Losing Our Minds

It’s been at least 20 years since I read the article that changed my life. I could research and nail that down a bit, but close enough.

And I’ll define my terms a little: An Amazon Echo sits to my right as I type this. You know about the Echo by now; it was newish when my son gave it to me for Christmas a couple of years ago. Sometimes I use it as a Bluetooth speaker, mostly connected to my phone. Sometimes I ask it to play music. Mostly it sits there, unaddressed for weeks at a time.

But it changed my life, you see. It’s here. I do a couple of tiny, irrelevant things in a different way, rarely but sometimes.

So, I want to be careful here. This article made me think about things, mostly interpersonal relationships and connections. That comes up sometimes. As do a few things I learned in a college philosophy class, a class I mostly missed (come on; it started at 7:30am). Some stuff you can’t forget, or I can’t, and that’s what I’m talking about. I can think of a four-minute comedy routine I saw when I was 11 years old that had far more impact on my life.

But it was a thunderbolt, this article, because it made me think about our existence here and how we relate to it, although now I’m wandering so far into blurry intellectual territory that I have to stop. It changed my life. Just not in a big way, not in the long run. A momentary thing.

And now I have another.

How America Lost Its Mind is an Atlantic article by Kurt Andersen, previewing his new book. The link is accurate but your results may vary; for some reason, I have to open Atlantic articles in an incognito tab to read them, so be warned. Also, you probably won’t click or read, I know. That’s why I’m here.

This one is going to rattle around for a while. Some of it is just confirmation bias: Hey! I think the same way! Some of it is off, I think, a reflection of the author’s rationalism, a good baseline to have but the universe is a big ol’ mystery, y’know? I have no idea if my friends who constantly make references to astrology take it seriously (which would be alarming, a little), but then the Apostle’s Creed is also kind of a bizarre statement in a rational world. I found myself nodding and still thinking, um, not so fast.

And as honest as I can be at the moment, still pondering, I know that it startled me in the way that clarity always does. There’s truth in these words, bouncing around a bit but loud and clear. It’s an American timeline, a coherent take (and it’s just a take) on how we got here and why.

I can’t do it justice, not without a few more reads. It traces American character, a tricky subject about any large group of people, but not without merit: We have a history and (mostly) traditions, and they become the default. Andersen suggests that we mainstreamed magical thinking, with an interesting and compelling chronology to back him up. Must be a Pisces.

As has been documented elsewhere, Andersen points out that Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, said false things. As all politicians tend to do, from time to time, but time is the important qualifier: Trump ladled out these falsehoods almost 70% of the time.

He knew what he was doing. A man who can sell steaks or phony college degrees with a straight face understands his audience well. A lie is only a lie in a reality we all agree on. Did the leader of the Boy Scouts of America call the president and tell him his Jamboree speech was the best ever? The Boy Scouts say no way, but I mean, can you really trust them?

And so on. Andersen shifts back and forth between political extremes, demonstrating his evidence on both (or all) sides, although he’s clear that what we’re currently experiencing is mostly coming from the Right, which has now essentially become The Christian Right. The choice many of us make (or become aware of; h/t William James) to attempt to comprehend the complexities of existence by intuiting higher powers and creative control has been caricatured by flat-earthers and Usher acolytes, deniers of observable science because they can’t understand and they get scared.

There’s more, a lot more. Conspiracy theory, sometimes more prominent on the Left side of philosophy but now wholly embraced by the Right, gives us an easy answer to crisis and complexity: Sinister forces are arranging the whole thing, armed with black helicopters and forged birth certificates.

Read it, if this appeals to you. Mull it over, as I will be doing. Reject it as you wish, of course.

But I think he’s right. Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s right. Maybe check your horoscope first.

Chuck SigarsComment