Polarisation has got so bad in the US that some people are now calculating, in all seriousness, the prospects of civil war breaking out in the country.
A common language is sometimes a “false friend” – concealing mutual misconceptions – and although I was pleasantly surprised (if not impressed) when I eventually got to the USA in the late 1980s, I am aware that this is not a very easy country to understand. Not for nothing did Martin Amis use the title “The Moronic Inferno” in 1987 for his analysis of its cultural aspects*.
When, five years ago, I first read “The Puritan Gift”, I was struck with how US Business Schools seemed in the 1970s to have destroyed the original puritan spirit - but a long article I came across at the weekend - “How American Lost its Mind” by Kurt Andersen (based on his 450 page book “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” 2017) – made me realise that things are a lot more complicated. The article focuses on the last 60 years and shows how both left and right have contributed to the present madness.
Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
We Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous
- the relativism that came into vogue in the 1960s.
- the digital technology revolution of the 90s
Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today - with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
What I particularly appreciated about the argument was first its balance – it’s not seeking to allocate blame but rather to seek to understand the various factors which seem to have reached a point of no return (it’s noticeable that Andersen has no solutions to offer - apart from courage and the voice of reason)
I also liked his use of key books to mark the trail of the past half century or so – although, generally, these track the leftist path. The Right’s path tends to be identified more by religious, listening and viewing habits…..Not, however, that the Centre should be forgotten – with The Social Construction of Reality appearing in 1966
….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. The rulers of any tribe or society do not just dictate customs and laws; they are the masters of everyone’s perceptions, defining reality itself.
To create the all-encompassing stage sets that everyone inhabits, rulers first use crude mythology, then more elaborate religion, and finally the “extreme step” of modern science. “Reality”? “Knowledge”? “If we were going to be meticulous,” Berger and Luckmann wrote, “we would put quotation marks around the two aforementioned terms every time we used them.” “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.”
When I first read that, at age 18, I loved the quotation marks. If reality is simply the result of rules written by the powers that be, then isn’t everyone able—no, isn’t everyone obliged—to construct their own reality? The book was timed perfectly to become ‘a foundational text in academia and beyond.
I’m reminded of the great Russian saying –
“Don’t fear your friends - because they can only betray you.
Don’t fear your enemies – because they can only destroy you
But fear the indifferent – because it’s they who allow your friends to betray you and your enemies to destroy you”
I’m a great fan of intellectual histories – and, although this is clearly a popularised version, it seems to offer a rare insight into how the development of mainstream American thinking over several centuries has brought us to this point of open conflict. A few weeks ago, he published an updated version which focuses on the post 1960 period - “Evil Geniuses - the unmaking of America, a recent history” (2020)
NOTE; *Amis' book's Introduction tells us that - “I got the phrase 'the moronic inferno', and much else, from Saul Bellow, who informed me that he got it from Wyndham Lewis. Needless to say, the moronic inferno is not a peculiarly American condition. It is global and perhaps eternal. It is also, of course, primarily a metaphor, a metaphor for human infamy: mass, gross, ever-distracting human infamy”.
“One of the many things I do not understand about Americans is this: what is it like to be a citizen of a superpower, to maintain democratically the means of planetary extinction? I wonder how this contributes to the dreamlife of America, a dreamlife that is so deep and troubled. As I was collating The Moronic Inferno (in August 1985, during the Hiroshima remembrances), I was struck by a disquieting thought. Perhaps the title phrase is more resonant, and more prescient, than I imagined. It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality”.
To which I add 35 years later – and that was before global warming and the very real fear these days for extinction