The objective/subjective disconnect: Reason, unreason, and the rise of illiberal populism

[A note to readers: I was going to post this on Facebook, where I share my thoughts on U.S. domestic politics, but I decided to post it here because it’s relevant to a longer post I’ve been working on comparing drivers of, and obstacles to, change in the late USSR with drivers and obstacles in Russia today.]

I just finished reading Kurt Anderson’s terrific and unnerving book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History). I highly recommend it, although you can get the gist of his argument in his December article in The Atlantic, “How America Went Haywire” here.

Anderson describes himself as “a liberal atheist” – which is to say, his faith is in reason. His core argument is that Americans have had a long-standing and widespread (and among advanced liberal democracies, uniquely widespread) commitment to unreason, and that the American cult of unreason, which today is mostly a pathology of the right but has plenty of adherents on the left, has spun out of control. He makes the case for two big drivers taking the U.S. down the rabbit hole: (1) a “profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the 1960s, whereby Americans ever since have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth: do your own thing, find your own reality, do your own thing”; and (2) the Internet, where “believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists who share their beliefs…”

I don’t think Anderson’s explanatory claims are particularly interesting, novel, or compelling – they are part of the story, but only part. And while I suspect it’s true that the U.S. is exceptional among the major advanced liberal democracies in its enthusiasm for unreason (consider that Americans score much higher on religiosity), he doesn’t actually look at other countries – my guess is that the closer you look, the more unreason you’ll find. But what is interesting and convincing are his arguments about the prominence of “fantasy” in American history, and the extent to which we have gone full “fantasyland” in recent decades.

As I went through the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about the contrast between Anderson’s argument and the major theme of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I haven’t read it, I confess, but I’ve read plenty of reviews, including a number of highly critical ones. I also read his previous and related book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So I’m comfortable asserting that Pinker’s core argument is that, by almost any objective measure, humanity is much better off today than is generally appreciated. He points to increased life expectancy, declining violent crime, declining numbers of people being killed by famine or war (in absolute and especially per capita terms), rising global incomes and wealth, the over-fulfillment of the eight Millennial Development Goals, and so on. Accordingly, the confidence in “progress” that characterized the Enlightenment was, and is, essentially correct, despite all the handwringing and angst. And this progress is largely thanks to the turn to reason and scientific thinking that defined the Age of Reason. Continue reading