« Making Sense with Sam Harris

#103 — American Fantasies

2017-11-08 | 🔗

In this episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Kurt Andersen about the American aptitude for unfounded belief, the religious lunacy of the Puritans, populist mistrust of authority, the link between postmodernism and religious fundamentalism, the unique history of American religious entrepreneurship, the Trump phenomenon, the effect of fame on politics, and other topics.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
For today's conversation, I'm speaking with Kurt Andersen Kurt is a best selling author and he's written for Vanity fair in the New York Times, he's also time in the new Yorker. Also for television and film and stage he co founded Spy magazine. And he was at one point the editor in chief of New York magazine and he's the host and creator of studio. Three sixty the award winning public radio show he graduated Magna laude from Harvard College, where he was the editor of the Harvard Lampoon, but most relevant for today's conversation. He's the author of a new book title to fantasyland how America went haywire hi and we talk about it today. We talk about the american aptitude for or unfounded belief. We talk about the way in which credulity inspired the founding of America, the religious lunacy of the Puritans
We talk about media and the growing populist mistrust of authority, between postmodernism, an religious fundamentalism. It all comes around to the trump phenomenon. Also, the effect of fame on politics and their other topics here anyway, we only had about an hour to discuss these things, so this is briefer than most podcast, but I think you'll find Kurt Steak on the present moment quite interesting now, I bring you Kurt Andersen. I am here with Kurt Andersen Kurt thanks for coming on the podcast, my complete pledge. So I don't think we've ever met. I notice that we've been to similar places like the Aspen ideas festival and
This is like that, but I'm not aware of having met. Am I right about that? I think you're right about that. Ok! Well, it's a pleasure to meet you virtually now. You have written a fascinating book which I think will be the he more or less. The totality of our conversation in the the book is fantasy land, how America went haywire a five hundred year history and like a few people, I've had on the podcast recently you seem to have written a book that was just perfectly poised to capture what was about to happen. They obviously you had to been writing this long before thought to a president. Trump were anything other than a punch line. I am yet you have written really the the backstory to our current moment in a way that is pretty remarkable. So congratulations on having such good luck as an author. Thank you. If I, if I believed in Providence, I would
I would figure I'd I'd. Had it come my way, you know absolutely. I started working on this book sort of thinking about this book many years ago and then started working out at two thousand and thirteen two thousand and fourteen resort near the end of the the appearance of Donald Trump as the impending nominee. Just as I was finishing the book out, yes seems like I guess my. The timing is the phrase yeah. Well. If you are a man given to prayer, you might been praying for the wrong thing at that point. Well, yes, indeed, and I what I remember it one, what are you what early last year waking up one morning when a Donald Trump seem to have been about two wrapping, if not wrapping up the nomination, it him being out a plausible winner? At that point and saying to my wife on I know this is horrible to say, but if you get, the nomination could be very good for this spot yeah near our again it. It really is amazing to read through the lens of our current moment.
I would argue it would have been a very different. This is something I said to KEN Burns when he was on it. We're talking about his Vietnam documentary, which is this incredible time. Capsule experience of is looking at the divisiveness of american politics, in addition to the chaos of that war and watching it through the lens of the president, was very different than it would have been watching through. Let's say that the first term of Obama's presidency- and that's also true in your book about I obviously there- is that many of the trends you talk about of American on reason, which will discuss were present even there, but it's just. We really are at some kind of apotheosis of your thesis No, it up. That's exactly correct and, as I've said to people as I've been talking about the book since it came out everything I am arguing here and certainly the history that I'm laying out in arguing here would have been true. We still would have been in a pickle by my
had Donald Trump not been elected president, but here he is, and and and a kind of poster boy exhibit a for my history and for my feces and makes it not easier to explain what I'm talking about to people frankly. Well so before we jump into the book, just give us a brief potted history of your intellectual life. You've been a novelist and a broadcaster and a magazine editor. But how do you describe what you been up too? Well, because I've done a lot of things and I still do a couple of things I usually go with. What's on my passport, which is writer but yeah. I I was a journalist and then I became a magazine editor. I edited New York magazine started Spy magazine back in the 80s
and then began writing novels at the end of the last century and about the time I also started doing a radio show on public radio, which I, which I still doing that so I still write novels and I still do the public radio show in fantasyland is- is my first big nonfiction book? So that's, that's! Basically the the summit. How often do you do your radio show it's a weekly show to weekly our called studio, three sixty right right, okay, so the book is essentially a history of american credulity and I'm sure it will emphasize the downside of this, but there is, as you point out more than the downside. There is some silver lining to this american disposition to unite what on their face, seems like very different trends, but they all sort of push in the direction of believing things strongly on insufficient evidence. We have religious commitments and crack pottery
entrepreneurialism and a capacity for self reinvention, Anna love of show business and celebrity culture and even conspiracy, thinking and all of these forces have brought us. This present moment, but before we dive into the negative aspects of all of this, can you say something about the silver lining for this american aptitude for unfounded belief, well unfounded or less than perfectly founded. I mean there are benign aspects to this, certainly, and there is even the heroism I I can come to this place, and I can build this thing or become this person. Or do this extraordinary thing, even though it's doubtful that you, the individual, will succeed in doing or any of those things, but that sense of blue the the impossible dream that has all this obvious good sides and and has served us well as a country in in many different respects. So I would say: that's it I I would say
certainly the the the the freedom and didn't tell the freedom became went too far in in in believing crackpot, ism and and disbelieving evidence or or choosing, not to believe evidence, all all of those ways in which America indulged every flavor of belief. True false crackpot ish brilliant was good when it and tell it wasn't until until it became a kind of uncontrollable kettle boiling over. So I would say that the creating this extraordinary country out of nothing at authoring, this country from scratch, had many good side. We could do then get into all of the doubts about. Oh, but you said this is good because they moved west because they believed it and they committed genocide.
