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The books they left behind
  2. U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000
  3. Lost property
  4. 'We lost our homes and country, but we also lost our books' | Europe | Al Jazeera

Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective.


And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it. Treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously, is not unique to Americans. But we are the global crucible and epicenter. We invented the fantasy-industrial complex; almost nowhere outside poor or otherwise miserable countries are flamboyant supernatural beliefs so central to the identities of so many people.

This is American exceptionalism in the 21st century. The country has always been a one-of-a-kind place. But our singularity is different now. But our drift toward credulity, toward doing our own thing, toward denying facts and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality, has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less developed country. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled. And three hours south of San Francisco, on the heavenly stretch of coastal cliffs known as Big Sur, a pair of young Stanford psychology graduates founded a school and think tank they named after a small American Indian tribe that had lived on the grounds long before.

This is not overstatement. Essentially everything that became known as New Age was invented, developed, or popularized at the Esalen Institute. The institute wholly reinvented psychology, medicine, and philosophy, driven by a suspicion of science and reason and an embrace of magical thinking also: massage, hot baths, sex, and sex in hot baths. The idea was to be radically tolerant of therapeutic approaches and understandings of reality, especially if they came from Asian traditions or from American Indian or other shamanistic traditions.

Invisible energies, past lives, astral projection, whatever—the more exotic and wondrous and unfalsifiable, the better. Not long before Esalen was founded, one of its co-founders, Dick Price, had suffered a mental breakdown and been involuntarily committed to a private psychiatric hospital for a year. His new institute embraced the radical notion that psychosis and other mental illnesses were labels imposed by the straight world on eccentrics and visionaries, that they were primarily tools of coercion and control.

And within the psychiatric profession itself this idea had two influential proponents, who each published unorthodox manifestos at the beginning of the decade—R. These influential critiques helped make popular and respectable the idea that much of science is a sinister scheme concocted by a despotic conspiracy to oppress people. And how before their frontal lobes, the neural seat of reason and rationality, are fully wired, they can be especially prone to fantasy?

Practically overnight, America turned its full attention to the young and everything they believed and imagined and wished. If was when the decade really got going, was the year the new doctrines and their gravity were definitively cataloged by the grown-ups. Reason and rationality were over. Its author was Theodore Roszak, age 35, a Bay Area professor who thereby coined the word counterculture.

As turned to , a year-old Yale Law School professor was finishing his book about the new youth counterculture. But hanging with the young people had led him to a midlife epiphany and apostasy. He decided to spend the next summer, the Summer of Love, in Berkeley. His class at Yale became hugely popular; at its peak, students were enrolled. At 16, I bought and read one of the 2 million copies sold. Rereading it today and recalling how much I loved it was a stark reminder of the follies of youth.

Reich was shamelessly, uncritically swooning for kids like me. Consciousness II s were the fearful and conformist organization men and women whose rationalism was a tyrannizing trap laid by the Corporate State—your parents.

U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000

Simply by being young and casual and undisciplined, you were ushering in a new utopia. The machine has begun to destroy itself. The machine did not destroy itself. But Reich was half-right. Instead, Consciousness III was just one early iteration of the anything-goes, post-reason, post-factual America enabled by the tsunami. Granted complete freedom of thought, Thomas Jefferson and company assumed, most people would follow the path of reason.

I remember when fantastical beliefs went fully mainstream, in the s. In came a sensational autobiography by the young spoon bender and mind reader Uri Geller as well as Life After Life , by Raymond Moody, a philosophy Ph. The book sold many millions of copies; before long the International Association for Near Death Studies formed and held its first conference, at Yale.

Many of the pioneers were thoughtful, their work fine antidotes to postwar complacency. The problem was the nature and extent of their influence at that particular time, when all premises and paradigms seemed up for grabs. Reality itself is a purely social construction, a tableau of useful or wishful myths that members of a society or tribe have been persuaded to believe.

The borders between fiction and nonfiction are permeable, maybe nonexistent. The delusions of the insane, superstitions, and magical thinking? Any of those may be as legitimate as the supposed truths contrived by Western reason and science. The takeaway: Believe whatever you want, because pretty much everything is equally true and false.

