11 August 2018

The Atlantic: “How America lost Its Mind”

A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police’, the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, Hey, that’s not a word! Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart… Face it, folks, we are a divided nation… divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart… Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.

Kurt Andersen

Exceptional account of the gradual, yet inexorable, slide of American society into the rejection of science and reason, and the embrace of fantasy and ‘personal truth’.

I have my own theory regarding this, possibly too simplistic to explain everything. It has to do with the protestant roots of American culture: back in Europe, Protestantism was born as a counter-movement to the centralized Truth imposed by the Catholic Church. After coming to the New World, the tradition of Protestantism has taken another form: as rationalism replaced of Christian Doctrine as the central tenet of society, so too the protestant spirit has turned to fighting… science and objective truth! Just as many before have rejected the interpretation of the Bible through priests and theologians, now Americans are rejecting the advice of experts and demand the right to their own (often naïve) interpretation of the world around them.

How America went haywire
R. Kikuo Johnson

More thought-provoking quotes below:

  • A more extreme academic evangelist for the idea of all truths being equal was a UC Berkeley philosophy professor named Paul Feyerabend. His best-known book, published in 1975, was Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. “Rationalism”, it declared, “is a secularized form of the belief in the power of the word of God”, and science a “particular superstition”. In a later edition of the book, published when creationists were passing laws to teach Genesis in public-school biology classes, Feyerabend came out in favor of the practice, comparing creationists to Galileo. Science, he insisted, is just another form of belief. “Only one principle”, he wrote, “can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”

  • Americans felt newly entitled to believe absolutely anything. I’m pretty certain that the unprecedented surge of UFO reports in the ’70s was not evidence of extraterrestrials’ increasing presence but a symptom of Americans’ credulity and magical thinking suddenly unloosed. We wanted to believe in extraterrestrials, so we did. What made the UFO mania historically significant rather than just amusing, however, was the web of elaborate stories that were now being spun: not just of sightings but of landings and abductions—and of government cover-ups and secret alliances with interplanetary beings. Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic.

  • I doubt the GOP elite deliberately engineered the synergies between the economic and religious sides of their contemporary coalition. But as the incomes of middle- and working-class people flatlined, Republicans pooh-poohed rising economic inequality and insecurity. Economic insecurity correlates with greater religiosity, and among white Americans, greater religiosity correlates with voting Republican. For Republican politicians and their rich-getting-richer donors, that’s a virtuous circle, not a vicious one.

  • Trump took a key piece of cynical wisdom about show business—the most important thing is sincerity, and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made—to a new level: His actual thuggish sincerity is the opposite of the old-fashioned, goody-goody sanctimony that people hate in politicians.

    If he were just a truth-telling wise guy, however, he wouldn’t have won. Trump’s genius was to exploit the skeptical disillusion with politics—there’s too much equivocating; democracy’s a charade—but also to pander to Americans’ magical thinking about national greatness. Extreme credulity is a fraternal twin of extreme skepticism.

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