Against Indians and that's a different case. But I would say, by and large much of what I see as becoming Highly problematic in leading us. The place we've arrived at today was a net plus for most of our history. Let's start with the history, because the this is a work of history, you've written and the roots of America, which really are seemingly in the dna of it literally in the dna of the country. Insofar as there was this kind of a selection pressure for a certain type of person to come here, there are two aspects to it: and that seemed to be intertwined very early around the founding, which was on one level you had people driven essentially by the death of El Dorado in the mythical city of gold, and then you had others who were driven by the death of the garden of Eden, literally wanted to find it on earth. And so there was this twin mill
rid of a kind of get rich quick scheme and a pilgrimage that attracted more and it's fair share of religious maniacs Anas. These two groups and they came in waves from England, as you point out, and with vast numbers of them dying for the privilege of searching for one of these two things and the people we're left the people who made it were really of this sword that people who take inordinate risk based on having been successfully advertise to essentially a full advertising campaign for decades in England that proffered both of these fantasies to would be colonists and the people who were taken and where the founders of this country. Well, that's you put it exactly right, that's a beautiful summary and, and as it certainly is a
child, and even through high school, the history of those first european settlers that I knew where the where the, where the Puritans in New England and I and I was taught very little about the nature of their of their protestantism and the fact that it was for its time in the early sixteen hundreds perceived among the the church of England, people back in England as a primitive man, evil form of their new issue, religion of protestantism. So I I learned very little about the gold hunters down south but, as you said that they they especially died by the hundred and kept coming in dying and not finding gold. It took them and more their generation to be convinced that there was no goal to be had in in Virginia so that those didn't seem like I mean not just kind of metaphorical nodes for are beginning, but the very real thing, and, as you said, these, these two different forms of of
wish full passionate believe in the either unprovable or untrue. We're we're we're our founders, and I- and I really didn't know about, as you say this essentially first global advertising campaign put on by the the the the businessmen, who's colonies. These were who had the charter from the royal charter from the from England to do some business here, build an empire, and- and so yes, pamphlets posters and all kinds of advertising were put out in England to convince these people. To come here and uh and, as you say, it's not just it's not just a a crack to say and they sell selected for suckers. That is something
Historians before add legitimate historians, real historians phd historians before me have have proffered as well as an important, defining quality of of the early Americans yeah. I think you are Daniel. Borstein quote to that effect, exactly that it was just a explicit selection pressure for those susceptible to to advertising. So let's say something about the religious commitments of the puritan. You know we have. This word puritanism, which does signify kind of overweening attachment to biblical law. Realism in a fondness for something like theocracy, but people, I think, are not so in touch with the character of these founders and in fact, that you point out one more: Where are confusion or revisionism is fairly surprising that John Winthrop, the puritan leader,
the author of this famous line about America being a city upon a hill and when that phrase is invoked today it really it means that essentially, were an example to the whole world of what happens when a diverse society really get his act together like this is the summation of almost enlightenment values, succeeding and some moral order, but in the context in which he uttered these words, he was really talking about the fulfillment of end times prophecy. He was talking about Christ's imminent return to judge the living and the dead, and these were people who felt that was going to happen, very soon, absolutely and that this could be the new Jerusalem where, where that happens, and they thought of themselves as yes, analogous to the biblical Israelites searching for the problem.
And but but not nearly analogously. They literally thought this was going to happen and that the new world could be the the epicenter of all that the other thing about Puritans, when we, when we talk about them today or that use that word today. Of course, it simply almost exclusively as a synonym for for prudish, Nis and and and and sexual restraint, and, of course, yes, that that was part of it, but not the most important or frankly interesting part of what the Puritans and especially the Puritans, who came to America we're all about, and- and I say the parents came to America, because there are plenty of curtains in in England and and on top in Kano Europe. But the ones who came here were these words. This Moses Alice faction of a zealous faction of curtains, who were the the zealous faction of Protestants. So, yes, they they. They absolutely believed in this in the end times coming very soon and and and that they were the agency guy
God's agents, income in the new world to to see that through, as well as being great believers in signs and wonders and symbols and regarding oddly shaped roots and meteor showers as various signs they were either on the right track or that God was displeased depending on the day. Well, I'm a little torn about how to proceed in this conversation, because on one level, it would make sense to move through chronologically almost decade by decade and get your take on how we got here, but another path would be to focus on specific variables like religion or c thinking or postmodernism and talk about how these things interrelated. I do have an intuition about that that the best way forward here. Well, I I mean I I I I I thought the best way for was for writing. The book was to do it more or less chronologically, but doing it in those thematic ways. I'm entirely happy to do that. That is. That's. That's
either way to do it, so I'm I'm having to that. I I do want to mention just a character among the Puritans who we barely know today. I've most people don't know or hurt and Hutchinson who was this extraordinary character. I just think she's a great story so before we leave the Puritans altogether. I would love to talk a little about her because I there's a fascinating yeah. Let's talk about man, she was a middle aged mother of many many children well to do. Came here in the early first waves of curtains settle in Boston as they did and well lived in the in the good part of town neighbor of the governor, but decided very early on that
