1880. Response to Kurt Anderson on our bad history

An article in the Atlantic by Kurt Anderson


adapted from Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire—A 500-Year History, to be published in September by Random House.

His website



He is a serious fellow and the topic and hence the article is drawing lots of attention.

The article is a long history of wrong thinking by just about everyone. What is missing (The book not yet published may have chapters about this that make my musing here irrelevant) is any narrative about underlying historical trends and the political economy and culture that lie behind the well reported (surface) phenomena of possibly misguided belief.

Calling it a “history” allows for a sequential laying out of key events and publications, but can avoid a deeper assessment of cultural, political and economic history. For example how the breakup of the Christian world view left Europe culturally scrambling for a replacement, and we still haven’t found it. The title of the book includes “500 year history” -so perhaps the book covers this quite well.

My own narrative is like this:

Humans are sensory organic nervous animals with memories and affections and a strong desire to live. When there are a lot of us we connect through a few of each other through shared memories and shared pieces of media news (I a caricaturing here) and these add up to a somewhat shared belief system across the larger populations. “Belief system” is shorthand for all the complex combinations among people, most who do not know each other, linking bodies and brains and life histories into what we call society.

That belief system must be consistent with the way the society is organized, or society falls apart into factions.

Th belief system we have had was an economic/democratic/ consumerist world view where all was basically ok and we just needed more education, more health and while we are at it, better government.

Most of our working lives among the people I know – which is quite broad and international as well as regional – has gone into supporting that belief system – either directly through creating it – as in media or education – or indirectly through buying its goods and services.

That belief system was successful and allowed people in it to fail to notice the rise of population, traffic, militarism broken families, drugs, racism, climate. All could be handled.

Those who believed in it made connections, went to university, got jobs that had the effect of tightening the connections to other included participants, and weakening connections to the part of the population mostly excluded. We started marrying other professional rather than doctors marrying nurses. Good for the careers of the women but bad for those who lost a spouse that would have crossed class connections.

As the connections tightened for some, say the one percent and the ten percent that supported them – the ones left out of the musical chairs of modern society started losing loyalty to the system. The result was that the belief system supported part of the population but not the other part.

As the system failed for those left out their psyche’s looked for what was believable, and part of what each required was understanding why things were so bad for them.

If we look back over Anerdson’s history we see key events: mccarthyism, Korea, Vietnam, failure of American quality made visible by the Japanese – it is clear that most of us did start to lose faith, but we who were succeeding and participating covering over out doubts with TINA. There as no alternative.

We are still stuck there but the results are glaring. Trump, Climate change, hollowing out of the resources for American lives, militarism and security. The technical marvels – iPhone, internet, email, selfies – that could have played a positive role only highlighted the growing disparities and amplified the voices crying out in alarm, from radio talk shows to NYT (whose circulation goes up)

It is this dependence of a society on shared beliefs and the need for shared beliefs to be rooted in a successful material management of the world for the good of the people that has come apart.

Everyone is scrambling. In a bad time people look for who are going to be the winners to align with. Since there is vast disagreement, for example between those who look for solutions and those who look to mafia like power sources, the society begins to splinter and people look for signs of cause of their fate that has lost its logic.




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