Blending reality with fantasy
In much of the human landscape, feelings trump facts
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.
—Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
The world is filled with people who live out their lives believing in things that are not real. In 2017, author Kurt Andersen wrote a bestselling novel about this phenomenon and its effects in and on the United States of America, which is where I currently live, and which had elected a severely mentally ill con man as national leader the year before.
This essay will be about human fantasies and borrow liberally from Fantasyland, which, if you have not read, I can highly recommend.
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“By my reckoning, the more or less solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions from cars and factories are the main cause of Earth’s warming. Only a third are sure the tale of creation in Genesis isn’t a literal, factual account. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” At least half are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a personal God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy. More than a third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like humans today; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of ‘natural’ cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have recently visited (or now reside on) Earth. A quarter believe vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election. A quarter believe that our previous president was (or is?) the Antichrist. A quarter believe in witches. Remarkably, no more than one in five Americans believe the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—around the same number who believe that “the media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals” and that U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.”1
It is difficult for me to believe how gullible humans are, but more is happening here. Gullibility doesn’t appear out of a vacuum. It is often taught and then sustained by the culture in which it emerges. I’ll let one of my psychology textbooks explain:
“A belief is a proposition that is regarded as true, and people of different cultures have different beliefs. Recently cultural beliefs have been studied under the concept known as social axioms (Bond et al., 2004; Leung et al., 2002). These are general beliefs and premises about oneself, the social and physical environment, and the spiritual world. They are assertions about the relationship between two or more entities or concepts; people endorse and use them to guide their behavior in daily living, such as“belief in a religion helps one understand the meaning of life.”Leung et al. (2002) demonstrated the universal existence of five types of social axioms on the individual level in 41 cultural groups.”2
The five social axioms of one’s culture affect childhood development and shape attitudes, values, beliefs, personality, and cognition. America is not monocultural, which is to say that it hosts many cultures. That’s how we ended up with 33% of people believing that a president is also the Antichrist and other such nonsense.
Andersen argues that beginning in the 1980s, extreme religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices began to enter mainstream culture. This also happened in politics, and there is a correlation between extreme religious and political beliefs.
“As the conservative elite positioned itself as the defenders of rigor against the onslaught of relativism, its members preferred to ignore the unwashed masses on their side, the reactionary hoi polloi activated by America’s extreme new believe-whatever-you-want MO. Anti-Establishment relativism had erupted on the left, but it gave license to everyone—in particular, to the far right and in the Christian fever swamps. The new ultraindividualism extended well beyond lifestyle choices. Finding your own truth and doing your own thing came to mean not just getting high and watching porn but objecting to irreligious public education and owning as many guns of any kind as you wished. It meant a revived American commitment to markets, amounting among some to an almost religious faith. Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream. Many more Americans announced that they’d experienced fantastic horrors and adventures, abuse by Satanists and abduction by extraterrestrials, and their claims began to be taken seriously. Parts of the Establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real. America didn’t seem as weird and crazy as it had around 1970. But that’s because we had stopped noticing the weirdness and craziness. We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his 1985 jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death.”3
America didn’t seem as weird and crazy as it had around 1970. But that’s because we had stopped noticing the weirdness and craziness.
Amusing ourselves to death sounds about right. I think that as long as football and beer are plentiful in this country I adopted, there will not be a second civil war (at least not a full-blown one). I could be wrong, but it seems improbable. Andersen believes professional sports, in general, are “Fantasyland adjacent,” since they are as close as Americans get to real-life superheroes.
The entire state of Florida is a heavily marketed mixed-mode reality-fantasy blend, and the fantasy proportion ratio has been increasing for 100 years. Phrases like post-truth and alternative facts have recently been used for the first time. Q-anon, fake news, the lamestream media, red-pilled. All emerged as the reality-fantasy blend became more skewed.
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.
— Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to
Pseudo-Events in America (1961)
So how do we counteract the silly nonsense? We call it out for what it is: dangerous delusions. We demand social policies and institutions, civil and state, be separated from the machinations of people who believe wacky things like wildfires are caused by Jewish Space Lasers.4 Lobbying for public discourse that is evidence-based and reality-driven by science is absolutely critical to the future of the USA and humanity as a whole. If we allow the conspiracy wack jobs and the theists and the reality deniers to dominate, we'll turn the planet into a ball of rock that is devoid of life.
Unchecked reality-fantasy blends are toxic.
Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (pp. 6-7). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Matsumoto, David; Juang, Linda. Culture and Psychology (p. 25). Cengage Textbook. Kindle Edition.
Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (pp. 237-238). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.