American Chimera: Our Long History of Delusion

As Joseph R. Biden’s inauguration draws near, the level of apprehension over the potential for violence increases. Violence premised on a lie. Violence instigated with no basis of moral, legal, or ethical reasoning. Violence threatened by those either unwilling or unable to discern fact from fiction. It would seem we have a long history of such things.

Mayflower Lives' Review: The Pilgrims in Flesh and Spirit - WSJ
Wall Street Journal Image

The history they taught me about the “discovery” of America was a false narrative. The Pilgrims, or a more accurate appellation, Puritans, didn’t come here to establish religious freedom. They came here to escape religious persecution by the Church of England and to establish their own theocracy.

It wasn’t religious tolerance they sought, it was doctrinal dominance. Soon after, nights lit by the burning of witches revealed their embracing myths and lies. And let’s not even go down the road of a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner shared with the natives. Another twisted image of reality.

This foundation of a white-washed image of the beginnings of English influence in America sheds light on our proclivity to self-deception. One might argue many of those who came to America were chasing a lie. And the tendency to twist the facts to fit their own truth became ingrained in our society.

I am reading a fascinating book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen. He paints a picture of the falsehoods and lies sold to many English to lure them to this new land.

“Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century,” according to the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall’s history of America, Freedom Just Around the Corner, “did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.” The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further, suggesting that “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.” Western civilization’s first great advertising campaign was created in order to inspire enough dreamers and suckers to create America.

Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (p. 22). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. location 444

It would seem we have often been taken in by the words and lies of someone like Donald Trump almost from the beginning of the nation. And now we have taken it to a new height. A significant number of Americans embrace two poorly crafted fantasies devoid of even a semblance of validity, the Q-Anon Conspiracy and the lies this election was stolen from Donald Trump by an equally sophisticated and widespread conspiracy.

I’ve struggled to understand how so many otherwise rational Americans are taken in by such nonsense. How is it Americans firmly believe in things that cannot be proven or often are easily disproven?

From a variety of respectable survey organizations, we have these startling statistics :

  • 55 percent of Americans say they believe in angels.
  • Only 39 percent say they accept the concept of evolution.
  • Only 36 percent say they believe global warming is partly anthropogenic (i.e., caused by human activity).
  • 34 percent say they believe in ghosts.
  • 34 percent believe in UFOs.

As many as 69% of Americans who regularly attend religious services accept the “creationist” viewpoint, i.e., the belief that a single, omnipotent God literally created all there is.

Psychology Today

We are a nation lacking a fundamental understanding of basic science. We are inclined to fantasies more than facts. The biologist E. O. Wilson said, “We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions.”

“If one has enough belief in the supernatural plan, if one’s personal faith is strong enough, false prophecies are just unfortunate miscalculations that don’t falsify anything. If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen Kindle version location 595

Francis Bacon, the English Philosopher, was a strong purveyor of the myths of migrating to America and often promulgated the same unsubstantiated misrepresentations or, at worst, outright lies about the abundance of gold in the New World and the welcoming arms of the locals toward Englishmen. Locals, those encouraging emigration to the New World insisted, were desperate to embrace the “enlightenment” of English civilization.

“We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions.”

E.O. Wilson

Perhaps the willingness of many to plunge into the New World based on such myths led him to write this about human understanding.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolateā€¦.And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by.”

Francis Bacon, The New Organon

And further on, he says,

“Once the human mind has favored certain views, it pulls everything else into agreement with and support for them. Should they be outweighed by more powerful countervailing considerations, it either fails to notice these, or scorns them, or makes fine distinctions in order to neutralize and so reject them.”

(Francis Bacon, The New Organon)

So perhaps it is in our DNA to embrace those fallacies because they appeal to something innate within us. Maybe this explains why, since the incident of January 6th, 2021, many have spent hours and days crafting explanations and justifications for that which can never be justified. Yet, it finds acceptance by those whose fundamental beliefs need soothing reassurance.

If violence rages once again on Inauguration day, Wilson’s contention we have Stone Age emotions may be overly generous.

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