Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
Random House, 436 pp.
By Jim Kaplan
We will start with a collective memory the vast majority of us who grew up in the 1960s share, and a memory, I believe, Kurt Andersen would appreciate. At the close of the most-watched newscast of that era, The CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite, the legendary American newscaster/grandfather/wise man would say, “And that’s the way it is, Tuesday, May 22, 1967” (or whatever day it happened to be between 1962 and 1981, when Cronkite manned the anchor desk).
Cronkite, and I think the vast majority of his viewership -- and the vast majority of Americans at the time -- avidly embraced the notion that the previous 24 minutes of news (30 minus commercial time) had accurately and skillfully summed up what indeed had happened in the world (from the point of view of America, anyway) that particular day. The news might be messy and uncomfortable -- about race riots, Vietnam battles and body counts, presidential criminality and impeachment, to name a few common subjects -- but there was little doubt that while opinions could vary dramatically, the facts Americans were presented with were true, immutable, knowable and, perhaps most important, mainly shared in common. That was, to say the least, a different, and much more comfortable world, than the one described in Fantasyland.
The world Andersen very accurately describes is one where, when it comes to shared and accurate understandings, Americans have gone “down the rabbit hole” en masse. Andersen lays out the signs that we have gone off the rails: tens of millions of Americans believe in widespread visitation from other planets; a majority believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old, and it began with Adam and Eve; a majority probably believe the basis of the Biblical story of Creation; and a majority further believe in a physical Heaven and Hell. Lesser numbers, but still tens of millions, embrace all manner of (mainly) non-religious fantasies, including things like Obama “birtherism,” anti-vaccination extremism, utterly false and lurid conspiracies involving the Clintons, Obama, and most other major left-of-center politicians; conspiracy theories concerning the Kennedy assassinations, 9/11 and most other major tragedies of the last 50 or so years (the typical internet/talk radio fantasy is that they were inside jobs or the fault of liberals, or both).
Andersen carefully and precisely identifies this widespread embrace of public fantasy going back to the dawn of America, to the millenarianism of the Puritan founders of the fledgling Massachusetts Bay colony, down through the Great Awakenings of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and forward through the (often) business-oriented frauds of the 19th century and after. But in Andersen’s telling, which I think is accurate, “fantasyland” in anything like its current widespread acceptance really did not take firm hold until the last 50 or 60 years, helped on first by more democratic mass communications vehicles like television, talk radio (following the 1987 elimination of the Fairness Doctrine) and ultimately finding its perfect facilitator in the growth and ubiquity of the internet over the last 30 or so years.
Indeed, Andersen’s view of the current situation really relies on all three parts of a three-legged stool: an American embrace, long before the nation’s inception, of religious and popular fantasy and “magical thinking”; a means of communication, the internet, that is the ultimate vehicle for distributing wild -- but commonly held -- fantasies and for providing a nurturing meeting place for those who hold such beliefs; and lastly, the final triumph of the 1960s era radical libertarian idea that each individual is the unchallenged captain of his or her mind and soul, and is free to embrace whatever consciousness “works for them,” so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else (although in reality it often does hurt others, since ideologies based on fantasy but acted upon by many have real world consequences, as Andersen points out).
Is America in 2017 really exceptional in this regard, that is., is it more “wacked out” and given to widespread (and shared) flights of fantasy than other advanced industrial countries? In that connection, I was reminded of a conversation that took place between the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and President Clinton in the 1990s. President Jiang said to Clinton, according to the Taylor Branch book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, that in China, rulers believed in discipline for the people, not from them, and he bluntly diminished American self-government as a small and dubious “blip” in world history. Jiang was, I believe, referring not just to the strength of the Chinese state over the individual, but the strength of the whole culture. In most countries -- China especially included -- the ruling party (and ideology), the family, the schools, the mass media, mainstream religions, all transmit a cohesive and powerful set of ideas, beliefs, thoughts and common ways of viewing the world. Any significant variance from the common world view is met with disapproval and even ostracism or, at the extreme, harsh punishment.
In America, these culturally integrating institutions are all much weaker, much less able to transmit a shared way of understanding the world to all American citizens. In the days of Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News, Americans probably even then, had a much more diverse -- and fantastical -- set of beliefs than most other developed countries. And now, the integrating institutions are so much weaker than in Cronkite’s day, and thus their integrating cultural power, i.e., their ability to “discipline,” in Jiang’s words, much weaker. How did this happen? Why is America so exceptional?
Andersen persuasively shows that America is exceptional in the way fantasy overcomes reality for the rising majority. He also occasionally hints at, but does not fully develop, the other significant way America is exceptional: it is aggressively capitalist and entrepreneurial, far more economically libertarian than anyplace else on earth. There is a line connecting the two strains -- the capitalist and the fantastical -- for practically the entire length of America’s history, from the enterprising preachers of the Great Awakenings to the Elmer Gantrys of the 1920s to the Jimmy Swaggarts and megachurch founders of our own day; from the flimflammers of 19th century commerce to the Alex Joneses, Glenn Becks, Oprahs and Dr. Phils of today -- and yes, to our current businessman-president.
The fantastical is very often quite profitable in this world, and while many of those who lead and organize the mass movements of fantasy that Andersen documents are true believers in what they are preaching, many other notable fantasy thought leaders probably embrace fantasy primarily as a way of gaining stature, fame, esteem -- and lots of money. And that goes, too, for the rank-and-file strivers and believers who go door-to-door selling beauty products or healing water, or who dream about making billions in real estate (sometimes with “no money down”) like all of those unsuspecting grads of Trump University.
In America, it turns out, you are not only freer than anywhere else to engage in fantasy, but that fantasy (often called “salesmanship”) is actively encouraged as part of a robust capitalism, which after all dominates the culture and the economy as in few other countries. There are, of course, laws against fraud in America, but where the need that is being satisfied by the entrepreneur is often so vague and amorphous -- peace of mind, self-esteem, personal beauty, salvation in the hereafter -- who is to distinguish between the freely shared fantasy and the out and out criminal misrepresentation?
What does the future hold? Andersen’s book is frightening in that regard. At one point, Andersen says there is still time to contain Trumpism as nothing worse than “nasty, oafish, reality show pseudo conservatism.” And he notes that even though something approaching a majority of Americans believe in one major fantasy or another, and even though the adherents of many of these fantasies are “overlapping,” not all the fantasies are the same or even come from the same general perspective. Nonetheless, the purveyors of many of the fantasies discussed above are, for the most part, strongly anti-elite (and anti-intellectual), not sympathetic to ethnic minorities, and strongly opposed to government aid and protection to combat inequality. Many are also strongly religiously oriented, in one form or another.
Even given the country’s primary defense mechanism -- that libertarian Americans don’t like collective action, hate to be told what to do, and are the world’s foremost believers in “doing your own thing” -- one has to worry that in some future moment in time, perhaps not far off, the forces of unreason will finally recognize what they have in common, will find each other and will seize full power in their own name and with their own agenda. Fantasyland has a true warning, even presented with Andersen’s deep thoughtfulness and (mostly) gentle humor: it could happen here. We just have to reason, and perhaps struggle, our way through to a united solution that makes certain it does not.
Jim Kaplan is a lawyer and partner in the firm Quarles & Brady LLP, and has been practicing for nearly 40 years, mainly in the corporate and banking areas. On a pro bono basis, he has worked on and led teams of attorneys who through amicus briefs and other appellate advocacy, have contributed to the exoneration of a dozen young people wrongly convicted of murder. He is active on the advisory boards of both the Northwestern Law School Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Chicago Law School Public Interest Initiative.