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What image is evoked in your mind when you find yourself idly thinking of America?

No, no, not America the self-styled “leader of the free world”, the superpower whose dominant position in our time allows it to exert its influence on a global scale, more often resulting in a lot of grief for a lot of people in a lot of count, but America as a “society”, one whose vast cultural reach has touched the hearts and minds of countless folks everywhere on this God’s green Earth.

Well, the odds are that the image you evoke will be of that society’s classless casualness, its cool Jazz, its zestful slang, its Superbowl Sundays, its Broadway musicals and the independent-mindedness of its people — people who acquiesce to their kids’ demand that their bedrooms be off-limits to parents. Perhaps also evoked in the image will be Edward Albee, Norman Mailer and Martin Scorsese as well as Ken’s Russian dressing, McDonald’s French fries and Seltzer’s Lebanon bologna.

You know what I’m talking about — the happy-go-lucky America that, during the Beatles’ tour there in February 1964, John Lennon engagingly told us we would find if we turned left at Greenland.

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Optical illusions and illogical dreams

Look, come six weeks from now, I would’ve lived in this America for 50 consecutive years, virtually my entire adult life, a life spent as an educator, a political analyst and an engaged activist, and I can tell you now, up front, that America is going through a nervous breakdown.

Forget the crazy, hyper 60s, when America experienced unprecedented turmoil, characterised by large scale anti-war protests, counterculture freakouts, widespread political disillusionment, assassinations (of national figures like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King) and race riots in cities from coast to coast.

America then was having a mere temper tantrum, nothing that resembles the seriously troubled times it is experiencing today — which is the complete breakdown in its internal psychic economy.

File photo: A person carries a sign supporting QAnon at a protest rally in Olympia, Washington. Facebook said Tuesday, that it will remove pages, groups and Instagram accounts for “representing QAnon.” Image Credit: AP

A universe of alternative facts

Imagine this difficult to imagine but likely to materialise phantasmagoric scenario: A twice-impeached, now former president of the greatest power on Earth allegedly incites a mob of his supporters to storm the US Capitol and is later slapped with four criminal indictments, yet he goes on to become his party’s front-runner as nominee for the nation’s highest office and may, just may, be seen, 17 months from now, on January 20, 2025, on the steps of the Capitol, raising his right hand and giving his presidential oath in front of the chief justice the US Supreme Court as the 47th president of the United States, swearing to preserve, protect and defend the American constitution — the very constitution he had been accused by a grand jury of plotting to subvert.

This, surely, would be the stuff of which optical illusions and the illogic of dreams is made of.

You want further proof of the turmoil that that has seethed in the internal psychic economy of this polity we call America over the last decade or so — proof that a subversive imagination, as it were, animates the American people’s collective consciousness — then consider the destructive war fought between Americans who believe in facts and those who believe in what has come to be known as “alternative facts”.

QAnon conspiracy theories

And there are millions of the latter out there, to wit, one third of adults living in the US of A today, who are open (and the polls kid you not) to “QAnon conspiracy theories”, the umbrella term for a sprawling set of conspiracies about how the nation is run by a cabal plotting against Donald J. Trump, who alone, and single-handedly, will gain try to make America great again.

This sad fact about America today that brings to mind what Hannah Arendt wrote decades ago about how the rise of demagogues in society is abetted by “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists”.

In America it once used to be understood that people are entitled to have their own opinions but not their own facts. And the reason is clear. By insinuating into their society Alice in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser” terms like “post-factual” and “post-truth” into the public discourse, these folks have created a pervasive sense of disorientation into how other Americans see the objective world around them.

Oh, yes, there’s now a civil war — though more like a cold civil war, far removed, of course, from the one waged in the 1860s when 11 Southern states left the Union and engaged in a four-year military conflict with the North that cost the lives of roughly 600,000 lives, all done to assert their putative right to preserve the system of slavery — between two sides who do not see, and probably never will see anytime real soon, eye to eye.

Look, if you and I agree that this is a, say, candlestick, it’s okay to argue till daybreak, till the cows come home or till our eyeballs pop out, over where to put it — on the mantlepiece, on top of the bookcase, on the coffee-table or wherever. But if you tell me that darn candlestick is not a candlestick but an alien visitor from a planet in a galaxy far, far away, the utter futility of continuing our discussion becomes amply apparent.

In short, when you take your creed to a lunatic extreme, as those 70 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 did, your credal passions will tether you to an objective reality different from the one known to the rest of us.

And this is where a polarised America stands today, on the edge, between the rock and the hard place, a nervous wreck likely to splinter apart and, given its status in the world, represent a danger not just to itself but the global community.

This is a state of affairs reminiscent of what is called in the classical theatre world “catastasis”, the fourth, final and climactic part of a drama, in which the action is heightened on the stage, events unravel and catastrophe looms.

Save us, dear Lord.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.