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,

https://fair.org/home/conspiracies-pushed-by-atlantics-editor-excluded-f...

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.

https://jewishcurrents.org/writings-grid/the-uncivil-servant-the-fantasy...

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.

https://jewishcurrents.org/writings-grid/the-uncivil-servant-the-fantasy...

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.

https://www.clydefitchreport.com/2017/12/kurt-andersen-fantasyland-book-...

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Comments

JekyllnHyde's picture

He was discussing this book with Charlie Rose and from it, the impression they conveyed was that this was a ground-breaking book and an absolute must-read. I guess not. From his comments on several political issues, Andersen also came across as a diehard Clintonite.

Thanks for reading it for us and your comments on the book's content.

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16 users have voted.

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

arendt's picture

@JekyllnHyde

But that is true of everyone on PBS and NPR today - including Kurt Anderson, who has a show on PBS called Studio 360.

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Pluto's Republic's picture

@arendt

I've since learned to check journalists and media figures against the Membership (invited) of the Council on Foreign Relations. There it is a simple matter to see who the media propaganda agents are. The heads of all six media monopolies are also CFR Members. CFR headquarters is conveniently located near the major television news networks in midtown Manhattan.

This holds true for Presidential candidates, as well. Over the past century, from Woodrow Wilson forward, nearly all Presidents have been incubated and programmed at the CFR Thus, you can be sure the next Dem Presidential candidate is a current CFR Member:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Members_of_the_Council_on_Foreign_Relations

Regardless of Party affiliation, a new President's top military advisors and the most important cabinet posts, such as Secretary of State, are generally filled by CFR Members, as well. As long as this continues, the US will be involved in wars and regime change throughout the world.

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arendt's picture

@Pluto's Republic

The CFR is now fronting for socialism. There is this guy, Ben Tarnoff, who talks the socialist talk and gets published a lot on Jacobin (tame sandbox for unaware lefties). He also gets published in the Guardian, NYT, SF Chronicle.

I noticed this disconnect and did some research. His father, Peter, was President of the CFR. His mother, Mathea Falco, was Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

And they're both just fine that son, Ben, is a raving socialists. Yeah, right. Bridge. Brooklyn.

They own the media, and they own a large part of the alternate media. How does one fight this?

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Pluto's Republic's picture

@arendt

...will protect you, personally.

You can't protect the government. The CFR occupies it along with their Member corporations. They look benign, although they do slip up at times. That's where the intelligence agencies, defense contractors, Pentagon, Media, and the State Department (which they run), and the Banking Families — coordinate. Americans have no idea who they are because the media does not write about them. There are quite a few pretty good attempts to write about them online, but they all have flaws and the scope is so large, it sounds fantastic.

Assange sent this out just before he was silenced;

https://swprs.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/cfr-media-network-hdv-spr.png

This group of activists write about it. They are trying a different approach:

Prepare for Change

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shaharazade's picture

Typical Demoratic centrist bs. With all this Dem. propaganda and bs. coming from political player's and the media including PBS I just tune it out. It's all like the tower of babble coming at you and it freaking hurts your head. If you want to read a decent book about American politics and history read (or reread) 'A people's History of The United States' Same as it always was only now they kicked out the jams. They do not call this a duopoly for no good reason. Thanks I'll skip it just like I by-pass any mainstream partisan political writers/historians.

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arendt's picture

@shaharazade

Zinn's book is 38 years old at this point. He wrote it before Reagan was president.

In 2018, we have fifty years since the 60s - time for some real analysis to be done. Time when the sixties have moved from "current events" to "history". (Yeah, does that make me feel old.)

I was a techie, so my work kept me welded to rationality and hard science reality. There was no room for magical thinking in my line of work. So, I had no problem recognizing (and enjoying) fantasy, like Star Wars and Star Trek. I never wanted to be a trekkie. However, I did see a large number of smart folks go bonkers over "Dungeons and Dragons". That worried me; and they ceased to be my friends. But, I never considered the whole issue the way Andersen did.

I was attracted to his topic because I wanted a different POV on crap like D&D, fundamentalism, etc. I knew I had a lived in what would be called an "elitist" bubble. That is, I knew science, math, history, and culture. I stopped watching sports when I left school. I gave up on TV in the 1980s and on TV news in the 1990s.

