Review of “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History” by Kurt Andersen

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This seems like as good a time as any to admit that we are batshit crazy.

It’s not the pandemic. The Clorox briefings. The conspiracy theories.

It’s everything. For all the good traits that make America great, there is a dark side to our exceptionalism. It is nearly impossible here to grow up to become a sane adult. Something in our culture wars against it.

In America, a child born today has a one in three chance of growing up to believe UFOs are visiting our planet and the government is covering it up. One in five will believe in alien abductions. Ditto for chemtrails. Eleven percent will believe the government is trying to achieve mass mind control through new kinds of light bulbs. A whopping sixty percent will believe that end-time events foretold in the biblical book of Revelation will actually happen, and forty percent will believe the Jesus-versus-Satan apocalypse will play out while they’re still alive. (They will take no lessons from recently dead generations who believed the same thing.)

Speaking of smackdowns, many millions of new American adults 25 years from now will tune into professional wrestling, suspending belief in the distinction between real spectacle and fake sport. Many millions more will forget or never notice that “authentic” sports such as football are also staged fantasies that mix real violence with simulations of warfare. Hordes of new adults will acquire the belief that monster truck rallies are awesome. And so on.

As forecasts, these claims are, of course, off the cuff. They warrant the usual caveat, “On current trends, . . . .” After all, who’s to say that a quarter century from now Americans will be just as likely to believe in UFOs or that new light bulbs will even be a thing? Before I propose a response, though, consider this observable fact: our tendency to believe in fantasies sets us off sharply from most other people who are otherwise like us. In most countries in the developed world, a child stands almost no chance of growing up to believe even a single instance of the lurid flimflammery our children will believe about end-times, alien abductions, or the UN’s master plan to rule the world, let lone the whole shebang. In the rest of the Global North, the institutions of society seem to coordinate–or conspire, if you like–to shield children from believing exciting untruths and indulging in louche cons and quackery.

You can actually see it. Or rather, not see it. Just as there are simply no WWE matches or faith-healing tent revivals to attend in, say, France, there is a corresponding lack of false, histrionic ideas about life, the universe, and everything designed to indoctrinate children. There are no support networks of creationist home-schoolers, because–guess what–no one keeps their kids home to avoid what they think are the dwellings of Satan but which are really just schools. In these nice places, where one is unmolested by charlatans at every turn, it is possible to actually grow up. (Indeed one does better than merely grow up. Most European and east Asian high school students significantly out-perform American kids on all key educational indices.)

About those current American trends, though, and the question whether they will hold steady–if anything, Americans will likely proliferate newer, nuttier beliefs than the ones we have now. New avatars of what Kurt Andersen calls America’s “fantasy-industrial complex” will emerge with even more outlandish myths, conspiracies, and lies for the up-and-coming generation to believe in. Our children don’t stand a chance. Grown up, they will go sweaty and red in the face defending preposterous nonsense like the Prosperity Gospel while Koreans and Finns coolly do math and science.

How did we get here? According to Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, we have always been here. We have always had a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” as he puts it. Sure, new things like the internet happened along the way that accelerated and expanded it, but for Andersen, excitable credulity is in our DNA.

Fantasy

European settlers came to America in the 17th century for two reasons: to find gold and to establish religious utopias. Both groups, the gold seekers in Virginia and the Puritans in Massachusetts, based their ambitions on wild hopes for the future. They were gullible by definition. The Virginians were a self-selected crew of schemers “wide-eyed and desperately wishful enough” to believe the hyperbolic ad men of the Virginia Charter Company shouting in the streets of London that the New World positively gleamed with gold.

The Puritans, for their part, came to America determined to fulfill the religious revolution begun by Luther in 1517. All over western Europe, “Millions of ordinary people,” reading Gutenberg Bibles hot off the presses, “decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything.” This revolution would continue to be fought over in Europe until at least 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, but the American Puritans escaped this contest and brought their radical new faith to a place where it would suffer no friction. There was no popery or any other kind of adult supervision waiting when they landed on Plymouth Rock.