she she was. She felt herself essentially sainted and in touch with the divine, in a way that the all the the male clergy and and leaders were not and began having essentially romp church sessions at her home that her husband allowed her to do, I guess and- and they became very popular and and in addition to critiquing the sermons that were being given by the of course, male puritan leaders. Every Sunday she had. She brought a whole other piece to the to the to the idea to the curtain. Protestant christian idea, which is that I can. I can feel whose godly I know who the elect are, I know who is who is with God and who isn't in this sixth sense way and the because I feel it. It is true which, when, when we look at that in you know almost four
years retrospect. It's it's so she is to me a kind of proto, typical American in that sense and and of course they banished and and throughout and she went and found her version of religious freedom down in province with Roger Williams, but her her case is presented today, correct late. It is so far as it goes as this as this with her as of beleaguered feminist heroine, which she was judged by all these, these guys and being deprived of her religious freedom, as was also true, but she was she essentially one upped the the puritan religious leaders in terms of their by my lights, religious fever and and extravagance and and again. Did this other thing, which is no no, I Iam Iam Iam holy. I am a profit. I feel these things, which, which was not part of the the pure
An idea, so I I I just find her an extraordinary character and and in in a way in a way that the curtains, even though much of their theology, is become current again in American Protestantism. I find her as this extraordinary way ahead of her time. Figure in in represent a kind of religious practice in belief that came to define American Protestantism, almost uniquely in in Christendom, near her as a kind of religious entrepreneur and at and others obvious you followed, but she also did expose the way in which any religious cult, no matter fanatical, is all is vulnerable to the even greater fanaticism of one of the yes exactly and and that that has been the story of of American Protestantism. Of being this very fissile thing, with with no center no no state church and and that, as as the
they grow as the new denominations emerge, and there are all full of vigor, zelan and fanaticism, and then they cool down in a new hot, more fanatical and zealous sex grow. I know that that is in a in a in a nutshell, the history of American Protestantism, and you actually touch on some of the older history of proselytism, which is relevant here, because it was clearly enabled by the birth of the printing press. And so this is the power of the media really is coincident the emergence of media as a powerful force to shape public opinion is coincident with the protestant reformation and both are coincident. With this populist trend that led to the widespread disparagement of experts in the case of the Protestants, they were explicitly repudiating the expertise
if the church. But you know this- is something that just continues to this day, where you have access to meet allowing for both on the right and the left, a kind of kin feeling of doubt with respect to the established powers or established authorities, and it's a war that rage is generation after generation where you just have. These will kind of waves of repudiation of what is at least in the current generations, mind you know the considered opinion of those best informed on it. On topic, but the end of it. The media is always allowing for your kind of sea change or an attempted seachange against that opinion, rather often on the parts of people. Who are just reinventing reality for themselves. A lot of this conversation is an unconstrained by anything that has gone before exactly right, and indeed I
Who knows will will will know our descendants will know better in some hundreds of years if the debt Little revolution and the internet is as disruptive in the way that the movable type and the printing press in the late 15th century was. I have a feeling it will be and is, and and certainly as you're suggesting it is. It is this extraordinary in the case of America, especially book ending of this technology. In the case of printing press that permitted Luther Luther's ideas and the reformation to happen. If, if, if he'd come along fifty years earlier, I don't think it what it wouldn't happen, he wouldn't have been that guy anyway, to make it happen, because the press allowed books to be printed in books in in in in modern languages to be printed and and thus everybody every believing products and to be the in this priesthood of all believers, his or her own priest with his or her own Bible, interpreting it at will,
and so it yeah. Yes, there is this technology, and then, and now that are permitting these, these transformation of understanding of reality and what you do? We you what you had then and now having this kind of repetition nor I'm now is. Is this this part of protestantism that they believe so strong and and that all America that Americans, in general, beyond the the the the the fervently religious Protestants here, I think it is part of the american character this this anti establishment feeling, and I don't need to trust the experts. I can figure it out on my own and and this anti elitism, which it which it was certainly given. Oomf Anpao or by overwhelmingly protestant founders and forebears, but
it is not just among those piously devoutly religious Protestants today, where that anti establishment, anti expert feeling is deeply rooted and passionately pursued. One thing you point out in the book, which is fairly surprising. I don't know if other people have pointed this out before you talk a lot about a energee, rather malignant synergy between religious fundamentalism and it's sort of anti a rational tendencies and movements very much in academia, postmodernism in particular, which it with its you, no doubt about science and really doubt about reality itself and those two trends on the
left and right of the political spectrum have really married in a way to bring us to this moment where it seems most people feel entitled to have their their own, take on real quality itself. Whether it's informed or not, by even the vaguest, understanding of scientific worldview or any other real intellectual trend that could deliver them, fax. So just it seems a legitimate project for most people to have a very strongly felt opinion about cosmology or global warming, or anything else about which they may have spent no time informing themselves, and this does cut across political lines. I think, in the way that you described you wanted, you want talk about that weird marriage, sure yeah. It is a weird marriage and one that I it had been passing Lee suggested here and there. But, but I think I I spend more time talking about it in this particular way, an
