How the Mainstream Enabled Fantasyland: Squishies, Cynics, and Believers

AS THE OLD, CLEAR DISTINCTIONS between plausible and preposterous beliefs and assertions were fading at the turn of this century, Michael Barkun wrote in A Culture of Conspiracy that the Establishment still maintained the fundamental true-false boundary “in a variety of ways”—“by withholding access to the most powerful and prestigious channels of communication; by withholding institutional rewards and sponsorship from certain ideas; and by subjecting fringe ideas and those who hold them to scorn.”

That list of the means by which leaders in any society try to maintain coherence and order sounds a bit evil and un-American: withholding access, withholding institutional sponsorship, subjecting ideas and those who hold them to scorn, stigmatized knowledge. That’s why elite always has been a pejorative in this country, and why mainstream recently turned into one. It’s also a big reason why, during the last few decades, so many in our boundary-drawing class yielded to so many varieties of nonsense.

Pre-Internet information systems, in which accuracy and credibility were determined mainly by experts or otherwise designated deciders, had terrible flaws and annoyances, including complacency, blind spots, snobbishness, and bigotry. But those gates and gatekeepers also managed to keep the worst hogwash out of our mainstream.

In religion, as I’ve described, the Protestant Establishment mainly had its power mooted by the rise of new denominations. In the secular Establishment, however, it happened differently. Among the gatekeepers in academia and media and government and politics charged with determining what’s factually true and what’s iffy and false, there has been much more capitulation, voluntary surrenders to the barbarians at their gates. It’s a great irony: the institutional objects of so much Fantasyland scorn, all those mainstream elitists, have been essential to Fantasyland’s growth and entrenchment.

Some of the capitulators are permissive, inclusive Squishies, people intellectually or temperamentally disinclined to “stigmatize knowledge claims” that deserve stigma—to tell people they’re full of shit when they are. Some are Cynics, users or impresarios motivated by desire for renown or influence or money. Some are Believers who made their way into positions of gatekeeping responsibility. And some are Squishies or Cynics who simply lost their stomach for the fight against the multiplying and empowered Believers.

CAMPUSES HAD PLENTY of Squishies even before the rise of relativism made it impolite to distinguish between real and unreal, true and untrue. The work of a couple of French intellectuals, their gnomic murkiness part of the attraction to Americans, helped make relativism even more irresistible to intellectuals during the 1980s and ’90s. After Michel Foucault had become an intellectual superstar with his critique of the concept of insanity, his rival Jean Baudrillard became a celebrity among American intellectuals by going further, declaring that rationalism was a tool of the oppressors that was tapped out as a way of understanding the world, pointless and doomed. In other words, as he wrote in 1986, “the secret of theory”—this whole intellectual realm now called itself simply Theory—“is that truth does not exist.”

Yet for all his self-parodying European-intellectual shtick—the jargon, the bombast, the you-pathetic-fools contempt—in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation he was actually onto something: he coined the word hyperreality to describe contemporary American life (and Americanized places elsewhere). The concoctions of what I’m calling the fantasy-industrial complex, he said, had come to seem more real than reality and had twisted people’s attitudes and behaviors accordingly.

At universities during the 1980s and ’90s, the most committed relativists, convinced that all knowledge and especially science are merely self-serving opinions or myths, created their own disciplines and subdisciplines as various as Protestant denominations. Professors began proudly identifyingas relativists. “For the relativist,” two major figures in relativist sociology wrote, “there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such,” and they declared the ideal approach was being “impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality.”

In their perverse conviction that no particular understanding is superior to any other, many of these academics become de facto Believers. And some are also Cynics. “Black folks understand, just like white folks do,” a Rutgers professor of Africana studies wrote in Salon in 2014, “that reason should be wielded as a tactic, not adhered to as a rule.” But many more in the humanities and social sciences, beyond the confines of the hep postmodern isms, are simply nonjudgmental Squishies. Reason may be okay for us as far as it goes, in our privileged clan, but we may not presume to expect it of others.

