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Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.

Cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real.Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy.From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will.In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart …

“Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word! If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly.

The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites.

Yet the institutions and forces that once kept us from indulging the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—have enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think.

But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion.

’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes.