How the Loss of Critical Reasoning is Harming America An Interview with Kurt Andersen

KURT ANDERSEN is a writer whose works include the bestselling novels You Can’t Spell America Without Me, True Believers, Heyday, and Turn of the Century. He’s also written for film, television, and the stage, and is the host of public radio’s Studio 360. Andersen has contributed to Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and TIME magazine. He co-founded Spy magazine with Graydon Carter in 1986 and was editor in chief of New York in the mid-1990s. His latest book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

MICHAEL WERNER: Your new book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, is a theory about how the triumph of the radical right, and Donald Trump in particular, are only part of the culmination of a long historical process. Can you explain?

KURT ANDERSEN: We began, of course, as an Enlightenment nation and in our school histories we have most emphasized that proud and self-flattering part of our history. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were certainly people of the Enlightenment, but the strange bedfellows of the American idea were these passionate beliefs in the untrue and unprovable held by the Puritans, in their theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and by the gold hunters in Virginia who, despite no evidence, kept assuming they were going to find gold.

So we began in this new world wishing with all our hearts that this place we imagined as the empty slate could fulfill all the dreams and fantasies the English settlers had, whether they were dreams of a supernatural New Jerusalem and Garden of Eden or dreams of instant wealth, El Dorado. We codified that essential American ultra-liberty and ultra-individualism: “I can believe whatever I want,” which is a residue of the Enlightenment. For most of our history the people in charge of our political and cultural establishments generally kept the various forms of magical thinking, extreme religion, and religious delusion from getting out of control.

There’s a good side to dreaming the impossible dream, which is part of what made America grow and accomplish so much. The downside is that religion has always been more extreme in this country than other places in the developed world. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, but it has become more and more extreme, especially in the last half-century. It’s not just religious myths of 2,000 years ago—there are beliefs in supernatural events and magical happenings today that simply aren’t widespread elsewhere in the developed world. Over the last century, and especially the last few decades, our divergence from what we used to call the rest of the civilized world has become extreme.

That essentially Protestant (as opposed to Catholic, Jewish, or other religions in the American fabric) inclination to have extreme and extravagant, empirically false or unprovable beliefs bled over into people who aren’t necessarily religious. It bled over into the idea that as an American I am absolutely free to ignore science, expertise, and reason to believe what I feel to be true. That happened over hundreds of years.

Then another part of it, certainly relevant to the election and presidency of Donald Trump, is the degree to which a more benign blurring between fiction and reality—entertainment—has affected us. Entertainment values and show business have seeped more and more into American life, whether it’s in the press, politics, the pharmaceutical industry, you name it. The end of the twentieth century gave out-of-control thinking the perfect infrastructure to make the untrue, unreasonable, and unprovable seem real: that infrastructure being the internet.

MW: You certainly cite a lot of specifics along the way to support your argument. You point out that the Puritans started a trend of an extreme form of religion that thrived throughout our history, and especially in the 1960s, right up until today. Can you explain a little bit more?

KA: As children we learned that the Puritans were interested in religious freedom and they certainly were. Another way of looking at them, however, with the history I’ve chronicled, is as the most extreme faction of an extreme faction of an extreme faction of Protestantism. They weren’t just seeking religious freedom. Of course that was true, but they were, not to push too unkind or fine a point, religious nuts who, just as the age of reason and science were dawning, were still clinging to an outmoded literalism of the Bible. And they used it to create a theocracy that lasted most of the first century after their arrival here. So again, that was the beginning of America before it was the United States.

One of the reasons so many religious denominations sprouted up in the United States was that we had no state religion. We could have, and did, in the colonies before the United States was formed, but the Constitution created a kind of absolute free market for religion. Whether it be Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, Mary Baker Eddy creating Christian Science, Pentecostalism arising at the beginning of twentieth century, or L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, that was the way America did it. No matter how extraordinary, eye-popping, or wacky your religion was, you were free to start it. Moreover, Americans had self-selected to be believers in the exciting and excitedly untrue, and there were plenty of people to join them. Jumping ahead to the 1960s, we’re not just talking about political right-wingers, but about all sorts of extravagant and extreme spiritual and religious beliefs.

MW: During the 1970s, the editor of the Humanist magazine, Paul Kurtz, contended that religion wasn’t the biggest problem, but rather the rapid growth of New Age, fundamentalist, antiscientific, and irrational thinking, and he called for us to focus on critical reasoning and Enlightenment values. We started the skeptical movement and the National Center for Science Education. We humanists saw ourselves as some of the few people standing up for reason and science. It was a lonely battle. Does it seem like we were trying to swim upstream against the cultural tide on both the Left and the Right?

KA: I think that’s exactly right. We privileged magic and supernatural beliefs as equivalent and superior to science and that was part of the new mood and paradigm of the cultural Left in the late ’60s. Who knew that what was going on in Christianity at the time would finally be synergistic? Certainly, humanists should get credit for prescience and fighting the good fight early.

