BOOK BY KURT ANDERSEN
RANDOM HOUSE, 2017
480 PP.; $30.00
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus claims that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. The premise of Kurt Andersen’s ravenously exhaustive new book Fantasyland is that US history is a nightmare from which its citizens, at least those privileged to be smart and rational, have never been able to awake. The rest of us, apparently, have never wanted to awaken. With a zealot’s enthusiasm, the author picks through our past and present society to find the ubiquitous examples to prove his argument. I would say the results are mixed.
What, specifically, is—has always been—plaguing the United States? “Magical thinking,” Andersen asserts: Americans are—have always been—prone and prey to funky Weltanschauungs that aren’t firmly bonded to reality and at worst have horrible consequences (i.e., Donald Trump; more on the vocal yokel later). As the author says in two statements that bookend Fantasyland:
The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control… Little by little for centuries, then more and more… during the last half century, Americans have given themselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.
We have encased ourselves in a wall-to-wall 24/7 collage of fantasy and fantastic reality.
Sounds bad, all right. The country’s original sin was original sin—Puritanism. “America was founded by a nutty religious cult,” Andersen writes, “crazed” but also “pragmatic” (its adherents survived and thrived in a sometimes cruel new world). “So the seeds of America in New England were a peculiar hybrid generated from the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, containing elements of both.”
From those doughty if fearsome Puritans, Andersen traces an alarming chronological religious arc in the United States through endemic customs and indigenous religions. He begins with fervent Christian revivalism (1831’s Second Great Awakening, etc.). Then onto Mormonism: Joseph Smith, its founder (“a quintessentially American figure”), created his new religion in the early nineteenth century, a religion in which “the grandiose anything-goes literalism of his theology knew no bounds.” Christian Science makes an appearance: Mary Baker Eddy, its founder, “set about inventing her own quasi-Christian pseudoscientific belief system”; among Eddy’s problematic statements quoted in this book: “disease does not exist”; “evil is an illusion, and it has no real basis.” Andersen also dissects Scientology: its “theological backstory is staggeringly ridiculous sci-fi.” And finally, modern fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism: Andersen parses the similarities and differences and delineates their potent societal influence, including the notorious 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” and contemporary politics (fundamentalism, he contends, and the other two “isms” helped turn “the GOP into the Fantasy Party”). Jews and Catholics escape Andersen’s animadversions.
Along with chastising the sacred, Andersen also casts his withering gaze and acid pen on the profane. I can only cite a few of his sundry examples. Nineteenth-century quack medicines, for instance (“Hamlin’s Wizard Oil promised, ‘no pain it will not subdue. Pleasant to take, magical in its effects’”). P. T. Barnum, that paragon of the shameless American huckster who never let dry facts get in the way of a crowd-pleasing (and moneymaking) scheme, was “pernicious” because his brazen, successful mixture of the real and fraudulent (in his museum and shows) introduced a disturbing new element in what Andersen calls the fundamental Fantasyland mindset: “If some imaginary proposition is exciting, and nobody can prove it’s untrue, then it’s my right as an American to believe it’s true” (author’s italics).
Close behind Barnum (they knew each other) was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody: “Barnum was the first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment, but the second was Cody.” Cody was, among other things, a soldier, buffalo hunter, scout, Pony Express courier, and peerless self-aggrandizer.
His Wild West [extravaganzas were] the prototype from which movie westerns evolved. But the shows were even more importantly peculiar and unprecedented, a key milestone in our national evolution. Practically in real time, Cody—no, Buffalo Bill!—turned news and history into entertainment, turned real-life figures of historic consequence… into simulated versions of themselves.
Fear not, antinostalgists: the twentieth and twenty-first centuries come in for their share of opprobrium (the 1960s and ’70s especially. They were the decades, apparently, when the US lost what little of its rational mind it had left). They witnessed the pullulation of every possible kind and form of the intuitive (“Esalen is a mother church of a new American religion for people who think they don’t like churches or religion but who still want to believe in the supernatural”); the preposterous (a conspiracy theory about “shape-shifting reptilian humanoids,” which “10 percent of Americans who describe themselves as ‘very conservative’ or ‘very liberal’ believe in”); and the ominous (pseudomedicine—apocalypticism, survivalists, firearms junkies, the pedophilic-satanic-cult hysteria of the 1980s, climate change skepticism, ad infinitum).
