“May I tell you something about Americans that you may not like to hear?”
That provocative question was asked by a French friend, Pierre, as we sipped wine in the warm sun outside a Mediterranean café.
“Of course,” I said honestly.
“It’s this,” Pierre said. “We love Americans, but they are incredibly naïve — almost like children. Americans will believe anything.”
Pierre and I had that conversation 15 years ago, and I am still haunted by his words. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that Pierre was right. Kurt Andersen — the American novelist and host of NPR’s Studio 360 — sealed it for me in his 2017 exposé Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
In the first chapter, Andersen wrote:
“... Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking ... and belief in fanciful explanations ... that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”
Magical thinking is nothing new in America. Salem Puritans executed 20 witches and sorcerers (and two satanic dogs) four generations before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But don’t fool yourself. Fanciful thinking is not an archaic and forsaken American custom. In a 2010 Pew Research poll, 41 percent of those surveyed said Jesus would return before 2050. (On a personal note, in 2008, the pastor who conducted the memorial service for my mother said, “Don’t worry about Helen’s passing. Jesus will return within the year, and we’ll all see her again.”)
In the same Pew survey, 25 percent of the respondents believed in astrology. Reincarnation was equally popular (23 percent), while 29 percent said they had been in touch with the dead. In fact, 18 percent reported that they had seen or been in the presence of ghosts. But, ironically, only 32 percent believed that evolution was true. In contrast, Norwegians either fully agreed (59 percent) or somewhat agreed (24 percent) with evolution. Even in Mexico, 64 percent of the respondents believed “humans and other living things evolved over time.”
Popular culture reflects and intensifies our affinity for magical thinking. Consider the five biggest box office movies of the 21st century — their earnings converted to 2017 dollars:
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), $969 million
2. Avatar (2009), $857 million
3. The Avengers (2012), $758 million
4. The Dark Knight (2008), $608 million
5. Shrek 2 (2004), $573 million
All fantasy movies. And lest you think I’m cherry picking, the next ten highest grossing films are also pure fantasyland, including two Spiderman flicks, two Star Wars blockbusters, two films from the Harry Potter series, and sundry movies about Caribbean pirates, Hobbits, talking toys (Toy Story), and teenagers fighting to the death (The Hunger Games).
As you might guess, the 21st century best-selling books followed the same cultural propensity for fantasy: Harry Potter, Robert Langdon, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Of course, the influence does not stop there. You can attend one or more of 25 conventions across the nation whose themes are the supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, and Star Trek. You will be among 10,000 other attendees, all vying for a glimpse at one of their fantasy heroes.
Or maybe you would rather be a star yourself. You’re in luck. In 2000, the first hit reality TV show, Survivor, aired on CBS. Today, there are 400 reality shows, all designed to make you the star you always fancied.
The degree of passion around so much make-believe is astounding. I remember meeting a young cashier who had a tattoo that ran the length of her arm. It looked like Chinese characters, so I asked, “What does your tattoo say?”
“It says ‘Glory, power, and destiny,’” she murmured, her eyes all dewy with emotion.
“Really. What language is it?”
“And what is that on your other arm.”
“It’s the English translation.”
Believe it: Americans are swirling in a vat of fantasies.
Some may be thinking, “Well, so what? What’s wrong with a little fantasy?”
I’m glad you asked. If we are mindlessly preoccupied with the insidious distractions of fantasies, we are less likely to notice or even care that politicians are stealing elections, that wars are being orchestrated, that health care is skyrocketing, that the world is warming, that 43 million Americans are living in poverty, that CEOs are earning 400 times the salary of their employees, that gun-related deaths in America (440,095 from 2001 to 2014) is 128 times greater than homicides by terrorism (3,412 over the same period).
So, in the name of reason, do not stand idle. Teach your children and grandchildren to be fiercely discerning about what is real and what is make-believe.
As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If we plod numbly, insensibly from season to season — unaware of the fantastic follies that are festering and searing our souls — we are no longer the masters of our own destinies. We are the victims, and the villains ... are us.
Allen Johnson is a guest columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of Pardon My French and the novel, The Awakening. His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.