So, I wanted to know "how the other half was living". Unfortunately, Mr. Andersen's view of the "other half" is a biased caricature. Sorry I wasted my time. Hope to save others with similar backgrounds as mine.

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shaharazade's picture

@arendt do differentiate from your background, age and world view, I'm an old artist, and yet I agree with your assessment of this book. I think although Howard Zinn's book is 38 years old it still applies to what is going down now. I like and respect Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine and other current writers who dare to speak the truth as they see it outside the gates of oligarchical Democratic Eden. You definitely saved me form reading this crap, although it would never cross my radar. Not a techie but earn my living working for my husband (a techie mathematical statistical idiot savant) online. Have you watched 'Silicon Valley' a Mike Judd's (of Idiocracy fame) TV series about techies?

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10 users have voted.
arendt's picture

@shaharazade

The title has become a meme. I wish there were more people like her. Chris Hedges is also spot on. His "Death of the Liberal Class" says it all. Credibility like his is getting very hard for lefties to come by. The NYT doesn't hire people who might have principles and ethics anymore, so future Hedges won't be able to put NYT war correspondent on their resume. Nick Turse is another good writer. I'm unwilling to buy books online, due to leaving a trail. I buy leftwing stuff in person and pay cash. (What, me paranoid?) On my shopping list is Douglas Valentine's "The CIA as Organized Crime", but none of the local bookstores have it.

I tried to watch "Halt and Catch Fire", but it seemed like melodramatic crap. Haven't seen Silicon Valley. I did watch "Mr. Robot" until about episode 5, when it became impossible to tell what was really happening and what the protagonist was hallucinating.

Thanks for sharing about your husband. When I hear "statistical idiot savant", I think of Robert Mercer. I sorta doubt your husband is a billionaire, so excuse my stereotyping. The IQ curve at the bleeding edge is exponential. There is always someone smarter than you. The Peter Principle is strong in tech. Of course, if you catch the right startup, you can be set for life before you Peter Principle out. Me, I worked at five startups. Never got a penny beyong my salary. But, I will say that I did have a lot of fun and met many interesting characters. In tech the memorable ones are "characters" rather than "people".

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9 users have voted.

First, there is no such country as "America" There are two continents, North and South America. North America contains three large nations, Canada, Mexico and the United States of America as well as a handful of smaller ones. Second, a 500 year history? The USA, which is I gather the subject of Andersen's elongated rant, celebrated its' bicentennial in 1976. 300 years before then takes us back to 1476, when fishermen from Bristol and Galicia might possibly have been fishing off the Newfoundland Banks. Adding to that date, 1476, the 52 years since the Bicentennial, brings us up to 1528, which is about when indigenous peoples began dying from epidemics introduced from the Old World.

'Haywire' is fake populism of course, and 'Fantasyland' would be some sort of reference to the world of gamers as well as SF readers. What a guy, that Andersen, able to blend right in in any crowd and speak to the proles in their own languages!

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Nastarana

arendt's picture

@Nastarana @Nastarana

In the book, he really begins with Martin Luther and the Protestant "revolt". It is that Protestant sense of "not blindly accepting authority" that is the key trait for him. He goes from Luther to Calvin to the Puritans to America; and, to me, that is a fairly straight line that takes just over one century.

Luther posted his theses in 1517; so that's how he gets to 500 years - by claiming that Luther was an emotional American before America existed.

As I said in the OP, I really had no problem with his narrative about the prominence of whacky religious sects in America - until he got to the 1960s. He nailed the Puritans, the Great Awakenings, the moral panics about the Masons and Illuminati, the fundamentalists, the symbiosis between the Southern Protestants and the Diehard Conferderates, the seance nonsense.

As far as his (early) narrative goes, beginning with Luther makes a lot of sense.

The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character of the book is what made me write the OP. There is a lot of good material in the book, but its used to a bad end. The tension between liking some of his material and despising his whitewash of the people in power is so bloody aggravating. But aggravation is what one expects from smart-ass preppie wordsmiths.

As far as using "America" to mean the U.S., that's a pretty common overreach. (E.g., the song "America The Beautiful".) America is much more melifluous than U.S. or United States. Call it poetic license, if you will; but I am not outraged at his use of America as shorthand for a book title.

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