The most interesting thing about the Protestant revolution in America is how quickly it became the new establishment. Rather than having to fight back against official repression by kings and popes, it was forced to deal with unruly spinoffs of its own, led by new, more extreme rebels. So began a pattern of innovation and fracturing that continues to this day. America blooms with ever-daffier religious sects. Waco’s Branch Davidians spun off the Seventh Day Adventists, who could trace their line of religious entrepreneurship all the way back to the the founding.

Of course reality set in in colonial America and tempered our fantasies. Not all roads would lead to Waco. Reason largely held sway; science thrived, especially in cosmopolitan Philadelphia. Look only to the secular, pragmatic character of founders for evidence that America did not go all-out gonzo crazy when it had the chance. Benjamin Franklin was officially a Puritan, but you couldn’t tell it from the way he attacked Cotton Mather’s religious establishment in his newspaper columns. Ben philandered, opined freely, and did science experiments. For him, all that was left of the old Puritan ways was a keen work ethic and a desire to get ahead.

But it is not Andersen’s contention in Fantasyland that we’ve ever gone all-out crazy. Rather, he argues that a large-enough number of our fantasies have survived the winnowing process of reality to tip us toward an anything-goes epistemology that could swamp what’s left of our objectivity. The kind of society that reserves the right to believe the fabulous is fun at times but ultimately cannot serve the purposes of human dignity, which include being governable by democracy. We’re not in a good way. “The American experiment,” Andersen writes,

the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. 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, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will.

For a long time, we kept our will to believe woo-woo in a kind of rolling stasis. Beliefs in snake oil, tongue-speaking, rapture, levitation, and so forth would ebb and flow (for example, though the course of three “Great Awakenings” of fundamentalist religious faith), but for the most part, sober-minded adults steered and sustained the institutions that kept (many of us) tethered to reality. Then, in 2004, one of the adults, the political operative Karl Rove, announced a dramatic shift. He told a reporter that solutions to American political problems no longer “emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We create our own reality.” At that moment, Andersen thinks, we witnessed a disruption in the woo-woo/reality stasis so powerful that it should have warned us things might not go back to normal. “America,” he writes, “was the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious, some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing.” This appetite, not the judicious study of discernible reality, would define us.

By 2004 the unquestioned default setting of most Americans was a preference for the amazing over the non-amazing. As luck would have it, this was also when the necessary bits of machinery for delivering non-stop information miracles–smart phones and social media–converged, approximating Arthur C. Clarke’s definition of technology so whiz-bang it was indistinguishable from magic. This convergence put America’s time-tested, highly refined capacity for merging reality with fiction–what Andersen calls our fantasy-industrial complex–unassailably in charge of our culture, politics, and everything else that makes us who we are.

As a philosophy student, I would have appreciated a precise definition of the FIC by Andersen, but he doesn’t provide one, instead using his highly absorbing narrative of credulous America to draw out its main attributes. That’s fine, though. He’s a journalist and novelist by trade, so Fantasyland is probably a better book for following the forms he’s good at. Still, the idea of the FIC is the centerpiece of the book and deserves some precision. Basically what Andersen says is that America has an FIC, and that’s what sets us apart from everyone else.

The bedrock of the FIC is the belief that everyone can believe whatever one wants. It’s a basic right. The Puritans brought this belief in belief with them., and Thomas Jefferson was the first prominent America to analyze it. He wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that his compatriots were free to hold any zany articles of religious faith they wished (or none at all) so long as believing them didn’t “pick his pocket or break his leg.” This idea became one of the most durable of American values. In fact we have expanded on it since Jefferson, broadening it out to apply to many things outside religious faith. Today we believe that any private belief is permissible–in Wicca, chakra healing, past lives, Bulletproof Coffee, what have you–so long as it has no negative public externalities. For a short while in the mid-2000s, California’s courts even recognized people’s right not to believe in childhood vaccination safety on “personal” (not necessarily religious) grounds. That was, until kids in California started getting childhood diseases in droves that hadn’t threatened humanity in 100 years. Then the courts reversed the ruling. In a nice touch, Andersen calls the Californians’ (short-lived) opt-out the “just because” exemption. As Americans, we consider ourselves entitled to believe almost anything just because.

And we tell ourselves that this kind of cognitive promiscuity is okay, because the impersonal forces of nature will bring our beliefs in check if they go too far (as in California). Maybe. You can indeed find people voicing this kind of attitude, but much more prevalent is America’s broad embrace of ever-weirder magical thinking, which reinforces and multiplies our set of just-because beliefs. From the Salemites’ belief they were being bewitched at every turn to the New Ager’s nostrum that you can make anything happen by believing it, to Dr, Oz’s belief in homeopathy, we are addicted to the idea that we can will unreality into reality.

Magical beliefs that seem whispy are abetted in America by real, concrete actions taken to turn fiction into fact. We lead the world in the production of fictional breasts and artificially young faces. Only a few decades ago most women over 50 had gray hair; today, virtually none do, thanks to the ubiquity of hair dye. It’s a harmless vanity, of course. In a much more bizarre vein, though, a portion of the ever-growing community of cosplay gamers in America strive for a transformative level of immersion in their fictions. They call it “bleed” when they inhabit their fantasy worlds to such an extent that they experience real, comprehensive emotional lives whose referents exist only in the game.

The threshold to magical thinking has been lowered in great part, according to Andersen, by the compromise of America’s intellectual gatekeepers. Back in the day, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine all said sure, go ahead and believe what you want, but they said it in full confidence that if you let wacky truth claims “be submitted to a candid world,” the sober facts would win out. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. Well, it was a long, strange trip, but by the 1960s our intellectual gatekeepers were saying there was no such thing as facts (of the kind Jefferson & Co. had in mind), and furthermore the proper judges of what was “true” and “false” were not  a “candid world” of clear-eyed observers but a wised-up clan of social theorists who squinted at “reality” and saw that it was a figment of our collective imagination. This was the upshot of several widely influential books by highly respected scholars in the 1960s, including The Structure of Scientific Revolution, published by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 and  The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman  in 1966.

(One of the more adventurous books I’ve ever read from this genre is Against Method, by Paul Feyerabend. All I really knew about Feyerabend before I read Fantasyland was that he was a philosopher of science at Berkeley, and you could tell. Against Method is basically Feyerabend saying that scientists, rather than being paragons of objectivity, play professional games with the truth all the time based in fudging data and outright lying and even bullying. I will be forever grateful to Andersen for revealing just how weird a dude Feyerabend was. I had no idea. He grew up in Austria in the 1930s, and when the Nazis annexed his country, he saw the occupation and war as an “inconvenience, not a moral problem.” He joined the Wehrmacht and commanded troops in combat. After emigrating to the US after the war and landing a job in Berkeley as a philosophy professor, he had what Andersen calls a “full 1960s conversion.” Feyerabend had always been “excited by the world falling apart around him,” according to Andersen, and this side of him came out big time at Berkeley, even though he played things pretty straight early on, giving dull lectures about the scientific pursuit of truth. “It dawned on me,’ Feyerabend wrote in a memoir he called Farewell to Reason, “that the intricate arguments and wonderful stories I had so far told to my more or less sophisticated audience might just be dreams, reflections of the conceit of a small group who had succeeded in enslaving everyone else with their ideas.” Reason was no steady, reliably guide to the truth. It was the man keeping everyone down, man. Feyerabend was trying to pull down the pillars of the temple of science and reason, and, as Andersen writes, he was celebrating the very chaos he was trying to sow.)