These notions became standard on campus and were then taken out into the world by three generations of graduates so far, tens of millions of educated Americans, where they sifted into popular thought. It became uncool to disparage magical thinking and other irrationality. The very Americans who ought to be important fighters in the long war in defense of reason, professors and the graduates whose minds they shape, instead became enablers of Fantasyland.

It’s all good, academia decided.

Berserk Christianity? Fine.

At the very high end is Tanya Luhrmann, the Stanford anthropologist who spent four years among charismatics. She acknowledges and approves of the wormhole between anything-goes academics and anything-goes Christians. “The playfulness and paradox of this new religiosity,” she writes in When God Talks Back, “does for Christians what postmodernism, with its doubt-filled, self-aware, playful intellectual style, did for intellectuals. It allows them to waver between the metaphorical and the literal.” She wants to doubt reality. (“I want to believe,” as Agent Mulder said on The X-Files about a mysterious voice in his head.) Of her Christians who think God or Jesus talks to them, Luhrmann says, they’re “not necessarily” making “a perceptual mistake” because—tautology alert—“someone’s capacity to experience the supernatural…has something to do with their willingness to see more than is materially present before them.”

Luhrmann was already going native at the start of her career in the 1980s. Her first book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, involved hanging out with “educated white [people] who practiced what they called magic.” At a certain point in that research, she “began to feel power in my veins—to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot….I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.” One day during that research, she awoke in her upper-floor bedroom and saw the faces of six Druids at her window, who then vanished. She’s unhappy with how modern people have created “the concept of hallucination,” because when “the seeing of ghosts became a psychological phenomenon, it also became a pathological one.”

Then there’s Steve Fuller, born and raised in New York, a graduate of Columbia, now a professor of the history and sociology of science. Scientific inquiry, he says, really is no different from or superior to religious belief. He’s all for what he calls a “re-enchantment of science” and for letting anyone decide the factual truth of anything—the equivalent of “what happened in the Protestant Reformation, getting the Bible in your own hands, reading it for yourself.” The pseudoscientific creationists behind intelligent design “are not anti-science,” he says, “but they are anti-establishment.” Which is a distinction without a difference that substitutes a thing everybody disapproves, the Establishment, for a thing academics are supposed to approve, science. At a famous 2005 federal trial in Pennsylvania, in which pro-science parents were suing to keep intelligent design out of their kids’ high school biology classes, Fuller appeared as an expert witness for the school board. His testimony is extreme Squishiness in a nutshell. Intelligent design, he testified, isn’t creationism in disguise or “inherently religious,” and its “commitment to supernaturalism does not make it unscientific.” For good measure, he stood on a piece of common ground shared by the left and the right, referring to “a tendency…for science to be governed by a kind of, to put it bluntly, self-perpetuating elite.”*1

The happy fantasies of pseudoscience and the paranormal? It’s all good.

A leader of this counter-Establishment is Gary Schwartz. He got his psychology Ph.D. from Harvard and spent a decade at Yale as a professor of psychology and psychiatry. In middle age, he decided that souls exist and the living can communicate with the dead, and he set about trying to prove it. He moved from Yale to the University of Arizona and deep into Fantasyland. Although he has no M.D. or hard-science degree, he’s now a professor of neurology, medicine, and surgery—and director of the university’s Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health, where the main research programs include Survival of Consciousness After Death and Other Worldly/Higher Spiritual Consciousness. Among his hundreds of academic papers are two from 2014 and 2015, both entitled “God, Synchronicity, and Postmaterialist Psychology.” In them he describes eleven coincidences that he found so “increasingly improbable,” he figured God must have been signaling him, and then fifteen instances during one two-week period when he happened to encounter the words giraffes and Paris. To Schwartz, this showed that “ ‘spirits’ (e.g., the souls of people who have ‘died’)…collaborate with the Divine…for the purpose of orchestrating complex, creative, and personally meaningful synchronicities.”

In 2014 he organized the first International Summit on Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality and Society in Tucson. The summit took place at Canyon Ranch, the $1,500-a-night resort where Schwartz is also corporate director of Development of Energy Healing. His conference co-organizer was a professor who runs Columbia University’s clinical psychology program and its Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute. She’s also co-editor of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, the APA’s new peer-reviewed academic journal that published Schwartz’s papers about supernatural coincidences involving giraffes and Paris.

