The Rise of Authoritarianism and Our Crackpot Culture

Kenneth Anderson is legal editor of "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know." He teaches law at American University in Washington, D.C

From Harvard’s lofty tower, Wendy Kaminer has surveyed all she sees, and from sea to shining sea--from Christian fundamentalists to New Age cultists, from child abuse and recovered-memory-obsessed feminists to right-wing conspiracy theorists of cyberspace, from believers in alien abduction to believers in the imminent Second Coming--all is irrationality. Indeed, she hastens to add in the opening sentences of “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials,” she herself is not free of it, going as she does to a homeopath. Homeopathy, Kaminer says, “may have about as much scientific credibility as reports of alien abduction and ESP; but I suspend disbelief and weather my embarrassment, because, somehow, homeopathy has helped me.”

Such is the pleasure of “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials.” Kaminer is honest about herself and yet eager to draw the line. She is willing--eager, even--to admit to sharing with the rest of us a certain amount of irrationality, but the difference, according to her, is that hers at least is a harmless, indeed productive irrationality (in the sense of placebos). Whereas the irrationality and, in her view, resulting pieties of much contemporary American belief are fundamentally destructive and not harmless at all.

She cuts a wide swath, to say the very least, through contemporary American life in pursuit of the irrational. Take alien abduction; Kaminer notes a 1997 poll finding that a “startling 80% of Americans believe that the government is concealing information about extra-terrestrials.” Equally irrational is the near-religion that has arisen around Elvis Presley and Graceland. Princess Di is a “pop redeemer”; listening to people lament her passing, Kaminer observes, “you’d have thought she was capable of healing the sick as well as comforting them.”


Nor she does neglect the establishment. Here are NYPD’s occasional consultation with psychic Dorothy Allison on murder cases, Nancy Reagan’s White House astrology, cold fusion; the “nonsensical” idea that secular humanism is a form of religion, overblown fears of breast implants and the Christian right’s view that the prohibition on school prayer is linked to a long-term rise in violent crime. Even America’s war on drugs is, from Kaminer’s point of view, a model of how irrationality can lead to what she calls public policy “piety”: pious political solutions that have little relation to real issues because they are rooted in irrationality.

Naturally Kaminer counts New Age spirituality as irrational--irrational both in the substance of its beliefs and in its organizational manifestations--and she devotes considerable space in the book to analyzing it. New Age beliefs, she observes, make “self-knowledge, rather than moral purity . . . the engine of personal and spiritual growth,” but they accept uncritically a peculiar amalgam of Western occultism and Eastern religion, including channeling past lives, reincarnation, the curative effects of crystals and an anarchy of whatever particular individuals feel will make them feel good. New Age organization, where it exists, tends to guru-worship and induces worrisomely strong attachments to spiritual authority figures.

Mainstream religion fares no better on Kaminer’s criteria of irrationality--its Christian right-wing versions especially receive lengthy treatment--and Kaminer informs us that the “deference paid to mainstream religion, compared to the derision with which we’re encouraged to regard New Age and pop spirituality, is intellectually indefensible.” Indeed, as Kaminer instructs us, the differences “between organized religion and the disorganized collection of beliefs that constitute the New Age are primarily . . . well--organizational.” The established churches receive the deference they receive merely because they are socially powerful “bureaucracies--and bases for political organizing.”

There is, of course, a big and irritating problem in Kaminer’s deliberate lack of discrimination among her targets, her deliberate inclusion of everything. She seems to imagine herself as a kind of Voltaire or some Enlightenment philosophe, out to debunk here, there and everywhere, with wit and verve. She writes in what she seems to think is the breezy style of Candide, conflating common-sense and comedy, deploying the sort of magazine essay style that leads the reader along by suggesting that if you laugh, it must be true. But the range of her targets and the presumption that they all share the same flaw of irrationalism leads one to conclude that Kaminer, although indefatigable in identifying targets of irrationality, has given little or no thought to the nature of irrationality itself.

Isn’t, for example, the “irrationality” about the way in which America wages the drug war somehow different in kind, and not merely degree, from the “irrationality” of having a belief in God? Kaminer might say that they are both irrational in the same way because they fail to marshal “evidence” sufficient to justify belief. But then maybe she wouldn’t because she tells us that she is an agnostic, not an atheist. Is it not “irrational” on her own criteria to fail to take a stand one way or the other on a matter for which no material evidence is available?

