Review: ‘Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire’, by Kurt Anderson
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America has always been a place where fantasists like Trump and his followers believe whatever takes their fancy, Anderson argues in this compelling, convincing and thoroughly readable book.
For the past year or so, every columnist has given their two cents about how we (or more specifically, America) ended up in this ludicrous situation. How did the GOP go from being the party of Abraham Lincoln to being the party of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump? What role did Facebook and other social networks play in spreading fake news? And just how much of this can be blamed on Putin?
In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (Ebury Press, £9.99, ISBN 9781785038679), Anderson argues that Trump’s America – a place of polarisation, hyperbole, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, expert-bashing and bare-faced lies – has always existed. More than that; America is built on fantasy.
“Being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned,” Anderson writes.
Anderson begins with the arrival of Protestants in America. This movement was inherently about individualism, he says; you don’t need priests to reach God or to tell you which bits of the Bible matter. Methodism allow anyone to be a preacher, while Puritans believe hell is a place for people with the wrong (i.e. different) beliefs.
Religion is central to Fantasyland’s narrative and many liberal Christians may well be upset at their religion being lumped along with other fantasies but I enjoyed this unapologetically rational approach and I suspect others may, too (disclaimer: I’m an atheist). This book is not a place to debate the possible merits or legitimacy of God, Scientology, homeopathy or clairvoyance; there are plenty of other books which do just that.
What matters is that many of these beliefs are not just absurd make-believe (such as speaking in tongues), but dangerous. War was waged on Native Americans, who were thought to be Satan’s agents, southern towns banned the teaching of evolution by natural selection, and witch hunts were conducted with far more sincerity than Arthur Miller gave them credit for in The Crucible. Today, actual harm is still perpetuated by anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and gun-lovers clinging to historic fantasy.
American fantasism cannot be blamed entirely on religion and conservatism, however. Enlightenment thinking encouraged people to challenge accepted knowledge and many took this to arguably unhelpful lengths (this recurred during the more recent “Science Wars”). The ’60s counterculture has much to answer for, too, in enabling “a deep and broad believe-anything-you-want ethos”, while many modern fantasies are not spiritual but consumerist in nature; Anderson speaks at length about the much-loved entrepreneurs who harnessed Americans’ desire “to believe golden dreams”, such as Walt Disney and circus magnate P.T. Barnum.
An element of the narrative that felt incongruous was the inclusion of geek culture: fantasy fiction, Dungeons and Dragons, cosplay and fanfiction. Perhaps it’s my own affection for the community swaying my judgement, but I feel scepticism and geekdom go hand-in-hand and most geeks are highly aware of the separation between fantasy and reality. The same goes for Houdini – a great showman who used trickery to astonish, earning him a place in Fantasyland – but who was a rationalist who dedicated much of his life to exposing shams.
Anderson exposes the fantasies associated with Trump’s ascension as centuries old; attention-grabbing conspiracy theories have been touted by senior political figures since the US was founded and fake news is nothing new. It hardly matters whether a story is true or not if it is thrilling enough. Conspiracy theories, ghosts, cryptozoology, climate denial and warnings of Biblical apocalypses became mainstream when TV and radio channels reward them with serious coverage. Meanwhile, politics has been increasingly seen as entertainment and the internet enables fringe actors like far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to reach more people than ever before.
When Anderson finally gets round to Trump, you get the sense that the author is running a victory lap as he revels in the utter chaos and absurdity of this character, who transcends parody and embodies everything you’ve just read about.
Fantasyland is a well-informed, well-written book which refreshingly avoids pussyfooting around all flavours of codswallop. Anderson ties together everything from witch hunts to mermaids into a compelling narrative which left me entirely convinced of its central argument: “America was the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious and some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing”.