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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

No, Kurt, the Hippies Didn't Plant the Seeds of Trump's Election

One of the standard plays of those who refuse to accept observations of the paranormal involves assuming a sanctimonious “holier-than-thou” attitude in regard to rationality. The skeptic will imply that he and his ideological allies are rational thinkers, and that those who believe otherwise are irrational. A lame example of this strategy is to be found in a long essay recently published in The Atlantic. The essay by Kurt Andersen is called “How America Lost Its Mind.” The approach Andersen takes is to go throughout the past 60 years of American history, and belittle a huge variety of observations, theories or thought tendencies that he dislikes. He tries to trash all such things by claiming that they were irrational, part of a process of America losing its mind. The resulting critique, involving a great deal of unfairness and poor logic, is a kind of toxic soup that is served up in a cup marked “100% rational.”

Andersen disparages the counterculture of the 1960's, trying to portray it as some outburst of irrationality and reality-denial. This is quite unhistorical. The hippie-movement or counterculture of the 1960's largely arose as a reaction to the sins of 1960's America, which included racial discrimination, conformist consumerism, and the waging of a senseless war abroad in Vietnam in which more than 300,000 died or were maimed by bombs dropped by American bombers and toxic Agent Orange sprayed by American personnel. Reacting against such things was more like rationality and paying attention to reality than the opposite.

Two of the visuals of Andersen's article show peace signs and an “End the War” sign among various other portrayals supposed to show irrational Americans. Andersen says, “As the Vietnam War escalated and careened, antirationalism flowered,” and then in the next sentence he discusses a Vietnam war protest described by Mailer. The net result is we are left with the insinuation that opposing one of America's most senseless wars was an act of irrationality. But it was actually the opposite of that. 

 1960's: a rational response to an irrational war

Andersen then attempts to make a list of various things that he thinks are examples of America “losing its mind” and becoming “untethered from reality.” Among the things he lists are Raymond Moody's book describing near-death experiences, and Charles Tart's research on out-of-body experiences. But what are these things doing in such a list? Both near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences are occasional parts of human experience, whatever their cause. Documenting such experiences is an example of paying attention to reality, not becoming untethered from it. Andersen gives us a bogus claim that Charles Tart “proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and magic is real.” To the contrary, Tart is a very serious scientific researcher who has written many level-headed books dealing with parapsychology research. I've read several of his books, and they never presented any belief about magic. You can see Tart's recent blog postings here, and you will find no sign of Andersen's cheap-shot depiction being correct.

Andersen then goes on to include UFO observers in his mudslinging, by saying, “I’m pretty certain that the unprecedented surge of UFO reports in the ’70s was not evidence of extraterrestrials’ increasing presence but a symptom of Americans’ credulity and magical thinking suddenly unloosed.” But there's no “magical thinking” in a typical UFO sighting – a person simply reports some strange thing he saw. Absurdly, Andersen tries to suggest that maybe we should have denied Jimmy Carter the presidency because he saw a UFO. He states, “Until we’d passed through the ’60s and half of the ’70s, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have given the presidency to some dude, especially a born-again Christian, who said he’d recently seen a huge, color-shifting, luminescent UFO hovering near him.” Carter's sighting (which actually occurred 7 years before he became president) was witnessed by other people. There's nothing irrational about reporting what you and other witnesses have seen, nor is it irrational to report what you alone have seen. Andersen's type of “shaming the witnesses” talk is deplorable, the type of talk engaged by those who wish to be shielded from some aspect of reality they find disturbing.

Andersen scorns those who have suspicions about evolution dogmas, but also scorns those who believe in UFO's or ancient astronauts. What sense does that make? If Darwinian assumptions are correct, we might expect that there should be life on many of the billions of planets in our galaxy. In that case we might well expect to have had extraterrestrial visitors who visited in the past or are visiting now. We may note the very arbitrary selectiveness of what Andersen deems to be irrational. Why is the ancient astronauts thesis advanced by von Daniken irrational, when the same idea was suggested in print earlier by distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan, a hero of people who call themselves rationalists?

After engaging in many an unfair characterization, Andersen then goes on to try to link these supposed examples of irrationality with the baffling election of Donald Trump, using a kind of logic insinuating that the election of 2016 was the result of seeds planted in the 1960's and 1970's. His reasoning is not convincing. When judging claims that event X helped to cause event Y, we should always look at the time between the two events. The longer the time between the events, the less likely the two are to be causally related. In this case there is some 50 years between the hippies of the 1960's and the election of 2016. Any attempt to suggest the first “planted the seeds” of the second is not believable. The “money isn't very important” hippies of the 1960's criticized the “creature comfort goals” of the moneyed establishment (to quote a phrase from a 1960's song), and would not likely have approved of Trump's election.  

The fact that Trump did not actually win the popular vote, and lost by nearly 3 million votes, is a fact inconsistent with Andersen's thesis suggesting Trump's election is a sign that America has lost its mind.  You could just as easily argue the popular vote totals were a sign of America's good judgment. 

A close examination of the dogmas held by "holier-than-thou" rationalists will show that these supposed rationalists are often people throwing rocks from inside glass houses, because such thinkers are often guilty of believing things every bit as irrational – or even more irrational – than many of the beliefs they call irrational. Such an examination will be found in past and future posts on this blog.