Brief Review: Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

book cover

Over the last two years or so, I've made some pretty fundamental changes to my life priorities: what I spend my time on, and what I avoid. I'll have more to say about this in future articles (these changes have transformed my life for the better, so are worth discussing), but one of the biggest is the drastic reduction in time-wasting activities that used to leech away my life. The usual suspects: social networks1, video streaming, video games and aimless web browsing all had to go. Not completely in some cases, but by at least 90% in all of them. These are all things that I'm sure many of us tend to allow to control our lives, a kind of default time-filler for want of the wherewithal to do something worthwhile.

I've even cancelled all my magazine subscriptions, freeing up time to start reading actual books again. My knowledge of current events will undoubtedly greatly decrease, but frankly I no longer care; I want to focus on a few genuine interests at a deeper level, and I don't see why it's important whether or not I have a detailed understanding of (for example) the strategic implications of China's nuclear policy, or the extent of the parallels between the geopolitics of the 1930s and today. There's nothing I can do about these things2 (professionally or personally), and they serve only to increase my anxiety.

So now I've got a shortlist of books I want to read (or re-read). I haven't got any fiction in mind yet, but in non-fiction there's The Wisdom of Frugality (Westacott), various stuff by one of my early heroes Bertrand Russell, and Alan Ryan's epic two-part political philosophy tome On Politics, with plenty more to follow.

Some time ago I read a brief overview of Andersen's Fantasyland, and it seemed intriguing enough for me to give it a read. Although the book itself could have benefited from more ruthless editing for brevity, its countless examples certainly lend credibility, through sheer weight of numbers, to the author's central thesis: that one of the ways that the United States has always been exceptional is in its cultural propensity for self-delusion. The argument is that, for much of the country's history, the good (entrepreneurialism, optimism, scepticism) and bad (irrationality, religious fundamentalism, conspiracy thinking, anti-intellectualism) aspects of this proneness to fantasy remained pretty much in equilibrium and have been responsible for the United States' dynamism, but have, for the last half-century or so, increasingly become dangerously unbalanced in favour of the latter.

This historical tour takes in the entire history of the country, from the early Puritan settlers of the seventeenth century all the way up to the precarious present day situation we now find ourselves in. Along the way, we learn about everything from America's endlessly multiplying brands of religion, though patent medicines, gold rushes and Disney, until the great acceleration starting in the 1960s with hippies, academic cults and conspiracy theory, by which point the shackles were well and truly off.

Now everything's up for grabs: if you don't like some aspect of reality, simply make your own version by wishing it so! It's your birthright. Just like Americans have always made their own religions, now they make their own science, medicine, politics, economics and even history. Since there are no facts anymore, anything goes. And once you have different groups sharing this philosophy but differing in specific belief systems, you no longer have the possibility of any kind of empathy or understanding between them. Problems ensue.

The primary benefit of the book for me was as a plausible explanation of why we're in the situation we're in, but any intellectual satisfaction I derived from this was short-lived, since it just illustrates how dangerous this situation is; if increasingly powerful forces, rather than mere bad luck, are pushing us towards this abyss in a kind of positive feedback loop then it's obviously going to be difficult to turn things around.

As the book gloomily proceeds towards this inescapable conclusion, Andersen belatedly attempts to mitigate his readers' despair by suggesting reasons to be optimistic (we can spread the good news of reason among our friends and family!). Such implausible argumentation serves only to increase my desire to turn to the consolations of philosophy.

Therefore I've happily moved on to The Wisdom of Frugality, which should provide some reassuring confirmation bias of my own natural temperament, as well as serving as a gentle reintroduction to philosophy before I attempt anything more rigorous. After a couple of decades lying largely dormant, I've got to get my brain back up to speed somehow.

  1. I've recently discovered on the Mastodon network, but I think of this more as a small interest-based community rather than a social network. At least, I hope that is what it turns out to be, and in any case I just check in on the web a couple of times a day (no apps).

  2. And maybe I'll become a better person by freeing myself from the attendant anxiety and information overload inherent in attempting to keep up with global events. In any case, even the most well-read of us knows only a tiny fraction of all there is to know; I'm just drawing the line in a slightly different place.