These ideas percolated across multiple academic fields. Meanwhile, over in sociology, in a pair of professors published The Social Construction of Reality , one of the most influential works in their field. Not only were sanity and insanity and scientific truth somewhat dubious concoctions by elites, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained—so was everything else.

When I first read that, at age 18, I loved the quotation marks. The book was timed perfectly to become a foundational text in academia and beyond. A more extreme academic evangelist for the idea of all truths being equal was a UC Berkeley philosophy professor named Paul Feyerabend. Science, he insisted, is just another form of belief. It is the principle: anything goes. This was understandable, given the times: colonialism ending, genocide of American Indians confessed, U.

Who were we to roll our eyes or deny what these people believed? If all understandings of reality are socially constructed, those of Kalabari tribesmen in Nigeria are no more arbitrary or faith-based than those of college professors. Her assigned task was to send her mind or soul out of her body while she was asleep and read a five-digit number Tart had written on a piece of paper placed on a shelf above the bed.

He reported that she succeeded. Other scientists considered the experiments and the results bogus, but Tart proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and magic is real. The rules of the scientific method had to be revised. Later he abandoned the pretense of neutrality and started calling it the consensus trance —people committed to reason and rationality were the deluded dupes, not he and his tribe.

They had so well learned that … research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they did not believe there was such a thing as simple truth. Ever since, the American right has insistently decried the spread of relativism, the idea that nothing is any more correct or true than anything else. Conservatives hated how relativism undercut various venerable and comfortable ruling ideas—certain notions of entitlement according to race and gender and aesthetic beauty and metaphysical and moral certainty. Yet once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously.

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right. Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team. As the Vietnam War escalated and careened, antirationalism flowered.

In his book about the remarkable protests in Washington, D. At that point the war in Vietnam would end. In , Students for a Democratic Society adopted its founding document, drafted by year-old Tom Hayden. Then, kaboom , the big bang. Anything and everything became believable. Reason was chucked. Dystopian and utopian fantasies seemed plausible. Its members believed that they and other young white Americans, aligned with black insurgents, would be the vanguard in a new civil war. Officials at the FBI, the CIA, and military intelligence agencies, as well as in urban police departments, convinced themselves that peaceful antiwar protesters and campus lefties in general were dangerous militants, and expanded secret programs to spy on, infiltrate, and besmirch their organizations.

This furiously, elaborately suspicious way of understanding the world started spreading across the political spectrum after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Surely the Communists or the CIA or the Birchers or the Mafia or some conspiratorial combination must have arranged it all, right? Elaborate paranoia was an established tic of the Bircherite far right, but the left needed a little time to catch up.

In , a left-wing American writer published the first book about a JFK conspiracy, claiming that a Texas oilman had been the mastermind, and soon many books were arguing that the official government inquiry had ignored the hidden conspiracies. Kennedy complicit in the cover-up. The notion of an immense and awful JFK-assassination conspiracy became conventional wisdom in America.

As a result, more Americans than ever became reflexive conspiracy theorists.

Items left on a train

Of course, real life made such stories plausible. The infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left-wing groups was then being revealed, and the Watergate break-in and its cover-up were an actual criminal conspiracy. Within a few decades, the belief that a web of villainous elites was covertly seeking to impose a malevolent global regime made its way from the lunatic right to the mainstream.

Each camp, conspiracists on the right and on the left, was ostensibly the enemy of the other, but they began operating as de facto allies. Conspiracy theories were more of a modern right-wing habit before people on the left signed on. A mericans felt newly entitled to believe absolutely anything. We wanted to believe in extraterrestrials, so we did. What made the UFO mania historically significant rather than just amusing, however, was the web of elaborate stories that were now being spun: not just of sightings but of landings and abductions—and of government cover-ups and secret alliances with interplanetary beings.

Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic. The first big nonfiction abduction tale appeared around the same time, in a best-selling book about a married couple in New Hampshire who believed that while driving their Chevy sedan late one night, they saw a bright object in the sky that the wife, a UFO buff already, figured might be a spacecraft.

