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IS AMERICA EXCEPTIONALLY ECCENTRIC?
Discussed in this essay: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, by Kurt Andersen. Random House, 2017, 462 pages.
THE FANTASYLAND that is the subject of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland is, of course, America. And not just today’s alternative-fact America and its truth-challenged president, but America since its foundation. As Andersen writes: “Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanations, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.” We are a credulous people, he maintains, ready to take our wishes for reality, and even worse, to act on them as if they are real.
Credulity and solipsism are at the heart of being American, says Andersen, “because 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.” The ultimate result of this was the Trump presidency, but it is not an aberration, he insists, rather a natural outgrowth of the American world view.
Andersen’s tour d’horizon of American history is on its surest ground when it deals with America and religiosity, where our case is truly exceptional. He gleefully skewers the claims for the freedom-loving nature of the religious founders of colonies in New England, the Puritan settlers, whom he dismisses succinctly: “America was founded by a nutty religious cult,” the hardest core of the hardcore English religious zealots.
The colonies -- mainly the northern ones, the southern having been founded on a commercial and not religious basis -- would pass through periods of repressing religious dissidents against the now ruling former dissidents against religious authority. Their priests and rulers would threaten fire and brimstone and execute witches.
Despite the Enlightenment reasonableness of our Founding Fathers, religious extremism regularly reared its head in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Millerite predictions of the end of the world, and the batty founding of Mormonism and Christian Science -- all possible because the American version of Protestantism allowed any opinion to be viewed as true. This religious intellectual free-for-all would, over the centuries, grow and nourish our tendency to fantasy, and would in our time take over one of our major parties and throw it and the country off the rails.
BUT WHEN Andersen throws homeopathy, phrenology, and mesmerism into the mix as signs of a fundamental American tendency towards the unreal, he waters down his thesis. All of them were European imports, and were every bit as popular, widespread, and foolish in Europe as they were in America. Indeed, the case for the anti-Enlightenment, anti-rational nature of mesmerism was made thoroughly and convincingly about its French appearance in Robert Darnton’s great Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968). That Americans fell for such pseudo-sciences bespeaks an attraction for the irrational, but doesn’t in any way demonstrate that we were unique in our affection for hucksters and mountebanks, that we turned our backs on Enlightenment ideas and science in any way particular to us. In these areas, we are no more foolish than others -- but that is not what Andersen is trying to prove.
Similar criticism can be leveled at his sour tone when discussing the countercultural 1960s and the intellectuals who fostered postmodernism, deconstructionism, moral relativity, and other contemporary vacillations about "meaning." Andersen here sounds a good deal more like Alan Bloom and Dinesh Desouza than he would probably feel comfortable with, as he describes the 1960s and its upheavals as a main culprit in the disintegration of American sanity and cohesion.
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.
It is undeniable that the eternal verities (which interestingly enough, Andersen never sets forth: What would his more reasonable, more secular, more consensual America actually look like?) took a hammering in the 1960s and '70s. The rebirth of creationism against the stances of moderate Protestant groups is a response to the 1960s, however, not part of the liberation of the 1960s. There’s a distinction there that Andersen misses in lumping everything together.
IN PLACES, Andersen seems not to have read his own book. However looney the Oral Roberts’ of the world might be, Andersen establishes clearly that they are the latest avatar of earlier editions of religious mania, the mania of the Mathers, of Joseph Smith, of Mary Baker Eddy, of Aimee Semple McPherson. Christian fundamentalism might have grown in the 1960s -- along with Eastern mysticism and the democratizing political trends of the decade -- but their coincidence doesn’t make them equivalent, nor products of the same spirit. Andersen is correct in saying that “during and after the 1960s and '70’, supernatural beliefs intensified, proliferated, and achieved permanent traction.” But as events like the Second Great Awakening that straddled the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries and the periodic recrudescence of religiosity Andersen outlines show, it is not in the least certain that “[f]or three hundred years in America, the overall Christian trendline had been in the direction of moderation.” The popularity of early 20th-century Bible thumpers like Billy Sunday hardly bespeaks a turn to moderation on the part of Christianity that has been only lately reversed. Andersen spends page after page proving American Protestantism is a hive of nuts and always has been --and then decides it is mainly now that this is the case.
Similarly, 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.
If facts get in the way of Andersen’s theses, they are simply ignored. Again as part of his war on the 1960s he informs us that prior to that decade “Hollywood hadn’t given Jesus Christ a lot of screen time.” The many examples from the silent era that go counter to his case, like King of Kings and Ben Hur (subtitled ‘A Tale of the Christ); that Christianity was the heart of Quo Vadis; that a rather putrid Christianity features in Griffith’s Intolerance, doesn’t fit Andersen’s chronology, and so they get ignored.
ONE COULD CRITICIZE almost every page in Fantasyland. Andersen doesn’t present arguments, he issues proclamations as to what things signify. Speaking of living history museums like Old Sturbridge Village and Plimouth Plantation and various period locales, he describes them as “P.T. Barnum’s descendants with advanced degrees and none of his winks about humbug.” This is simply cheap and lazy. Maybe, just maybe, instead of viewing historical sites that “do first person” (actors and guides "in character") and historical reenactments as worthy of mockery, and rather than reducing everything to obeying “the imperatives of show business,” Andersen might view these parks and historic homes as representing a desire to connect to the past, to connect to our past in a physical way, to see and not just read about the lives of our ancestors. There are many worse ways to spend one’s leisure time than at a reenactment of the battle of Bull Run, and no one attending such an event thinks it “blur[s] the line between the fictional and the real.” They know those are not real Rebs fighting real Yanks, but when they leave the reenactment and the battlefield park they know more about American history than they did a few hours before. Andersen can sneer to his heart’s content, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
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.
Fantasyland is a bestseller, and I’m happy for Andersen, a man I respect who has written a book I don’t. It is a sour, cheap, facile compendium of complaints. Reading it is like sitting in a coffee shop with an annoying friend who lives to kvetch. Claiming to have understood everything, Andersen has understood little or nothing; this is a huckster’s Bible, a way for its readers to feel superior to the boobs and losers described within. He whines about everything -- about women dyeing their hair, about cosmetic surgery, about Comic-Con, about adults celebrating Halloween, about video games, the Internet (!!!), the “treacly term ‘kids of all ages’…” I hate many of these things myself, but they are not signs of the apocalypse. Fantasyland does not explain how we got to a point where our president can praise good (white) NASCAR drivers against (evil) black football players.
For all its attacks on the 1960s, the point of Fantasyland is that all of our nation’s historical stupidity leads us to Trump and the current state of the Republican Party, a party ruled by fantasy and its Evangelical Christian foot soldiers. A fantasy vision of the world certainly is part of this, but that fantasy grows in real soil, the soil of racism, xenophobia, and hatred of anything not white and Christian. This is the ugly truth about America, and it’s not nearly as amusing or as likely to end up on the bestseller list as the one presented in Fantasyland.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.