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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{ 6 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.

. October 23, 2017 at 12:08 am

Satire thrives where the usual checks on human folly fail. In this case it points to the fact that America, despite having a gun-murder rate 25 times higher than that of other developed countries, has no serious debate on how to reduce the killing, because Republican lawmakers refuse to countenance the only thing that easily would. By making it even a bit harder for killers to get guns—as action taken in Australia, Britain and Canada shows—America would have fewer gun deaths. Yet only a quarter of Republican voters accept that demonstrable truth. Most say America would have less crime if only more Americans were armed.

The usual explanation for this delusion is brilliantly effective lobbying by gun clubs. Since the 1970s the National Rifle Association, supported by gun makers, has recast what was once a public- safety issue into an argument about liberty: if you believe gun ownership is a thin red line against government tyranny, as the NRA claims, it scarcely matters whether it also leads to more killing. At the same time, the lobbyists have bullied Republican lawmakers so thoroughly that none dares speak against them. Asked for his position on gun control this week, Paul Ryan said he’d rather talk about cutting taxes. The Onion could not improve on that.

Yet though Republican voters have moved markedly against gun control over the course of the NRA’s lobbying, it alone cannot explain that shift. Many Republican voters are more selective in their support for guns than the ideologues; they tend to be momentarily keener on gun controls after a massacre, for example. It also seems notable that the same people who believe guns make America safer are also likely to hold a number of other irrational views. Around half of Republicans do not believe in evolution or anthropogenic climate change. They have also just elected as president a man who has suggested vaccines cause autism. Donald Trump’s insurgency in itself suggests that any explanation of Republican attitudes rooted in conservative ideology should be treated with caution.

A forthcoming book by the political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, “Enchanted America”, offers an alternative explanation. It argues that people who believe guns make America safer, among other fallacies, display a strain of superstition that has always existed in American politics, on the right and the left, but which in recent decades has concentrated on the right, and now threatens to subsume it. Its proponents, who the authors call “intuitionists”, understand the world on the basis of feelings and gut instinct, not doctrine or empirical facts, even when confronted with them. “Much of what looks like an ideological gap in this country”, the authors write, “is due more to the power of these innate intuitions than abstract principles or values.”

. December 11, 2017 at 4:42 pm

The same poll shows the mind-addling effects of partisanship: nearly one-quarter of white evangelicals in Alabama believe it is legitimate to defend sex with minors on Biblical grounds.

SEXUAL mores change faster than the law does. This has been the case with child marriage, which is generally defined as involving those under 18 but also includes girls (for almost all of them are girls) younger than 16. Depending on the law in different states, older men are allowed to marry minors if they get parental consent, a judge’s approval, or even just the nod of a clerk. Stories about the Republican candidate for the vacant Alabama senate seat, Roy Moore, and his pursuit of teenage girls when he was more than double their age have caused disgust, at least among those who believe the accusers. Legally, though, Mr Moore could almost certainly have married even his 14-year-old accuser had he wished to do so, since at the time 14 was the minimum age for marriage under Alabama state law (it is now 16).

America has always allowed such child marriages, which happen mostly in conservative religious communities and rural areas. Yet, as in the rest of the world, the practice has become much less common. Whereas 23,500 minors got married in 2000, by 2010 the number had dropped to a little over 9,000, reflecting changing social norms, higher rates of school attendance for girls and a decline in marriage more generally. Virginia, Texas and New York have introduced laws in the past couple of years that restrict marriage to legal adults. Connecticut has banned marriage before the age of 16. In 11 other states legislation restricting child marriage is in the pipeline; six of these (Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) are considering a law to ban marriage under 18 with no exceptions.

Still, it remains startling that between 2000 and 2015 more than 207,000 minors got married, according to an investigation by Frontline, a public television programme. More than two-thirds of them were 17, but 985 were only 14 and ten were just 12. Human Rights Watch and other activists are campaigning for a simple solution for all states, which would end the patchwork of rules and loopholes: changing the age of marriage to 18, with no exception granted. Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Centre, an advocacy group, concedes that there is a big difference between a girl of 14 and a girl of 17, but she points out that both have similar legal status. Neither bride could stay in any kind of shelter, for instance, if she wanted to escape. And neither could file for divorce, work legally or sign a rental lease.

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