She began having nightmares about being abducted by aliens, and both of them underwent hypnosis. The details of the abducting aliens and their spacecraft that each described were different, and changed over time. Thereafter, hypnosis became the standard way for people who believed that they had been abducted or that they had past lives, or that they were the victims of satanic abuse to recall the supposed experience. The husband and wife were undoubtedly sincere believers. That book and its many sequels sold tens of millions of copies, and the documentary based on it had a huge box-office take in By the s, things appeared to have returned more or less to normal.

Civil rights seemed like a done deal, the war in Vietnam was over, young people were no longer telling grown-ups they were worthless because they were grown-ups. Revolution did not loom. Sex and drugs and rock and roll were regular parts of life. The sense of cultural and political upheaval and chaos dissipated—which lulled us into ignoring all the ways that everything had changed, that Fantasyland was now scaling and spreading and becoming the new normal.

What had seemed strange and amazing in or became normal and ubiquitous. Relativism became entrenched in academia—tenured, you could say. This kind of thinking was by no means limited to the ivory tower. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.

Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream. Parts of the establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real.

We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death. The Reagan presidency was famously a triumph of truthiness and entertainment, and in the s, as problematically batty beliefs kept going mainstream, presidential politics continued merging with the fantasy-industrial complex.

In , as soon as we learned that President Bill Clinton had been fellated by an intern in the West Wing, his popularity spiked. Which was baffling only to those who still thought of politics as an autonomous realm, existing apart from entertainment. American politics happened on television; it was a TV series, a reality show just before TV became glutted with reality shows. A titillating new story line that goosed the ratings of an existing series was an established scripted-TV gimmick. The audience had started getting bored with The Clinton Administration , but the Monica Lewinsky subplot got people interested again.

Just before the Clintons arrived in Washington, the right had managed to do away with the federal Fairness Doctrine, which had been enacted to keep radio and TV shows from being ideologically one-sided. Until then, big-time conservative opinion media had consisted of two magazines, William F. Buckley Jr. For most of the 20th century, national news media had felt obliged to pursue and present some rough approximation of the truth rather than to promote a truth, let alone fictions.

With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, a new American laissez-faire had been officially declared. If lots more incorrect and preposterous assertions circulated in our mass media, that was a price of freedom. If splenetic commentators could now, as never before, keep believers perpetually riled up and feeling the excitement of being in a mob, so be it. Instead of relying on an occasional magazine or newsletter to confirm your gnarly view of the world, now you had talk radio drilling it into your head for hours every day. Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, offering viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before.

Lost property

For Americans, this was a new condition. Over the course of the century, electronic mass media had come to serve an important democratic function: presenting Americans with a single shared set of facts. And there was also the internet, which eventually would have mooted the Fairness Doctrine anyhow. In , the first modern spam message was sent, visible to everyone on Usenet: global alert for all: jesus is coming soon.

Over the next year or two, the masses learned of the World Wide Web. Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants.

In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam. Because until then, that had not been necessary to say. Reason remains free to combat unreason, but the internet entitles and equips all the proponents of unreason and error to a previously unimaginable degree.

Particularly for a people with our history and propensities, the downside of the internet seems at least as profound as the upside. On the internet, the prominence granted to any factual assertion or belief or theory depends on the preferences of billions of individual searchers. Each click on a link is effectively a vote pushing that version of the truth toward the top of the pile of results. Exciting falsehoods tend to do well in the perpetual referenda, and become self-validating.

When summer ended and he returned to Bratislava, the provincial capital of Slovakia, Anita stayed in Germany to teach English. They kept in touch by letters, which they wrote to each other in German. The next summer, Juraj again had a chance to spend time in the West, this time in Norway.

He packed his tiny suitcase with enough to sustain him for a matter of weeks. He did not return for 12 years. When the tanks of Warsaw Pact nations rumbled into central Bratislava on August 21, , Juraj made a decision that would change his life. He applied for and won a scholarship to study at the technical university in Aachen, where the Germans granted him political asylum.

