Intellectual history and cultural criticism always teeters on the brink of totalism. So it was when Christopher Hitchens was forced to defend the hyperbolic subtitle of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The complaint was always the same: everything, really? Or when Neil Postman downplayed the early tremors of the internet in his 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. Email couldn’t be anything more than another movement towards entertainment and celebrity. So it is no surprise that Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Wrong: A 500-Year History is open to similar charges.
Andersen’s thesis is easily digestible: we built a country on fantasies. From the earliest charismatic stirrings of the Puritans to the patent medicines of the 19th century, through to the counterculture of the 1960s, and now with an incoherent insult comedian and showman as president, America has thrived on inventing wild, fantastical narratives that coalesce into movements. Andersen’s detailed analysis is breathtaking as he pulls together everything from linguistic drift to the psychology of magical thinking to justify his thesis.
Yet his thesis might be too narrow. It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. When Andersen mentions cosplay, he fails to identify its Japanese contributions, including the word itself. In the California Gold Rush, he sees economic fantasies driving a generation to unmoor themselves from their merely average lives. Yet the conquistadores had sought to enrich themselves, God, and country while Americans were forming their shining cities on hills. And in mid-19th-century Europe, while the Americans panned in the Sierra, romanticism was throwing off the oppressive yoke of Enlightenment rationality as the West became increasingly exposed to enigmatic Asian cultures. By the 20th century, Weimar Berlin was a hotbed of cultural fantasies that dovetailed with the rise of Nazism and a fantastical theory of race, German volk culture, and Indo-European mysticism. In India, film has been the starting point for many politicians. The religion of Marxism led to Heroic Realism as the stained glass of the Communist cathedrals.
Is America unique or is it simply human nature to strive for what has not yet existed and, in so doing, create and live in alternative fictions that transcend the mundanity of ordinary reality? If the latter, then Andersen’s thesis still stands but not as a singular evolution. Cultural change is driven by equal parts fantasy and reality. Exploration and expansion was paired with fantastical justifications from religious and literary sources. The growth of an entertainment industry was two-thirds market-driven commerce and one-third creativity. The development of the World Wide Web was originally to exchange scientific information but was exchanging porn from nearly the moment it began.
To be fair, Chapter 32 (America Versus the Godless Civilized Word: Why Are We So Exceptional), provides an argument for the exceptionalism of America at least in terms of religiosity. The pervasiveness of religious belief in America is unlike nearly all other developed nations, and the variation and creativity of those beliefs seems to defy economic and social science predictions about how religions shape modern life across nations. In opposition, however, is a following chapter on postmodernism in academia that again shows how a net wider than America is needed to explain anti-rationalist trends. From Foucault and Continental philosophy we see the trend towards fantasy; Anglo-American analytical philosophy has determinedly moved towards probabilistic formulations of epistemology and more and more scientism.
So what is the explanation of irrationality, whether uniquely American or more universal? In Fantasyland Andersen pins the blame on the persistence of intense religiosity in America. Why America alone remains a mystery, but the consequence is that the adolescent transition from belief in fairytales never occurs and there is a bleed-over effect into the acceptance of alternative formulations of reality:
The UC Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik studies the minds of small children and sees them as little geniuses, models of creativity and innovation. “They live twenty-four/seven in these crazy pretend worlds,” she says. “They have a zillion different imaginary friends.” While at some level, they “know the difference between imagination and reality…it’s just they’d rather live in imaginary worlds than in real ones. Who could blame them?” But what happens when that set of mental habits persists into adulthood too generally and inappropriately? A monster under the bed is true for her, the stuffed animal that talks is true for him, speaking in tongues and homeopathy and vaccines that cause autism and Trilateral Commission conspiracies are true for them.
This analysis extends the umbrella of religious theories built around instincts for perceiving purposeful action to an unceasing escalation of imaginary realities to buttress these personified habits of mind. It’s a strange preoccupation for many of us, though we can be accused of being coastal elites (or worse) just for entertaining such thoughts.
Fantasyland doesn’t end on a positive note but I think the broader thesis just might. We are all so programmed, I might claim. Things slip and slide, politics see and saw, but there seems to be a gradual unfolding of more rights and more opportunity for the many. Theocracy has always lurked in the basement of the American soul, but the atavistic fever dream has been eroded by a cosmopolitan engagement with the world. Those who long for utopia get down to the business of non-zero-sum interactions with a broader clientele and drift away, their certitude fogging until it lifts and a more conscientious idealization of what is and what can be takes over.