Saturday, September 16, 2017

Kurt Andersen

It’s not that I don’t think Trump should be impeached. It’s that the calls for his impeachment make me nervous. I’m concerned that people are missing the woods for the trees. Focusing on the wrong aspect of the problem. The main problem is not the loss of American dignity or even the carelessness shown by the American electorate which paved the way for this clown to claim the White House, although these are certainly serious problems. When it comes down to what put America at serious risk as a nation and as a democracy, it's the American habit of thinking belief is equal to knowledge that made the current disaster possible.

Novelist and host of the radio program Studio 360 Kurt Andersen has a book coming out shortly titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – a 500-Year History. And you don’t need to wait for it to get the jist of his arguments. He’s got an article titled “How America Lost Its Mind” in  the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which sums them up. Andersen has hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. Two things led to the current dumbing down, he says: a history of credulity that runs from Cotton Mather to Kellyanne Conway, and the internet, which has made it possible for any idiot with a half-baked theory who knows how to type to find a critical mass of others who buy into the same hogwash, and then shut down the gates to other sources of knowledge and live tribally on an island of smug self-assurance.

Andersen is a lot more generous toward religion than I am. He sees religion as an enabler of idiocy, rather than a cause. I’m more inclined to think it’s the prime mover, since once you establish that your belief system, i.e., your particular set of alternate “facts” is as valid as any other, you’re already over the line into gullibility. It’s just a question of time before the next snake-oil salesman comes down the road with his “Have I got an idea for you!”

In an hour-long Aspen Institute interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Andersen tells how the idea for the book came from his marveling at America’s gullibility and his desire to know more about it. He is fond of quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s now much cited: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And, despite his own clearly liberal bent, he has a very high opinion of American historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who wrote as early as 1961 “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Thinking at first that this fantasyland was born in the 60s, Andersen eventually concluded that it goes all the way back to the colonial period, that people self-selected as outliers who needed space to create their own (chiefly religious) truths and their own “American Zion.” It's the other side of the coin from the positive spin on the line we teach our kids in school - that people came here seeking the right to worship God in their own way.

Examples of this widespread and “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” are everywhere. A third of Americans believe the creation myth in Genesis to be historical literal truth. Two thirds believe there are angels and demons actively involved in making good and bad things happen. A third deny global warming, a third (not necessarily the same third) believe our earliest ancestors (Adam and Eve?) looked just like us. A third (again, not necessarily the same third as in the other cases) believe the government is in cahoots with aliens – or pharmaceutical companies – to hide the cure for cancer or the presence of extraterrestrials. 15% firmly believe the government sends signals through television to control the minds of citizens, and another 15% believe it’s possible. A quarter of Americans still believe in witches – and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Another reason I’m not as keen on impeaching Trump as some of my friends are is that it would leave us with President Mike Pence, perhaps the greatest homophobe in Congress (and that’s no mean claim to fame). Once again, religion. Not the “love your neighbor” kind of religion, but the kind known for giving particularly virulent instructions about demonizing one's neighbor's sexual behavior, particularly if he or she is homosexual, rather than, say, expressing compassion or avoiding violence or deceit. The special wacko Christian cults grown on American soil like Pentecostalism whose people babble in the belief God has a “spirit language” alongside natural language. Or Mormonism, which traces its origin to a nut job who translated a supplement to the Bible written in “Ancient Egyptian” by sticking his nose into a hat. Without bothering to ask why God couldn’t communicate directly. To say nothing of what the hell “Ancient Egyptian” might be. Coptic?  I’m not keen on letting these wolves loose upon the land. They've done enough harm already.

Not everyone who feels weighted down by what we call the Trump phenomenon wants to spend a lot of time tracing the history of the mindset of America’s deplorably silly people. Some just want this nightmare to be over.

In the Jeff Goldberg interview, Goldberg cut to the chase. What can we do about this American malady, this propensity to believe expertise is just another word for elitism and universities are places for generating commies and socialists, he asks (my words, not his). Andersen’s answer is that we need to be prepared for a long haul. You don’t chase stupid out of town overnight. You scrub it out gently. Don’t shout and scream. Just sit next to your jingoist brother-in-law and let him talk. Then ask him to explain himself until he takes note of the fact he’s in a boat out to sea with no anchor.

And don’t get tired.


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