Fantasyland is a history of the United States through one particular lens – our infatuation with fantasy from hyper-religiosity to science denialism. One way of looking at American colonization, for example, is that was driven by dissenters, people seeking freedom to worship according to their own beliefs. Another way is to see them as fantasists seeking a place to indulge their penchant to invent new doctrine. Looking through Kurt Andersen’s lens, it is though our history is a progression of natural selection for credulity and fantasy – a kind of memetics of irrationality.
Fantasyland begins at the beginning, with colonization and westward expansion and manifest destiny. The various movements and historical events that shaped our drift toward irrationality and the countervailing checks of rationalism are reviewed with glorious snark and delicious detail. It is a book full of the kind of gossipy details that can make history not just interesting, but downright amusing.
Much of this history is focused on the increasing power and stranglehold the Evangelical movement has on America. Looking at why we are so different from Europe in our fervent pursuit of charismatic supernaturalism, it makes sense that a country founded by people who created a new religion that made them intolerant of and intolerable to their home country would keep inventing new religions over and over and over through the centuries – increasingly fantastical and untethered.
Andersen has a gift for finding the salacious bits of historical minutia that will perfectly enliven his stories of hucksters, grifters, and true believers who have been the drivers of our derailing train. He is not seeking to persuade those in thrall to irrationality, so he pulls no punches. He is assuming the people reading his book perceive the irrational as deluded fantasists and want to know how in the world we ended up with so many of them. Why do so many believe conspiracy theories? Why do people think vaccines are dangerous and that GMO foods are dangerous? Why do people fear fluoride but not climate change? Why are people afraid of Shariah law, but not Creation “Science?” It’s a good question and Andersen makes a good case for it being a product of longstanding cultural values that prioritize individualism and the freedom to believe whatever the hell you want – no matter how irrational it may be.
He finds the enablers among the intelligentsia who argue there is no such thing as reality, that the idea of truth and facts is just oppressive. Reading some of the quotes, I could only think, “Just kill me now.” And yet, we know that irrationality is triumphant and untruth reigns when we have a conspiracy theorist who has no capacity for telling fact from fiction in the White House. The political party in control of every branch of government is run by irrationalists who deny climate science, economic facts of history and cling to superstition and falsehood. We are, in a word, screwed.
Andersen, unfortunately, has not advice on how to get out of the mess other than to be a voice crying in the wilderness – refuting the lies, standing up for the truth. Of course, research shows that presenting someone who believes a conspiracy with facts to disprove their delusion only reinforces their belief. After all, if it were not true, why would the elite go to so much effort to show it was false?
Fantasyland is a depressing, funny, infuriating, and entertaining history. It sometimes feels repetitious, in part because so much of the road to irrationality is a complex interacting mutually-reinforcing feedback loop of bad actors and true believers and in part because Andersen sometimes beats a dying horse. He makes his case, I am persuaded, but he keeps on making the case and keeps on persuading past the point of usefulness.
I liked Fantasyland. The problem is, the folks who really need it, won’t read it. For the rest of us, it reinforces our fears and perhaps, makes us feel a bit smug. It’s tough to feel smug, though, in a country where climate change is literally battering our coastline and burning our interior while the Denier in Chief pretends that it’s all just coincidence.
Fantasyland was released on September 5th. I received an e-galley for review from the publisher through NetGalley.