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. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.
Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.
We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.
We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same.
“We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists.”
And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.
We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.
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.
Why are we like this? The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that, then certainly we can believe this.
“America has mutated into Fantasyland.”
What I’m calling Fantasyland isn’t only a matter of falsehoods fervently believed but of people assembling make-believe lifestyles as well. Both kinds of fantasy—conspiracy theories and belief in magic on one hand and fantasy football and fake boobs and virtual reality on the other—make everyday existence more exciting and dramatic. And the modern tipping points for both kinds were the result of the same two momentous changes.
The first was that profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the 1960s, whereby Americans ever since have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth: Find your own truth, create your own reality, it’s all relative. The paradigm can be explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious, but it’s the way we are now.
The second big enabling change was the new era of information and communications. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of both types, the lifestyle and entertainment kinds as well as the ideological and religious and pseudoscientific kinds.
We stop registering the differences between simulated and authentic, real and unreal. We are freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever or to pretend to be whomever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth, in general, becomes flexible, a matter of personal preference. There is a functioning synergy among our multiplying fantasies, the large and small ones, the toxic and the individually entertaining ones, the ones we know to be fiction, the ones we kinda sorta believe, and the religious and political and scientific ones we’re convinced aren’t fantasies at all.
Alt-right radio pundit Alex Jones
This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for the developed country. But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.
People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history—and really, from its prehistory.
“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers […] from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump.”
America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith 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 Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
Feature image by: Phil Toledano