Once the weirdness lid came off mainstream academia, it was off to the races for less noted but still notable scholars. Take C. Peter Wagner, a prominent Christian theologian and one-time professor at the (relatively) staid Fuller Seminary. Until he died in 2016, Wagner led a movement of pastors who preach the “dominion” gospel to millions–the idea that Christians should dominate American society and seize control of the government. (Basically the dominionists want to be the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale, but in real life.) In a 2011 NPR interview Wagner went on the record to claim with a straight face that Japan was suffering from demon possession because its emperor had arranged to have sex with the sun goddess. (I  normally don’t take a position on this kind of thing, but I say if you can figure out the logistics of the deal, by all means have sex with the sun goddess, because–sun goddess!) Millions of Americans thought of Wagner as a normal, sane adult, and, judging from the strength of the dominionist movement he left behind, millions still do. If this does not have your cognitive disaster light blinking red, you should probably get it checked.

In 19th century you had to be a nobody and a self-conscious fraud to sell snake oil. But the erosion of gatekeeper standards means that today, you can come out of the closet and stay out, cultivating enough credibility to both be a real, celebrated expert in something and also propagate childish nonsense. Deepak Chopra, for example, trained as an endocrinologist in the 1970s and then taught medicine at Tufts and Harvard while rising to become chief of staff at a large Boston hospital. Today, though, he believes that all ill-health is an illusion, which people can disabuse themselves of if they tune into their bodies’ “quantum mechanical” energy fields. He writes books about this which are bought by millions of Americans, and he has been heavily promoted by Oprah. It is safe to say that tens of millions of Americans believe the loony things Chopra says. And, in a new, very American twist, he may just believe what he says too. This is a new place for us. Back in the snake oil days, the impresario knew he had to hotfoot it out of town after making his sales, but today he sticks around and builds an empire of outlandish credulity which he cohabits with his dupes. But since we create our own realities now, it’s all good, right? Also see Doctor Oz.

Another outstanding feature of Andersen’s fantasy-industrial complex is the outsized role the 1960s played in our cognitive decline. While the eggheads at elite universities were busy bashing truth, science and objectivity, other groups were working away at eroding other conventions and cultural power structures across all of society. Andersen argues that the burgeoning use of marijuana was a good proxy measure for just how much the times they were a-changin’. “In 1965,” he writes, “fewer than a million Americans had smoked pot; in 1972 the number was 24 million. In 1967 only 5 percent of American college students had smoked; four years later it was a majority, and a third were getting high every day.” The use of psychedelics increased too. Woodstock happened, plus Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles turned on, and they also wanted to turn you on. No wonder so many young Americans suddenly found it so natural and appealing to commune with one another. The “Gestalt Prayer”–written in 1969 at Esalen, a fake, and highly successful, psychological research “institution” in California–is a wonderful distillation of the times, with its standing invitation to what Andersen calls a “concoct-your-own-truth” society:

I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.

(Here is an excellent profile of Esalen from the August 19, 2019 New Yorker. Yes, Esalen still around, as strong as ever. Many of the tech gurus who bend our attention wherever they wish go there to learn wisdom.)

Surprisingly, increased grooviness was not the only outcome of the 1960s. A vastly underappreciated side of the onslaught against the establishment was how it boomeranged back around to aid and abet precisely those Americans who were rooting for the establishment all along. The buzzcuts over in DoD started doing data-heavy “systems analysis” showing that nukes were a force for good and we were actually winning the Vietnam war. Even hard data could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Somehow, the hippies and Berkeley professors missed the fact that anything-goes relativism was a game that anyone could play. The establishment never went away, of course, but it sure did learn a thing or two from the left-leaning cultural revolution of the 1960s, as Andersen observes:

In fact, what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flipsides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more. Anything goes meant anything went.

