They’re Out of Their Minds, the Yanks? Yes, but Surely It’s Not Just the Yanks

U.S. radio host Kurt Andersen considers the question of how anti-rationalism has turned the U.S. into a fantasyland

Two-thirds of U.S. citizens believe that angels and demons are active in the world; in contrast, as few as one-third of Americans have no belief at all in telepathy and ghosts. A third of U.S. citizens believe that climate change is no big deal, but rather a complete hoax which scientists, the government and journalists are attempting to convince the population is real. One-third of Americans believe even further that the government is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry in keeping knowledge about natural cancer treatment therapies under wraps, and that extraterrestrials have visited Earth and will visit again.

Almost a quarter of U.S. citizens claim that vaccinations cause autism, that Trump’s presidential predecessor was the Antichrist, and that witches exist. Some 15 percent of Americans believe that the media or the government are embedding thought-controlling technology in television signals, and a further 15 percent believes that to be at least entirely possible.

But they’re out of their minds, the Yanks? Take it easy! With respect to many of these conspiracy theories, there were some quite astonishing results here in Austria, too. It is only when it comes to the angels, demons and witches that the ultrareligious Americans are, without doubt, world champions. Nevertheless, conspiracy theories are readily believed everywhere.

The problem is that the U.S. has recently elected a president who also happens to believe in many of these prevailing absurdities — for example, that climate change is a lie. Kurt Andersen, a popular U.S. radio host, has now published a book, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire,” which The Atlantic exclusively serialized before its publication. Anderson’s principle theory is that the United States’ descent into fantasyland took place in two stages. First, a new thought began to spread in universities of the 60s along the lines of “follow your own cause, find your own reality, everything is relative,” and thus, there ensued a total departure from evidence-based thought. The second phase was the dawn of the new age of information through the triumph of the internet. “Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and ‘facts’ to support them,” Andersen wrote.

This anti-rationalism and “everything is possible” way of thinking of the 60s was in the first instance a left-wing, and not a right-wing, phenomenon. However, as it began to radiate from universities throughout the whole country, it also facilitated the rabble-rousing and propaganda of the right-wing, religious conspirators and ringleaders. “After the 60s,” Andersen writes, “truth was relative, criticizing was equal to victimizing, individual liberty became absolute, and everyone was permitted to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.” And this crumbling debris lies all around.

Andersen’s insights certainly make for interesting reading, insights which are able to explain the Trump phenomenon from a new perspective and contextualize it in the historical development of culture and society. Furthermore, Andersen’s text is a wake-up call for those who still believe that Trump’s election 13 months ago was simply a quirk of history.

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