myth stories of our early history which are mixed with historic fact teaching in our schools. And the mixing of magic and actual science with medicine and invention.  We dared to imagine that nearly everything was possible.

This mix of fantasy, entrepreneurial ambition and science led to America's industrial revolution and world envy for our innovation. Nearly anything was possible in the American Dream, including the belief that nearly anyone could become rich.

But romanticism and showmanship fueled the American imagination. The majesty of the West became and major obsession with the glories of our great outdoors featured in art and public obsession.  Thus the legends of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill and victories over the resistance of the First Americans evolved into traveling road shows and theater.  Our current gun culture is traced to that period of our history.  

The American belief that nearly anything is possible led to  P.T. Barnum and the huge popularity of traveling shows of the weird, strange and outlandish.  And through our history, belief in conspiracies and  imaginary plots conceived by evildoers and Satan worshipers were abundant. According to Andersen 200 persons were imprisoned, accused of Satanic victimization of children in the 1980's. 

Our science fiction literature and film flow from this mix of reality and fantasy. As do also our theme parks and Las Vegas, not to mention most TV, including so called reality TV which is usually far from reality.  The allure of escapism from reality surrounds American's daily.

Conspiracy beliefs are a small industry in the current day around events like JFK's assassination and 9-11.  Skepticism has resulted in accusations of fake staging of the moon landing and cover ups on alien visitations. According to Andersen, only a third of Americans understand that Co2 is a cause of our global warming crisis threatening our future. 

 Americans love their fantasy films and theme parks including those devoted to biblical stories, not to mention fantasy computer games which followed the 60's psychedelics and fantasies about the counterculture  and New Ageism. Feeling dominated reason.  Fantasy dominated reality.  UFO culture flows from that, according to Andersen, as does our addiction to youth culture and plastic surgery. We are taught to do our own thing.  Realists respond that you are entitled to your own beliefs but not your own facts.

Kurt Anderson further tells us that  today two thirds of us today believe angels and demons are active in our lives.  More than half of us, according to his research believe there is a heaven and a personal deity with human, male nature. A majority of us believe the bible stories are literal. 

Thus, a neurosurgeon can build a huge TV audience pitching unproven fake cures and remedies and a TV con man; no,  two show business con men can be elected President and many believe the most recent was the actual winner of a closely monitored and audited election. Oh, and super-realist computer genius Bill Gates funds a creationist pseudo-science according to Anderson.

So, here we are, America The Beautiful, mixing truth with fiction and reality with fantasy. This is not new.  It connects back to our origins and has a lot to do with innovation of dreamers and  American inventors and entrepreneurs.  I strongly urge you to read Fantasyland.  

Tragically, our magical thinking and fantasy is a bad mix with our politics, governance and civics. The fascism we face might not be so fanciful.