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Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

January 1, 2018


Kurt Anderson’s timely new book is about the propensity of Americans to believe crazy stuff. I just finished this book and my head is still spinning from it, so I might revisit later for a more thought-through post later, but his point is essentially this: we are prone to flights of fancy. Belief in religions, spin-offs of religions, the supernatural, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.” Magical thinking, magical cures, secret societies, ghosts and UFOs, secret government programs. We’re suckers for hoaxes and scams and stupid bets. We love our holy-rollers, our charlatans, our magicians, our seers and sooth-sayers. We want to be like our pro wrestlers, our tv spokespeople, our reality stars, our cover girls, our centerfolds. We eat up those fake facts supporting our hare-brained theories. And we’re not normal in the global picture—this tendency, or the degree to which we exhibit it, is a particularly American phenomenon.

It’s baked into our DNA as a country. America was founded on the promise of gold, independence, freedom. We revolted from England, started our own country, started our own religions. We believed that anything was possible. We spread the belief that anybody can be anything. We sold our own myths to ourselves—gold rushes, Hollywood, the simulacra of Vegas and Disney World. Television. The lottery. Plastic surgery. Reality TV.

In the 60s, any truth was as good as any other truth. The counter-culture believed that reality itself should be questioned. It wasn’t just the social order that was upturned, but the agreed-upon truths that make up our world. Religion, already mid-revival, got a boost along with the crystals and mysticism and New Age spiritual mumbo jumbo. It’s the vibes, man. Was it a coincidence that reports of UFO sightings shot up? In our entertainment, we saw a bend toward the fantastical—the success of Star Wars owes as much to its timing as to its quality.

We like everything to be entertainment—our religion and our news included. The more dramatic, the better. I learned in an otherwise mediocre college journalism course that the news bias one needs to be wary of is not left-right, it’s sensationalism. When we went to 24-hour news programming, there was a need to fill all that time. When the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, there was no longer a requirement to be balanced, despite what the slogans claim. It was all about the ratings, about the news stories that get the eyeballs, i.e. the controversial blood-boiling news stories. The louder, the more agro, the more inflammatory, the more stoked with moral outrage, the better. Rush Limbaugh pioneered this and everyone followed. News competed with entertainment. It became more and more sensational, more and more tribal. And here we are.

And we like our religions to be entertainment too—more dramatic. Lights, cameras, big audiences, speaking in tongues. A belief in the impending apocalypse. Churches spun off of churches spun off of churches, and the zealots are the ones drawing the crowds. The “traditional” churches that started before 1900 have been on the decline for quite some time. But those started since the 1970s are growing. The more fanatical the beliefs, the faster the growth. Speaking in tongues has made a comeback. A belief in a literal reading of the Bible is on the rise. “Creation science,” that ignorant scourge, keeps being pushed into our classrooms by crusading zealots intent on turning our children into morons. But, hey, it’s just their version of the truth, as right as real science, right?

Climate change is just an opinion. GMOs are bad for you, despite all evidence otherwise. Birtherism. Anti-vaccines. These are stupid, ill-informed positions, yet we spend so much of our oxygen arguing about them because we’re American and it’s what we do. We give the idiots an equal voice in the argument, even if it’s one idiot for every hundred people, because, who knows, they could be right.

The final thing that came into play—along with the fundamental “anything is possible” DNA of America and the moral relativism of the 60s—was technology. The Internet. Now not only could you believe something idiotic, you could find a whole community of thousands, millions who legitimized your belief. The President was born somewhere else and is a secret Muslim? Here are some people who can get on that bandwagon. Want to bring back the Nazi movement? Here’s a bunch of other bald dipshits who will meet up and light tiki torches with you. You can find a community for almost anything, and because of social media you can now build a community. You didn’t need the mass media—everyone can be their own bullhorn.

Andersen walks through most of this chronologically, but a structure that I drew up (again, based on probably not enough time thinking about this), is that we use our fantasies for three main reasons: entertainment, identity and explanation.

He talks about things like Disney and Vegas and Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing and video games as ways we create more and more realistic fantasies. Simulacra—experiences that mimic other experiences, like our casinos looking like Paris or our malls looking like the town square or our seafood restaurants looking like the inside of a pirate ship. But I lump those into just immersive entertainment. We’re pretending we’re somewhere else for a bit of escapism.

Then we create fantasies to help create an identity. We wear makeup or certain clothes, get fake boobs or wear a Steph Curry jersey (even though we can’t dribble) because it identifies us a certain way. Social media may give us the greatest ability to do this, where we can craft whatever image, whatever reality we want to portray—photos of our awesome food and our awesome kids and our awesome vacation to show how awesome our lives are, even though just off camera most of it is shit like everyone else’s.

Finally, we create fantasies as a way of explaining our world. This is where religion comes in. How did we get here? What’s our purpose? What happens after we die? Or conspiracies—the government is conspiring to keep us down. The election was rigged. They’re putting chemicals in our water to make us dumber.

It’s when these fantasies compound that things get problematic. When we choose our sources of reality because they’re more entertaining, or more in line with who we identify. When we create fantasies to bolster our beliefs. When we pick a truth based on which side we want to win (our side). Skepticism is hard. While we should be more skeptical of anything that supports our existing point-of-view, be it a news story or a political candidate or a preacher or a tweet or some cockamamie theory by some guy at the bar, we typically accept those “facts” at face value. We don’t question what supports our existing beliefs, or supports our side of the political spectrum, or comes from the “news” anchor we know wears our color uniform. It’s much easier to just say, “Hell yeah! That’s what I been sayin’!” We like it simple. We like to be right. We like to win. We like stories where good guys fight bad guys and good guys (our guys) win. We like to know that if we do this thing, that thing happens. Take this pill, grow hair back. Just follow these seven steps, fame and fortune. Pray every day, heaven. This is America. Who’s going to tell us it can’t be? Or, to quote one of my favorite movies, Andersen’s epigraph to Part V, “Yeah, well, that’s just, you know, like, your opinion, man.” –The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Is it any wonder we’re susceptible to fantasy?

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