The conquest of talk radio by conservative voices in the 1980s and 90s was just one consequence of this shift. There was never a need for Rush Limbaugh to slow down for fact-checking because, hey man, facts are like totally made up anyway. (He might not have believed this “argument,” but all of his audience had recourse to it, and likely used it liberally.) Today a popular conservative broadcaster closes his news cast with the line, “Even when I’m wrong I’m right.” Whether he knows it or not, the 1960s helped gift him this bounty of fantasy.

Anything-goes relativism also did heroic work for Biblical literalism, which had been receding steadily for the decades between the Scopes trial, in 1925, and the 1960s. Genesis Flood, a 1961 book laying out the literalist “theory” that the earth is only 6000 years old, “almost single-handedly retrieved creationism from the dustbin of Christian intellectual history–just as the academic mainstream was starting to say that science couldn’t necessarily be trusted as the arbiter of truth.” Today, 76 percent of Americans believe god created humans; half of these believe creation happened literally (clay, Adam’s rib and all that) as described in GenesisAnother poll indicates 40 percent of Americans believe the young earth theory espoused in Genesis Flood. Virtually no one else in the Global North believes these things.

The Intelligent Design movement has its own body of “science,” some of which is impressively complex. This is the point. It is written to inspire the faithful, cajole the skeptical, bamboozle everyone. Intelligent Design “science” is emblematic of a broader characteristic of American fantasyland, according to Andersen–its hybridity. Fact and fiction are made to incorporate one another in an endless feedback loop reminiscent of The Matrix, so that no one can tell what’s real and what’s not. This was perhaps inevitable for a country that literally wrote such fictions as human rights into existence. Human rights were made real by real people’s collective recognition of them, and a damn good thing, too. They are great. I’m all for this kind of boundary-crossing creativity if you have the wisdom of Aristotle or at least the realism of Thomas Hobbes, but we are not Aristotle, or even Hobbes. We are us, so we also pour great, slopping buckets of error, cant, bigotry, schlock, and malice into our hybrid inventions. We created reality TV. “Professional” wrestling. And a reality TV-pro wrestling president, which should not surprise us. We created Disneyland and then suburbs made to look like Disneyland. Or was it the other way around? Who knows.

Open admission: I pretty much hate the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, mostly because he wrote a ridiculous book claiming that a biggish war I happen to have fought in, the Persian Gulf War, did not actually take place. He says it was all done with mirrors and CNN. Whatever. If you dial Baudrillard back from a 14 to an 11, though, here’s one thing he most certainly got right (and which Andersen draws out): America’s mind-bending capacity to create fantasies and blend them with real life has reached disorienting proportions. Beaudrillard calls it hyperreality. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines hyperreality as a world

in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, virtual reality games, social networking sites, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior.

Well, ain’t that America?–except I would definitely add megachurches to the list of Disneyficators that dominate our landscape. I usually don’t like avant garde intellectual terms, but I think hyperreality is a good one. If it strikes you as a joke or an exaggeration, consider this: Baudrillard coined it two decades before the tech wonks decided to call the real-time blending of maps (or images) with textual information (and who knows what else) augmented reality.

But prominent Americans have been augmenting reality for a long time now. In a world where you can uncritically combine fact with fiction, message is all that matters, especially if you communicate for a living. It doesn’t matter whether your claims are true or false, or even where your terms come from. Do you know that famous speech by Ronald Reagan where he called the Soviet Union the evil empire? Reagan didn’t just cherry-pick one made-up term from Star Wars for that speech. It was a cornucopia of fantasies wrapped in a smorgasbord of fakery. Andersen recalls it:

Reagan delivered his “evil empire” speech in Orlando to the National Association of Evangelicals, an hour after he had been at Disney World. “I just watched a program–I don’t know just what to call it–a show, a pageant, . . . at one point in the movie Mark Twain, speaking of America, says, ‘We soared into the twentieth century on the wings of inventions and the winds of change.'” He’d seen Disney’s The American Adventure, featuring an animatronic Mark Twain saying things Mark Twain never said.

