That would be my satisfactory one word review if I liked this book. But I loved this book, so I want to say more about it.


America is batshit crazy. That is the premise of Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Note that haywire is the premise, haywire is the starting fact. If you’re good with that, then this book walks you through the entire history of the USA as seen through the lens of all that crazy which has, according to the book, been building up in the collective soul of the nation like Alzheimer’s plaques aggregating in Ronald Reagan’s neurons.

For over 400 dense but expertly crafted pages, Andersen fires away with astonishing historical trivia clearly illustrating that the USA has been doing some idiosyncratically wacky stuff ever since before it officially existed. He goes into detail about the kinds of people who, throughout history, were motivated to come to the New World and/or move west in it: get-rich-quick gold dreamers and religious nuts basically. Wave after wave of them.

He does a nice job of showing how the USA is some kind of weird hybrid offspring of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. Protestantism basically was the rejection of the more inconvenient wacky crazed superstitious nonsense promulgated by God’s special man in Rome. But once that door was open two things were possible. First, the Enlightenment where some of those less credulous believers started to take things to the next level: well, if papal indulgences, etc., are a load of pope-serving nonsense, maybe some of the other crazy stuff the religious leaders say is clergy-serving nonsense too. In fact, thought many influential Enlightenment thinkers, maybe the whole thing is a ridiculous con. So far so good with the Enlightenment.

But that same spirit of debugging dogma had another odd quirky direction it could take. Instead of asking "is all this legacy nonsense really necessary?" some newfangled Protestants were asking "shouldn’t we be adding more nonsense?" Not just something more extreme, but more wacky. The reason for this is that one of the Protestant key points was that special magical people (priests, cardinals, etc.) who stand between you and God are probably going to do a bad job. True enough! So the Protestants said, hey everyone should read the Bible themselves, interact with God, and interpret the resulting hallucinations in their own special way. In these times long before antipsychotic drugs, it seems some people really went crazy with this. The most obnoxious ones were treated like obnoxious people normally are and they finally felt enough pressure to leave civilization and the company of the not-so-obnoxious people. This was the prototypical American, the Puritan.

Of course moving to a hostile wilderness was no holiday and all the obnoxious people who were lazy and weak were weeded out. Additionally survivorship bias gave the colonists who did not die of indigenous diseases and hardships reason to double down on their belief in God’s providence. Eventually in the early days of white settlement in the American colonies, the population skewed towards obnoxious magical thinkers who were motivated, capable, eccentric, and lucky.

What about that Enlightenment? Wasn’t that doing some good? Sure. I didn’t say every early American was a witch burning religious nut. A lot of people leaned toward Christianity-lite deism which believed in the rough moral ideas of religion (it’s super uncool to kill thy neighbor) but not Christ’s putative fantastical magic acts.

For much of my life I have had the explicitly stated philosophy that the religion and crazy thinkings and beliefs of others are fine by me if for all intents and purposes they don’t affect me. That was how I conceptualized the limits of my religious tolerance. One of the main exemplars of the reduced magic deist way of thinking, Thomas Jefferson, was typical of the exact same American spirit of cautious latitude towards religious nuttiness. He had a more delightfully poetic way of putting it, "But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." With such an almost aggressively laid back attitude, the America project was officially started. Of course making such an attitude the literal Rule Number One gave great encouragement to people who were inclined to think up all kinds of crazy humbug. Maybe it’s the American side of me, but I am actually sympathetic to that; I feel the alternative of repression is worse.

Ideas find currency or they fade into obscurity. Richard Dawkins likened this process to biological evolution. Just as natural selection determines the outcomes of genes (a fact Andersen’s book points out is not believed by most Americans), Dawkins believed there was a cultural evolution for ideas, "memes" as he called them in this context. Back to the early USA and there are several mimetic possibilities to consider. First, perhaps the environment for ridiculous nonsensical memes was just better in America because of the temperament of Americans. Or, perhaps when there is a meme explosion under a regime of very free thinking, crazy memes are generated slightly more often. In a bubbling cauldron of absurd ideas, if you stoke the fire and get way more crazy ideas than other systems of governance, it is not axiomatic that the same cauldron will produce a commensurate amount of good sense that will keep the crazy stuff in check. There are lots of reasons that crazy American thinking could be exceptional.

Andersen’s book doesn’t get into that kind of analysis, but what it does do is catalog the entire history of all those wingnut memes which have had important and profound effects on the nation. And wow. It’s jaw dropping. And it’s not just batshit insanity that’s a problem here. Americans are super creative, make no mistake. Plausibly semi-sane American things like P.T. Barnum, Hollywood, Broadway, Vaudeville, the CIA, role playing games, novels, theme parks, modern Halloween, comics, paintball, advertising, sports, drugs, pornography, video games, etc., etc., purposefully do a stupendously good job of intermingling reality and fantasy.

This tendency to make fantasies as real as possible and the real as fantastic as possible is a quintessential American speciality. The imagination of Americans is awesome. The kind of awesome that puts dudes on the moon (or fakes it convincingly enough for me). The real point of the book is that when you have people busy working on making the mundane seem fantastic (e.g. all of advertising) and others working on making fantasies seem real (e.g. Hollywood) at some point they collide. The book makes a good case that we are seeing that now. Fake news. Reality TV. If you had to say if thing things on Facebook were ostensibly true or false, how would you even answer that?

Kurt Andersen isn’t some yokel. His writing is practiced and immaculate, yet quite lively and entertaining. It’s easy to imagine him graduating from Harvard (no longer pursuing its original mission to teach magical thinking) with honors (he did). Indeed, it is superlative prescience that he was so deep into writing this book when the apotheosis of the fantasy-reality chimera came to dominate our cultural bandwidth.

The reason this book is so topical and important is that so many people are looking at the state of the nation and basically asking, WTF? Americans couldn’t do any better than a guy like Donald Trump? Seriously? If you’re gobsmacked by the nature of the guy in office and trying to make sense of it, this book is a huge help. (I bet you are a bit in shock about the state of the nation if you’re literate enough to read a book!) It goes a long way towards explaining exactly just WTF.

And it’s not a neat tidy deal. We can’t just say that the bad people did some silly things and if we push back on that, it will all be good. How much sensational (false? false-ish?) awesomeness do you want in your news, for example? How much social media (useless depressing crap?) do you want? How much reality TV? How much celebrity? Well, the people are speaking on these issues and at this point cutting back to a more realism-based perspective isn’t looking too likely.

It’s not even enough to wish for "the truth" and a return to reality-based thinking. This new breed of Russian mail order presidents makes things very complicated. When Trump makes crazy statements that, in the real world, are patently false and gets called out for them, he simply claims that any criticism is "fake news". This reminds me a lot of logic puzzles where one guard always lies and one always tells the truth and you have to figure out which is which when one says "the other guard does not lie". Those puzzles are puzzling! Requiring the populace to constantly be thinking like that is a non-starter.

So we have a "leader" who is so entertaining (like Darth Vader) that he dominates the attention of the entire nation. Politics became entertainment, fantasy. And this government, now unmoored from reality, is a new realm. Fantasyland.

UPDATE 2018-01-29 Don’t think we’re on the other side of the looking glass? Check out this astonishing Tweet from God’s special man in Rome!

There is no such thing as harmless disinformation; trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.

Pope Francis
— 2018-01-24 0330

The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth.

Pope Francis
— 2018-01-24 0830