The delusion of crowds

Disneyland opened its gates for the first time sixty years ago today, and it’s the birthday of Georges Lemaitre (1894), the Belgian astronomer credited with proposing the Big Bang (but Fred Hoyle came up with the name, by which he intended derision for the universe-from-nothing theory). Also, today’s Google doodle reminds, it’s the birthday of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, who said “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

So, let’s talk about reality and delusion. Thoreau said he went to Walden because he wanted to live deep, get to the bottom of things (“rocks in place”), understand real life. Metaphysical philosophers are always asking “What’s real?” Most sensible people recognize that appearances can mislead. Seems like reality would be high on most people’s lists.

Well, it’s not. Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? Not Georges Lemaitre. Our collective mind is not so expansive. It’s a small world, after all. We prefer fantasy, most of us, to reality, delusion to hard truth. A young earth, a magical creation, a magical kingdom, the House of Mouse, Main Street USA. I’ve known more chronological adults smitten with Mickey and all he represents than I can count.

And, I confess, I’ve known what it’s like to be eight years old and excited beyond reason to be “going to Disneyland!” I don’t recall a lot of specifics from that first trip to Anaheim with my parents back in the real Mad Men era, but I do recall the anticipation and the unbearable thrill of actually approaching the theme park for the first time. I don’t remember how much it mattered to me then, that the whole production was a big phony. I do remember thinking that the hall of presidents was more creepy than real, and that I had been happier thinking about being in Disneyland than I was actually being there. That first visit did not measure up, for me, to the hype and expectation.

But when our kids began pestering to visit Orlando, we did our parental duty and took them. Shelled out big bucks for an overpriced meal with Snow White and Goofy, stood in looong sweaty pushy lines waiting for un-magical rides and performances, felt claustrophobic in a sea of humanity that seemed enchanted with itself and contented with a barely-virtual experience of branded mass consumerism and faux nostalgia for Neverland. But those were my impressions, the kids seemed to have a good enough time. They didn’t overthink it. Their generation is possibly inured to hype, beyond unreasonable expectation.

A World of Tomorrow that makes a brighter smarter future feel real, that celebrates the magic of reality, that really expands our universe of imagination: that’s a theme that hasn’t really been done yet. If they build it, I will come.

6 am/5:45, 74/94

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