The Fundamentalist Fallacy
Shedding light on the danger and irony of traditional conservative values
“When the fundamentalist wins, the world enters a dark age"
-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
This has been a recurring theme in human history since the dawn of agriculture. Looking back over the ages, we find that slavery, genocide, inequality, poverty, and terrorism have gone hand-in-hand with fundamentalism. While writing his 2002 book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield seemingly predicted the conditions of our current fundamentalist rough patch in the United States. Our modern struggle with fundamentalism is the resurgence of American nationalism.
“Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat... In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride.”
-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Thus we have Donald Trump, poster child for American pride, champion of the dispossessed. Desperate for a “doctrine that [restores] hope and pride”, his subjects have bought into his trickery. They’re sold on the idea that he is acting in their interest. But we all know this is far from the truth. Now we face an angry mob and a monster. His rise to power corresponds exactly with Pressfield’s writing. The events that led to the displacement of his followers are outlined by Andrew Yang, among others. These include the loss of traditional jobs due to automation, the comedic portrayal of blue-collar families in cartoons, or the popularity of progressive ideals like veganism and additional gender pronouns. They feel like the world they grew up in is falling apart. These things don’t sit well with those who are unwilling to adapt to change or are too deeply rooted in tradition. But unbeknownst to them, adaptability is one of the core “traditions” a human can celebrate, thanks to evolution. Our ancestors roamed the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years adapting as they went. We are literally designed to be adaptable. But the fundamentalists simply refuse.
Too proud to accept that their traditions are social constructs designed to advance consumerism and control certain populations, they must place the blame elsewhere to justify their unhappiness. The fundamentalist actively works to blame others.
“He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself. But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life.”
-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
It is in this “fashioning of Satan” that we see the most hateful outbursts from Trump and his supporters. They target immigrants, foreigners, the poor, the rich, the youth, democrats, liberals, science. They go after anyone or anything that doesn’t align with their values. They demonize them. And it is this aggression that gives meaning to their lives. This treads dangerously close to the capacity for dehumanization exhibited in Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. When influenced strongly enough by culture, humans are capable of terrible things.
But we can prevent succumbing to cultural pressures in the first place if we simply look inward. We must come to terms with our capacity for evil, and in doing so, we become aware of it and can control it. But awareness is the key. We have to realize it’s there to begin with. And this is where the fundamentalist falls short. Introspection is an embarrassment to his manhood. He turns off his brain and simply allows his baseless rage to take command. He feels safer crawling back into his mental box, where new ideas cannot enter.
Willingly blocking out new information is essentially the surrender of one’s humanity. Look at it this way: the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. We’ve dreamt up crazy things like mathematical formulas that describe nature in higher-dimensional planes of existence. Yet even these pale in comparison to the complexity of the squishy grey goop between our ears. We possess a miracle of nature. Our capacity to recall the past and simulate the future are what separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. To ask “why” and think deeply are uniquely human abilities. So it is in our very nature to ponder abstract concepts and to create artistic marvels guided by the imagination. One might even argue that it’s our purpose to do so. Yet the fundamentalists stubbornly refuse to even consider any of these actions. This is where Pressfield draws the distinction between the fundamentalist and the artist.
“[The artist] possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination. The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it.”
-Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
“Affluence, stability,” and “excess of resource” are not the result of growing up in a rich family or becoming an investment banker. These are obtained by having an open mind and welcoming new ideas. The artist finds stability knowing he will always better himself while exploring the uncertainties of life. This gives the artist purpose. The fundamentalist, on the other hand, cannot stand uncertainty. He must be told what his purpose is. This deeper sense of purpose allows the artist to measure success or happiness using criteria other than the number of hours spent on the clock each week. And what of freedom? What the fundamentalists so vehemently preach is rather the opposite of freedom. They are the stalwart proponents of this ideal American “freedom”, yet wouldn’t dare try to, say, eat with chopsticks, willingly travel beyond their hometown, write down their thoughts, paint a picture, read an educational article, or develop a new skill. Perhaps they are “free” to practice the handful of activities they have limited themselves to. But this sounds more like confinement than freedom to me.
