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

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

A razor-sharp thinker offers a new understanding of our post-truth world and explains the American instinct to believe in make-believe, from the Pilgrims to P. T. Barnum to Disneyland to zealots of every stripe . . . to Donald Trump. In this sweeping, eloquent history of America, Kurt Andersen demonstrates that what’s happening in our country today—this strange, post-factu...

Title:Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History Reviews

  • Laurie

    This is a very interesting, and, I think, valuable book to have come out at this time and place. Surveys he cites show that one fifth of Americans think the 9/11 attacks were an inside job by American government agents, and four fifths believe that the Bible is factual history right down to the creation story. Only a third of us believe that the current climate changes are human caused. Various religious sects believe all the others are heretic. The author states that between the 60s anything go

    This is a very interesting, and, I think, valuable book to have come out at this time and place. Surveys he cites show that one fifth of Americans think the 9/11 attacks were an inside job by American government agents, and four fifths believe that the Bible is factual history right down to the creation story. Only a third of us believe that the current climate changes are human caused. Various religious sects believe all the others are heretic. The author states that between the 60s anything goes ideology, the huge show business influence, extreme religions, and the internet, the lines between reality and what we merely believe in have become very, very blurred. We put feelings and beliefs ahead of verifiable facts, in ways that people in the rest of the world don’t. And this loss of touch with reality brings us to the point where religious beliefs are being used to direct boards of education and medical care, and we elect politicians on what they say rather than what their voting record (or lack thereof) shows they’ve done.

    American history, from the very first European settlers (barring the Vikings, who didn’t stick around), has been different from that of other countries. He goes through the details of why Americans are unique in how they see the world. He writes about not just religion and politics but immersive gaming and comic cons. (note to the author: I’ll go out on a limb and say that 99% of us who go to cons don’t believe we’re really vampires, in an alternate Victorian age where ray guns are powered by steam, or that we are capable of flying- it’s just *fun*)

    The book is not overly long (over 400 pages) but it is a solid read. Despite the length and the deluge of facts, the author has an entertaining writing style that drew me in and made this a book I couldn’t put down. I think it’s an important subject to think about, and possibly reassess how our own beliefs influence our actions. Five stars

  • Diane S ☔

    It seems like a great many of American citizens are living in a Fantasyland, a land where we can fool ourselves that those like minded people, people who share our beliefs, are n fact correct, truth telling. Seriously, how did we manage to get here, to a world and with a leader, who has taken his fantasies to a new level? The author shows us how this refusal to see other view points, often taking this to extreme levels, has always existed.

    He takes us back 500 years to the Puritans, a group of Ub

    It seems like a great many of American citizens are living in a Fantasyland, a land where we can fool ourselves that those like minded people, people who share our beliefs, are n fact correct, truth telling. Seriously, how did we manage to get here, to a world and with a leader, who has taken his fantasies to a new level? The author shows us how this refusal to see other view points, often taking this to extreme levels, has always existed.

    He takes us back 500 years to the Puritans, a group of Uber religious, who were convinced that they, and only they new the true path to heaven. The witch trials, where those who were different or who disagreed with the established truth were put to death. They must have been sent by the devil. Onto The Gold rush were many gave up everything g to follow the lure of a get rich scheme. The NRA, convincing many that they would be killed in their beds if they were not able to own a firearm, and if that wasn't enough that the evil government was intent on taking away our rights, if we start with the guns who knows what will follow. To UFO abductions, recalled memories, video games, virtual reality, and the internet, fake news and the harm this has all caused. So many other things throughout history. Our appalling habit to revere movie stars, even reality TV stars as heroes, I mean you have only look at the major amount of money the Kardashians have made, for doing and being nothing at all. He calls out those, like Dr. Oz who should know better but has instead turned into a panderer of stardom and the masses. Of course the biggest reality TV star of them all is now our President, and he continues to fire people almost weekly.

    A man who is smart enough to understand some people's minds and play on that to reach the highest office of them all. I am not, however, going to turn this into my personal discourse on the President, but read this book. I think you will come to a new understanding of exactly how this happened and exactly what played into making this even possible. Think you will be as appalled as I was at the lengths people can go, how they are capable of fooling themselves and the lengths they will go to in order to defend their beliefs.

    ARC from Netgalley.

