In a long article in this week’s Atlantic, Kurt Andersen builds the argument that America’s teetering march toward extreme individualism and non-rational thinking were pushed over the edge by the relativism of the 60s, and here we are now as a result.
“How America Lost Its Mind” (The Atlantic)
“In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
I always raise an eyebrow at arguments like this. For every Thomas Jefferson who was cutting the miracles out of his Bible because they didn’t make sense to his rational mind, weren’t there a ton of other 1700s-era Americans who got off the boat and headed straight into the wild Appalachians so they could get away from the long arm of the law and being told what to do in a structured, reasoned society?
Andersen seems to argue that the 60s injected a dose of relativism so extreme that the American experiment hasn’t been able to recover. Coupled with the rise of the Internet to amplify the craziness, we now find ourselves in a “post-truth” society.
While the breakdown of our political discourse seems to be new compared to the past 75 years, should we forget McCarthyism and the Red Scare that threw America into a frenzy in the 50s? I’m reading a biography of Oppenheimer which discusses how one of the greatest physicists who ever lived was destroyed and defamed based on zero evidence and a lot of terror about Communists taking over. The rhetoric of his trial could easily fill a Trump speech; just swap out some of the names.
I’m more and more convinced that the vitriol and racism and lack of compromise that we’re seeing isn’t new. It’s not like we’ve regressed to lower life forms in the past 24 months from a state of enlightenment. As a people, we never really changed. Certain legislation drags us forward into being less ugly about it (e.g.: Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education) but Americans have been like this in many ways since our founding. We’ve always been about “doing our own thing,” though perhaps more people agreed on what “that thing” should be on the national scale at certain times more than others.
Andersen seems to write from the center-left position but he does so smugly, in a way that grates on me a bit. Most of the time, I feel like he’s grinding an axe and proud of himself for letting you tag along.
I did appreciate this part of his critique of the GOP:
Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction.
Perhaps our politicians were better men at one time, but I don’t think history is going to support that thesis either, really. Corruption comes and goes at all levels of government; I think at times it’s more obnoxious than others, but there’s no way to escape the truth that money is power, and power is the key currency within politics.
I’m not a pessimist; I do think our nation can choose to be better than this. But it’s not just a political discussion. Many of the fears driving people to support men like Trump (even when Trump’s policies work against the best interests of poor and middle-class whites) stem from a coming economic disaster that will hit the less-educated very hard, especially men who have formed the bulk of the blue-collar work force. Very few people are writing enough about this.
It would help if our pulpits emphasized loving God and neighbor above pursuing culture wars in Jesus’ name. But that’s a rant I’ll leave for another day.