Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen: A Review

I came to Andersen’s book not knowing much about it. Honestly, I cannot even recall why I first ordered the book, perhaps I saw it discussed on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show? Regardless, having read it, I am pleased that I did so. Why have I waited on this review for so long then? We will come to that in a moment.


Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen

As it takes a book like Fantasyland several years to come about, so from Andersen’s perspective as an author, the fact that the 2016 election came along to validate his central thesis is a boon, if only in that limited sense. What is the central thesis of Fantasyland, the one validated by the [questionable] election of 2016? The clue is in the title: Andersen sets out to demonstrate that America is a land of fantasy, rather than exceptionalism, and that these fantasies drive the nation ever-further away from being the Enlightenment-founded stronghold of liberty, opportunity, and hope that some individual Americans sometimes still quaintly believe in.

The titular notion that America “went” haywire is an appealing one. It suggests that, contrary to what might seem to be readily observable facts, America was once a sane and decent country, living up to the highest expression of ideals in her most expansively hopeful documents (the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, et cetera), and that the current period, among others in the country’s short history, like the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Watergate, or the worst excesses of the Klan in the South… these, we are meant to hope, are aberrations. If we accept this premise, we can comfort ourselves by suggesting that the present moment in American history can be fixed, somehow, and that we can “get back to the way America should be” and just thoughtlessly living our lives. Stamp out the indecency of racism and police brutality and sexism and anti-intellectualism and crony capitalism and pay-for-play politics, bring in the universal goods of fair and appropriate taxation, universal health care, true equality, reduced militarism, equal access to quality education up through post-secondary programmes…

Unfortunately, Fantasyland doesn’t necessarily give any support to that assertion, the one about “going” haywire. Instead, as Andersen depicts matters, what we have in America is a nation of neo-theocrats and rejects from other, saner European societies, who love to pay lip-service to the Enlightenment values that a group of radicals imposed on them 240 years ago, even while they undermine those values with every other word that they speak, every other action that they take. America abounds with people who are not only divorced from reality, but those who, like regular viewers of Fox, Breitbart, Sinclair and their ilk, actively seek out unreal and unsubstantiated media, because it conforms to their own twisted persecution complexes, their own biases, their own hatreds. That media has been fragmented so significantly is a function of several things: the advent of cable television in the 1980s, of the Internet in the 1990s, and deregulation since the Reagan era, among others. Between the darker corners of the web and the howling depths of the pits of perdition that make up AM talk radio and cable “news,” reality need never intrude itself into the discussion, and those for whom reality is less-enthralling than nonsense which comports with their own misplaced sense of victimhood.

It’s for this reason that I believe one aspect of Anderson’s take to be exactly 180 degrees from the truth, and therefore not inaccurate so much as “upside down.” To me, it is more accurate to say that America did not *go* haywire. Forces in America, instead, has been fighting a rearguard action against sense and reason, against the values of the Enlightenment, for five centuries. Essentially, it’s a matter of flipping the graph upside down: bursts of reason are not the gradual progression toward good sense and well-fashioned argument, off-set by periodic bouts of renewed insanity. Instead, these blips of sense, tolerance, humanistic education, and the intellectual dominance of empiricism are the dying echoes of the Enlightenment dreams of the Framers, who in their turn were fuelled by the echoes of the European Renaissance, from which several waves of immigrants to America fled. Each oscillation of the graph, each sine wave peak against trough, occurs for a shorter span, as the forces of unreason once again rally and push back against knowledge.

Readers will want examples, perhaps? Anderson’s book is chock-a-block with them, but let me give you a few of my personal favourites. Think of the Scopes-Monkey Trial, in which a sixty year-old theory with an already vast backing of observation and data was challenged by a bunch of politically-motivated Christian dominionists. Or consider the pseudo-soliders who gallumph around the landscape indulging in MilSim, fake battles for fake warriors who can never die unless they trip over and fall on something sharp. Perhaps spare a thought the grown-up children who long for the tidy fantasy of the perfect suburb build by Disney, or of Disney World/Land themselves. Of the resurgence of “creationism”, that perfidious effort to take the superstitions of some Bronze Age desert dwellers and assert that they are the sole reservoir of historical and scientific truth, despite the fact that without the real science which they disdain, these Old-Time Religious nitwits would still be living in mud huts and dying of exposure and malnutrition every winter. Consider the “gamification” of everyday activity, totting up toward and exercise “total score”, complete with pretend virtual badges to celebrate your “excellence.” Or, for that matter, just of the idiocy of much of the digital world, which even now is suddenly facing a mass exodus of the people who created it’s so-called “social” media, and technologists who have tried to programme people to believing that they are “smart” because they possess, and cannot keep their grubby fists off of, “smart” phones and “smart” watches and are even being incarcerated voluntarily in their “smart” homes.


Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt

Andersen cites many authorities who will be familiar to readers in American history and political sciences. He relies in various instances upon Richard Hofstadter for his political nous, or upon Hannah Arendt for her views on totalitarianism: I’ve also been drawn to both of these authors in the last several years, particularly Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (the latter of which is the source for a phrase which describes the current American administration to a “T”: “the banality of evil.” You certainly cannot look at or listen to Babs Huckleberry lying at a press briefing for more than a few minutes without thinking of banality). But Andersen’s reading has been far broader than that, and one of the more chilling citations is from another of my personal favourites: the note from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, in which Sagan, shortly before his untimely death just over twenty years ago, wrote of his “foreboding of an American when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” With so many recent accomplishments that it pains me to realise Sagan did not see: New Horizons reaching Pluto, Cassini and Huygens at Saturn, Juno at Jupiter, and his own beloved Voyager probes leaving the solar system, the notion of his prediction coming true in an era of rampant ignorance and lies is a stake in the heart of the memory of a great man.

The problem with America, I maintain, is not that it went haywire. The problem with America is that her true inheritance, of ignorance, superstition, and theocracy, has come home to roost once again, that it is on the upswing, not of a pendulum (which inevitably reverses direction) but of a graph (which obeys no such rule). Nothing compels a line on a graph to reverse direction. Try as they good-heartedly might, the forces of sense and reason have either never been ruthless enough or compelling enough to haul the knuckle-draggers, kicking and screaming, over the line that separates the world of make-believe from the real, empirical world. There is something fundamentally irrational in the American national character, and it is so deeply seated a cancer that I do not know if it can be rooted out. The liberties that we who value learning, education, reason, and thought celebrate so much were written for a nation in the painful throes of entering the rational world of the Enlightenment. The rules of the Constitution were written for a nation of men (and belatedly, it must be said, women) aspiring to be the better, to be the best versions of themselves. As we have seen in recent history, however, when you put the same tools into the hands of unscrupulous, indecent, greedy, or genuinely evil people, the result is very much *not* what the Framers imagined.

In the end, Andersen’s book provides a particularly clear guide to some of the phenomena that we can observe in America and Americans. It is not the whole picture, but rather another, compelling piece of a large and complicated puzzle. And if there a central reason for my profoundly pessimistic review and tone, it is because the intervening months between finishing the original draft of this review and reaching nearly the end of the year have only served to highlight the truth of the old saw, which is that evil only prevails when good people do not act. We must strive to repeal not just this or that infraction: we must strive to repeal 2017, and all of the lunacy committed during the year. If we do not, then the prophetic twenty year-old Manic Street Preachers song may have new currency: “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next…”

Reviewed September, 2017. Updated December, 2017.


About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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