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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.
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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.
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This was understandable, given the times: colonialism ending, genocide of American Indians confessed, U. 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.
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. 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. 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. Kennedy complicit in the cover-up. The notion of an immense and awful JFK-assassination conspiracy became conventional wisdom in America.
As a result, more Americans than ever became reflexive conspiracy theorists. Of course, real life made such stories plausible.
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The infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left-wing groups was then being revealed, and the Watergate break-in and its cover-up were an actual criminal conspiracy. Within a few decades, the belief that a web of villainous elites was covertly seeking to impose a malevolent global regime made its way from the lunatic right to the mainstream. Each camp, conspiracists on the right and on the left, was ostensibly the enemy of the other, but they began operating as de facto allies.
Conspiracy theories were more of a modern right-wing habit before people on the left signed on.
Resilience Sayings and Quotes
A mericans felt newly entitled to believe absolutely anything. We wanted to believe in extraterrestrials, so we did. What made the UFO mania historically significant rather than just amusing, however, was the web of elaborate stories that were now being spun: not just of sightings but of landings and abductions—and of government cover-ups and secret alliances with interplanetary beings.
Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic. The first big nonfiction abduction tale appeared around the same time, in a best-selling book about a married couple in New Hampshire who believed that while driving their Chevy sedan late one night, they saw a bright object in the sky that the wife, a UFO buff already, figured might be a spacecraft.
She began having nightmares about being abducted by aliens, and both of them underwent hypnosis. The details of the abducting aliens and their spacecraft that each described were different, and changed over time. Thereafter, hypnosis became the standard way for people who believed that they had been abducted or that they had past lives, or that they were the victims of satanic abuse to recall the supposed experience.
The husband and wife were undoubtedly sincere believers. That book and its many sequels sold tens of millions of copies, and the documentary based on it had a huge box-office take in By the s, things appeared to have returned more or less to normal. Civil rights seemed like a done deal, the war in Vietnam was over, young people were no longer telling grown-ups they were worthless because they were grown-ups. Revolution did not loom. Sex and drugs and rock and roll were regular parts of life. The sense of cultural and political upheaval and chaos dissipated—which lulled us into ignoring all the ways that everything had changed, that Fantasyland was now scaling and spreading and becoming the new normal.
What had seemed strange and amazing in or became normal and ubiquitous. Relativism became entrenched in academia—tenured, you could say. This kind of thinking was by no means limited to the ivory tower. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.
Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream. Parts of the establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real. We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death.
The Reagan presidency was famously a triumph of truthiness and entertainment, and in the s, as problematically batty beliefs kept going mainstream, presidential politics continued merging with the fantasy-industrial complex. In , as soon as we learned that President Bill Clinton had been fellated by an intern in the West Wing, his popularity spiked. Which was baffling only to those who still thought of politics as an autonomous realm, existing apart from entertainment. American politics happened on television; it was a TV series, a reality show just before TV became glutted with reality shows.