Don't read this book.
When I read a book that is bad because it is dishonest and devious, I feel its my duty to warn others. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-year history, by Kurt Andersen is one such book. On the surface its thesis resonated with me, sucked me in. It began with 200 pages of non-controversial facts and amusing stories about the long history of American irrationality and magical thinking, exploited by both religious men and con-men. However, when the narrative got to the 1960s, gears were switched and it became yet another flaming bag of centrist bullshit.
In retrospect, I should have expected this from an uber-preppie (editor of Harvard Crimson) who founded a celebrity satire magazine (Spy Magazine). The man has a talent for biting insults and cruel putdowns. Sort of reminds me of Hillary's hitman, Sidney Blumenthal. Too bad that such a skill is extremely portable and mercenary. In retrospect, book jacket blurbs from corporatist hacks like Tom Brokaw and Lawrence O'Donnell should have been a dead giveaway. But, a skim of various chapters was interesting enough to make me give money to a guy I now know and despise.
The reason I warn about this book is that a case can be made for each target he shoots at. The problem is the topics he refuses to discuss. The biggest missing target in his book-length rant against conspiracy theory is the CIA. He flat out refuses to mention them, except to claim with no evidence that they never ran drugs. (That's on page 360, though. Also on that page, his minimalist, boilerplate acknowledgment that conspiracies do exist.) Until page 360, he hasn't outed himself as completely in the tank for the CIA, the military, and the Deep State - none of whom he ever mentions, except to float an occasional unhinged quotation about them from one of the large number of whackjobs that the book catalogues. Also on page 360, he says that while the Warren Commission report was "full of bungles", "its essential conclusion was almost certainly correct". He also repeatedly dismisses 911 critics as lunatics, without offering any evidence. The absolute deal-breaker is, again, on page 360. Even though he says he finished the book before Trump was elected, he manages to blame Russia - and, with a straight face, avoid mentioning that is one of the biggest phony conspiracy theories in history:
I'm thinking, for instance, of the Russian government's interference in the last U.S. presidential election, to which too little attention was paid as it was happening. In the middle of 2016, it sounded like just one more wild speculation.
- Fantasyland, p. 360
Now, I'm not going to be able to debunk a 440 page book that a skilled writer probably spent a year writing after one quick read. So, I will just give you some links to critics who are capable of that debunking.
First up, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) - one of the few genuinely progressive groups left standing. The reviewer gives plenty of examples of Mr. Andersen's selectivity in noticing irrationality and conspiracy:
The piece uses the term “conspiracy” or “conspiracies” 45 times, but somehow—in all the hand-wringing over their dangerous effects—omits the two most pernicious and consequential conspiracy theories of modern times: that Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11 and that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction...
Never does he meaningfully address elite failures driven by wishful thinking and unverifiable ideologies—no dissection of how the global economy was wrecked by an unexamined belief that housing prices could keep rising forever or, for example, the widespread faith that deregulated markets will inevitably lead to shared prosperity...
Lip service is paid to the CIA’s use of ESP to feign some attempt at balance, but no mention is made as to the normative mental properties of torture, dirty war, executions, coups or the propping up of fascist governments...
respectable opinion in the aggregate” were largely behind the idea that racial hierarchies justified slavery and segregation, that World War I would make the world safe for democracy, that fighting self-determination in underdeveloped countries was necessary to prevent Communist world domination, and a whole host of objectively terrible things throughout history, so it’s unclear what time frame Andersen is referencing. His Paradise Lost narrative relies on a fall from Eden that never was,
I vacillated for at least fifty pages as to whether or not I would buy his dissection of leftwing excesses in the 1960s, but I think this writer covers that:
Andersen sees the drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll of the hippies mirrored exactly in the growth of Pentecostalism, a movement that was fringe “until the 1960s, when all the exotic and exciting fringes blossomed freely and started overtaking the main stems.” He goes further: "fundamentalists were like the New Left, insular zealots focused on arguing doctrine, hating the unrighteous, and awaiting the final battle.”
There’s nothing striking, original, or particularly American about saying that fringe ideas resemble each other, but it is dishonest to abstract the ideas that motivated the different groups from the discussion. Fundamentalists who surrendered everything to God’s hand are not the same as those who insist on the primacy of human activity in changing reality and life. That both would be dogmatic and pig-headed is true, but it doesn’t turn them into the same thing. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that rather than fundamentalism and hippieism and the New Left all being products of the same zeitgeist, the growth of evangelical Christianity was a reaction to the zeitgeist, a protection against the zeitgeist, a refusal of the zeitgeist...
Andersen is shooting fish in a barrel when he attacks the intellectual productions of the 1960s. Simply reproducing virtually any paragraph from so sublimely silly as book as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, with its starry-eyed vision of the role of youth in changing America and the world, is sufficient to condemn it. But where is any mention of a brilliant a book like Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, which, though it, too, erred in privileging the young, presciently demonstrated the hopelessness of viewing the working-class as a revolutionary actor. Nor should we forget the ubiquity of silly books produced all over the world extrapolating from the events of the 1960s, which were, it shouldn’t need to be said, international. The youth revolt was not a strictly American event, and the utopianism it gave rise to was international.
In addition to the aforementioned avoidance of the CIA, Mr. Andersen also avoids discussing racism:
Leaving aside his low-level Menckenism, there is something Andersen all but ignores that renders Fantasyland useless as a guide to understanding America, which has been at the heart of America from its inception and explains so much about what our culture: racism. Racism is the real guide to how Americans live, the true red thread that runs through American history, and it gets short shrift in Fantasyland. The omission of racism’s many forms and faces, the ways it has perverted our national life since the land was settled, diminishes Andersen's book as a serious analysis. Indeed, had he wanted to fit racism into his Fantasyland grid he could have, recounting the many scientific forms of racism that have flourished on our soil and our soil alone. Josiah Clark Nott and his racist cranial studies deserves a place in any recounting of American willful stupidity, as does the mental illness discovered by an American physician known as drapetomania -- the tendency of the Negro to flee slavery -- and the countless other proofs of Negro inferiority, but they figure in Andersen's narrative not at all.
Finally, a writer who expresses my aggravation the best:
why did Fantasyland get me so worked up? The answer is his lack of rigor when it comes to issues around responsibility, accountability and blame...The problem comes when he doesn’t distinguish among fantasies that gain traction and spread organically among peers and communities, organic fantasies that are leveraged or manipulated by people or groups trying to exercise power and fantasies manufactured and disseminated in a calculated way for the sake of power...
Some of Andersen’s assessments are so odd and disappointing that they threaten to undermine what’s smart and helpful about the book. He notes that blaming corruption and deregulation is just one way to look at the 2008 financial crash, but the “deeper causes” were some consumers’ fantastical thinking. Banks committing out of control, yet financially sophisticated, fraud and middle-class Americans being naïve about financial markets are both aspects of our national Fantasyland, but ignoring the differences in agency and culpability takes all power out of the argument and starts to feel absurd.
He plays the Hulk Hogan/Gawker lawsuit for laughs about the “milestone in Fantasyland jurisprudence” concerning testimony about the fictional character’s penis size, but never mentions that the conservative billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit with the goal, which was quite successful, of using manufactured bankruptcy to censor Gawker into oblivion....
pretending, even half-heartedly, as Andersen does, that the left and the right are at all equivalent when it comes to the most important functions of American culture is simply wrong. Not just wrong, but infuriating.