And then there’s Disneyland. It’s not surprising that Andersen is fascinated by Walt Disney, whose ingenuousness was inseparable from his flimflammery. He was “the Steve Jobs of his era, a visionary impresario taking pieces created by others and integrating them to make a shiny new branded invention greater than the sum of its constituent parts.” As for Disney’s ultimate invention, “After Disneyland opened, the term theme park was coined, and more and more of America proceeded to be themed. That bit of Anaheim may have been the Most Magical Place on Earth, but…why stop there?” (I happen to love Disneyland’s technology-as-spectacle rides, and I’d love to visit Walt Disney World. So sue me.)
And let’s not forget sex! “Like Walt Disney with animation and Disneyland and Bugsy Siegel and his associates with Las Vegas, [Hugh] Hefner took a disreputable thing and reinvented it [with Playboy] as something modern and classy and singular;” “Reality and fiction were a total blur for Hefner.”
Reviewing Fantasyland for the Humanist is like reverse engineering a series of booby traps. The book could serve as—pardon the expression—a bible for the magazine and the American Humanist Association, being an encyclopedic stockpile of virtually everything they’re against and some things they like (rational and reasonable thinking). But reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover can be arduous—as is often the case with Fantasyland. Moreover, can the nation’s many grave problems—income inequality, a disintegrating infrastructure, the erosion of shared American values, to cite a few—really be attributed to magical thinking? Andersen thinks so. I’m inclined to blame them on a) the reactionary Republicans who control Washington, DC, smart and practical politicians who know precisely what they’re doing: serving their corporate masters; and b) the voters who keep them in office, whose motivations—permanent employment panic, racism, hatred of immigrants and profound change—however misguided or abhorrent, make economic and sociological sense to them. And are far-fetched ideals always worthy of disdain? If black Americans had realistically, pragmatically evaluated their chances to obliterate Jim Crow laws and obtain equal rights, they might never have initiated, let alone persevered in, the Civil Rights Movement (in which clergymen played major roles). Martin Luther King Jr. had a noble dream that has, in many important ways, become a reality.
Many times in Fantasyland Andersen mentions his Nebraska background in order, I presume, to show he’s a regular guy, a man of the people. He’s being coy. A graduate of Harvard, he has been a most astute and successful player in the upper reaches of the media establishment: co-creator of Spy magazine, columnist for the New Yorker and New York magazine, editor in chief of New York, guest op-ed contributor at the New York Times, editor at large at Random House, novelist, and so forth. I mention this not only as a possible explanation for a certain snobbery that pervades Fantasyland, but more importantly because it probably accounts for the best part of the book, its take on Trump. Andersen’s media experience and expertise are the right tools for sifting a sinister cartoon character that has no existence outside of the media spotlight. Andersen knows Trump from way back—at Spy, “we devoted many hundreds of hours [to] exposing and satirizing his lies, brutishness, egomania, and absurdity”—and so his appraisal of the current Trump has credibility. For instance, Andersen observes that Trump’s presidential campaign was “a new postmodern genre that broke the fourth wall. Like no candidate ever before, Trump riffed in campaign speeches about the campaign, about his performances and box office.” While I find this insight delightfully piquant and clever, I don’t believe that Trump’s campaign tactics were planned—at least not by him; he’s too obtuse.
I suspect that one of the dangers in writing a book like this is that it’s all too easy at times to lose one’s sense of perspective and proportion. On reading Fantasyland, I had to wonder, is the Republic really menaced by Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and masturbation? (Note to Andersen: Woody Allen presented the ultimate defense of that last item in Annie Hall: “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”) Before Kurt Andersen had written his memes of wisdom on those and other kooky subjects, I wish he’d taken a deep breath, swallowed a chill pill, and gone on to another topic.