Americans loved that speech.

The fact that the USSR really was an empire and it really was evil kind of deflates any quibbles about truth and historicity in this case, right? I mean, Reagan was right in every way that counted. Maybe message really is all that matters.

But America’s hybridization of fact and fiction is not all about political speeches. Some of it matters. In the 1960s the LAPD created the country’s first SWAT team. They trained at a Universal studios lot. After the TV show S.W.A.T. came out in the 1970s, police departments started copying what they saw on the show according to investigative reporting by the New York Times. This hybridization led to the proliferation of SWAT units across the country and eventually to America having the most militarized police force on earth. It also connects to other hybridizations that led to real-life increases in life’s nastiness and brutishness here in America. Fictional apocalypses and sadistic crime dramas helped lead to real prepper movements and advocates of “guns everywhere” laws. Rather than having to stop playing army as kids, hundreds of thousands of adults now play it much better, with entirely-realistic-looking Airsoft paintball guns, and loads of cool military accessories. The Second Amendment language about “well-regulated militia[s]” was reinterpreted to mean that U.S. citizens have the right to formed armed bands to fight back against their own constitutional government, which the NRA described in 1995 as “jackbooted thugs.”

With their faith in exciting TV fabrications, deep government conspiracy theories, and nostalgic Daniel-Boone individualism, these movements evince another key feature of our fantasy-industrial complex as Andersen interprets it–the open borders of fantasyland. Belief in weird theory X is often linked to belief in weirder theory Y. If you believe, say, that you actually sup each week on the blood and body of a Bronze Age mystery cult god who is also your lord and savior, equally preposterous fictions will come easier too–maybe Q-anon or power-line epidemiology. Indeed the polls indicate this kind of overlap, and they have for a long time. In a survey of people who listened to Orson Well’s prankish broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, a clear majority of those who freaked out were also devout religious believers.

In a way, this is good news. Our cognitive bottom-feeders will tend to sort themselves and thus the nonsense they believe into one place–the bottom. It’s possible but pretty unlikely that your cardiologist will also be a Reiki master healer or that a federal judge will spend her nights feverishly connecting the dots of the next Pizza Gate conspiracy. This is not rocket science. Even in fantasy-besotted America, plain old education helps keep crazy down. The same Pew poll that showed 40 percent of Americans believe Jesus will come blazing down from the sky during their lifetimes indicated that people with no college were three times more likely to believe this than than college grads.

The bad news is: that murky place where lunkheads, troglodytes and enthusiasts get together to cross-fertilize outrageously stupid ideas?–It is HUGE. It contains multitudes. Our basement may only make up the bottom quarter of our house, but it remains a very big house. We clearly lead the world in producing and propagating mad fantasies and then connecting the dots that link them together into stupendously false worldviews. Think Alex Jones here. It’s embarrassing.

Obviously, I like Andersen’s book. I think, in the tradition of Orwell, he faces up to a lot of unpleasant facts. But I think Andersen misses one key feature of America’s obsession with exciting, irrefutable beliefs in fiction. That is, these kinds of beliefs are massively empowering to the individuals who hold them. Do you know those memes of Sam Elliot where he’s looking at you with that wonderful, omniscient gaze and telling you you’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to believe in immigration statistics, or climate change science, or some other dogma that the elite establishment wants to force on you? Thanks to a convergence of technology and a widespread corruption of intellectual leadership in America, that attitude is now available to everyone. Each American can now be and feel smarter than anyone who dares to tell him the facts just aren’t on his side.

Why have I written a 5,000-word review of Andersen on this gloomy topic? Is it because I think real, concrete harm is being done by Americans’ obsession with connecting random dots into self-flattering fabricated pictures of a non-world? Sure. You can count up a certain number of innocent parties who will suffer or die because of our willful stupidity. That’s bad, of course, but I doubt the danger of our faith in nonsense is all that worrisome compared to real problems that we’re actually tackling in intellectually honest ways (for example, the link between prisons for profit and skyrocketing incarceration rates).