and the way in which that part of the 60s not so much the political left in the 60s, but the cultural left and post modern academia in deciding and and absolutely insisting that reality itself as a social construct. That reason and science are not to be considered superior to magical believe for folk belief of any kind, and that became as now. We would call a politically correct thinking it in in academia. It also, I think it it as as these things do who, as conservatives, have always complained about the academy, these things seep out in various forms, vulgar and otherwise, into the popular understanding of reality and have had an effect. I don't know if, if the, if the academic postmoderns are responsible for five percent, thirty percent whatever, but some there is some culpability,
when it it merged, with, among other things, and maybe, most importantly, with the rising religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism end and total belief in magic that the charismatic churches represent starting in the nineteen sixties, and they wore these strange bedfellows that encouraged and enabled and insisted in in the minds of many Americans of all stripes that, yes, whatever they wish to believe whatever they feel strongly enough, whether it's about the harmonic convergence. That's about to happen, because everybody is gathered on a certain day and thinking about cats, or, or or or that Jesus is returning or that there is no climate change or whatever the believe which fully and passionately held, is theirs to have by right, because of because they are an american and and so yes, the the it was. It was these things that seemed at opposite ends of some spectrum in the nineteen, sixty
is, the kind of countercultural. An and academic left Bohemia on the one hand, well on three hands and then then the religious extremism of various kinds on on another hand and then this third hand of the of the of the the far right, the the John Birch Society conspiracists. Also coming in there an beginning this coming together in this kind of weird stew, starting yes in the late 1960s. So we have essentially jumped to the 60s terms of our recollection of history- is there anything you want to fill in in terms of the record, how we got to the 60s from deep time the religious awakening and in the US was sure I mean that's, that's why I wrote the book but yeah that there I mean we were just on okay on the on the religion
front. Only in America did did we have these incredibly successful new religions of unusually extravagant belief and backstory, the Mormons and and christian science in the nineteenth century, but others the the Millerites who believed in the that the world was ending which which has all of its residual descendants around today so that that was our religious, a 19th century. Along with that this, this the sense of I I feel Holy Spirit within me, and and it's making me jump and dance and faint and so forth that two was it- was a very american ad on not not not uniquely, but a very american, add on to protestantism and then interesting. They not Intel, which I really
I wasn't aware of your your religious scholar along ahead of me. I I didn't know that Pentecostal is a myth, which is to say I believe I believe that you speak in tongues, that one people can speak in tongues in a in a in a on decipherable or or maybe decipherable holy language- that that was an american invention in the twentieth century that that was a surprise to me, and so that certainly is an important piece of the history speak in tongues.
It happened, the founder of shaker, isn't, had spoken, tongues and and and the Mormons one they were inventing Mormonism occasionally spoke in tongues, but it only became a central piece of a religion pentecostalism and then what what was rebranded later in the twenty century, as as charismatic Christianity in America in the twentieth century. So that's that's that that's the religious part I mean it. Conspiracism, hey we had again is not unique to America, but but we began as a conspiracy to break away from England and and work you and, and we were at the the the founders, the the. U founders of the US were conspiracy, certainly, but then every so often whether it was the the media over the the masonic conspiracy of the Illuminati conspiracy, the popish papal catholic conspiracy, that those were have been powerful moments in american history and and they and they came and went by and large that they
had their moment in. They were last of for the as long as a war lasted when suddenly we were scared of Germans in world war. One scared of japanese Americans in World war, two scared of of Jews for a little while in the one is nineteen twenties, but those conspiracy, new moments in american history Intel the last fifty years or so came and went, and then in the sixties, in no small measure because of the Kennedy assassination and and and beliefs about it's how it happened and why it happened. That was that. Was it a tipping point where, where, where conspiracism became more of a of a of a permanent and unchanging part of the the american way of thinking about politics and society and the way the world works? So I think now for up to date on these things on how we got to the 60s. So I want to talk about the current moment and
You know what's wrong with it and what could well, they come right with it if we got our house in order, I'd like to think about what the path forward toward something better could look like with respect to these various trends. But as the author of this book and someone who has now spent years thinking about what's unique about the american character with respect to self invention and self assurance and believe in one's own publicity and the primacy of subjectivity and even a kind of hedonism hedonism, perhaps on the left and religious rectitude on the right, but this sort of real,
anchoring in capacity for self invention, an entrepreneurialism which has been remarked upon not by ourselves but by visitors, to this country. As especially american, characteristic- and you add to that the birth of the internet and social media and a kind of spirit we're seeing around us now of Anti Globalism, both on the right and the left on the left. You have a real distrust of global capitalism on the right. You have a a kind of nationalist populist reaction to trade and immigration, and both right and left are Essentia Lee. Wanting to stop things at the border, whether their ideas or people or money, or both three and into this Carnaval emerges a character of trumpian guile and whether he's
