How did a science fiction concept inspired by quantum physics take over American pop culture? The idea of a “multiverse” — that a theoretically infinite number of alternate universes exist, containing every single possible variance of the existing world — has clawed its way up the cultural ladder, from its origins as a convenient plot device for frustrated comic book writers to one of total dominance.
There’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster released last weekend. There’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” one of the most massive cultural phenomena in recent memory and far and away the biggest post-pandemic cinematic hit. And word-of-mouth critical darling “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” And Netflix’s “Russian Doll.” And the cartoon phenomenon “Rick and Morty.” The list goes on.
It’s easy to understand the concept’s appeal: Who doesn’t consider what might have been if only a few small (or big) things had gone differently? Everyone has their own personal “‘Sliding Doors’ moment,” where you’ll always ponder what could have happened if you’d just returned that email, or left work a little bit earlier, or written your phone number on that receipt. But as mind-expanding as the multiverse can be with its literally endless possibilities, it can also be limiting. When “change” is defined by a physics-defying dimensional hop, the incremental steps toward progress available in our own world start to look piddling by comparison.
No critic wants to be the moral scold. (Well, maybe some do. Occasionally.) But I am duty-bound regardless to inform the readers of this magazine: America’s cultural obsession with the multiverse is destroying the civic and social bonds that hold this republic together — or at least reflecting our stunted imagination and limited curiosity about the real world we actually inhabit. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our politics. The real-life implications of messy, slow-moving governance are obscured by warring visions of radically different Americas — or multiverses, if you will. That makes it all the more jarring when reality comes crashing in, like it did with the Supreme Court’s Roe draft opinion.
Which inspired a perfect example of this phenomenon: In response to a mean-spirited bit of cultural projection from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz about pro-abortion protestors, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel tweeted: “[Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D.] Vance was a trend-setter on this; the idea is that libs are essentially over-medicated, unhappy weirdos who are going to die alone. The offer: Get MAGA-pilled, have a family, be happy.”
It’s a neat encapsulation of how culture-war politics limit our understanding of reality. In the Gaetz-Vance-ian imagination, there’s an America of smiling, happy, pro-life families with well-manicured lawns, like something out of a Bush-era car commercial. And then there’s another America, of seething liberals who cling to their convoluted and anti-American ideology as a means of coping with their personal unhappiness. And then in the middle there’s our unhappy and divided reality, where life in this country would be just fine if only the other side would admit their folly — or even better, simply cease to exist.
None of this even remotely resembles how the real world works. People start families, or don’t, and choose where to live, and how, for a dizzyingly complex and intimate array of reasons. But instead of seeking to understand those reasons, we project about them based on assumptions learned from more superficial forms of media. It’s the core underlying principle of Gaetz and Vance’s politics, which imagine a world of simultaneously existing yet mutually exclusive Americas.
The enduring appeal of those politics is one result of the steady dumbing-down of Americans’ media diet over the course of the past half-century. Since 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts has periodically conducted a survey tracking among other things Americans’ readership of novels and short stories, the forms of art most innately powered by small-scale, granular, individual empathy. In its first year the share of Americans who reported reading novels, short stories, poetry or plays in the past year was nearly 57 percent; in the most recent study using 2017 data, 42 percent report reading novels or short stories. A more recent report from Gallup also points to declining readership in general.
Blue America’s political multiverse rests on a different fallacy. Let’s use last week’s world-breaking news again as a starting point: Roe would be safe if only the Senate had confirmed Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or if the Senate filibuster didn’t exist, or if there were 60 pro-abortion Senators, or 60 Biden-appointed justices, or any number of other hypotheticals that range from the impossible to the irrelevant. In this imagination, there is a world where any number of these things happened, and they would have here if not for the fecklessness of institutional Democrats, or the fundamental structural advantages that conservatives enjoy in American government.
There’s a fine distinction to be made here: All of these things are, in a sense, possible. But there is a vast gulf between possibility and reality, best summed up by Max Weber’s description of politics as the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” This isn’t a lecture about, or extension of the tedious debate around, “incrementalism.” But consider how conservatives achieved their impending judicial victory through a half-century of legal activism, institution-building, and plain old good luck and political ruthlessness. The multiverse fallacy in liberal politics has similar geospatial coordinates to that on the right: Over there is the good world, where Democrats have guts, over there is the post-apocalyptic hellscape of right-wing domination that’s always just around the corner, and here we are, forced to live in a squishy, centrist purgatory.
Admittedly “politics” are different from “governance”; there are scores of hard-working and diligent functionaries across the political spectrum who are doing the work of actually building the alternate universe that they hope to see in our own. Rhetoric is powerful, however, and for reasons that are beyond the scope of this column the most successful form of political speech in recent history is the kind that assumes the impossibility of cooperation and gradual change — and therefore denies the fundamental reality of one’s political foes and the need to coexist with them.
Which brings us back to our national breakup with literature: Flannery O’Connor wrote in a 1969 essay that “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them.” The sentiment has an especially dark portent in our rhetorically apocalyptic political climate. (All O’Connor and her contemporaries had to worry about was, you know, an actual apocalypse.) The aphorism tracks with the country’s sentiment: Recent polling shows that despite a slim majority of Americans being generally optimistic about “the future,” they predict income inequality, environmental issues and the political status quo all worsening in the coming years.
So how could it possibly be surprising that the multiverse reigns supreme in our cultural imagination, when the core concept is one that treats aspiration as outright fantasy? The solutions offered by the loudest politicians today that might bridge that gap are frequently themselves little better than science fiction.
The 18th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz attempted to tackle the multiverse dilemma a few centuries before Doctor Strange and his ilk. He posited that although a benevolent God might have conceived of many universes, only one can exist — and therefore due to God’s goodness we must live in the best of all possible worlds. Depending on one’s perspective, that can be either a hopeful or a profoundly depressing statement. Other worlds are, in fact, possible. But each of them first requires grounding ourselves in the unpredictable, unsatisfying reality of this one.
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