Notwithstanding the headline of this review, it’s difficult to argue too strenuously with the overarching thesis of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History in light of recent news. On Dec. 20, in the wake of the Republicans’ passage of a depraved tax “reform” bill, Speaker Paul Ryan went on the Today show to argue, fraudulently, that the bill would help America’s workers. Host Savannah Guthrie balked at Ryan’s dishonest framing of the bill and asked, “Are you living in a fantasy world?” He is; he did not notice anything amiss in the question. Going on TV to promote what would sound reasonable in the tax bill, rather than the nightmare of the truth about the bill, is an example tailor-made for Andersen’s argument that Americans, since the earliest days of European colonialism, have been uniquely willing, even eager, to believe just about — if not literally — any crazy thing, no matter how obviously insane, no matter how obviously self-serving, no matter now obviously false, no matter how obviously dishonest the source of the information. In America, the word “obviously” has never meant what it seems to mean.
Andersen examines a vast sweep of American culture, and much of his argument is clever, reasonable and convincing. The Fantasyland that is the US emerges as a dubious mixture of credulity, fabulism and blind faith, all catalyzed by deluded self-regard and a solipsism that aggressively ignores any consequence for others or even for oneself. The breadth of Andersen’s history covers the spectrum from rollicking to sinister; he draws a straight line, for example, from UFO abductees to 9/11 truthers to President Trump. The book even points out some positive aspects of Fantasyland: Discussing how “Disneyfication” is a conceptual heir to “Barnumized,” he finds that the simulacral beatific small towns of Disneyland, Main Street USA, for example, helped inspire an authentic architectural conservation movement in real municipalities around the country.
Fantasyland covers the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials, all of the religious Great Awakenings (a particular focus of the book), patent medicines, the Gold Rush, the Civil War and yellow journalism, but really gets going when it reaches the 20th century. Andersen notes a dramatic and telling shift in language use around the 1920s. Previously, “Americans had a wide-ranging, well-established vocabulary for [. . .] talking about suckers falling for hogwash.” But by the ‘20s, new synonyms stopped appearing and words like “balderdash,” “humbug,” “hooey” and “claptrap” fell out of use. At the same time, words that either derogatorily or neutrally identified something as simply untrue — “incredible,” “unbelievable,” “fabulous,” “fantastic” — were redefined to their current usage, describing the superlatively good. The need to describe unreality in the world with complexity and specificity seems to have dissipated.
Also in the ‘20s, the Scopes Monkey Trial serves as a prime example of Americans’ Fantasyland tendencies. The case concerned teaching evolution vs. creationism in public school science classes, and lawyers William Jennings Bryan, for creationism, and Clarence Darrow, for science, faced off in court. Bryan argued that respect for religious believers necessitated the teaching of creationism; Darrow countered by arguing for the need to “[prevent] bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.” This is so characteristic of American Fantasyland because, after assessing these two points of view for shorter than 10 minutes, the jury ruled for Bryan and for Noah’s literally factual flood over Darrow and education. I have no trouble imagining an American court ruling this way still (or, possibly, again), almost a century later. Indeed, we’re clearly still on this trajectory of religiosity in important ways. Pentecostalism, an American invention from around the turn of the 20th century, represented no more than one-tenth of one percent of the worldwide population in the early years of its founding; today, 10 percent of people on earth — more than half a billion Christians — “believe they’re routinely speaking in a mystical holy language [speaking in tongues], curing illness by laying on hands, hearing personally from God.”
So, if Andersen does so much well and has identified a genuinely important new lens through which to view and interpret American history, why did Fantasyland get me so worked up? The answer is his lack of rigor when it comes to issues around responsibility, accountability and blame. I appreciate that Andersen sought to write a book that eschews some minutiae in order to investigate a larger cultural process that is too complex to be engineered by specific individuals or even by too-narrowly identified groups — or even by purposeful agency. He presents many attractive, compelling ideas that do, in fact, help explain Americans to ourselves. The problem comes when he doesn’t distinguish among fantasies that gain traction and spread organically among peers and communities, organic fantasies that are leveraged or manipulated by people or groups trying to exercise power and fantasies manufactured and disseminated in a calculated way for the sake of power. I can concede that the concept of Fantasyland encompasses all these strains, but it is the differences that ultimately give the concept meaning. These differences illuminate how American culture functions, what is helpful and ethical, what is dangerous and built in bad-faith.
This expresses itself in several interconnected ways: First, Andersen does identify a number of bad actors throughout the Fantasyland history of the US, but rarely paints outright villains as the outright villains they are. Some of Andersen’s assessments are so odd and disappointing that they threaten to undermine what’s smart and helpful about the book. He notes that blaming corruption and deregulation is just one way to look at the 2008 financial crash, but the “deeper causes” were some consumers’ fantastical thinking. Banks committing out of control, yet financially sophisticated, fraud and middle-class Americans being naïve about financial markets are both aspects of our national Fantasyland, but ignoring the differences in agency and culpability takes all power out of the argument and starts to feel absurd.
He plays the Hulk Hogan/Gawker lawsuit for laughs about the “milestone in Fantasyland jurisprudence” concerning testimony about the fictional character’s penis size, but never mentions that the conservative billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit with the goal, which was quite successful, of using manufactured bankruptcy to censor Gawker into oblivion. Elsewhere, he calls conservative New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat “thoughtful,” identifies Paul Ryan as smart and describes some contributors to a book called Sharia: The Threat to America as “respectable” and national security “wonks,” suggesting Andersen doesn’t know what “respectable” or “wonk” means.
Perhaps the most frustrating theme in Fantasyland is Andersen’s impulse to establish, contrary to his own examples and argument, that both the right and the left provide parallel examples of fantastical beliefs. He describes the 1990s-era specter of the UN usurping the sovereignty of the US as widespread, but this is simply not a concern of the left; it is the kooky right that is actively worried about this, which, let’s remember, is made up nonsense. He then goes on to offer the unrest at the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle as an example of a parallel conspiracy theory on the left. Andersen does not explain, though, that the WTO protesters were right. Protesting violent capitalism in the streets might be quixotic, but it’s not fantastical in the way fretting over a UN power grab is. The difference is important.
In a chapter called “When the GOP Went off the Rails,” Andersen is unquestionably too gentle with Republicans. In a chapter about guns, Andersen notes that stockpiling guns in anticipation of rising up against a “tyrannical fascist-socialist-globalist regime” coming to confiscate them is pure delusion, but he does not focus this delusion on the right, which is where the delusion is objectively located. He says this uprising fantasy spread to the mainstream in recent decades thanks to the “work of the National Rifle Association and its affiliated hysterics.” Those are not hysterics; those are lobbyists. The difference is important.
There is also a chapter called “Liberals Denying Science,” which is absolutely not about liberals denying science. In this chapter, Andersen cites solid, non-fantastical science showing that GMOs are safe to eat, but explains that “identical majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives,” 57 percent across the board, distrust GMOs for Fantasyland reasons. Using this statistic about all Americans to attempt to make a dismissive point about the liberal side of the political spectrum in particular does not build sympathy for the argument. I have no intention of arguing that the left is somehow magically sane or without fabulism or dangerous ideas. Certainly Andersen’s examples of the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army shed light on intellectual and ethical failings on the left and strengthen the argument. But pretending, even half-heartedly, as Andersen does, that the left and the right are at all equivalent when it comes to the most important functions of American culture is simply wrong. Not just wrong, but infuriating.