a brilliant con men or more of a kind of evil. Chauncey Gardner as I've come to think of him, where it is just he's just perfectly matched to his moment, but through no great genius of his own. How do you view America take, to November of last year and come forward. What is our situation, and what do you hope to go at this moment? as I say, had a had those eighty thousand votes in those three states gone differently. An Donald Trump were not our president. We would be in most of the ways I talk about in this book in hot water still. We wouldn't have this evil Chauncey Gardner liar in chief working so hard with, with his all and all his flying monkeys in the meat and his own white House to convince as many people as possible. That
their version of reality is correct and, and reality itself is to be suspected and all that it's making it worse, no question! So where are we? I, I think I I think for all of his ignorance in and kind of jaw dropping stupidity. In so many ways. The Donald Trump does have a kind of. You said: evil evil genius, this kind of knack for knowing things and feeling things that he's talked about and he's he talks about his own brilliance beyond his ivy league education, IQ, knowing when things are gonna change in it or or be valuable or or that's gonna work in in a in a real estate, developer huckster way- and I think I've been paying close attention him for a long time as long as anybody an he started, talking about running for President one thousand nine hundred and eighty seven. Eighty eight didn't do it
word again, every four years again and again and again and never did it because I think Intel, two thousand twelve and finally, two thousand sixteen cycles. He understood sensually what we're talking about here, what I've written about a fantasy life yeah at some level. I I I I have a strong hunch that he thought he saw that the the idea of of of reality and truth versus falsehood infection had become so blurry in America that he had a shot that he had never had before. So it wasn't just that he had a hit, show that he didn't run in nineteen. Ninety six or two thousand he could I've gotten on the nomination of a party, but I think he sensed Louis could so. Where are we? We are in a bad place and- and I'm not- I have not been historically a person who has said the sky is falling in oh, my god. America is in decline, not at all and uh. If anything, I have been uh
out liar among my general ideological circles, of saying that this is a there's. A pretty good place in it'll it'll be fine in, but I I I I don't have conviction right now that that we can swing back to normalcy anytime soon. I I I I do worry that the the new this new extraordinary disruptive technology in in the form of the internet that allows all of the various tribes and fiefdoms of of the empirically untrue or insupportable to have their versions of reality in which people can now immerse himself. All the time makes it difficult. Doesn't it doesn't make me think, oh give up. It all is lost, but does it make it
order to imagine some kind of cyclical return to things the way they were when they were better and they were in the way that we're talking about today better twenty years ago, we have certainly thirty years ago that there was still enough of a of a kind of sensible establishment in control of these various institutions. The news media, the entertainment, maybe not twenty years ago, but religions as well, that that kept them from going off the rails and and kept every opinion and belief to be regarded as a potential equal to any other enter faq into factual reality. That's changed and- and you know, we can all eat in our private lives in in into the grey. We have public platforms. Do our bit to fight the good fight,
but I don't know how we get out of here. I I what what what my my I'm not a worse, the better leninist kind of person, but I do think on my hopeful days that perhaps the disaster of this administration will lead to some. People who, who That was a bad idea and and and we should not, I was wrong to reject facts simply because they were inconvenient to me. Maybe that will happen. Maybe there will be a a kind of bracing and cleansing reaction on the part of some percentage of people that will will will grow the what I call the reality based part of us, but I am not especially helpful right,
now, about about how we, how we get out of this, and not especially believing as I used to be inclined to about the cyclical nature of history, which many historians believe and and and talk about in terms of the american policies movement from left to right from left to right. That seems to have been the case, but this is something else this isn't about left to, right and and and individual enterprise verses, the communitarian needs. This is something else. That I tend to believe is more of a the toothpaste is out of the tube. How do you get it back in problem, Was you say invoking that phrase reality based community you're, referencing Karl row I believe so that he was one of the early engineers of this kind of political cynicism, and that has given us the full horror of someone like Kellyanne Conway, who can, with seemingly with without a
a single neuron in her head feeling guilty congests a spouse, falsehood after falsehood and spin every conceivable inconvenient fact to some other purpose but just seem like something has shifted now where there seems to be when you think of whatever it is the thirty five percent to thirty eight percent of people who support trump is very hard to see what would convince them that he's not a fit present right I mean like I you'd- have to imagine the the stock market going to zero or a nuclear war with n Korea that seemed unjustified or you know it seems like a wag, the dog nuclear war before you would pick off a significant percentage of those people and get them to admit this was math. We didn't actually want to go down and short of that. I don't know what it means to have a
society where there is literally nothing that can be said. There's no set of facts that can be deduced that are so undignified and uncontroversial so as to to fundamentally change a person's perception of the leader of the personality cult that they have joined and that it it does have the character of a kind of personality cult, where a support for for him is divorced from a any honest conversation about what he's like what he says, what it means, what he would attempt to do if, given all the power that he wants- and it doesn't seem like a normal political conversation were having. I entirely agree with and I mean one again when I, when I try to imagine the hopeful ways this ends, you know great personality. Cults have ended abruptly for various reasons in the past.
