Fantasy: good, bad, and dangerous

For the benefit of non-fans, I should begin by explaining that Doctor Who is a long-running British science fiction series about a peculiar alien called The Doctor who travels the universe in a time machine called the TARDIS. During a visit to Britain in the early 1960’s—when the show first went on the air—its camouflage system malfunctioned, and it got stuck permanently looking on the outside like a police call box—sort of a phone booth. If the Doctor becomes very seriously injured, he regenerates and afterward has a different appearance and a somewhat different personality. This allows the show, from time to time, to replace the Doctor with a new actor.

Back in the 1980’s I attended a sci-fi event where both Tom Baker (the actor who played Dr Who number 4 in the 1970’s) and Colin Baker (who played Doctor number 6 in the 1980’s) spoke about their experiences playing the Doctor.

Both men had stories about meeting fans who had difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Tom Baker told a particularly poignant story of encountering a homeless woman who had somehow seen the show and desperately wanted him to take her away with him in the TARDIS. With as much tact and kindness as he could muster, he tried to explain that he was merely an actor and that the show was fantasy. He thought he failed to convince her.

Kurt Vonnegut,Jr, who knew a thing or two about madness, thought that it required two things: bad chemicals in your head and bad ideas. I think bad ideas can be enough.

Fantasy taken too seriously can be a source of bad ideas.

Okay, I’m probably going to offend somebody now, but in the past couple of weeks I have recently seen too many tragic news stories about people doing terrible things to innocent victims because they took their favorite fantasy too seriously. I’ve decided to say something.

Item one: It now seems clear that the Tsarnaev brothers who allegedly bombed the Boston Marathon thought they were doing so because—here comes the bit where I offend some people—they were on a mission for their invisible friend.

They differ from the Son of Sam only in that David Berkowitz invented his fantasy (he thought a neighbor’s dog was telepathically forcing him to kill people) while the alleged bombers the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by an off-the-shelf fantasy invented by someone else a long time ago.

Item two: Back in the day, it was difficult to tell where the Roman Catholic Church stopped and the Irish government started. With the assistance of the Irish government, the Church enslaved thousands of young women and put them to involuntary work in laundries operated as a money-making scheme by the Church. For many of them, this was a life sentence after their families turned them over to the Church for being “bad” girls. The Church ran this operation for decades and finally abandoned it, in the late 1980’s (no, not the 1680’s), only after most Irish households got washing machines and the laundries ceased to be profitable. Recently, the Irish government finally got around to apologizing to the survivors for its role in their enslavement. Something like 10,000 women spent their lives as slaves of the Church, most of them for having done nothing worse than flirt with boys and embarrass their pious families.

How long to you think the Irish police would have turned a blind eye to young women being kidnapped and enslaved in broad daylight if the kidnappers hadn’t cloaked themselves in a fantasy the police shared?

Item 3: A fundamentalist couple in Philadelphia have been arrested after the death of their seriously ill child whom they refused to take in for proper medical care. If that weren’t bad enough, they were already on probation for having killed a child a couple of years ago through relying exclusively on prayer to deal with a serious, but highly treatable, medical condition.

The couple live in the United States, where we bend over backwards to let people be as stupid as they like provided they say they’re just following the instructions of their invisible friends. If that weren’t the case, this couple probably would not have had the chance to let a second child die of dehydration and starvation while they continued to ask their invisible friend for help. I will bet that when their car broke down, they didn’t try to fix it with prayer.

Perhaps fantasy of all sorts should come with a warning label that it can be harmful if used more than occasionally.




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