Link and Comments: NYTBR reviews Kurt Andersen’s FANTASYLAND

Just published, a big book by novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (Random House), which is in my to-read stack. For the time being, here are some passages from Sunday’s front page review in the New York Times Book Review, by Hanna Rosin, titled National Delusions.

The review suggests that the book is an enlightening revisionist history of America, analogous to those by Howard Zinn or Richard Hofstadter.

If, for example, you remain confused about what happened in the last election, Andersen’s retelling of history will clarify things for you. As a host of public radio’s Studio 360, a best-selling novelist and a cultural omnivore, Andersen has been tracking and storing the data on the nation’s unraveling for decades. And he knew that what happened that November night, and in the subsequent months, was not just inevitable but in many ways our nation’s natural destiny. As he explains in what must have been an alarmingly self-confirming last chapter: Donald Trump is “stupendous Exhibit A” in the landscape of “Fantasyland,” a fitting leader for a nation that has, over the centuries, nurtured a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.”

Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. For Andersen, these are not momentary perversions but habits baked into our DNA, the ultimate expressions of attitudes “that have made America exceptional for its entire history.” The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality.

Yes, the vaunted “American exceptionalism,” that we Americans are somehow more special than others around the world, more blessed by God, and so on — a legacy of the nation’s founding by religious zealots.

Andersen’s history begins at the beginning, with the first comforting lie we tell ourselves. Each year we teach our children about Pilgrims, those gentle robed creatures who landed at Plymouth Rock. But our real progenitors were the Puritans, who passed the weeks on the trans-Atlantic voyage preaching about the end times and who, when they arrived, vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores. They were zealots and also well-educated British gentlemen, which set the tone for what Andersen identifies as a distinctly American endeavor: propping up magical thinking with elaborate scientific proof.

While Newton and Locke were ushering in an Age of Reason in Europe, over in America unreason was taking new seductive forms. A series of mystic visionaries were planting the seeds of extreme entitlement, teaching Americans that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true.

Fake news: George Washington and the cherry tree. Water cures, homeopathy, mesmerism. William Cody aka Buffalo Bill. The 1960s: psychedelics, the New Age, conspiracy theories following JFK’s assassination. UFO sightings. And the rise of hair color and plastic surgery, another kind of fake news. And of course:

While the most persistent thread in “Fantasyland” is Christianity — the astounding number of Americans who believe in heaven and angels, which most of Europe gave up decades ago — Andersen reserves a starring role for the secular spiritualists. They were supposed to be a counterpoint to narrow-minded evangelicals, but Andersen says the New Agers committed an even greater sin than the faithful.

The reviewer finds Andersen short on prescriptions for how to address this mess — if America has any way to address its delusions.

At the end of his book he tries to redraw a boundary that moves us a little closer to sanity. “You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts — especially if your fantastical facts hurt people,” he says, echoing a comment by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the attempt is brief and feels halfhearted. By that point the pile up of detail — gun nuts, survivalists, web holes, scenes of cosplay, sci-fi shows and manufactured bubbles of hope — leaves a reader worried that a short manifesto on facts won’t save us.

“Sci-fi shows”? I checked the index. Andersen spends a couple pages (pp222-223) talking about 1960s TV shows, like “I Dream of Jeanie”; the Tolkien books in the 1960s; and how Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind impugned spiritual fantasies into past and future science-fictional visions.

I suspect I agree with him here, in his context — he’s talking about fantasy invading the rigor of science fiction. And that, going back to the core of the debate between Trek and Wars, is the division between attempting to understand the real world, and ceding that real world with mystical values that appeal to human biases.

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