And I can imagine this when doing so, as you say in those capacities happen if I had imagined just in a kind of political sense that that if indeed Trump Kerr had been the new healthcare system- and it's still a beat that that would be a place where the rubber finally met the road and and his supporters would say, hey what this is, what I counted on and and and they would lose their faith in the great and powerful wizard, but you- You know Intel until pretty late in the game to the river again we're just talking about Trump's political standing till pretty late in the game I mean Nixon still had great support, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four and then it claps are. There was a collapsing moment. We could imagine that. I guess, however, as you say and end as I write about this, but we didn't then have what we have now, which is this powerful telecommunications complex in the form of Fox NEWS and and and talk radio
so and the internet in all of its various forms to make, contain the aggrieved we've not been here before so even know. If and when that political collapse happens in the thirty, eight or thirty, three percent goes down to twenty five percent or whatever some large room, a number, of that twenty five percent will still believe will believe. No, he was right, they purged him and and that's that, what one of the great questions- and I have again again thinking about the people in this book in the stories in this book- did Joseph Smith really believe that he had the missing piece of the Bible. I'm not sure he did. Sincerely believe that does Donald Trump really believe many of the things he says the preposterous conspiracy theories that he puts out and so forth. I think he believes some of it. So that's that's! The chilling part of this, for me is
Is this ok, we know what a lie is an app, for instance, Kellyanne Conway. I think she's simply a liar of an extreme cynical look at kind and, and we know what madness is- and I think there's there's a there's a lot of there's a great mixture of, I kind of believe I sort of believe I'm not sure, I believe I want to believe I all. I know I hate these liberals on television, so that's that where we are and and in a way that I'm not sure we have been before where, where, after these dramatic moments of where a conspiracists, absurd, Jan's or or Nixon is thrown out, or whatever there's a kind of chase and oh yeah. That was a bad idea after the Salem Witch trials in sixteen six thousand and ninety two, I will see, I think I think, because of of where we gotten two over the last fifty years, especially especially
where we are with our communication system that this won't end as badly as I can imagine it in well. There is something about social media, that seems to be potentiate in much. That is wrong with us in in in the way we have these conversations and and and it does come down to some of those gradations of dishonesty you you just pointed out and and are not only scene bright lines between them, because that there are liars who just lie with the clear as of a cycle path, and I actually think Trump is among them. I think he he lies more than anyone who I could name yes, and I think he knows he lies and he's so not delusional, he's he's actually lying, then he's probably just confused about or ignorant of the the extent of his ignorance. Yes, he's got an opinion about something, then he thinks it's probably you know he's just spitballing here
those as much as anyone in the room about x and he's unaware of how much there is to know about x and how little he in fact, nose and and that his words are in demonstrable contrast with reality. Doesn't the trouble him but he's not actually conscious of lion and many people are in that space a lot with just talking and a they're, not aware of of what they don't know, but there's this yeah, because cynicism is the is the name for it? Or is this the only word I I know by which to name it, there's there's this attitude when sizing those one disagrees with where people have ceased to care. There are about the norms of adult conversation and civility and an intellectual honesty, so that like, if you can slime someone successfully with something which is, in fact not true, you don't even have
care whether it's true this is. This is a valid way of winning it's just. These are what we our dueling pr campaigns and it's not about really interacting with another person's argument or thesis or record, it's about just shaming them into silence somehow and everything that's happening on the left and the right now with respect to politics and with respect to any of moments in the news that that have a real political and moral charge. Me, like you, know, like the Harvey, Weinstein scandal right, there's, there's there's: what's her and and however bad? It is but then there's a kind of attitude of moral panic that grows up on either side of the thing and in that
connect and many people claim that you know my reaction to Trump is part of a kind of moral panic that he's not nearly as bad as I've made him out to be. I mean again, this is very hard to get one's bearings here, because the very criticism one has of this situation can be used against you, but we are, it seems, I think large as a result of of social media and the sense that it's just good to retweet articles.
One hasn't even read just because one likes their titles. There's this amplification of outrage and kind of thoughtless criticism of of the opposite side, which is just it's during this up into some kind of tempest, and it's it's very hard to get back to civil discourse about important topics. I I think that's right and I think part of the the one of the of the tributaries of that will causing that is. Is that what I talk about a lot the book about how it is individual parts, the the kind of entertainment or old and the work of the fantasy industrial complexes? I call it which blurs the distinction is between the real and the fictional and makes people think. Oh, I owners, but NFL team. No, you don't you're playing tennis football, but no, no IONA and I felt like all of those ways again
visually but nine mostly, I think, Kevin Courage that, and I think you have encouraged it because of course social media takes place on the internet, as does so many of these other living in fiction. Things that that we have had enabled in Leicester, in twenty years. So I think in a certain way say these horrible things about my opponents over here is converting real life in these real people, whom you don't know and don't see, and it's just through the screen into characters in a game or more players on in a sport and losing the distinctions between between, fiction reality and and why be civil towards somebody who just exists as a character on a screen which which two people whom no doubt paid
us we are and and and and and and again that's not just people who hate us who had our suffer from that it's it's as you suggest it happens across various ideological spectrum. Although let let's not fall into, let's stipulate that it, it is a work this right now on the right, then it is on the lesson you mentioned Harvey Weinstein and that the issue of sexual predation and sexual harassment. I saw a you Yougov survey in the last few days, which struck me, which is that essentially equivalent large majorities of Republicans and Democrats. Two slash three more than two slash. Three believed that the allegations against Harvey, Weinstein, work, readable and probably true. When asked about the the sexual allegations by twenty women against Donald Trump, something like. A tiny minority of Republicans believe that they were credible
which leads me to believe, and maybe is unique, the sexual harassment. I don't think so, but I thought that was a good illustration of the way in which at least one limited sphere. We we saw that the left, the little left was willing to say yeah this, this big liberal, benefactor and donor to a guy who agrees with us about Six is a bad guy and I'm willing to accept that fact. Even though it's unfortunate for my politics, you know, I I think it's a it's a it's a good small illustration of the of the asymmetry of of the create your own reality phenomenon. That is a foot in this country. Now, as you go far enough, left I'm starting to think that the pension for unreality is is more or less equivalent sure to the stream on the right I agree with you that mean at the left, pics different battles to fight, and it is
There is an asymmetry here in that the left cannibalizes itself in a way that the right doesn't people on the right and the republican establishment. We can see how they have circled the wagons with this very Une establishment person at their center, and now we're all waiting to see what you know. What misstep so agree just would be sufficient to get someone like Paul Ryan to to come forward and say: well, you lately I'll, listen. We have with this coming for some time. You know I. I have to admit now that I can't stand by this president, like what would it take right, but on the left, it wouldn't take all that much because the laughs, penchant for self criticism and self doubt becomes a kind self immolation again and again, where you like you, you can see people on the left. Who are but the racial and trans gender, but they're still not sufficiently progressive so as to inoculate them against being savaged by their more progressive call.