  • Kressel Housman

    I've been a fan of Kurt Andersen's radio show "Studio 360" for years, especially his "American Icons" series, so when I heard him promoting this book, I ordered it from my library immediately. What I did not realize, though, was that it was the perfect follow-up to the book I'd just finished because it picks up where that one was set: in the Puritan colonies. Roger Williams gets only two mentions in this book, but it's all about the down side of his legacy of "soul liberty." If everyone is allow

    I've been a fan of Kurt Andersen's radio show "Studio 360" for years, especially his "American Icons" series, so when I heard him promoting this book, I ordered it from my library immediately. What I did not realize, though, was that it was the perfect follow-up to the book I'd just finished because it picks up where that one was set: in the Puritan colonies. Roger Williams gets only two mentions in this book, but it's all about the down side of his legacy of "soul liberty." If everyone is allowed the freedom to pursue his or her own spiritual truth, that opens the door to all kinds of crackpot beliefs and eventually devolves into the world of "alternative facts" as we now know it.

    Andersen covers every bout of irrationality in American history: the fanatic Puritans, the founding of Mormonism, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, the Scopes monkey trial, the 60's and the New Age, the rise of the religious right, and climate change denial. Andersen claims to be an agnostic, not a crusading atheist, but religion in general and Protestantism in particular come out looking pretty bad in this book.

    Another of its major themes is how much these movements gained momentum because of the entertainment industry. Show business was once made by vaudevillian hucksters like P.T. Barnum, but the lines between fantasy and reality really blurred with the advent of television. I was a kid in the 70's, pre-Internet when TV was still king, and my memoir contains quite a bit about play-acting TV shows and how much I lived in my fantasies. When I read Kurt Andersen's observations, I felt like I could never publish my own thoughts on the subject because they seem so unoriginal. On the other hand, I can stop thinking of myself as such a weirdo because I was just a product of my times. Childhood has been extended since the Baby Boom.

    Since this book covers 500 years of American history in 450 pages, it's impossible for me to do it justice with a simple review, but I do want to highlight just one of Andersen's concepts. He divides people into three categories: the believers, the cynics, and the squishies. The believers actually buy into the "party line," and that goes for virtuous worldviews as well as false ones. The cynics talk the language of the believers, but they're manipulating them for their own ends. The squishies are moral relativists, often found in academic or liberal circles, who are inclined to say, "Everyone has his own truth." Andersen says the squishies have been silent too long. His book is a cry to call out the cynics, the hucksters, and the liars of the world and say, "Facts are facts; there are no alternatives" and/or "Climate change is real." The world is in a perilous position, and we've got to turn it around. And even a religious believer like me can be part of it.

  • David Rush

    Whooo! That was 442 pages of one angry guy venting.

    The first half has some pretty cool history anecdotes and when he makes value judgments I almost always agree with him at least in the beginning. But the whole thing is like a really long rambling talk with thousands of historical and cultural references. Kind of like if Dennis Miller was funny or smart or not a conservative stooge, you know if he was somebody completely different..then he would be like this guy if he wrote a book. (Well that w

    Whooo! That was 442 pages of one angry guy venting.

    The first half has some pretty cool history anecdotes and when he makes value judgments I almost always agree with him at least in the beginning. But the whole thing is like a really long rambling talk with thousands of historical and cultural references. Kind of like if Dennis Miller was funny or smart or not a conservative stooge, you know if he was somebody completely different..then he would be like this guy if he wrote a book. (Well that was pointless wasn’t it?)

    Quick aside: I think this covers some of the same issues as

    by Charles Pierce (My review at

    )

    In general Andersen says America has always been a horror-show of Fantasy thinking but it got much more worse starting in the 1960’s. The book's structure has the first half of it about U.S. history from colonial days to our current age, and after that his reasoning style is sort of a shotgun logic with each page having a dozen or so different reasons why religion or psychology or almost everything in the world that isn’t from Kurt Andersen’s idyllic formative years feeds into the "Fantasy Industrial Complex". At some point I simply started listing things that pissed him off or contributed to “the Fantasy Industry Complex”, see the

    at the end of the review.

    OK, I think the crux of the book is his contention that people, by which he seems to mean everybody in America although one assumes he is excluded, no longer see facts as fact and feel they can believe anything no matter how outlandish. Really, he repeatedly says things like “Americans now think...(something stupid)” and anybody he quotes who offers a criticism to what he dubs squishy thinking seems to already be dead, so only the wisdom of the ancients can help us now, well them and him.

