His contemporary Hannah Arendt escaped Germany as a young woman in 1933, when the Nazis took over, and emigrated to America, where she became one of the most important political philosophers of the age. Her first big book, in 1951, was The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’d never read it until 2016, around the time Trump made “rigged elections” a recurring theme of his campaign. “The essential conviction shared by all ranks” in a totalitarian movement, Arendt wrote, “from fellow-traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating.” When I read the next paragraph, I was staggered. I stopped and read it again. It gave me goosebumps.
A mixture of gullibility and cynicism have been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true….Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Arendt published Origins of Totalitarianism when Stalin was in power and Hitler only six years gone. I don’t think the most important U.S. institutions are about to collapse. History doesn’t repeat. But damn, this rhyme is chilling. (Pg.436)
Whether an individual’s conspiracism exists alongside religious faith, psychologically they’re similar: a conspiracy theory can be revised and refined and further confirmed, but it probably can’t ever be disproved to a true believer’s satisfaction. The final conspiratorial nightmare crackdown is always right around the corner but never quite comes—as with the perpetually fast-approaching end-time. Like Christians certain both that evolution is a phony theory and that God created people a few thousand years ago, conspiracists are simultaneously credulous (about impossible plots) and incredulous (about the confusing, dull gray truth). Conspiracists often deride arguments against their theories as disinformation cooked up by the conspirators—the way some Christians consider evolutionary explanations to be the work of the devil.
Researchers and experimenters have repeatedly demonstrated this pinball effect, in which fantastical beliefs lead to other, disparate fantastical beliefs. Once people decide a particular theory is true, they’re apt to be open to another and another and another. (Pg.263)
Women are much more likely than men to say they’re “spiritual,” whereas two-thirds of people who call themselves agnostic or atheist are men. So male seculars go elsewhere to satisfy their need to believe in the untrue—for instance, men constitute large majorities of devoted believers in nonexistent conspiracies.
In America there are plenty of brands to satisfy everyone, of fantasy as with everything else. If you aren’t crazy about Coke, there’s always Pepsi; if not Coca-Cola Zero, then Pepsi Perfect or Pepsi Jazz Strawberries & Cream. (Pg.267)
“I’m not an atheist,” the great Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson said in 2015, “I’m a scientist. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: ‘Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god—all these other tribes. We’re going to prevail.’ I would even say I’m agnostic because I’m a scientist.”
In this he echoes the greatest scientist of the last century. “In my opinion,” Albert Einstein wrote,
“the idea of a personal God is a childlike one…but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist….I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
Indeed, he wrote,
the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious….He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed….To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men. (Pg.434)
Legitimate concern over the sexual abuse of children spun off a new, almost entirely fictional subgenre. The idea that satanic cults were systematically and commonly subjecting American children to nightmarish abuse—by the thousands, by the tens or hundreds of thousands—was more or less invented by a young woman just across Puget Sound from Seattle. In her twenties, Michelle Proby, her life a mess, was treated by a psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder. By means of hypnosis, he helped her “remember” that her late mother had been part of a satanic cult that had forced five-year-old Michelle to participate in its rituals: the Satanists had caged her with snakes, killed kittens in front of her, and physically abused her for months. All of which could have happened, theoretically—unlike her memory of Satan’s “burning tail wrapped around her neck,” and Jesus and the Virgin Mary personally erasing the physical scars of her abuse.
Michelle and Dr. Pazder divorced their spouses, married each other, and co-wrote her memoir Michelle Remembers, released with fanfare in 1980. “Potentially the biggest nonfiction book I’ve ever published,” said its editor, who’d recently published Jaws, “the true story of a little girl given by her parents to the Satanic church.” People and other national media ran uncritical stories. It became a bestseller. Did New York editors and publishers and news producers actually believe? Did P. T. Barnum actually believe the fabrications he presented alongside his pure fictions and bona-fide artifacts?
When many of Michelle Pazder’s supposed memories were specifically debunked, a reporter asked her husband if in his view the factual truth was irrelevant. “Yes, that’s right,” Dr. Pazder agreed. “It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say, ‘That’s what I remember.’ We still leave the question open. For her it was very real.” Other people “are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.” True, false, whatever—it felt real. (PG.331)
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.*2
When I say that a third believe X or a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the U.S. population. Various fantasy constituencies overlap and feed each other—for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and cabals, which can jibe with a belief in an impending Armageddon involving Jesus. Fantasyland operates like the European Union, a collection of disparate domains of various sizes overlaid with a Schengen Area that allows citizens of any of the dozens of lands to travel freely among the others, the way Hungarians and Maltese can visit France or Iceland at will.
And like intra-European antipathies, the mutual contempt among Fantasyland regions can be as intense as their contempt for the reality-based. To many evangelicals, Pentecostals are heretics, and to evangelicals and Pentecostals, Mormons are heretics; Pat Robertson has called Scientology satanic; the Vatican considers Oprah’s apostles misguided fools; different kinds of truthers regard each other as deluded. A lot of the people certain that GMOs are unsafe to eat, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, deride deniers of climate science. Indeed, the history of Fantasyland could be rendered bracketologically, like college basketball, centuries of continuous playoffs, with particular teams losing (Puritans) and winning (Mormons) along the way and continuing to fight it out today.
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 word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.
A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience.
Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. 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.
Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland. (Pg.8)
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.
The disagreements dividing Protestants from Catholics were about the internal consistency of the magical rules within their common fantasy scheme.
However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast. (Pg.17)