If I had unlimited resources, I would distribute Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland to the masses. And by distribute, I mean I would give a copy to every single person in the country, starting at about age 16. If they were unable to read I would read it to them. I would pay for translations into any and all languages. I would pipe audiobook versions into public spaces — grocery stores, bus stops, malls, those annoying tv/speaker combos at gas station pumps — and put little notebooks and pencils around so my fellow concerned citizens could take notes. Yes, it’s that important. Yes, I may sound a little crazy.
Wait, you think I sound crazy? We haven’t even embarked on the road to crazy yet.
Kurt Andersen begins his tale prior to the founding of the United States. He takes us back in time to the days of Martin Luther and the founding of the Protestant faith, the OG of anti-establishment viewpoints. As the egoistic Protestants board ships bound for a new, holier-than-thou life and a pious future in New England, the real story begins. He discusses the willingness of Americans both then and now to believe in fantasies. Andersen traces the social and cultural trends of the colonials (including various factions of Protestants literally kicking each other out of town for not being the right type of Christian) to snake oil salesmen, the Salem witch trials, California gold rush and onward. As he weaves together the stories of religion, science, and blind consumerism through the years Andersen describes the unusual desire of Americans to believe in something greater than themselves.
Andersen focuses on what he calls the exceptionalism of America, which has two meanings–highly unusual and unusually good. America, Anderson argues, is both, mainly due to the “peculiar” American tendency to invent, build, and dominate the fantasy-industrial complex, an environment in which fiction and reality are indistinguishable. We inhabit this strange little uniquely American bubble, where we build mini suburbias that require us to drive to work, because cities are dangerous, unhealthy and crowded. We believe what we want to believe (the ubiquitous American dream) and pray to the God of our choosing. We judge those who don’t believe, look, and act the way we do, though our nation’s founding documents espouse our right to pursue happiness in whatever way we wish. We believe unbelievable stories about our nation’s founding fathers because they comfort us, and some of us think that the Bible is literally the Word of God.
Because our neighbors believing in a bunch of hooey does no physical, financial, or emotional harm to ourselves, we let them be. This “live and let live” mentality is all fine and good, Andersen argues, until it no longer is. Anti-vaxxers pose a threat to health, conspiracy theorists have eroded faith in government, and climate change deniers fail to see or believe the urgent problems created by human impact on the environment.
“As we let a hundred dogmatic iterations of reality bloom, the eventual result was an anything-goes relativism that extends beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief: If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”
In one particularly satisfying and illuminating paragraph Andersen describes how the English language changed to accommodate a softening between fact and fiction:
You can see it in our very language–particularly where it comes to discriminating between the actual and the unreal and the ridiculing fantasies purporting to be authentic. For a century, Americans had a wide-ranging, well-established vocabulary for this, talking about suckers falling for hogwash. After the 1920s, however, we invented fewer and fewer such disparagements. Soon words like balderdash, humbug, and bunkum were shoved to the back of the language attic and semiretired or eliminated, along with hooey, claptrap, and malarkey. We also did a strange thing to a certain set of older words. For as long as they’d been English, incredible, unbelievable, unreal, fabulous, and fantastic were either derogatory or neutrally descriptive, different ways of calling claims unlikely, imaginary or untrue. But then they were all redefined to be terms of supreme praise, synonyms for wonderful, glorious, outstanding, superb. It was a curious linguistic cleansing and a convenient prelude to the full unfettering of balderdash, bunkum, hooey, humbug and malarkey later in the century.
Andersen’s description of so-called “Kids R Us Syndrome” is one of my favorites. This phenomenon began in the 1980s, when baby boomers decided they did not ever have to grow up, and started playing video games and fantasy sports, spending money on plastic surgery to look younger, entertaining themselves with comic books and super hero movies, and funding artwork that could have been created by children. In other words, Kids R Us syndrome afflicts those who want to be forever young. What’s the harm? The lines blending, ever so subtly, between fantasy and reality (his example is Michael Jackson).
It is absolutely fascinating how many things I did not know about American history. For example — there was a time when everyone thought they would find gold in Virginia. Really! Not to mention John Wesley, one of the co-founders of the church I was raised in (Methodist) was effectively kicked out of that church and had to escape back to England after he broke up with his teenage girlfriend. In New York state it was not uncommon for young men to have visions of God and found very unusual religions. Andersen gets into detail on the Scopes Monkey Trial, McCarthyism, Walt Disney, and the myth of the Old South.
I could go on and on, and I sort of have because I truly loved reading this book and spoke about it at length to a lot of people who probably wished I would shut up about it. The other problem was how on the nose Andersen’s story is, and how we are up to our necks in Fantasyland. Toward the end of the book as he points out that the rise of Trump and “alternative facts” was a natural extension of the previous 450 years, I wanted some comfort or even easy fixes but none were to be found.
Read it, learn something, and enjoy the fascinating journey through the development of America. Maybe eat some macaroni and cheese to help it go down easy. Then take a walk outside, maybe a few deep breaths, and buy a subscription to a real newspaper.