    Oh and while he hates pop psychology and new age books he really thinks Christianity is the heart of the problem and primarily Protestantism

    Pg. 42

    To me the tone feels dangerously close to “all wars are caused by religion and if there were no religion there would be no wars”. Except he is implying if there had been no religion everybody would be rational actors. Now he does NOT make it that clear and I am sure if confronted he would say he didn’t mean that. But that is the impression, but that may just be squishy thinking on my part.

    A close second to religion is anything else people do or read for recreation...

    Pg. 138

    So if you break away from religion you are apt to get hooked on videogames and once more you don’t know what is real.

    Then there are parts that irritate me because it just seems like sloppy reasoning. I call these parts the REALLY?!? sections, which I stole from SNL Weekend Update bit

    Pg. 144

    [REALLY?!?I don’t think that is remotely what anybody else things the moral is]

    Pg. 145

    [REALLY?!?]

    Pg. 179

    [REALLY?!? how about this,

    . Also, could it be some reasonable people may say psychiatric hospitals in the 1950’s and ‘60’s maybe were not so wonderful? I could be wrong, but I just presented as much proof of my thought as he did]

    I did appreciate him introducing the notion of when something is "falsifiable".

    Pg. 25

    Recognizing the irrational thinking of conspiracy buffs in America is a theme throughout the book...but the thing is he ties together everything he dislikes in to an immense web of irrationality that each support the other and it comes off as a really, really big conspiracy.

    Pg. 262

    After positing this Glenn Beck like grand conspiracy he then totally UN-ironically says on the next page….

    Pg. 263

    So even though he does have a ton of cool historical fact, the whole purpose of the book is to tell us American is going to hell in a hand-basket and things were much better when he was little and it all boils down to his opinion, And that can never be disproved to him, i.e. his beliefs aren’t falsifiable.

    When I was trying to figure this book out I found this interview online which reinforces my thinking.

    KA:

    That answer is kind of Trumpesque, in that yes he has a lot of data, but no the data doesn't prove anything, but it is his opinion which is good enough to anchor a whole book about the subject, thank you very much. NEXT Question please!

    Now that I got all that out of my system I can say that I like the book (but eventually settled on a Goodreads rating of "OK"). I enjoyed all the cool trivia and broadly agree with his conclusions although I before reading his book I already had those thoughts (...that America sure has a lot of people who believe crazy stuff). It is just that he presents a lot of opinion with the moral authority of scientific fact and he ridicules others for having pickups and Jeep vehicles in the city but blithely excuses his Landrover. He criticizes wealthy people for trying to act rural with their large yard suburban housing but it is a OK for him to have a “farm” in New York where his family can raise sheep as a hobby, or at least until they move onto something else.

    Again, I like this book and agree with much of it, but the author seems a bit of an overconfident* hypocrite.

    *(dare I say "smug"?, yes I dare!)

    Things he dislikes

    Tolkien, theme parks – especially Disneyland/world, Any historical recreations – especially Civil War recreations, plays – especially TV plays/drama, 1960’s – except when referring to “when I was young”, Beat literature, pop psychology, John Birch society, academia – apparently all of academia, any religion, movies, science fiction – especially Philip K. dick (expect when he does like him), Renaissance fairs, D & D, Lotto, contraception – leads to “unserious sex”, UN-stigmatized masturbation (I didn’t expect that one), Playboy – relates to previous topic, dyed hair (another one of those “when I was a child nobody did”…), plastic surgery, adult sloppy dressing (when he was a child grownups didn’t wear jeans I guess), comic con, pro wrestling, hip hop, suburbs, Keith Haring (another one that seemed out of the blue, but I guess he art was unserious), Frank Lloyd Wright, home schooling – except when his friends do it, the TV show Bonanza, The Big Lebowski movie, The Cracker Barrel restaurants, video games, LARPing...and a bunch more.

