Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective. And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it.
Treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously, is not unique to Americans. But we are the global crucible and epicenter. We invented the fantasy-industrial complex; almost nowhere outside poor or otherwise miserable countries are flamboyant supernatural beliefs so central to the identities of so many people.
This is American exceptionalism in the 21st century. The country has always been a one-of-a-kind place. But our singularity is different now. But our drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
And three hours south of San Francisco, on the heavenly stretch of coastal cliffs known as Big Sur, a pair of young Stanford psychology graduates founded a school and think tank they named after a small American Indian tribe that had lived on the grounds long before. This is not overstatement.
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Essentially everything that became known as New Age was invented, developed, or popularized at the Esalen Institute. The institute wholly reinvented psychology, medicine, and philosophy, driven by a suspicion of science and reason and an embrace of magical thinking also: massage, hot baths, sex, and sex in hot baths. The idea was to be radically tolerant of therapeutic approaches and understandings of reality, especially if they came from Asian traditions or from American Indian or other shamanistic traditions. Invisible energies, past lives, astral projection, whatever—the more exotic and wondrous and unfalsifiable, the better.
Not long before Esalen was founded, one of its co-founders, Dick Price, had suffered a mental breakdown and been involuntarily committed to a private psychiatric hospital for a year. His new institute embraced the radical notion that psychosis and other mental illnesses were labels imposed by the straight world on eccentrics and visionaries, that they were primarily tools of coercion and control. And within the psychiatric profession itself this idea had two influential proponents, who each published unorthodox manifestos at the beginning of the decade—R.
These influential critiques helped make popular and respectable the idea that much of science is a sinister scheme concocted by a despotic conspiracy to oppress people.
And how before their frontal lobes, the neural seat of reason and rationality, are fully wired, they can be especially prone to fantasy? Practically overnight, America turned its full attention to the young and everything they believed and imagined and wished. If was when the decade really got going, was the year the new doctrines and their gravity were definitively cataloged by the grown-ups.
Reason and rationality were over. Its author was Theodore Roszak, age 35, a Bay Area professor who thereby coined the word counterculture. As turned to , a year-old Yale Law School professor was finishing his book about the new youth counterculture. But hanging with the young people had led him to a midlife epiphany and apostasy. He decided to spend the next summer, the Summer of Love, in Berkeley. His class at Yale became hugely popular; at its peak, students were enrolled.
At 16, I bought and read one of the 2 million copies sold. Rereading it today and recalling how much I loved it was a stark reminder of the follies of youth. Reich was shamelessly, uncritically swooning for kids like me. Consciousness II s were the fearful and conformist organization men and women whose rationalism was a tyrannizing trap laid by the Corporate State—your parents. Simply by being young and casual and undisciplined, you were ushering in a new utopia. The machine has begun to destroy itself. The machine did not destroy itself.
But Reich was half-right. Instead, Consciousness III was just one early iteration of the anything-goes, post-reason, post-factual America enabled by the tsunami. Granted complete freedom of thought, Thomas Jefferson and company assumed, most people would follow the path of reason. I remember when fantastical beliefs went fully mainstream, in the s. In came a sensational autobiography by the young spoon bender and mind reader Uri Geller as well as Life After Life , by Raymond Moody, a philosophy Ph.
The book sold many millions of copies; before long the International Association for Near Death Studies formed and held its first conference, at Yale. Many of the pioneers were thoughtful, their work fine antidotes to postwar complacency. The problem was the nature and extent of their influence at that particular time, when all premises and paradigms seemed up for grabs.
Reality itself is a purely social construction, a tableau of useful or wishful myths that members of a society or tribe have been persuaded to believe. The borders between fiction and nonfiction are permeable, maybe nonexistent. The delusions of the insane, superstitions, and magical thinking? Any of those may be as legitimate as the supposed truths contrived by Western reason and science. The takeaway: Believe whatever you want, because pretty much everything is equally true and false.
These ideas percolated across multiple academic fields. Meanwhile, over in sociology, in a pair of professors published The Social Construction of Reality , one of the most influential works in their field. Not only were sanity and insanity and scientific truth somewhat dubious concoctions by elites, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained—so was everything else. When I first read that, at age 18, I loved the quotation marks.
The book was timed perfectly to become a foundational text in academia and beyond. A more extreme academic evangelist for the idea of all truths being equal was a UC Berkeley philosophy professor named Paul Feyerabend. Science, he insisted, is just another form of belief. It is the principle: anything goes. This was understandable, given the times: colonialism ending, genocide of American Indians confessed, U.
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Who were we to roll our eyes or deny what these people believed? If all understandings of reality are socially constructed, those of Kalabari tribesmen in Nigeria are no more arbitrary or faith-based than those of college professors.
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Her assigned task was to send her mind or soul out of her body while she was asleep and read a five-digit number Tart had written on a piece of paper placed on a shelf above the bed. He reported that she succeeded.
https://biovepucor.tk Other scientists considered the experiments and the results bogus, but Tart proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and magic is real. The rules of the scientific method had to be revised. Later he abandoned the pretense of neutrality and started calling it the consensus trance —people committed to reason and rationality were the deluded dupes, not he and his tribe. They had so well learned that … research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they did not believe there was such a thing as simple truth.
Ever since, the American right has insistently decried the spread of relativism, the idea that nothing is any more correct or true than anything else. Conservatives hated how relativism undercut various venerable and comfortable ruling ideas—certain notions of entitlement according to race and gender and aesthetic beauty and metaphysical and moral certainty. Yet once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.
The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.
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Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team. As the Vietnam War escalated and careened, antirationalism flowered. In his book about the remarkable protests in Washington, D. At that point the war in Vietnam would end. In , Students for a Democratic Society adopted its founding document, drafted by year-old Tom Hayden.
Then, kaboom , the big bang. Anything and everything became believable. Reason was chucked. Dystopian and utopian fantasies seemed plausible. Its members believed that they and other young white Americans, aligned with black insurgents, would be the vanguard in a new civil war.
Officials at the FBI, the CIA, and military intelligence agencies, as well as in urban police departments, convinced themselves that peaceful antiwar protesters and campus lefties in general were dangerous militants, and expanded secret programs to spy on, infiltrate, and besmirch their organizations.
This furiously, elaborately suspicious way of understanding the world started spreading across the political spectrum after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Surely the Communists or the CIA or the Birchers or the Mafia or some conspiratorial combination must have arranged it all, right? Elaborate paranoia was an established tic of the Bircherite far right, but the left needed a little time to catch up. In , a left-wing American writer published the first book about a JFK conspiracy, claiming that a Texas oilman had been the mastermind, and soon many books were arguing that the official government inquiry had ignored the hidden conspiracies.
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