Pigs. Everything reads like an onion article when you get into the space literally, you have professors at Rutgers and Brandeis who we're getting a how old out of their classrooms. Yes, using the wrong term, and you know these are the same people who, who been on twitter howling, everybody else about their use of terms. So it's just. You know that the left eats its own in the way the right doesn't that that's true and and for now, anyway, the the the the the size and power of that part of the left is is much much smaller than than than that part of the right. Hey yeah, that's the that's true? The other thing, the I thought experiment, I've done work on regularly and have for the last year is, who would be, and could there be a trump of the left that people on the left would against their better judgment and save alot like she is amazing and she
she's a she's, a kuchen, she's terrible in this way and she's awful, but by God, sheep. She believes in so close medicine and this, and that I'm going with it like to what degree and under what circumstances could that happen? It's hard to imagine the equivalent, but I'm I'm willing to accept that we might have to make those choices as as people of the left, eventually you're saying you You'Re- willing to imagine that we might have to promote some goal. A quick when colossus well know that we might have to well. As you know, in this book. I, I spent a lot of time in pages holding Oprah Winfrey accountable for much of the pseudo science and and- and he are magical thinking, that is a foot in America, people talk very seriously about Oprah, Winfrey being a potential democratic nominee for president. And and she sort of stepped into my thought experiment. A few months ago, like ok
She is the nominee. Do I is. Is that the is that my trunk moment, where what what what honest Republicans had to do with Donald Trump and and those who decided? No, I can't abide this and became never croppers. Would I be a never never per person, and that would that that will be a character test for me, who should run as a Democrat in twenty twenty. Do you have anyone on your list who you think this is a perfect choice, not a perfect choice and and again in in this, like anything anything's possible moment, I don't know I I can't say with any conviction. I did I had a moment listening to A long interview, I guess that Ezra Klein did on his podcast with Al Frankin Ann and I never know when Al Frankens light for years and I've, never, I hadn't thought of him as like. Oh yes, president, some day, I suddenly thought in a post trump world in in in perhaps an anti trump alexian. He could make sense as a as a democratic candidate, because he
certainly smart Emily reasonable all these all of the right things, but he also has this and ability to perform an ability to be funny in a way that dog trump has in his in his realm. I some of the like whoa. He no disrespect Senator Franken, but he's kind of the Democratic Donald Trump. So maybe him, but again I you know they're they're, you know they're all kinds of really attractive people that I and- and I mean attractive in the not the physical sense who who, who I think I'd be fine with. But I don't I don't I don't you know I don't say no. Martin O'Malley must run again. I don't have those kinds of of firm beliefs. What is the role of fame and the industry that produces it here for us, majors, historically and now going forward, because we part of what you
have just described, is the way in which reality is becoming indistinguishable from a reality television show which, because we are sort of entertaining ourselves into The abyss, because of the way we're using this technology. The way that technology is capturing our attention so that your your teen videos on Facebook you're having articles forwarded to you by those you have chosen to follow on Twitter, you're, watching television and you're off and watching the part of television that purports to be reality. But it's this sort of confection of some kind is the kind of game show but it's not it's not that it's not reality either, because these people are actually in unscripted situations. And you know trumpet came out of whatever it was fourteen years of engineering that situation for himself. How is
the fame culpable here or now indispensable, for what is happening is definitely part of What, God is Here- and I will point out that, in addition to being are on the television star Guy, who played a boss on television for fifteen years, which was Donald Trump, would not now be president. Had that not happened, he was also, of course, a fig in professional wrestling and a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, which is more than simply a perfect metaphor for where we are now. But I write a long history and and and and apart a big part of America's long history has a pop culture and advertising at its center and and and Americans as the inventors of the modern pop culture industry in so many ways and then beginning of the twentieth century after we invented Hollywood in the end that larger than by orders of magnitude celebrity industry, this this this fame pursue
for its own sake, the attention of the masses for its own sake as the only way we can really have agency in feel powerful and potent, because the rest of us schlubs and nobody's: don't really have any power, the fame is it fame. Is celebrities have agency the rest of us? Don't not, need to America, but but in its in its extremity in a in a I think, defining of America. So don't try to be a get before he was us. Reality show star, I back in the 80s and 90s. I was always struck by one thing more than anything else about him, not that. Is a bully and a liar, and and all these other things that he was because I'd known other people who had been all those things but I'd, never, I could not name then, and I can certainly cannot name now, anybody I've seen who is more in in
his or her need for attention, which is to say and it was true then, and now he has it, and so, and that is not a separate thing from from the entertainment, tainment showbiz thing that the presidency was becoming before Donald Trump and that he is made it entirely, which is to say he understands he. Doesn't he not only wants our attention and he's got our attention he's, got America's attention every day and every hour he also understands he needs to entertain, and so whether it's it's tweeting some outrageous sing to make everybody talk about him again or whatever it is. He is that he is that guy on stage in vaudeville or now in the oval office, who understands that
Wait, wait, I'm losing you. Let me do this nutty thing, and so that's that's. That is how he has turned this into the presidency. His presidency into a form of entertainment, that it had never been that it got in the tv. Through Kennedy and Reagan and Clinton it edged Lord, knows closer to that, but he's taking it all the way in a way that that fits into his this particular path. Ology. For for wanting everyone to look at him, he also wants respect, which is which is never gotten and and and be on his thirty or forty percent is never going to get, which is a separate issue, but but but it's just the attention that a a tumblr on stage