    Only from when I noticed and started counting I got 7 references how things were better when he was born or before he was born.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    This book is a witty and diverting romp through the horror of our current delusional culture and broken system. It is fun and apocalyptic at the same time. The author is funny and hits you with zingers and trenchant observations about the collapse of our culture, government, economic system and prospects for a sustainable future as we fall into a culture of delusion where reality is just your opinion man. He covers in a funny way how entertainment, conspiracy theories, religious fanaticism, magi

    This book is a witty and diverting romp through the horror of our current delusional culture and broken system. It is fun and apocalyptic at the same time. The author is funny and hits you with zingers and trenchant observations about the collapse of our culture, government, economic system and prospects for a sustainable future as we fall into a culture of delusion where reality is just your opinion man. He covers in a funny way how entertainment, conspiracy theories, religious fanaticism, magical thinking, right-wing derangement, have eclipsed reality. It covers it in such a funny way that you will be laughing all the way to Armageddon.

  • Mehrsa

    It's been a long time since I've tried to purposely read a book more slowly than I otherwise would because I just did not want it to end. This book was so riveting and interesting that I made myself savor it over a week instead of devouring it all at once, which is what I usually do. Yet I recommend it with a lot of trepidation because he demolishes every faith and every belief. Nothing is sacred--not even the word itself, which he believes is a troubling concept. There is a lot to disagree with

    It's been a long time since I've tried to purposely read a book more slowly than I otherwise would because I just did not want it to end. This book was so riveting and interesting that I made myself savor it over a week instead of devouring it all at once, which is what I usually do. Yet I recommend it with a lot of trepidation because he demolishes every faith and every belief. Nothing is sacred--not even the word itself, which he believes is a troubling concept. There is a lot to disagree with--there is cherrypicking, of course, and a lot of revisionism, but that is the case with every single "big idea" book. There is also a lot of unfair caricatures--especially of the Mormons who are the brunt of his most virulent attacks. So there is a lot to bristle at. Why 5 stars? Because it's that good and that necessary. We've all suspected that something like this was going on in politics for a long time and here it is crystal clear and explained as a uniquely American concept.

    I probably relished this book more than others might because I felt a bit vindicated. I've always been hard on myself for not being about to suspend reality to enjoy fantastical stuff. I'm no fun when it comes to games, fantasy play, new age-y anything, and belief in things that are unproven. I think it makes for a less happy existence and I've often wished I could be different. But at last, proof that skepticism is fine.

    I also think we need a plan, which this book is short on. What is the antidote to fantastic thinking? It is certainly not "facts" "science" or "truth." Is it a virus that can't be stopped? Sometimes I fear it is. Once people are not dissuaded from their beliefs by "proof," is there any turning back? I hope so because George Soros and the Illuminati and the Free Masons are running out of funds!

  • Jason

    Chuck Palahniuk once said that while he is proud of Fight Club he is wary of any man who says it is his favourite book/movie. The same can be said for any truly thinking person who meets someone who found this book insightful or meaningful. To see this as anything other than ironic satire of the mindless state of modern liberalism is insane; to believe that the author has enough intelligence and craft to write such a thing is just as insane. This is a cruel read, a well-curated series of Wikiped

    Chuck Palahniuk once said that while he is proud of Fight Club he is wary of any man who says it is his favourite book/movie. The same can be said for any truly thinking person who meets someone who found this book insightful or meaningful. To see this as anything other than ironic satire of the mindless state of modern liberalism is insane; to believe that the author has enough intelligence and craft to write such a thing is just as insane. This is a cruel read, a well-curated series of Wikipedia articles that acts as an (unknowingly) disparaging condemnation of the author himself as he engages in the mindlessly simplistic thinking that he throws his subjects under the bus for. His infantile attacks (Coleridge took opium!) on the characters of the people he mentions serve to prop up a weak argument that bludgeons already agreeing proselytes with the kind of half-baked directionality that any reasonably intelligent person knows is pure "fantasy". This kind of work erodes what little is left of intelligent thought and should be pissed on by thoughtful people just as thoroughly as the author pisses on the perspectives and views of the "fantasists" that he disparages.

  • Todd N

    Well, this has got to be the longest Spy Magazine article I have ever read. It’s too bad the book jacket doesn’t have a Photoshopped picture of Hillary and Trump on it. Come to think of it, there must be several good ones in the Spy archives left over from the 80s and 90s.

    The “Fantasyland” of the title is America, of course — the place where reality has a well-known liberal bias. The place where Republicans think it is ridiculous Russia could have interfered in the latest election, while at the

    Well, this has got to be the longest Spy Magazine article I have ever read. It’s too bad the book jacket doesn’t have a Photoshopped picture of Hillary and Trump on it. Come to think of it, there must be several good ones in the Spy archives left over from the 80s and 90s.