Out of their summit came a “Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science.” By post-materialist, the manifesto makes clear, the signers mean postscientific. They reject the idea that “the mind is nothing but the physical activity of the brain,” because of course “we can mentally influence—at a distance—physical devices and living organisms (including other human beings),” and we can “communicate with the minds of people who have physically died.”

One of the subtlest thinkers in academia’s magical-thinking camp is Jeffrey Kripal, a professor and former chair of religious studies at Rice University. He’s the author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, a history of the place. Kripal wants to “put ‘the impossible’ back on the table again.” He believes. He could write a fine Bizarro World version of this book.*2 He’s happy about the erasures of boundaries between fiction and reality and about the merger of science with religion and of both with fantasy entertainment. In a recent interview, Kripal said that when belief in the “paranormal is rejected by the elite scientific establishment…it goes where it can go—right into film, science fiction, and comic books….The paranormal is such a popular subject because it is real, that is, because people actually have these sorts of experiences all the time” (emphasis added). When Kripal came out of an X-Men movie and found an X-shaped piece of jewelry in the parking lot, for instance, it wasn’t a cool coincidence but a revelatory sign that “paranormal powers are the buds of our evolving supernature, that the X-Men are real.”

In fact, according to some academics, any fictions and falsehoods passing for fact and truth are all good, all fine, as long as they come from the bottom up.

Jodi Dean is a political scientist, a Princeton graduate who took her advanced degrees at Columbia in the 1990s, as postmodernism achieved what she’d probably call hegemony. She’s now a full professor with an endowed chair at Hobart and William Smith, a fine liberal arts college in upstate New York. In her book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, she was delighted on principle “to defend the veracity of people claiming to be not just [UFO] witnesses but abductees.”

However, her enthusiasm for untruths and her contempt for reason run much deeper and broader than that. She begins from a standard Squishy place. “There are myriad perspectives on the world, each with its own legitimate claim to truth,” she says, and is “convinced that many contemporary political matters are simply undecidable.” She uses academic jargon about “the fugitivity of truth” but goes further—“the meanings of ‘belief’ and ‘real’ aren’t clear”—and still further. If there were a University of Fantasyland, she’d be a strong candidate for provost.

Dean celebrates practically every attitude and approach that appalls me. She rejects “the presumption that there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged.” In fact, as far as “the rationality of the public sphere” goes, “the collapse of its very possibility” is all to the good. Naturally, she uses the late 1960s term consensus reality to disparage reason. The “norms of public reason are,” she writes, “oppressive and exclusionary.” Because the “antidemocrats” in the mainstream try “to contain the rest of us with their borders, sciences, traditions and truths,” disbelief in science “makes sense” and “is potentially democratic. It prevents science from functioning as a trump card having the last word in what is ultimately a political debate.”

Alternate realities engendered by the Internet and talk radio and cable news are fine by her. “Now,” she writes, “the ‘irrational’ can get their message out. They can find and connect with those myriad others also dismissed by science. They can network and offer alternatives to official deployments or reason.” Such as imaginary conspiracies: “democratic politics in an age of virtuality will need to turn to conspiracy theory as a way of making links,” she says. “And, of course, to ask about the ‘truth’ of this information is to miss the point.” Of course. To her, a particular feminist academic is foolish to warn against “epidemic hysteria” and distinguish between factual truth and “sensational news reports [and] rumors”—“as if we can know the difference.” Rather, Dean says, the “approach to political action which is most likely to enhance freedom contributes to the production of paranoia.” While she is exceptional, she’s by no means unique.

How perfect that since getting tenure, Dean has declared herself a communist and says the USSR wasn’t as bad as it has been portrayed—because she’s also Orwellian in the Animal Farm sense, some of the equal animals being more equal than others. While every perspective has its legitimate claim to truth, she writes, we must consider the beliefs “of the oppressed as epistemologically superior.”

During these last few years when I was immersed in postmodern academic texts, I was repeatedly reminded of a certain diary entry by a young Ph.D., a novelist and playwright, in 1924. “I believe that The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion are a forgery,” he wrote. “I believe in the intrinsic but not the factual truth of the Protocols.” That was Joseph Goebbels, a decade before he became the Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda.