Ultimately, fantasyland is repulsive because it is harmful to human dignity. It perverts the one thing that sets us off from other big mammals, our ability to mentally represent complex things happening outside our heads–the real world. Our intoxicating ability to add our own thoughts to the ones impinging form the outside world is, I believe, turning toxic. And, worse, the toxin is a cheap one. It openly advertises its fraudulent character. But nonetheless, we prefer the delusion to honesty. Andersen quotes the alternative-history fantasy writer Philip K. Dick at length on this dreary condition, the outcome of our peculiar addiction to the habitual blending of fact and fiction:

The problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups–and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener . . . .

I consider that the matter of defining what is real . . . is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans–as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. . . . Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. . . . It is just a very large version of Disneyland.

This, I think is the real horror of our passionate faith in nonsense. It’s nothing that picks my pocket or breaks my leg. Our belief in life-coaching, end-times, young earth, the prosperity gospel, speaking in tongues, commodity bubbles, crop circles, reptilian overlords, porn fantasy and so on probably doesn’t draw a lot of blood. But it is all so degrading–a  pathological attempt to dodge our adult responsibilities. The philosopher Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as intellectual emancipation, the conscious recognition that we have no thought supervisors, supernatural or otherwise. Kant thought it was a great and beautiful moment for mankind and that enlightenment would help us stand up straight to face the world anew. Our insistence instead on slouching toward a hell of fantasy and delusion is repugnant to this tradition. It is a willful return to what Kant called our “self-caused immaturity.” It is inhuman and inhumane.

2 thoughts on “Review of “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History” by Kurt Andersen

  1. Great timing of it all. Though it is not just America. Europe is currently going bonkers over Coronavirus traveling over 5G. So much so, they’re attacking 5G towers.

    You will love our trust discussions for next week. It should touch on Kant and Hume wrt epistemology. I just need to ensure it stays at the wave tops or no one will dive in, unfortunately. But that’s more to available time right now and not intellectual boredom. I hope.

    So, while a science-based education helps propel against fantasyland, the humanities part also supports it. I still remember outright arguments in college about the stupidity of relativism. Let alone the pseudo intellectual professors you pointed out.

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    1. HI Chris. Glad you liked it. Of course I wouldn’t cut any slack for whack jobs anywhere, but even before I read Andersen I thought weird beliefs were much closer to the mainstream here than in other places. I mean, just to take one instance among many, there’s nothing like the John Birch Society in other OECD countries. Isolated paranoiacs? I’m sure. But groups that put up billboard ads about the UN coming for their guns? (I used to drive past one of these in Arizona.)

      Anyway, if I hold Americans to a high standard, it’s probably because I’m a lot like Andersen in some ways, a plain midwesterner who doesn’t like to see inmates running the asylum.

      No, I won’t pile on any details about Kant or Hume next week.

      A quick thought about the “relativist” intellectuals of the 1960s that Andersen mentions. Many of them are/were intellectual frauds in all likelihood. I recall reading Berger and Luckman back in college and not being able to believe any two academics could be that stupid. Social construction of reality, huh? Yeah, right. Just because we make a lot of it up doesn’t mean that we make it all up.

      But Thomas Kuhn is different. He was a serious philosopher, and his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is actually very good. Early on he says that most science is “normal” science, which is basically solving puzzles within the accepted theoretical paradigm. He never said this was all a get-up where the scientists create new realities. It’s kind of subtle, but basically he believes that the social dynamics of revolutionary science (e.g. heated peer review in journals, editorial decisions about who/what gets published) can take priority in producing a paradigm shift. He never said that the objective reality underlying the scientific revolution was itself sensitive to social dynamics. Einstein discovered relativity theory, he didn’t create it. Still, Kuhn’s thesis was bold enough that it was bound to be misconstrued, which it mostly still is.

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