    The “Fantasyland” of the title is America, of course — the place where reality has a well-known liberal bias. The place where Republicans think it is ridiculous Russia could have interfered in the latest election, while at the same time their 2016 platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect homeschooling from the United Nations. The place where GMOs and vaccines are a corporate conspiracy, yet herbal pills (which are as likely as not to contain any trace of an actual herb) contain the latest health wisdom of the ancients.

    Even though it’s one big book divided into six parts, to me it read like two different books with the same themes fused together at the midpoint (sort of like Strawberry Fields Forever if that makes sense).

    The first part goes all the way back to Martin Luther 500 years ago and ends around 1950 or so. The earliest America is populated by (1) people too Protestant to get along with other Protestants and (2) people credulous enough to believe get rich schemes about the New World. These people put down roots way, way before The Enlightenment came to town.

    During this period think of America as a waffle iron that takes the waffle batter of The Bible and makes ever more bizarre religion waffles, from Puritan to Pentecostal, from shaking to speaking in tongues.

    On the more secular side of things, there was all kinds of fun nonsense going on too: mesmerism, hypnotism, homeopathy, phrenology, seances, magic gems for finding treasure, P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill...

    One particularly interesting section discusses the role of conspiracy theories in helping to bring about The Civil War, and how Lincoln made references to them in his debates with Douglas.

    The second section picks up in the 1950s, when the seeds were sewn for what would bloom into today’s modern Fantasyland: Las Vegas, Playboy, the Beats, Scientology, McCarthyism, renewed interested in Christian evangelicalism, and—most of all—Disneyland.

    Then came the Fantasyland Big Bang in the 1960s and 1970s, in which

    and anything did.

    Mr. Andersen makes the crux of his argument here: We all know about the left’s side of the culture wars that kicked off at this time: sex, drugs, rock and roll, Esalen, academic relativism, cultural relativism, and so on. But this is also when the right let loose. He pinpoints this time to the mainstreaming of the right’s particular brand of unreality: extreme Christianity, conspiracy theories, right-libertarianism/Randism, capitalist greed, the gun lobby, survivalist movements (an offshoot of live-off-the-land movements), and more.

    This is when for so many Americans, individualism curdled into solipsism, just as “Every man for himself” is the flip side of “Do your own thing.”

    According to Mr. Andersen, we are now in Full Fantasyland and have been since 2000. We just needed these things to happen first to push us over the edge and convert a bunch of us into Walter Mittys: Reagan; Oprah; The Secret; Behold a Pale Horse; X-Files; Celebration, Florida; President Clinton investigated for Vince Foster’s suicide; formation of the National Institute of Health’s alternative medical center; the Web; broadband Internet.

    Even though this book was started and mostly written way before Trump was running for president, obviously the current state of American politics and the GOP (and even the recent Senate primary win of Roy Moore) hangs over much of this book.

    Also it’s impossible to read this book without thinking about fringe news sites and the role of social media in the 2016 election. Before I read this book, I assumed it was just simple confirmation bias that resulted in so many people sharing articles on clear nonsense like, say, Pizzagate or the Pope endorsing Trump. Now I think it’s something much deeper in the American character with that weird mix of Protestant plus Enlightenment plus gullible New World fortune seeker.

    Roughly half of the book discusses religion, the history of religion in America, and different factions of American non-mainline Protestant religions. These parts are pretty rough (read: clear eyed) on religion. It may be tough going if this is a topic that you are (1) not interested in or (2) sensitive about.

    I can sum it up for you real quick by saying that Marx was almost right: Religion is actually the hallucinogen of the masses.

    Still, it is refreshing to read paragraphs like this: “But the Branch Davidian’s theology is not so different from that of a large fraction of Americans. We call Koresh a ‘cult-leader’ which allows us to file him away reassuringly as a one-off nut... But it’s important to recognize that his church was a long-standing subgroup of a 150-year-old Protestant denomination that is one of the twenty largest churches in America, with six thousand congregations.” (Don’t forget that our current secretary of housing and urban development is a Seventh Day Adventist, just like Koresh was.)

    Mr. Andersen throws in some great quotes, including some scary quotes from Goebbels and Arendt and Orwell. But the one that he keeps coming back to, from Thomas Jefferson, is his litmus test for when someone else’s beliefs can be considered harmful or not. How about putting this quote outside courthouses instead?