MEDIA AND INFORMATION businesses were always businesses, but for much of the twentieth century with an asterisk—many corporations and especially families that owned major news outlets and publishers didn’t expect to maximize profits. Belief in serving the public good really did privilege reason and sobriety in what they published and broadcast. The luxury of operating as oligopolies and local monopolies, of course, made it easier for broadcasters and newspapers to stick to straighter versions of the factual truth.

But then the economic, cultural, and political shields that had protected them from the market’s full gravitational force started to disintegrate. The free market was the free market, America decided in the 1980s, and nobody got a pass. In the news and publishing businesses, making money became less a vulgar necessity and more the main point. The Cynics came out of the closet. Whatever sold, including fantasy nonfiction, they started selling.

NBC launched Unsolved Mysteries, which treated paranormal claims and counterfactual histories as if they were real. Back then, reality still mattered enough that the network felt obliged to preface each episode with warnings: “This is not an NBC News production” and “What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.” During the 1980s too, television became cable television, and TV service in America turned from a shared public resource into another individually purchased product, its content freed from rules concerning truth or accuracy. The five-hundred-ring circus of cable TV became an important new piece of Fantasyland infrastructure, along with the Internet and talk radio.

I could fill pages with examples from the 1990s on, but a small sampling should do. Crossing Over with John Edward, a program purporting to let people communicate with the dead, was a big hit for the USA Network. Back then, when TLC was still called The Learning Channel, the taglines for a show during its Conspiracy Week were “Did they really catch the man behind the Oklahoma City bombing? Or was there a conspiracy?”

In this century, especially in the last decade, TV really gave itself over to the wanton retailing of fantasies as realities.*3 ABC News created brand extensions of its blue-chip shows, both 20/20: The Sixth Sense and the limited series Nightline Primetime: Beyond Belief, with episodes including “Battle with the Devil” and “The Miracle Mysteries.” After Time-Warner turned Court TV into truTV, one of its big shows was Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, on which the former governor and pro wrestler promoted 9/11 as an inside job, FEMA’s concentration camps, the 2012 Mayan countdown, and the government electronically mind-controlling dissidents.

There were Scripps’s Ghost Adventures and the History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast. Discovery Communications’ various nonfiction cable channels have aired the documentaries Mermaids: The New Evidence and Zombie Apocalypse as well as the series Angels Among Us, Amish Haunting, and Lost Tapes, about werewolves and extraterrestrial reptilian humanoids on Earth. The National Geographic Channel aired a prime-time documentary, Secrets of Revelation, that featured a realistic digital enactment of Jesus’s prophesied war with the Antichrist at Armageddon, and the History Channel followed with its Revelation: The End of Days.

For a generation, in other words, American television has trained Americans to treat fiction as nonfiction.

It’s not just TV. During Time magazine’s first quarter century, through 1947, Jesus appeared on the cover three times, all for stories about religious art. During the next forty-seven years, there were two Jesus covers, both illustrating actual news stories, about Christianity’s revival in the 1960s and early ’70s. Fast forward to the turn of this century, when Time put Jesus on the cover five times in less than ten years—plus two more about Genesis and the Virgin Mary.

The major publishers began issuing big nonfiction books about angels and the supernatural in the 1990s, and these days a bestselling account of the afterlife appears almost every year—90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven Is for Real, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, To Heaven and Back, Proof of Heaven. The author of the last one, a neurosurgeon, says he rode around heaven “on a beautiful butterfly wing; millions of other butterflies around us…through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them…waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns.” He was the featured guest on two Dr. Oz episodes, and ABC News featured him on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, 20/20,and Nightline. His book sold two million copies. This genre hit a rough patch in 2015, however, when the boy who’d come back from Heaven at age six announced at sixteen that the book he’d co-written with his father was all lies.*4

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the first big New York media company to enter the Christian book market in a big way, in the 1980s, has practically cornered it, selling half the true-believer books in the United States. Four of the five largest publishers now have their own Christian imprints. Time Warner calls its Warner Faith—an evangelical Christian publisher named after the Jewish brothers who founded the Hollywood dream factory out of which the company sprouted.

