Convenient Untruths

DeWitt Cheng

“We are your judges and not you ours.”

—Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson, to her Puritan critics

 

I do my thing and you do your thing. 

I'm not in this world to live up to your expectations, 

and you are not in this world to live up to mine. 

You are you, and I am I, 

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. 

If not, it can't be helped.

—The Gestalt Prayer, Psychotherapist Fritz Perls

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Ann Hutchinson  before her Puritan critics; artist uknown

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George Bellows, “The Sawdust Trail,” 1916, oil on canvas.

The American middle class has been in decline, down to less than half of us, according to current studies. Contrary to the socializing propaganda that were all fed in school, the widespread distribution of wealth that made America, to quote George HW Bush (speaking in 1988, of our health care system!), “the envy of the world,” and Reagan’s Pilgrimspeak “shining city on a hill,” full of opportunity, was not the product of American individualism and can-do pluck. It was primarily a result of populist political policy. There was nothing inevitable about it, nor is it an inherent feature of a future oligarchy. Robert Reich asserts that the American middle class was created by the democratic socialist New Deal, which conservatives at the time — and even now — branded inimical to democracy and tradition — while plotting Roosevelt’s/Clinton’s/Obama’s/Biden’s political demise by whatever means necessary. Plus ça change …

 

The waning of American power and prestige became evident during the Trump era — including to the mainstream liberals who had believed in 2016 that Third Way neoliberalism, continued under Hillary Clinton, would handily vanquish Trump’s crass, brash ignoramus hucksterism. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement also helped awaken many from dogmatic party slumbers, as did Trump’s manifest unworthiness. The socioeconomic pathologies are too glaring to be papered over with the usual finely crafted bromides. As we approach the 2022 midterm elections, and Trump’s possible return to power in 2024, many of us are wondering how the United States, the richest and most powerful empire in history, managed to shoot itself, Dick Cheney-like, in the face for so long without noticing the taste of blood.

There is plenty of current finger-pointing, and future historians will be busy for generations (hopefully we will last that long). The death of rational discourse, the growth of magical/tribal thinking, and the perversion of American’s self-image as a divinely chosen freedom-loving people are among the visible factors that are all amplified by a cynically amoral social media. So argues Kurt Andersen in his 2017 book, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.” Fantasyland is of course one of the theme parklets of Disneyland, replete with Sleeping Beauty Castle and King Arthur’s Carrousel, described by Uncle Walt in 1955: “Here is a land of imagination, hopes and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young at heart, to those who believe that when you wish upon a star your dreams do come true.”

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A. Paul Weber, "The Rumor,” 1943-53, lithograph.

If a little escapist fun for the whole family, ages eight to eighty, seems innocent enough, Andersen’s massively researched yet compulsively readable cultural history reveals the dark side of America’s romance with illusion from the nation’s beginnings in the sixteenth century right up to the advent of Trump, who had not yet been nominated when the prescient book went to press. Here’s Andersen, outlining his thesis:

 

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers — which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P.T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion, mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

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Hieronymuss Bosch, “The Haywain Triptych,” ca. 1516, oil on oak panels, 58 x 130 3/4”.

The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable also noted the intrusion of simulacra and artifice in postmodern late-twentieth-century capitalism: “A shift has taken place in the way we perceive reality, a shift so pervasive that it has radically altered basic assumptions about art and life … The replacement of reality with selective fantasy has been led … by a new, successful, and staggeringly profitable American phenomenon: the reinvention of the environment as themed entertainment.”

 

Andersen’s catalogue of American follies is morbidly fascinating, even though we now have to suffer the results of delusion and hypocrisy. It calls to mind another iconoclastic classic, Howard’s Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” rewritten with the satirical verve of Tom Wolfe. Andersen, best known as the host of Studio 360 and author of “True Believers,” writes with a novelist’s ear for style and eye for telling detail. His vision encompasses the panoply of folly in the political mainstream as well as the right and left ends of the spectrum, from Puritan and Dominionist end-timers to the postmodernist solipsists of academe (so reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s madly speculative Laputian intellectuals). Once you stop shaking your head it is all so bleakly, blackly funny. 

Andersen on the rise of moral relativism during the Sixties writes, “The water in our national hot tub was getting hotter and hotter and most of us happy frogs, lah-di-dah, di-dah, didn’t notice.” You can find a good article by the author (“How America Lost Its Mind”) summarizing his four-hundred-page book online at The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-america-lost-its-mind/534231/ - you will need a subscription). But you would miss the stranger-than-fiction historical footnotes that dot the text of the main event. They shed light on eminent historical figures and current celebrities (Cotton Mather, Samuel F.B. Morse, John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, Eckhart Tolle, Rick Santorum, Pat Buchanan) and esteemed American institutions (Harvard University, MIT, Esalen, Protestant churches) that shamefully went with the flow. Thomas Jefferson, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, thankfully, remain unsullied. 


Is America uniquely gullible? We may not be so individually, but collectively we are as amenable to deception and manipulation as any other culture. The myth of American exceptionalism, which always begins with the assumption that current-day America is the Christian, democratic, capitalist crown of creation (and evolution), has been revealed to be hollow. As Stuart Stevens, a former GOP operative, writes in his recent book “It Was All a Lie,” “Though no one inside the Republican Party likes to admit it, a deep fear lurks in the heart of the party: a fear of the future. The Trump obsession with immigrants from Mexico and Central America is motivated by his own racism, but it also reflects the knowledge that every new nonwhite voter in America is a threat to the existence of the Republican Party.”

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Francisco Goya, “The Burial of the Sardine,” 1812-19, oil on wood, 32 1/2 x 24”.

Fear and denial beget aggression of the kind we have seen in the recent trials in Wisconsin and Georgia, with defense attorneys arguing implicitly that gun possession by angry, frightened white males confers extrajudicial immunity. We used to be a can-do nation; can we reclaim pragmatism and realism despite the conspiratorial loony fringe, breathlessly awaiting the Second Coming of Trump as heralded by Mike Lindell and Q, along with the resurrection of JFK and JFK Jr.?

 

Incidentally, the Disneyland Time Capsule from 1995, buried at Sleeping Beauty Castle, is scheduled to be opened in 2035. Mark it on your calendar.

 

“[Jean Baudillard] wrote in 1986, ‘the secret of theory — this whole intellectual realm now called itself simply Theory — is that truth does not exist.’”

—“Fantasyland,” p. 307

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