MW: It seems that Trump and the religious right are really the culmination of years of wanting to be entertained in what you’ve dubbed Fantasyland. How do we get beyond just wanting to be entertained in our culture today?

KA: l don’t know if we can get beyond that. Aldous Huxley, after he wrote Brave New World, went to Hollywood, became a screenwriter, and eventually saw the American desire for distraction, diversion, and entertainment catch up with his science fiction. Each of us individually can try to remove ourselves from the entertainment matrix, but it’s one of the hardest things to turn back because there are so many powerful incentives for all of us to keep going to movies and watching and streaming shows and playing video games at home. How do you argue against that which doesn’t raise alarms? I try to show in my book that wall-to-wall entertainment, especially when it gets into and takes over politics and news, is problematic.

We have a deep and rich history in America of wanting to be entertained, including by religious evangelism. And because we have a globally dominant entertainment industry, it’s hard to see how this can change. I think what we can do is carve out entertainment-free zones where it matters in the news, media, and politics.

MW: What are the values you see as most crucial for building the good humanist society?

KA: I know you speak a great deal about Enlightenment values, but one of the revelations for me in writing Fantasyland is that, in addition to the science and reason that we identify with the Enlightenment, it unleashed the ability to believe absolutely anything, especially in America. That’s your freedom. You were free of religious dogma if you wish. Jefferson and Franklin thought we would all become reasonable ladies and gentlemen.

It’s not just about religion, but spurious alternate medicine, belief that climate change isn’t real, or whatever set of fantastical, empirically untrue, or unsupported beliefs that are infecting Americans more than other developed countries. I see it as a connected set of things, but it isn’t exclusively about our hyper-religiosity. Yes, our hyper-religiosity has definitely gotten us here. There are plenty people I know personally who still believe something is true because they feel or have a hunch it’s true. They might even be agnostics or atheists who don’t vaccinate their children because they are sure the vaccines will make their children sick.

So, I think it’s a larger problem than just a religious one. Of course I want everyone to share my Enlightenment values, so long as their Fantasyland values don’t shape policy—as Thomas Jefferson said, “if it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg,” fine. I might ridicule them, but when it does pick my pocket or break my leg, that’s problematic. That’s when we can try to convince the convincible that we have a problem. That’s when we can come together and argue within the parameters of reason and science, with a shared set of facts—and once we’re there, then we can disagree about what to do.

I certainly want to embrace and make common cause with as many political conservatives as I can as long as they’re political conservatives who live in the land of reason and the reality-based community. We can argue all day and night about what we should do about climate change, what we should do about healthcare, but we have to share a common set of facts based on how empirical reality has been understood for the last millennium or so.

MW: But we’re now in this post-fact, post-truth world where all truth is relative, so it’s a tough battle for us fighting the Fantasyland battle.

KA: With the election of Donald Trump, this post-truth, post-fact world really does alarm people in a way that it didn’t before. Previously, one could say it’s too bad these people believe vaccinations cause autism, or believe there are healing crystal energies, or isn’t it amazing people speak in tongues. So in a way I was fortunate as I was finishing this book that Trump became the embodiment of these ways of understanding the world, and we now know it’s a real threat to our Western values. The silver lining of Trumpism is that the explanation of the jeopardy and the threat is much clearer than it would have been without him. Had Trump not been elected, everything I say about Fantasyland would still be true. I just wouldn’t have the convenient vessel that Donald Trump provides to illustrate what I’m talking about.

MW: It certainly has been brought to a head and I am personally concerned about the threat to democracy, the United States, and Western civilization itself because it’s tapping into the most barbaric aspects of our nature.

KA: I think that’s right. As I started writing Fantasyland, I was focused on the last fifty years and then I realized that the sources and tributaries of post-truth go a long way back. One sees that the great civilizations don’t last forever, but the great days of ancient classical Greece lasted just a couple hundred years. It does worry me, and I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, as nothing is inevitable. Cultures can swerve back after making disastrous turns. Along the way I never thought what you humanists saw thirty or forty years ago may have been the beginning of the end of the Enlightenment, so I might have said, “Oh you’re only exaggerating or being hysterical.”

MW: I thought the same way when I was young, that we were winning and humanist values would take over.

KA: I look back on my childhood now as kind of an anomalous golden age where the arc of history was bending toward reason. It’s harder to stay convinced of that. As I tell people about this book they say, “Please tell me it’s all going to be okay. Tell me it’s just a cycle, the pendulum will swing back.” I would love for that to happen, but I have no conviction that that’s the case.

MW: Do you have any suggestions for us?

KA: Continue to fight the good fight and be happy warriors.

Some of the people who are lost in Fantasyland will not be brought back. I think the most we can hope for is to remind those who are denying reality left and right of our shared versions of factual reality.