    “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    Highest recommendation. The best book I’ve read so far this year. The Russians should hire Mr. Andersen to run their bot farms.

    P.S. Obviously this book is wrong about aliens and visitations. Don’t even try telling me that we didn’t reverse engineer computer chips from crashed alien ships.

  • Mal Warwick

    You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen's shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you'll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

    Who is responsible for "fake news?"

    If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on "fake news," guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other

    You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen's shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you'll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

    Who is responsible for "fake news?"

    If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on "fake news," guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other once-pervasive delusions on ABC and NBC News and other mainstream media over the years. Even that paragon of accurate journalism, The New York Times, has fallen prey to such nonsense from time to time. Is it any wonder, then, that ludicrous conspiracy theories should multiply on the World Wide Web, where any nut can say anything anonymously without fear of contradiction?

    Who spreads conspiracy theories?

    Equating The New York Times with Breitbart and Russian hackers as purveyors of fake news would be highly misleading. Andersen doesn't do that. As he notes in another context, "There are different degrees of egregious." However, he is clear that "fake news" and conspiracy theories are by no means limited to the so-called "Trump voters" pilloried by professional journalists and commentators.

    Huge numbers of other Americans have left the realm of rationalism for Fantasyland. Consider Scientology, the antivaccine movement, hysteria about GMO food, alien abductions, homeopathy, and the national missing-children panic of the early 1980s. None of these delusions and conspiracy theories are solely identified with any class, region, or race. And popular New Age gurus such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, all of whom sometimes spout nonsense, have not attracted notably large followings among the creationist set. Similarly, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and other popular show business celebrities have promoted delusional beliefs. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." Unfortunately, as Andersen makes abundantly clear, far too few Americans take that sentiment seriously—and, in that respect, the United States stands out clearly in comparison with all other developed nations.

    The religious roots of America's infatuation with fantasy

    Andersen's account begins early in the sixteenth century with the establishment of English colonies in present-day Virginia and Massachusetts. In both cases, conventional wisdom has it that the search for religious freedom drove early colonists to American shores. That's only partly true, and only in the case of New England. Andersen explains that the primary motivations for all the earliest European expeditions were visions of gold and the Northwest Passage. And the Puritans—they only later called themselves Pilgrims—who landed south of Boston were in no way motivated by religious "freedom." They had set out to establish a theocracy intolerant of any religious practices that departed even slightly from the rigid prescriptions of their faith.

    However, in Protestantism, with its view that "every man [is] his own priest," there lurked a fatal flaw in its commitment to conformity: if "every man" was "his own priest," what was to stop them from inventing their own religions? In fact, as American history clearly shows, that is precisely what has happened over the five centuries since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beginning not long after the landing at Plymouth Rock with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Americans have demonstrated unending creativity in devising variations, often radical variations, on Christianity, from Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Jehovah's Witnesses to the numberless evangelical Protestant denominations.

    In every case, these new belief systems rested on fantasy. And there, Andersen argues, lies the rub. Most Americans seem willing to suspend disbelief to worship on the basis of precepts any self-respecting science fiction writer would reject as improbable. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read The Book of Mormon as written by Joseph Smith, or Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by by Lawrence Wright.) Interestingly, Andersen cites studies by scholars at Yale and the University of Chicago that found "the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief [is] belief in end-time prophecies."

    Andersen frequently cites findings from public opinion surveys to telling effect. "Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places," he writes. Focusing on "the solid majority of Protestants, he adds that "at least a quarter of Americans . . . are sure 'the Bible is the actual word of God . . . to be taken literally, word for word.'" And "more than a third of all Americans . . . believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on." Elsewhere, Andersen notes, "According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn't coming back during the next thirty-three years.)" With such beliefs so widely held, fake news and "alternative facts" can be no surprise.

    The problem is far broader than fanciful religious beliefs

    Fantasyland is far from limited to the religious sources of Americans' predisposition to fantasy. Andersen regards shopping malls, planned communities, Civil War reenactment and Renaissance Faires, fantasy sports, theme restaurants, People magazine, cosmetic surgery, pro wrestling, computer games, reality TV, and Disney theme parks as other signposts of our infatuation with the unreal and the impossible. It's difficult to argue with this on a strictly logical basis. Andersen makes the case. Yet I find it a stretch too far to imply that such phenomena are in any way equivalent to fantasies such as widespread voter fraud, hysteria about vaccines, and the pernicious practices of Scientology, all of which have real-world consequences and sometimes lead to physical harm and even death. However, Andersen implies that, because of conditioning by these seemingly inconsequential realities, Americans are peculiarly susceptible to dangerous conspiracy theories.