This confinement isn’t limited to personal values. It leaks into politics and trickles down to poison those governed under highly conservative administrations. It’s the same old song and dance, but on a grand scale. When fundamentalists rise to power, they declare “freedom” when they subjugate others who do not conform to their archaic ways of life. Progressive efforts that mirror the true spirit of humanity are suppressed.
“A so-called progressive agenda often aligns with forager values: a more equitable distribution of resources, assistance for the vulnerable, respect and autonomy for women (including equal pay and reproductive rights), increased funding for health care and educational programs, acceptance of all religions, and so on. A more conservative agenda often aligns with such agricultural values as individual rights superseding those of the community, paternalistic male control over women’s sexual behavior, expansionist militarism, exaltation of wealth, and monotheism.”
-Christopher Ryan, Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress
Take a moment to consider how backwards this all is. “Conservatives” fight to conserve the classic values of their culture. But they fail to understand that these values were only established after being forcefully imposed on free, peaceful people. And now the progressives must implement “radical” policies to steer humanity back to its natural egalitarian state. Their ideas are only radical because we have been prodded so far in the wrong direction under fundamentalist leadership. They’ve created artificial freedom in an artificial society.
Fundamentalists have essentially built a zoo for themselves, and they populate their cages proudly. They insist that their limited reality is the only true one while mocking the outside world. But they wouldn’t dare explore the outside world, for they are fearful of it. So they go about their business as usual, doing what they’ve done everyday for as long as they can remember, until it becomes instinct. And anything that violates their instinctive behavior is grounds for a fight-or-flight response. More often than not, they choose to fight. And so the cycle of aggression continues. But this must come to an end in order to stop the adverse effects of the cage they’ve built around society. We must get them in touch with the outside world, because their mess is affecting all of us.
Should we ever wish to make peace with the thick-skulled right-wingers, it is imperative that we convince them to employ critical thought and reflection. Building walls (metaphorically and literally) cannot be the only way to deal with problems. Whether by example or through statistical proof, we need to show them that their careless traditions are detrimental to a sensitive world that is ever-changing. Industrialization, mass-production, wasteful consumerism, and the hoarding of wealth and resources may have worked in the United States to rebound from the Great Depression or to rebuild after the World Wars, but we are beyond the need for such practices. Through science we’ve learned that the archaic methods for generating wealth during the fundamentalists’ golden days are unsustainable, inhumane and dangerous. So in order to correct their carelessness, we must plan for the future, not dwell in the past.
“Life only scrolls in one direction, which is the direction of time, and no matter how far we might manage to go, that invisible wall will always be just behind us, cutting us off from the past, compelling us into the unknown.”
-Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
We may look to the past to learn from our mistakes or to expand on positive ideas. But it is naive to think that all life can return to how it once was. Fundamentalists yearn for ideals that have thoroughly been proven to be either plain fallacies or purely unjust. And it is abundantly clear that the Earth is suffering from our winner-take-all lifestyle. We have to build a new framework to address modern issues.
This is why we, Pressfield’s “artists”, who understand the reality of humankind, must work tirelessly to promote science, equality, and the creative, peaceful nature of humanity. When we get in touch with our egalitarian roots, everyone benefits, and there is no need for hostility. For all our sake, we must encourage the fundamentalists to step outside their cage and help us clean up their mess. The more we can prove how deeply connected to the Earth we are, the wider we open the doors for them. When they drop their stubborn ways and finally allow themselves to have an open mind, they will know how vibrant life really is. It will be like a stick person stepping off the page and seeing in three dimensions for the first time.
We have a lot of work to do. For now, the reckless fundamentalist will do what he can, at the expense of anyone and anything in his way, to become the top dog. He clearly defines a winner and a loser and blindly charges ahead. But it’s one thing to defeat the competition and win the game. It’s another to realize there is a game at all, and that it has been rigged from the start. The fact that we are aware of this is reason enough to keep pushing for a better future. Do not lose hope, fellow artists.