she needs l thrives on like you and I need air and water. No, so what do you think the social media companies should do to protect our conversation with ourselves better than they have thus far that you know? Obviously, we've got the the russian hacking component to this, which is its own problem, but do you have any sense of what twitter and Facebook, and together should have done and should now be doing going for, like I literally don't know enough about the technology to be able to say what they should have done. It seems clear to me that that they, I have the ability and the obligation and now to see what
can do in terms of their process season their technology and all the rest to mitigate the worst things that they have been that they have enabled the eve they have some obligation, of course, that the their their argument. What long before this election of internet providers back in, the old days and more recently Facebook and twitter? Oh, no, we're just we're like the telephone company. We just provide the wires that way. We don't we're. Not a media company well clearly I mean that was always disingenuous, and now it's become something worse than that they are the most powerful media companies. Well, Facebook certainly is. World, and therefore they have an obligation absence the quaint little. You know, fairness doctrine that we used to have to governing american radio television broad to come up with ways, as I say to not to make it perfect, that's never possible, but to mitigate
eight, the dangerous degradation of of republican ideals. That's a small, our republican ideals and democracy that they that they're, enabling what do you think about what it'll take to defend the enlightenment going forward? One way to see your thesis here is that the and statement has come under sustained assault with it of the value of having one's beliefs and opinions be in some sort of register reality as it is, and and the value of caring about the departures from reality that are consequential. That seems to be the under salt, again on on the left and the right and the tools by which we can get the better part of our society to notice the problem. And and agree about how to correct it. It seems seem to be in short supply when you have essentially the equivalent of some kind of satanic panic on campuses. Around
any authority being indistinguishable from from oppression, we know whether it's suppression, racial oppression or in a capitalist conflicts of interest. The war. The very word truth, has a a a series branding problem at the moment it does indeed, and and it's when we talk, but what happened in the 60s. That was when the enlightenment and all what we mean by that came under explicit attack both by the the religious fundamentalist end by people on the on the cultural left and political left. The on campus is so so, yes that that has been a a kind of strange bedfellows, unwitting tag team going on, now for half a century troublesome. I I think I think again,
having grown up in a household of St Republicans and conservatives. That is my parents. I know what that looks like and- and I do and I ha and my hope lies in the belief that it's not entirely gone and, for instance, I can I can. I can once be and demonstrator demonstrated and shown that economic prosperity and and the amazing economic prosperity that America has has enjoyed for so long is truly jeopardized out if we lose the statement that there beyond the oh it's it would be, it would be a LOS, a loss of tragic proportions because that's our civilization, yeah sure fine.
I think, there's also an argument that it would be done that it would be that it would be self destructive to sort of make ourselves a second rate or third rate economy and and and and economic machine. As the the atheistic Chinese ascend. I I think that argument perhaps can help, can be a front it in the in the struggle to save the save the M might I agree there- that in so far as you can put a price tag on bad ideas for the car, the car, the material costs of not having good ideas that seems to get through to people in ways that are not so sensitive to political party. It'll be interesting to see what would happen if we had a a real, a real change of fortune, ECHO
Klay and how that would get talked about on on both side and, of course, what you say, the the the egregious extremes that you point out that happened so often on campus is certainly exists in in a perfect horrible symbiosis, with the the powerful forces on the right in places like Wisconsin elsewhere. That wanted do you keep defunding public universities because of their those damn liberals? Well, those two factions serve each other, quite well. Well that that's the other thing that is worrisome here. You see how swing on the left into identity, politics and and leftist forms of tribalism and Unreason will, in every case, simply give more strength to their opposing forces on the right sufficient commitment to identity politics on the left can only bring us
great identity politics on the right and People say about so many things off working with yeah. That's why Trump one, but those things are part of why Trump carded then fascinating, and I really can't recommend your book highly enough. We've only touched on part of it here again. The book is fantasyland. How America went haywire and Is there anything that we have completely neglected to touch that you want to bring into the picture here before I feel like you've done an exceptionally complete job of either watching honor letting me touch on all of the all of the major threat? So I appreciate it and I really enjoy talking to you nice well tell people before you go the best points of contact online to find you I I know you must be on. I know you're on twitter because I just followed you. What websites do you want them to have in their heads twitter is is were where I spend most of my social media
time and energy. I also have a website which is Kurt Anderson, dot com, that's k, U R T and Anderson S e N, and there I am as well. Well, thank God. I hope we do in person. I would love it. Thank you so much him. If you find this podcast valuable, There are many ways you can support it. You review it on Itunes or Stitcher or wherever you happen to listen to it. You can share social media with your friends. You can blog about it or discuss it on your own podcast or you can support it directly and you can do this by subscribing through my website at SAM, her dot org and there you'll find subscriber only content, which includes my ask me anything up. So it's he also get access to advance tickets to my live events as well as streaming video of some of these events, and you also get to hear the bonus questions from any of these interview
Transcript generated on 2019-10-05.