  • Book

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

    “Fantasyland” is a provocative book that describes how being being free to believe anything in America has metastasized out of control. Bestselling author, contributor to Vanity Fair and The New York Times, and radio show host Kurt Andersen provides compelling arguments from many angles that America in essence has mutated into Fantasyland and has led to the presidency of Donald J. Trump. This stimulating book includes 46 c

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

    “Fantasyland” is a provocative book that describes how being being free to believe anything in America has metastasized out of control. Bestselling author, contributor to Vanity Fair and The New York Times, and radio show host Kurt Andersen provides compelling arguments from many angles that America in essence has mutated into Fantasyland and has led to the presidency of Donald J. Trump. This stimulating book includes 46 chapters broken out into the following six parts: I. The Conjuring of America: 1517-1789, II. United States of Amazing: The 1800s, III. A Long Arc Bending Toward Reason: 1900-1960, IV. Big Bang: The 1960s and ‘70s, V. Fantasyland Scales: From the 1980s Through the Turn of the Century, and VI. The Problem with Fantasyland: From the 1980s to the Present and Beyond.

    Positives:

    1. Engaging, and well-written book. This is an ambitious effort and succeeds on many levels.

    2. Fascinating topic in the hands of a driven and detailed master. How did America get to this point? A historical look at how we have declined to this point.

    3. The book flows nicely from topic to topic covering seamlessly politics, religion, social studies, history, etc.

    4. Doesn’t waste time getting to the main point and thrust behind this book. “In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

    5. Interesting insights and observations throughout. “No new technology, during the thousand years between gunpowder and the steam engine, was as disruptive as the printing press, and Protestantism was its first viral cultural phenomenon.”

    6. Takes a look at the various religious groups and provides many detailed descriptions. “Four years later the several dozen Leiden ultra-Puritans sailed away from corrupt, contentious Europe for this latest Edenic piece of the New World, to create their New Jerusalem in New England. In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

    7. The credo of fantasyland and many compelling reason why it’s so. “As we let a hundred dogmatic iterations of reality bloom, the eventual result was an anything-goes relativism that extends beyond religion to almost every kind of passionate belief: If I think it’s true, no matter why or how I think it’s true, then it’s true, and nobody can tell me otherwise. That’s the real-life reductio ad absurdum of American individualism. And it would become a credo of Fantasyland.”

    8. Not afraid to go after religion. “America was created by people resistant to reality checks and convinced they had special access to the truth, a place founded to enact grand fantasies.”

    9. The battle between fantasists and realists, through history. “For most of its history, America had exactly such a dynamic equilibrium between fantasists and realists, mania and moderation, credulity and skepticism. But as much as we wish for a natural and inevitable balance between those competing forces, like the laws in physics, there’s no such mechanism governing civilizations. Societies and cultures can lurch out of balance. As ours eventually would do.”

    10. A fascinating look at the Civil War. “The meteoric rise and fall of the Klan aside, white Southerners’ myth of their own special goodness—honorable, honest, humane, and civilized guardians of tradition, unlike the soulless Yankees—did not wither. It endured in new forms in the new century, with Daddy’s and Granddaddy’s Civil War a noble and glorious Lost Cause that tragically failed to preserve their antebellum golden age. Slavery qua slavery? No, no, no, the war hadn’t really been about that; slavery was a detail. In fact, white Southerners had fought the war to defend their right as Americans to believe anything they wanted to believe, even an unsustainable fantasy, even if it meant treating a class of humanity as nonhuman.”

    11. Interesting and provocative conclusions. “For a great many white Southerners, defeat made them not contrite and peaceable (like, say, Germans and Japanese after World War II) but permanently pissed off. Which in turn led them to embrace a Christianity almost as medieval as the Puritans’.”

    12. Looks closely at a number of fantasy-based creations: Las Vegas, Playboy, the Beats, Scientology, McCarthyism, and revived Christian evangelicalism. “The Beats’ self-conception descended from a particular American lineage—mountain men, outlaws, frontier cranks, lonely individualists, and narcissistic outsiders sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world.”