Does Kaminer really think that the belief that you have been abducted and raped by space aliens can be equated with the belief in the divinity of the teachings of the pope? I hold no brief for Catholicism. But to suggest that Augustine, Aquinas and John Paul II are on the same religious, spiritual, moral and irrational plane as New Age gurus Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson reveals a staggering hubris on Kaminer’s part. It is the same hubris as believing that the Enlightenment really did sweep away all the nonsense left over from the Church; or that secular humanism really does have all the answers (or at least a method for getting them); or, most revealing of all, that secular liberalism, the fashionable, credulous, constantly shifting, politically correct dogmas of American liberal intellectual elites to which Kaminer subscribes, really is heir to Voltaire.

But Kaminer is less of a skeptic than she seems to think; the many liberal pieties she affirms as being deep truths are more telling than the relatively short list that she repudiates as irrational. Indeed she reveals a deep yearning for religiosity that verges into its own form of irrationality.

Kaminer’s whole enterprise would be a lot more satisfying if, instead of lumping everything together, she had decided to limit herself to irrationalities that share some common theme. It is not really very interesting to tell us that it is irrational to believe you have been kidnapped and sexually abused by space aliens. It only becomes interesting if you are able plausibly to locate those beliefs within America’s broader contemporary belief structure, the structure of values, for example, that rely on contemporary ideals of self-fulfillment, self-actualization and the ability to reconstruct yourself through pop therapies.


When Kaminer does this, “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials” becomes genuinely important. Consider her chapter on what she calls the “therapeutic assault on reason and rights.” In it she describes, among other things, the child abuse hysteria of the last 20 years--genuine mass hysteria, witch hunts that have sent innocent parents and day-care workers to jail. It should be said that Kaminer has raised a brave and, for a long time, lonely voice of common sense among fellow liberals who, in fits of hysteria, treated as unassailable truth such claims as “secret tunnels” beneath day-care centers, satanic blood-lettings by parents and child-care workers and things still less believable, on no better “evidence” than statements obtained by tormenting small children, turning them against their parents in order to get statements that fit the show trial script of the day. It has not been a glorious story for prosecutors and social workers.

The unwillingness of liberals to challenge the absurdity of these claims lay in no small part in their unwillingness to challenge anything said by the feminist establishment. Indeed, as Kaminer observes with considerable perspicuity, the witch hunt atmosphere was generated in no small part by feminist theorizing about the ubiquity of child sexual abuse; she correctly notes that the hysteria was “paradoxically encouraged by the feminist movement, from which [sexual abuse] recovery experts derived their mistrust of traditional family life and their belief in the routine abuse of women and children.” The result was a largely (although by no means entirely) liberal, secular, feminist-directed wave of persecution of the innocent, the most severe the United States has seen since the McCarthy years. It is scandalous that persecutions by such liberal icons as Atty. Gen. Janet Reno (it was, after all, Reno’s vigorous prosecution of child-abuse cases in Florida that brought her to national prominence, notwithstanding all her major cases since unraveling under withering scrutiny by the federal courts) or former New York Times columnist Anna (“believe the children”) Quindlen have gone almost entirely uncensured by liberals.

A close relative to this form of mass hysteria is the “recovered-memory syndrome” movement, which likewise has devastated innocent lives and warped the usual rules of rational evidence-taking in court systems around the country. It takes as an article of faith that the very failure to remember abuse is itself the surest sign of abuse. In such a close system of irrational belief, Kaminer observes, the very “absence of any memory of abuse could be evidence that the abuse occurred.” Moreover, Kaminer adds, critical questioning of alleged statistics of child abuse or recovered memories by any outsider, seeking objectivity, is “compared to Holocaust revisionism--as if our only evidence of the Holocaust were the nightmares of survivors.”

“Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials” offers an explanation of these peculiarly contemporary irrationalities as a function of the rise of “therapeutic” modes of social behavior. By “therapeutic,” Kaminer means roughly what social theorists such as Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch or Herbert Morris have meant: the tendency (to draw from Morris’ classic essay “Persons and Punishment”) to characterize acceptable and unacceptable social behavior not in the terminology of “right” and “wrong,” but instead in the terminology of “health” and “disease.” As Kaminer puts it, the “therapeutic culture shaped by the recovery movement is profoundly irrational. . . . It assesses proposed truths partly by the passion with which they are held and partly by their alleged therapeutic effect.” This gradual tendency across society to talk and think not in the moral language of “right” and “wrong,” but instead in the therapeutic language of “healing” and “recovery,” has a deeply disturbing consequence.

The language of morality makes transparent something profound that the language of therapy obscures. It is able to express judgments about right and wrong; and it is open to debate, argument and disagreement. Therapeutic language, by contrast, obscures the debate over truth or falsehood because what matters is not “truth” but “healing.” In a therapeutic system of values, placebos (including psychological placebos) are as good as the truth, so long as they help to “heal” and “recover.” A therapeutic system of values, in other words, accommodates lying so long as its intent is “good.” As Kaminer rightly puts it, the therapeutic ethic conflates truth and therapy; “true beliefs,” according to the therapeutic ethic, “are those that help you ‘heal’ “--regardless of whether they are, well, actually true.

Kaminer is primarily concerned with showing that no matter how bad was the irrational authoritarianism of American liberals that largely led to the child-abuse and recovered-memory hysteria, the absolutist authoritarianism and absolutist irrationalism of the Christian right-wing are as bad--if not worse. Regrettably, she side-steps an argument far more important about irrationality and the culture of therapy.

She seems to believe that at best there is a certain equivalence between the irrationalities leading to authoritarianism on the right and the irrationalities leading to the liberal authoritarianism on the left. At worst, right-wing religious authoritarianism is more threatening just because it is religious and not secular. Yet “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials” might profitably have considered how the therapeutic, because it is a morally relativistic system of belief, is dangerous for such old-fashioned liberal values as civil liberties and personal autonomy. As a form of relativism, it lends itself to entirely arbitrary judgments. Relativism, including its therapeutic variety, turns out to be an iron cage for individuals if you believe, as most liberals do, both that morality is relative and that social control is necessary, a weird mixture of Dr. Spockism and Giulianism, permissiveness and control. In this case, there is no principle that can permanently stand in the way of imposing your views in the interests of social control. One view is as good as another, so it may as well be yours. Thus liberals turn into authoritarians, constrained by no limiting principle of morality, who deploy a therapeutic language that admits to no limits and who see themselves as angelic social workers (as in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tract “It Takes a Village”). “[S]piritual directors of the spinal fluid” Blaise Cendrars called them 70 years ago in his novel “Moravagine.”

In a culture as profoundly secular as that of American public policy, Kaminer’s implicit assumption that right-wing religious authoritarianism is at least as dangerous, and likely more, as liberal authoritarianism seems dubious. She seems unable to recognize the possibility that American liberal authoritarianism might pose a far greater threat to the liberty of persons than Christian absolutism, for the reason that the institutions of classical liberalism in large part evolved for the purpose of containing Christian sectarianism, absolutism and intolerance. Notwithstanding numerous failures to do so, the general scheme of American constitutionalism and history mobilizes against overtly religious authoritarianism, the culture of contemporary capitalist consumption even more so.

By contrast, little in the history of classical liberalism or American constitutionalism inoculates against authoritarianism cast in the language of secular progress and therapy, even though it can be as authoritarian, dogmatic, irrational and destructive of personal liberty as its God-invoking counterpart. Though Kaminer is right about the alarming amount of Christian censorship of school and public libraries, informal enforcement of school prayer and other impositions of the Christian Right found in American suburbia, she underplays the pernicious force of the multicultural left. Still, if I had to choose which authoritarianism to have as the enemy in power, the Christian Right or the “progressive” liberal left, I unlike Kaminer would choose the right because the weapons to oppose it are vastly greater than the weapons to oppose the left.

Kaminer thus remains a liberal, bearing most of the blinders of doctrinaire American liberalism and so-called left-progressivism. “Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials” is punctuated with victories for intelligent common sense, and it expresses it with clarity and wit. But Kaminer fails to connect the therapeutic irrationalities that she analyzes so well to the peculiarly liberal authoritarianism that lies at the heart of the therapeutic ethos.