Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Book Review: 'Fantasyland' by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History 
Kurt Andersen
Random House (September 2017)
How and why the last five centuries have made the United States susceptible to fantasy and self-delusion
All major research studies in neuroscience indicate that people tend to see what they expect/want to see, believe what they want to believe, and reject/deny whatever threatens their assumptions about reality. Especially today, when the world is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall, many (if not most) people create and embrace delusions.
Kurt Andersen wrote this book in order to explain how and why the U.S. has gone “haywire.” Consider these facts:
o Nearly 50% of Americans believe that millions of people voted illegally in the last election.
o More than 30% believe global warming is a hoax of “fake science”
o A third believe that extraterrestrials have visited – and now reside – on Earth.
o A third believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
o At least 40% believe that vaccines cause autism.
o The same percentage believe that Barack Obama may have been the antichrist.
o And that U.S. officials planned the 9/11 attacks.
o And believe in witches.
o And believe that the media or the federal government adds secret mind-controlling technologies to television broadcasting signals, both cable and satellite.
“Welcome to fantasyland, where the lines between reality and illusion [or delusion] have become dangerously blurred.”
Abuse of various social media have exacerbated what had already become one of the most dangerous – and yet least understood – periods in human history. As Andersen explains,
“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers – which over the course of four centuries has made us to susceptible to fantasy…mix 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.”
Andersen carefully organizes and presents a wealth of information, opinion, insights, and correlations within six major periods: 1517-1789, the 1800s, 1900-1960, the 1960s and ‘70s, 1980-2000, and “from the 1980s to the Present and Beyond.”
Whichever metaphor you prefer, if any (symphony orchestra, salad, melting pot, etc.), the ingredients are indeed diverse and Andersen has much of value to say about them. They include Salem hunting witches, Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, P.T. Barnum, Henry David Thoreau, speaking in tongues, Hollywood, Scientology, conspiracy theories, Walt Disney, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, Oprah Winfrey, and Donald Trump. What a mix!
I am deeply grateful to Kurt Andersen for allowing me to accompany him on a high-speed exploration of what seems like a combination of Back to the Future and Forward to the Past. His concluding remarks suggest that “we may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope.” Perhaps.
While re-reading this book and highlighted passages prior to this brief commentary, I was again reminded of this observation by T.S. Eliot in his classic work, Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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