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When magical thinking warps liberty into fantasy, it’s political Halloween

  • Author: Kim Heacox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 30, 2017
  • Published October 30, 2017

When Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced last week, in a compelling speech from the U.S. Senate chamber floor, that "reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior isn't just 'telling it like it is,' it's reckless, outrageous and undignified," he sent shock waves through America.

We seem today to live in a daily circus where science is a hoax, unless you like what it says. Where everybody is an expert entitled to his own truth. Where one person's ignorance is as valid as another person's knowledge. Where everybody talks (or shouts) and nobody listens. And the most bombastic, entertaining, poke-a-stick-in-the-eye-of-authority guy wins.

How did we get here?

According to novelist and social critic Kurt Andersen, author of a compelling new book, "Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire," we've been headed this way for a long time. Ever since the Mayflower, and before.

Five hundred years ago tonight, a feisty monk named Martin Luther wrote down 95 "theses" (bullet-point complaints) against the mighty Roman Catholic Church — the greatest power in the Western World, more than 1,000 years old — and on All Saints' Eve, Halloween, 1517, nailed them to a cathedral door in today's Germany. For good measure he sent a copy to the regional archbishop.

Appalled by the church's merchandizing — "You sinned? Pay us money and you'll still go to Heaven" — Luther argued that Catholicism had become corrupt.

He further said that clergymen had no special access to God, or truth. Everyone could and should read the Bible and become his own believer, his own priest. In effect, Luther, a courageous visionary, argued for expanded individual liberty. How did Europe respond? Protestantism was born with the credo: I believe, therefore I am right. Soon kingdoms plunged into chaos and war, burning heretics and hanging traitors under orders from popes and queens.

"The disagreements dividing Protestants from Catholics were about the internal consistency of the magical rules within their common fantasy scheme," writes Andersen. From Protestantism, "a new proto-American attitude emerged in the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything."

And so the Puritans – their piety second to none – sailed to the New World where they'd be free to believe whatever they wanted.

By the 1800s, America was the land of the holy roller, hoodwinker and confidence man, all manner of people resistant to reality checks. In 1848, when 2,000 miles of telegraph lines crisscrossed our young nation, the New York Herald announced the "new age of miracles."

It wasn't miracles. It was technology.

To this day we live in an age of please-be-right fantasies where the more exciting — magical thinking — parts of the Enlightenment have eclipsed the rational and empirical parts. This is dangerous. Because once we commit ourselves to an "experts be damned" attitude, we close our minds to learning. Everything — our well-being, our economy, the future of our livable planet — can turn upside down.

Science tells us that the Gulf of Alaska is an estimated 25 percent more acidic than it was 200 years ago; that atmospheric CO2 levels are higher than they have been in the last 800,000 years; that permafrost is melting everywhere. And it's just beginning.

When Congressman Don Young says that climate change is the biggest hoax since Teapot Dome (which was a scandal, not a hoax), he echoes candidate Donald Trump from the 2016 campaign, who said, "… Obama's talking about all of this with global warming and … a lot of it's a hoax, it's a hoax. I mean, it's a moneymaking industry, OK? It's a hoax." He was wrong. But, oh boy, he was entertaining. Telling it like it is.

"Well," comedian Stephen Colbert said a few years back, playing a right-wing populist riffing on what he called truthiness, "anybody who knows me knows that I'm not a fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true. Or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books — they're all fact, no heart. … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and know with their heart. … Because that's where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen — the gut."

Politics, Sen. Flake said last week, should never be a career. So he announced his retirement. If only others would do the same.

Kim Heacox is the author of a dozen books, most recently the novel, "Jimmy Bluefeather," and the Denali memoir, "Rhythm of the Wild." He lives in Gustavus.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.

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