    13. The rise of Christianity in America. “In fact, all American Christian boats were rising. In his first year as president, at age sixty-three, Eisenhower was baptized. He appeared at the first National Prayer Breakfast, an event organized by a fundamentalist group, which became annual. The following year Congress and the president stuck “under God” into the eighty-seven-year-old Pledge of Allegiance, then gave America its first official motto, “In God We Trust,” to be printed on currency. Eisenhower made prayer a regular part of cabinet meetings, the first one led by his agriculture secretary, a leader of the Mormon Church.”

    14. The differences of the left versus the right. “People on the left “still swear by the values of the ’60s,” Charles Reich, author of The Greening of America, recently said. They focus only on the 1960s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. And people on the political and cultural right still demonize the decade from around 1963 to 1973 as the source of everything they loathe.”

    15. The rise of intellectualism. “Before Kuhn, the history of science had been understood as a steady march toward better approximations of the nature of existence, accomplished by observation, experiment, and scientists’ habitual criticism of one another’s work and all conventional wisdoms.”

    16. Impactful Supreme Court decisions. “In 1962 and 1963 the Supreme Court decided in two cases, with only one dissenter in each instance, that it was unconstitutional for public schools to conduct organized prayer or Bible readings, and in 1968 the court finally ruled—unanimously—that states could not ban the teaching of evolution. Until the 1960s, biblical literalists (like white supremacists) had not been prohibited from imposing their beliefs on everyone around them.”

    17. The rise of conspiracies. “Communism, according to the Birchers’ new line, was just one piece of a global master conspiracy, a tool of a much grander plot by a “clique of international gangsters.””

    18. An interesting look at gun views. “Gun nut became a phrase in the 1960s because gun nuts really didn’t exist until then—and they emerged on the far right and left simultaneously. The John Birch Society, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers were our first modern gun rights absolutists. The Panthers’ self-conception, as a heavily armed and well-regulated militia ready to defend Oakland’s black community against the police, led quickly to a California law, sponsored by a Republican and signed by Governor Reagan, that made it illegal to carry loaded guns in public. Huey Newton, twenty-five-year-old cofounder of the Panthers, condemned it as part of “the plot to disarm” Americans.”

    19. Chapters dedicated to fictional reenactments of various types.

    20. Political impacts. “Just before the Clintons arrived in Washington, the right had managed to do away with the federal Fairness Doctrine, which had been enacted to keep radio and TV shows from being ideologically one-sided. Until then, big-time conservative opinion media had consisted of two magazines, William F. Buckley’s biweekly National Review and the monthly American Spectator, both with small circulations. But absent a Fairness Doctrine, Rush Limbaugh’s national right-wing radio show, launched in 1988, was free to thrive, and others promptly appeared, followed at the end of Clinton’s first term by Fox News.”

    21. Many conspiracies debunked. “For instance, beginning in the 1990s, conspiracists decided contrails, the skinny clouds of water vapor that form around jet-engine exhaust, are exotic chemicals, part of a secret government scheme to test weapons or poison citizens or mitigate climate change—and renamed them chemtrails.” ““The likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted,” they concluded, by two key pieces of our national character that derive from our particular Christian culture: “a propensity to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces” and a weakness for “melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events, particularly those that interpret history relative to universal struggles between good and evil.”

    22. Much, much, more…

    Negatives:

    1. At over 400 pages it will require your time and focus.

    2. No supplementary visual materials.

    3. No formal bibliography.

    In summary, a very interesting topic covered from A to Z. Andersen stays focused on describing how America got to this point of fantasyland through time and does so with a luxury of examples and angles. Excellent writing that includes fascinating insights. I highly recommend it!

    Further recommendations: “Lesterland: The Corruption of Congress And How to End It” by Lawrence Lessig, “The Solution Revolution” by William D. Eggers & Paul MacMillan, “Price of Inequality” by Joseph Stiglitz, “Winner Take All” by Dambisa Moyo, “The Post American World” by Fareed Zakaria, "That Used to be Us” by Thomas L. Friedman, “War on the Middle Class” by Lou Dobbs, “Screwed” by Thom Hartmann, “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, and “The Spirit of Democracy” by Larry Diamond.

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