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America Loses its Mind

August 26th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Novelist Kurt Anderson has written a piece appearing in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine entitled “How America Lost its Mind.” It’s an intriguing title and a piece sorely needed in our current “post-truth” conundrum. He argues that Americans have always possessed a cultural tendency toward belief in the rationally unbelievable. It may be true, and it’s not surprising given that the country was born out of a David and Goliath-like contest between a makeshift barely-organized Colonial Army and the great Empire of the world (with quite a bit of help from King Louis XVI of France, who would later lose his head in the French Revolution).

Anderson proposes that this propensity for dreaming big dreams has historically been balanced by a tether to what he calls reality, which, as an atheist, he puts forth as the rationality of the Age of Reason. Although I disagree that everything one believes must be supported by rationality, as there are many things we know to be true that cannot be explained rationally, I do believe both that American history is characterized by a highly inflated sense of self and also a shared general agreement about what is real and what is not. In other words, that there is something that we can all agree is “real.” Anderson’s article traces the loss of this common agreement beginning in the 1960s and the anti-war movement and culminating in a nation in which people essentially create their own personal realities with the individual as the anchor and center of reference. He writes:

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans – because being American means we can believe anything 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.[1]

What Anderson describes is the dilemma created by the collapse of the Enlightenment metanarrative: summed up by a deep faith in “progress.” It is the overarching belief that humans through their own efforts in science, technology and education will inevitably create a man-made paradise. It started with the Enlightenment Philosophes and climaxed in the Marxist economic critique. “Progress” was the general Truth™ underlying all of American life and thought.  But it was rejected, as it ought to have been, after the horrors of the 20th century –  the Western Front, the Holocaust, and the Atomic Bomb – demonstrated its fallacy.

The consequence is what scholars call “post-modernism.” The fundamental rule of the Enlightenment was that there is a single monolithic and unchangeable reality that every educated person can discern through “reason,” which essentially resolves to scientific measurement. When that faith system collapsed, the idea that there is a single truth that we can all agree on collapsed with it. The locus of truth shifted from the exterior world to the individual. In the sixties, as Anderson notes, America had “a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.[2] The problem isn’t “right vs. left,” it is that there are as many “truths” as there are those who want to believe them, and because they do not require any external validation, these “truths” are unassailable.

Our national loss of a connection to a common narrative has led to our current political challenges because while all of us agree that “progress” is the goal, we no longer have general agreement as to what that looks like. For some, progress would be returning to a time when the United States was filled with righteous Christian folks chosen by God to further the cause that makes the United States exceptional, ironically not the gospel of Jesus Christ but that of John Locke and Adam Smith.

For others, progress consists of overcoming the shortsightedness and injustices of the past and creating a society that embodies the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address. The ultimate tragedy is that all sides point to the same words and identify completely different things. Why? Because they don’t mean what they mean, they mean what we think they mean. Without a commitment to a common reality, anyone who disagrees with you is not wrong, they are insane. Or deliberately evil.

To be fair, this is not new. Ratification of the Constitution was accomplished by leaving contentious issues unresolved. For example, the Constitution nowhere states that the Union cannot be dissolved. If that had been specified, many Southern States, even in 1787, would not have joined the United States. Some walked away believing they had created a confederation of convenience, and others a permanent union.

During the first Presidential Administration, these ambiguities set the groundwork for US politics to the present in the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Is the United States an idyllic landscape of liberty where a prosperous agrarian middle class pursues happiness? Or is it an economic powerhouse rivaling Great Britain? The conflict very nearly ended the American Experiment in 1800. In order to preserve the union, the antagonists reluctantly compromised, effectively confining political conflict to the ballot box until 1861.

Politics in 1800 evoked at least as much passion as politics today. Both sides saw the other not as opponents but enemies, not only of themselves, but of the country. And yet, rather than watching their dreams come crashing down around them, they found a way to overcome their biases and save the country. Why? They must have agreed that whatever had been created, preserving it was worth more than political victory. But they also must have inhabited the same intellectual universe. Think about that word: uni. One.

Now let’s take a look at a very sad but telling incident that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. Permits were given for a “Unite the Right “rally to participants and opponents. The organizers of the rally were avowed White Supremacists who idolize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They are allied with or perhaps have morphed into a combination of their own Nazi views and the racist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan. They came to town heavily armed, and marched through the streets with torches shouting Nazi and racist chants, seeking to intimidate. They were met by unarmed leftist groups who nevertheless confronted them. There was violence. In the end, a deranged White Supremacist drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding several others.

The rallying point of the march was to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. Americans are in conflict over such statues because they are seen as symbols of White Supremacy and a war fought to defend the institution of slavery. Interestingly, the events of the weekend prove that both protesters and counter-protesters view the statues just so. After the events in Charlottesville the Great-Great-Grandsons of Stonewall Jackson wrote,

Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology.[3]

Nevertheless, the argument employed by those who defend the statues is not that they are White Supremacist intimidations, but rather that they represent Southern “heritage.” Southern heritage conjures a narrative called the “Lost Cause,” which works to salve the sting of defeat for Southerners by explaining the Civil War as a noble cause that could not be sustained against overwhelming odds. Therefore, those who fought for the Confederacy were actually heroes.

The noble cause is most often summarized in the words “States’ Rights,” implying that the Union was trying to violate the sacred rights of the Southern States. This was indeed the rationale employed by the authors of secession and by those who fought, most of whom were not slave owners and would never have fought to preserve slavery. In fact, for Southerners the issue of the Civil War was exactly the same as the Revolutionary War. The latter was sparked when the Parliament acted to deprive the colonists of their property without their consent. “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” Southerners argued that their property rights were being threatened by the Federal government in the same way. The catch is that the items of property they sought to defend were human beings. The “Lost Cause” narrative emphasizes that Southerners were fighting for their rights, but leaves out that the rights they were fighting for consisted of keeping human beings enslaved. “States’ Rights” and slavery are inseparable.[4]

And therein lies the nub. The facts are entirely knowable, and in a reality based world they would be indisputable. But in a world where reality can be whatever I want it to be, facts are meaningless. What you say may be true but I don’t care because I’m entitled to my own (“alternative”) facts. Leaving the statues up or taking them down are equally useless, because the statues are not the problem The problem is the meaning assigned to those statues by the various actors.

I think it is fairly obvious that armed thugs marching through the streets spewing hate are not concerned about Southern heritage. Their issues are White Supremacy and racism (this isn’t arguable, this is what they said, loudly and gleefully). There may be others who are concerned about Southern heritage. Because they don’t want to believe they are White Supremacists and racists (and perhaps they try not to be), and/or because they truly believe these things stand for something good.

The first group is beyond reason. The second group I don’t know. I think if we could remove the study of history from the realm of narrative fantasy and tether it to verifiable facts, perhaps we could agree on something. If we could agree on what is true and what is false we might be able to see each other as fellow human beings rather than madmen and demons. And then, even though we disagree with and perhaps even don’t like each other, we might come to recognize that our differences are not as big as our common welfare.

Is that still possible?

Tolerance doesn’t mean I agree or approve. It means I disagree and disapprove, but I’m not going to try to stop you.

[1] Kurt Anderson, “How America Lost its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017, 76.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, “The Monuments Must Go: An open letter from the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson.,” Slate, August 16, 2017, 1, accessed August 25, 2017,  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/08/stonewall_jackson_s_grandsons_the_monuments_must_go.html.

[4] Please don’t take my word for this; read the words of those who moved to destroy the nation: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.

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