Anita joined him there. Within two years, they were married at an Episcopal church in Scarsdale, New York. One hundred people attended. Not a single one was from Juraj's family. The couple returned to Aachen so that Juraj could finish his studies. While there, their first son was born. Anticipating their move to the U. Four months later, Juraj was forced to renounce his Czechoslovak citizenship and became officially stateless. Juraj finally lived out one of his childhood dreams in the summer of , crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner, just as his grandparents had at the beginning of the century.

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But unlike his grandparents, who returned from their adventure to a contented existence in Europe, Juraj started a thoroughly American life. His young family settled in to a starter home in Connecticut, where a second son was born. He learned English and even adopted an anglicised name: Jay. At the same time, he shed his past. He did not seek out Czech or Slovak expatriates. He saw no reason for his sons—or his wife—to learn to speak Slovak. He did not go home to see his relatives.

'We lost our homes and country, but we also lost our books' | Europe | Al Jazeera

In fact, his sister followed him to the U. Their Bratislava apartment and belongings were promptly confiscated by the authorities. And Juraj's parents suffered. They were called by police to explain their son's absence. They destroyed all the letters Juraj sent to them, for fear that his critiques of the system would find their way into the wrong hands.

The Communists pressured them to move from their three-bedroom downtown apartment to a home half the size. In , several years after he had gained U. Still, he was nervous. He was not aware of having made any enemies, but it would not take much—someone simply planting something suspicious in his pocket—for the authorities to hold him against his will. He brought his sons along for what turned out to be a largely merry and nostalgic home-coming with relatives and friends around the country.

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But several encounters convinced him he'd made the right decision those dozen years earlier. One day, he parked his car with Belgian plates outside a friend's house for a couple hours. And the following day, police knocked on the friend's door to ask about the dubious visitor from the West.

Another friend hosting a garden party joked that the Poles could strike all they wanted, but it was not going to harm the Soviet empire. Staff at a hotel in east Slovakia also hinted that he was unwelcome—until, that is, one of his sons spoke in English, thereby revealing that this was an American family in possession of hard currency. The stalemate of the Cold War preserved Czechoslovakia's status quo late into the s. With his parents in their 70s, Juraj started to wonder what kind of old age they would have to endure under Communism.

Then, quickly, as had happened in , historic events again started to unfold, twisting the fate of individuals, families and entire societies in previously unimaginable directions. In November , Juraj "Jay" Zednik watched on television as the Iron Curtain—that hated symbol of all that had once prevented him from reaching his dreams and then prohibited him from re-connecting with his past—was torn down. I, his eldest son, followed the news of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, which started 21 years ago this month, from my college dormitory.

And I realised it was time for me to go to Bratislava. Just weeks later, on a frigid night in early January, I stepped off a train from Vienna and set foot in the town of my father's birth for the first time since joining him on that initial homecoming a decade earlier. It was a visit of thrilling discovery, seeing my grandparents' life and starting to understand my father's past. My timing was also lucky. My father and I were in that same square three years later when Slovakia formally split from the Czech Republic. With champagne flowing and people dancing, Bratislava felt like a new place, like a city of hope, a city of possibilities.

But progress did not come easily. Slovakia's economy had been hit hard by President Havel's massive budget cuts. The new government in Bratislava responded with populist, nationalistic rhetoric, which isolated it internationally. It was in this context that my grandfather had a stroke in the spring Confined to a wheelchair, the stairs to the elevator meant he was also confined to his two-room apartment on the eighth floor of a Communist-era pre-fabricated concrete building. Fortunately, the regime change meant that my father could periodically visit my dying grandfather in Bratislava.

And I was free to live and work in the city, which I decided to do. My grandfather passed away the next autumn, but my father continued to visit Slovakia about once a year. With each visit, he re-connected a little more with his past. There was a family reunion where he caught up on the marriages of cousins and the deaths of uncles and aunts.

There was a class reunion, where he was asked to give a presentation on his career in the West. At the same time, his relatives and friends were starting to travel outside the Eastern bloc: to shop just a few kilometers away in the supermarkets of Austria; to do business in Western Europe; to vacation in America. Every trip, every conversation brought my father and those he had left behind closer together again.