Lois Weisberg died on January 13, 2016, at the age of 90, her passing sandwiched between the deaths of David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman, two thunderbolts that only hinted at what was to come. Muhammad Ali, Prince, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds would follow, along with dozens of other famous names, provoking a social media meltdown and making “RIP” the acronym of the year.
So Ms. Weisberg’s long life came to an end with little notice, one more dose of irony in a year that felt inexplicably weird. After all, her greatest fame might have come from the many, many lives she touched.
Weisberg was the subject of a 1999 New Yorker essay by Malcolm Gladwell, who was himself little known at the time but about to get very famous. Gladwell began the piece this way: “She’s a grandmother, she lives in a big house in Chicago, and you’ve never heard of her. Does she run the world?”
Lois Weisberg became ground zero in a classic Gladwell way, melding social science and anecdotal evidence into a unified theory of something. In this case, he called Weisberg a “connector,” someone who leapfrogged over six degrees of separation; she knew everyone, and everyone knew her.
I can’t recall why this article rocked my world, but it did. I think it struck me as an essential truth about human relationships, although now it only seems mildly interesting. I just remember making photocopies and passing it around, looking for confirmation of my epiphany and mostly coming up empty.
But I remember how important it felt at the time, and last week I was reminded of it all over again.
It was another magazine article, this time an Atlantic essay by Kurt Andersen, a sneak peek at his upcoming book, “Fantasyland.” Entitled “How America Lost Its Mind,” Andersen explores why we do the things we do, and why we always have.
It’s provocative writing, although it’s just a taste. I look forward to reading the book, and in the meantime his ideas will just have to bounce around my brain and cause my head to nod up and down. I glimpse a unified theory here, but it’s still only a glimpse.
Andersen’s subject is America, and Americans. He looks back at half a millennium to the beginning, when European explorers wandered across the ocean and found a new playground for ambition, although what he focuses on is magical thinking.
This seems paradoxical at first. Most of us have at least an elementary awareness of our history, and know that our country’s origins were an outcropping of the Age of Enlightenment, when rationality began to replace myth as a world view. Benjamin Franklin, often viewed as the quintessential American, is a good example. While conventional wisdom of the era assumed that the reason lightning usually struck churches had to do with God’s displeasure, a divine temper tantrum, Franklin applied his rational mind and observed that churches were usually the tallest buildings in town. Thus the lightning rod was born, and another element of the Dark Ages crumbled in the bright light of reason.
This is part of our story, the elevation of rationality and diminution of the supernatural, and it’s false. Only 30 years ago, the president of the United States made decisions that were partly predicated on the advice of his wife’s astrologer. A recent poll showed that nearly half of Donald Trump’s supporters believe he won the popular vote, despite 3 million ballots to the contrary. Millions of Americans swear by “alternative medicine,” which my buddy, Dr. Sid Schwab, likes to point out should just be called “medicine” if it works, which it objectively doesn’t.
Conspiracy theories about everything from climate change to second gunmen to basic biology have been mainstreamed, and Andersen argues that all of this, acceptance of the unproven, disproven, and illogical, is an outgrowth of egalitarianism. In a society in which freedom to speak and think is paramount, wacky ideas have achieved equal footing with rationality. Picking your truth is an American birthright, he suggests, and so truth becomes fungible.
Look at the faces from Charlottesville last week. Young white men, the most privileged members of our melting pot, unaware of inadvertent comedy, clueless about the cartoon quality of Tiki torches, spewing hate and inciting violence based on mythical victimhood. Magical thinking is alive and ill.
Kurt Andersen’s thesis is general by definition, although he doesn’t seem all that interested in using a broad brush. Neither am I; the universe is more of a mystery the older I get, and even paranoid people can have a case for looking over their shoulders. The recent declassification of intelligence agency documents, for example, about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination suggest that there is more to that story, 54 years in the past, even if the ending will always be murky.
And even though Andersen points a finger at the remarkable religiosity of this country, he remains open-minded and only uses it to construct a timeline, a perfect storm of true faith and pure fiction. He seems cautiously optimistic, as I am, that we can outgrow some of this and live with the rest. I’ll read the book, and see what I think. I still have hope.
But then I’m a Leo, and Mercury is in retrograde, or something. Pass the Echinacea, at any rate; I feel a cold coming on, and in this case your ideas might be as good as mine.