by Lawrence Bush
Discussed in this essay: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, by Kurt Andersen. Random House, 2017, 462 pages.
WHEN MY SON Jonah was about 8, he articulated his first generalization about human beings, based on his perceptions of our none-too-diverse community in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York. “Dad,” he said, “I think there are two kinds of people: Shoprite people and food co-op people.” His mother, he said, was mostly food co-op, while I, he said — after pausing to look me over and consider — was “kind of both.”
And which kind did he prefer? “Shoprite, definitely,” he said. Why so? Because, I explained to his heartbroken mother, Jonah was surrounded by food co-op types — our friends — who used to foist carob candy on him instead of chocolate!
I felt honored by Jonah’s view of things, because I was, in fact, proudly “non-food co-op.” I gave my kids fluoride treatments, while my friends let their kids’ teeth rot (carob alternatives and all). I vaccinated my kids, because I refused to believe that our nice family doctor was in league with some Big Pharma conspiracy. I refused all homeopathic remedies. I also rejected mystery stories about telepathy, enlightenment, levitation, animal spirits, and all-knowing gurus told by the likes of Ram Dass, Carlos Castaneda, Maharaj Ji the 14-Year-Old Perfect Master, and other psychedelic heroes or Hindu savants, because they seemed little different to me, in anything but idiom, from the miraculous healing stories told by Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and other Christian charlatans.
In general, I embraced science as a path of knowledge that uniquely allows human beings to transcend our superstitious intuitions to gain access to truth and power. I rejected the idea that science and capitalism were one and the same, and that scientists were participating, en masse, in a conspiracy to defraud the public of “alternative” knowledge in order to serve their corporate masters.
In short, I was an old-fashioned skeptic among the baby boomers. I’d been raised by Communist parents, including a pharmacist father who wrote a column for his union newspaper about frauds and quackery in the medical field. I was a subscriber to The Skeptical Inquirer, despite its overwhelming dullness, and I championed the Albert Einstein paradigm of the scientist as world citizen and noble truth-teller, rather than my generation’s A-bomb-stoked paradigm of the scientist as Victor von Frankenstein.
None of this made me popular within my community, which consisted mostly of food co-opists and other gentle, progressive people. When I resisted their entreaties to bring my kids to a chiropractor, or when I broke out a Hershey Bar, or when I giggled about the racket that Swami Satchidananda was running, I was variously cast as spiritually obtuse, closed-minded, a capitalist toady, a sexist (for arguing in a full male voice), or, at best, an eccentric.
That’s why I valued my 8-year-old son’s opinion quite highly. And it’s why I’ve really enjoyed reading Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland — a 500-year history, told in Wikipedia-length snippets, of American gullibility and religious fanaticism.
ANDERSEN’S BOOK is both overlong and superficial, but filled with the kinds of anecdotes about American history that make for great dinnertime or car-travel conversation:
• About phrenology, the diagnosis of health and character through examination of the skull through the scalp — “Every city and many towns had practitioners” in the 19th century, writes Andersen (without even exploring how phrenology joined with eugenics by the late decades of the century to give “scientific” footing to racism).
• About conspiracy theories about Freemasons — “They were said to be debauched, depraved, satanic operators of a hidden government,” writes Andersen (without mentioning how antisemitism and anti-Mason conspiracy theories were often linked).
• About Buffalo Bill Cody’s vast influence as myth-maker of the American West, yet his bid to bring his Wild West Show to Chicago’s 1893 Columbia Exposition was turned down, even while, in half a year, the Exposition hosted more than 27 million of America’s 65 million people, “for whom there must have been one big takeaway: fantasy seems superior to reality,” writes Andersen (without mentioning the Midway, an amusements section of the Chicago fair developed by Sol Bloom, 23, who later in life would write the first words of the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations).
• About the role of Oprah Winfrey in capturing America’s attention and then giving legitimating endorsements to Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Eckhart Tolle, and numerous other crusaders against rationalism; about UFO-ology, and how much it was shaped by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and television’s X-Files series; about the mainstreaming of the John Birch Society and its global-government conspiracy theories; about the public hysteria in the 1980s and ’90s about the alleged satanic sexual abuse of children and “recovered memories,” which resulted in the false imprisonment of dozens of people for decades . . .
Indeed, Andersen presents a portrait of a country so buffeted for centuries by waves of fraud, so hopelessly addled by Christian fundamentalism, so highly suspicious of the very science that has actually created real miracles of technology and medicine, and so fractured, now, into camps of fantasists and realists — a fracturing that goes way beyond “Shoprite versus food co-op” — that his work can only cultivate political despair, especially now that Donald Trump has obliterated the thin wall between politics and entertainment. Andersen fails to paint a picture, or even a stick-figure sketch, of what an America brought to its senses might look like, or which institutions could help overcome our national insanity. The net result is that his book becomes more of a brief for acquiring Canadian citizenship than a blueprint for making America sane again.
THE MAJOR GRIPE for progressives about Fantasyland, however, has been that Andersen counts the 1960s counterculture as part and parcel of the problem. Though he admits to playing with psychedelic drugs and to “dropping out,” Henry Thoreau-style, for a year, his treatment of the period is even more glib than the rest of his book, and he fails to give true respect to the amazing social progress made by the civil rights, feminist, anti-war, anti-imperialist, and environmental movements (with the gay rights movement close on their heels). Given his lack of a “baseline” vision of national sanity, Andersen is carelessly dismissive of countercultural values — anti-authoritarianism, sexual liberation, freeing the mind of inherited biases, seeking pleasure as a legitimate purpose in life — so he often comes off as a fuddy-duddy, not just a skeptic.
Andersen’s book also greatly underplays the constant betrayal of the American dream by the capitalist system — a betrayal that consistently thwarts our political movements and diverts their “build a better world” energies onto utopian and religious pathways. He also underestimates the volcanic power of racism in the U.S., how much it has influenced some of America’s most dangerous myth-making (our obsession with guns, our home-schooling fads, our paranoia, our constant rejiggering of religious denominations, our know-nothing fear of foreigners, our obsession with female “purity,” our bellicosity, our mythicizing of “race”).
Nevertheless, I found Fantasyland to be a worthy contribution to the literature of secularism and skepticism — and the kind of popular history-writing that seeks to explain what’s going wrong, deeply wrong, with our country.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents. For another perspective on Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland, click here.