HOMESCHOOLING IS ONE way in which government Squishies capitulated to Believers. After courts gave the go-ahead in the 1980s, homeschooling took off. Like some alternative health practices, it can work; one of my nephews, homeschooled until high school, is among the smartest, best-informed, and well-socialized people I know. But as a general phenomenon, homeschooling is another instance of the Establishment’s big green light to treating beliefs as facts and the imaginary as actual. Homeschools are part of the new infrastructure for enabling alternate realities.

About two million kids are now educated exclusively at home in the United States, a number that’s more than doubled in this century. Two-thirds or more of the parents who homeschool say they do it “to provide religious instruction,” and those are overwhelmingly evangelicals and fundamentalists—people trying to shield children from science (and history and philosophy and literature) at odds with their theological (and social and political) beliefs.*5 “Most home-schoolers,” for instance, “will definitely have a sort of creationist component to their home-school program,” according to a spokesperson for the Home School Legal Defense Association. Such as the textbook Biology, published by Bob Jones University Press, which teaches that unlimited CO2 emissions are fine and that AIDS may have been God’s means of punishing “sexual impurity.” In other words, the Christian homeschooling movement consists of a million DIY mini-madrassas. It’s a free country. But the Squishies (and Believers) in state governments have also failed to establish standards for parents who build epistemological bubbles for their children. Half the states require no standardized tests or other measures for homeschooled children, and fewer than a dozen require home teachers to be high school graduates. Doing otherwise would be elitist.

Homeschoolers with your creationist biology textbooks: go for it. But creationism is now also taught to many tens of thousands of children in public schools—that is, in publicly funded charter schools. For instance, a company called Responsive Ed is the largest charter-education operator in Texas, with dozens of schools around the state. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth,” Responsive Ed’s science texts teach. Evolutionary biology, they say, consists of “dogma” and “unproved theory.”

Then there is the craftier degradation of public school textbooks by a de facto coalition of co-enablers—the Cynics (and some Squishies) in publishing and the Believers (and Cynics) in state and local governments. If you’re in the textbook business, and a third of the parents of your end users believe that evolution never happened (or that climate change isn’t happening), selling accurate textbooks is a problem. So to mollify that large piece of your market, you hedge. Texas is problematic both because it is (with California) the largest buyer of textbooks, and creationists have controlled its elected state board of education and many of its local ones. The chair of the state board in 2009 was a dentist who said that “evolution is hooey” and that he can “evaluate history textbooks [by] see[ing] how they cover Christianity.”

The rest of us are supposed to relax because the Texas tail no longer wags the national textbook dog as much as it once did—and the big publishers have started custom-creating unscientific science and Christianized history texts just for public schools that want them. About global warming, for instance, the teachers’ version of the sixth-grade World Cultures & Geography says that scientists “do not agree on what is causing the change” in “Earth’s climate.” The publisher is McGraw-Hill Education, one of the three largest educational publishers and a major capitulator to the science-denying forces. It was formerly part of one of the grand old American book and magazine publishers but is now operated by a private equity firm that also owns American Idol, Graceland, and Chuck E. Cheese’s—not quite Disney but trans-Fantasyland corporate synergy nevertheless.

*1 The judge, a churchgoing Lutheran and Republican appointed by George W. Bush, didn’t buy it. He ruled that intelligent design “is not science” and that the school board acted with duplicity and “breathtaking inanity”—as well as unconstitutionally. Some heroic gatekeepers are still guarding the gates.

*2 Kripal co-wrote his most recent book, Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained (2016), with Whitley Strieber, the extraterrestrial abductee I discuss in Chapter 38.

*3 An irony: well after nonfiction TV freely began blending in fiction, the figurehead of one of the big organizations still attempting to adhere to factual reality was brought low for telling tall tales about himself. In 2015, in the reality-based zone inhabited by Brian Williams, it turned out that explicit public fabulism was still prohibited and punishable.

*4 The authors’ surname, I swear, is Malarkey.

*5 2012 National Household Education Surveys Program.

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