Americanism and belief in the unbelievable

2017-08-08

in History, Internet matters, Politics, Psychology

The Atlantic has an interesting article by Kurt Anderson about why so many Americans believe the crazy things they do. He argues that it’s both rooted in history and particular to the ideologies and self-understanding of the United States:

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

It also talks at length about the Esalen Institute in California.

It’s not clear if there is any route back from the aggravation of these relativist, paranoid, post-truth phenomena, as technology enables everyone with an outlandish view to find others who agree and consensus breaks down about which sources of information are credible and who can validate knowledge:

Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants. In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam.

Any development which we might optimistically hope would drive us collectively back toward an objective and empirical view of reality grounded in evidence might just as well fuel the social and psychological forces supporting post-truth thinking.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

alena August 9, 2017 at 5:50 pm

I found this entry very interesting. I think that America is unique in this way.

Milan August 9, 2017 at 6:15 pm
Oleh August 12, 2017 at 8:21 pm

As with so many new developements, there is the posstiive of and the negative. With the internet, the positive of ease of communication is coupled with the negative of the difficulty of determining what weight to put on the information. The Globe and Mail in an article yesterday commented that this is particularly true for teens who are following the news – ease of information by difficulty in assessing its validity.

. August 18, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Partisan divide over Trump’s response to Charlottesville: CBS News poll

Nearly two-thirds of Americans consider the attack that led to loss of life in Charlottesville an act of “domestic terrorism,” a view that spans partisan lines. But President Trump’s response to Charlottesville finds more division.

He gets majority disapproval overall for his response to the events, while most Republicans approve. Republicans interviewed following Tuesday’s press conference also feel Mr. Trump is assigning blame accurately in the matter, while Democrats and Independents, and the country overall, disagree.

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