27 January 2019

Book Review - Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History. New York: Random House, 2017. 480 pp.


In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. elections, many (including me) in the world asked some variant of the following question. (Some also may have asked the question with the exact same wording.)

How… the… f- - -… did… we… end up… here?

Thousands of think pieces were written and published. Talking heads pontificated. Issues were dissected. Polls (HA!) were conducted. Strategies (or the lack thereof) were analyzed. And characters were blamed.

Not one bit of all of that effort produced any meaningful and comprehensive answer.

So I was justifiably skeptical when novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen decided to tackle the question in his 480 page time titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History. 500 years? Come now, Mr. Andersen… we’ve only been a nation for less than half that span of time. How could all of this current madness have its roots in the 1600s?

Andersen begins with a simple premise… that those who first colonized North America were more than a little bent in the head. Fleeing the Enlightenment, these intrepid explorers and adventurers were also religious extremists. One need only make a cursory examination of the Puritans, that obscure offshoot sect of Protestantism that left England to found a new Christian kingdom in the New World.

Remember the Salem Witch Trials? You know… Satanic possession hysteria replete with gruesome executions? Ah yes… those Puritans. Right.

Andersen asserts history doesn’t exactly repeat itself… but it does rhyme.” The predominance of magical thinking rooted in the delusions of the perpetrators of the Salem Witch Trials is again found in the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria of the 1980s. Remember that? This is but one example Andersen provides to support his belief that from the beginning of North American colonization to modern times that America and Americans are indeed exceptions.

Exceptionally bonkers.

Conspiracy theory? People are still talking about the Illuminati. And there is, unfortunately, Alex Jones. Check.

Alternative medicine with no basis in science? From snake oil to today’s celebrity spokesperson telling women to insert jade eggs in their…. Check.

The disbelief and discrediting of experts and institutions. We’ve apparently always had fake news.” And some of it was, in fact, fake. Check.

Cults of personality? Read Andersen’s take on the Puritan offshoots and it sounds like Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, Joel Osteen and a host of other Christian” and non-Christian wackos.

At various points, the crazies often somehow interact and couple together in a synergistic orgy of insanity. Left and Right don’t matter. Both sides are complicit and sometimes actually work together… which is more than can be said for the current state of the government. And if that is a possible silver lining to all of this madness, we should all take pause and reflect… or cry.

By the time Andersen hits the tumult of the 1960s, the story line is clear. Add in the force multiplier of the interweb and the needle on the crazy meter isn’t merely redlining, it’s spinning around at speeds faster than light.

Andersen holds all of the big names accountable. Walt Disney, Oprah, multiple presidents and numerous crackpots make appearances and are thoroughly roasted… as they should be. In a time when we need rational thinking the most, we find ourselves surrounded by the proverbial inmates running the proverbial asylum.

Except the inmates are utterly unaware that they are in the asylum because they are insane.

And there is no end in sight.

How did we end up here? individualism at all costs and at the expense of the common good… with a large dose of unchecked delusion at seemingly a genetic level.

But Andersen doesn’t concede all is lost. He does not believe a further slide deeper into Fantasyland is inevitable. Other nations have survived worse turns toward the darkness of their own stupidity and evil. (Paging Prime Minister Chamberlain… Mister… Chamberlain?)

Andersen ends Fantasyland with strict instructions and a possible brighter future. Let us hope the populace is willing to heed his wisdom.

Yes, perhaps we’ve always been crazy. The questions that remain are How much?” and How much are we wiling to tolerate?”

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