Magical thinking in America

Mass shootings keep us revisiting the gun issue. Many Americans want guns for self-protection in the home. But guns in homes overwhelmingly shoot family members. They kill or maim about 7,000 children every year. Intruders stopped: practically none.

Another fantasy is guns protecting our liberties against the government. If the constitution and courts fail, will these gun-toting clowns do the trick? As if the Feds’ firepower wouldn’t obliterate them!

These gun ideas constitute magical thinking. Believing something because you wish to, even if actually — even if manifestly — untrue. We obsess over “keeping us safe” from terrorism, while shrugging off the firearm death toll, 30,000 Americans annually — a hundred times greater. “Right-to-life” is for the unborn, not for gun victims.

Now, it happens that many of these same magical thinkers about guns also believe evolution and climate change (and the human role in it) are lies; that mainstream media disseminate fake news; while Trump tells it like it is. That immigrants are bad for the economy. That corporate tax cuts will create jobs. That the Bible is the inerrant word of a benevolent god watching over us, good people go to Heaven, and bad ones to Hell. Some of these same people also believe whites are a superior race (and victims of discrimination); that confederate statues honor history, not racism; and millions vote illegally.

Is there a pattern here?

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist recently examined this, citing a forthcoming book by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, Enchanted America. The Trump phenomenon may be rooted not so much in conservative ideology as superstition. (Indeed, traditional conservative ideology has been turned on its head.) People holding some or all of the beliefs I mentioned are called “intuitionists,” understanding the world on the basis of feelings and gut instincts, not principles, values, or empirical facts (to which they’re impervious).

Fear plays a role, tending to warp rational thought. Oliver quotes his five-year-old son: “If there’s no monster in the closet, then why am I scared?” Clinging to guns for supposed safety is similar thinking.

“How,” asks Lexington, “has such a rich, well-governed place come to this?” He invokes Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — a tendency which may be triggered by being on the losing side of cultural conflicts. This applies to religious fundamentalists and rural and rustbelt whites. Their gravitating toward the political right makes the right particularly “the domain of unreason.” (Though there’s plenty of irrationality on the left too.)

Kurt Anderson’s recent book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, finds magical thinking pervades our history. After all, the country began with religious fanatics (the Puritans). Anderson cites, inter alia, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, quack medicines, Esalen, and P. T. Barnum (“the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment”) as well as, of course, the long-running story of protestant fundamentalism. Today, magical thinking is pitched into yet higher gear by economic insecurity, racial resentment, demonization of immigrants, and the psychic discombobulation of social and cultural change. All this turned the GOP into “the Fantasy Party,” imagining they’ll “make America great again” with a creep who’s actually making America rancid.

People with a grip on reality no longer even have a place in the Republican party. Truth-telling Senators Corker and Flake concluded they could not win renomination. Party loyalty is now defined as believing the naked emperor is resplendently clothed. (I quit in May.)

Of course Americans are not alone in magical thinking. It’s common everywhere. Yet today’s America is striking for the broad range of delusions many people hold. The book I recently reviewed about conspiracy theories shows those who swallow one are likelier to swallow others. It’s the way they see the world.

When it comes to religion, I’ve always thought beliefs that would be deemed insane if held by only a few have to be considered normal when held by the many. People compartmentalize, and can be perfectly rational on the whole while their minds harbor ghettoes wherein reason’s writ does not run.

Yet what is insanity if not divorcement from reality? Religious faith may get a pass; but when the magical thinking extends to many additional realms, the compartmentalization concept breaks down, and the inmates have taken over the asylum.

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One Response to “Magical thinking in America”

  1. Colin Gullberg Says:

    Excellent, as always.

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