Book Review: Fantasyland

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(For future readers: this post was written just days after pro-Trump rioters invaded the United States Capitol to try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election).

I.

Amidst the social and political disintegration of the United States, my serendipitous choice of reading material is little consolation. That said, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen might have been the single best book to begin just a week before armed right-wing extremists invaded the U.S. Capitol.

Political violence, security failures, and even democratic backsliding are by no means peculiar to the U.S., but the rioters’ delusional motivation made this extraordinary event a quintessentially American phenomenon.

Many protests - and yes, even some violent riots - are motivated by reasonable grievances arising from factual claims. Perhaps Nat Turner’s rebellion was doomed to fail or counterproductive to the cause of abolition, but his and his followers were motivated by the very real cruelty of slavery (though in perfect Andersenian fashion, Turner “was convinced that he ‘was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty’). Even ideologically-motivated violence like that of the USSR (or U.S. in Vietnam) often arises from an ethereal ideal like “equality” or “freedom” beyond the direct reach of factual verification.

II. A summary-summary

Fantasyland is an unapologetically sardonic account of America’s legacy as a home for delusion and fantasy, not just in politics and religion but also, more interestingly, in aesthetics and leisure as well.

To avoid reinventing the wheel, here are some key quotes from Wikipedia’s book summary:

Part I: The Conjuring of America: 1517–1789

  • Fantasyland contends that the earliest European settlers in what would become the United States were gold-crazed adventurers (Jamestown) and God-crazed cults (Puritans and Pilgrims)

Part II: United States of Amazing: The 1800s

  • The 19th century saw a mythologizing of the country's founding and founders, and a proliferation of religious sects

  • Occult beliefs…were common

  • The century introduced homeopathy; medical fads, and snake oil peddlers

  • Steam-powered presses spawned large-circulation newspapers and magazines with loose standards of accuracy

Part III: A Long Arc Bending Toward Reason: 1900–1960

  • Reason began fighting back: the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed… the NAACP was founded

  • On the other side, there were brief conspiracy panics [and]…nostalgia for Antebellum South spread

  • Fundamentalism in religion grew in popularity

  • Movies…became more prevalent, bringing a greater amount of fiction into people's lives. There was an explosion in advertising and modern celebrity culture.

Part IV: Big Bang: The 1960s and '70s

  • The 1960s and '70s were a time when bits of everyday life were being replaced with bits of everyday fiction, and there was a veritable explosion of woo-based ideologies taking hold

  • Woodstock, the Counterculture, and hippies encouraged free thinking and finding one's own truth

  • People could escape their mundane lives in living history theme parks, Civil War reenactments, and Renaissance fairs

  • There was a glut of theming: restaurants, malls, and architecture.

Part V: Fantasyland Scales: From the 1980s Through the Turn of the Century

Part VI: The Problem with Fantasyland: From the 1980s to the Present and Beyond

  • Fantasyland contends that two changes in American society led to modern tipping points: the counterculture of the 1960s and the Information Age.

  • The internet and world wide web permitted all manner of ideas to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information dissemination.

  • Conspiracy theories spread

  • Fundamentalist Christianity is amplified in the GOP

  • Extreme skepticism of the press is widespread as people lose immunity to false information. 

III. The Good

1. The hidden connection

Andersen’s most basic insight is his unification of disparate strands of American history and society. What unites the Salem witch trials, Disneyworld, WWE, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and the NRA? Fantasy (or perhaps more fittingly, antirealism) - for better and for worse.

This unification is particularly insightful when the elements stand in apparent opposition. The relativism of 1980s academia may have been culturally, intellectually, and ideologically distant from both left new-age spiritualism and right Christian fundamentalism of the same era, but all three trends mutually reenforced a cultural acceptance of belief as a legitimate metric of truth.

2. Reframing culture

I also appreciated Andersen’s reframing of (apparently) benign elements of American aesthetics and culture. He describes the long history of American nostalgia for some idealized past - in other words, a desire for something that does not exist and may have never existed.

For example, suburbs are a product of our simultaneous desire for modern urban amenities and a “pastoral” aesthetic and lifestyle, and from the 1980s “new skyscrapers and shopping malls and residential buildings were practically required to reproduce…styles from other eras or continents.” Likewise, Americans’ love affair with firearms and SUVs is a means of LARPing some image of the rugged outdoorsman.

An Aside: Boy Scouts

This framing shed real light on part of my childhood experience as a Boy Scout that I’ve had trouble putting into words. At an obvious level, the camping trips and outdoors/survival skills reflect a cultural appreciation of, even nostalgia for, this “rugged outdoorsman” ideal. I was already well-aware of this; if some boys like camping and building fires, the subtle historical-cultural factors at play are interesting but mostly irrelevant.

More subtly, Boy Scouts has an uncanny and jarring relationship with anachronism. Perhaps a few examples will best convey what I mean:

This aesthetic is most obvious in settings of centralized planning and organization, like the summer camps and national bases.

The point is this: the Scouts’ style and curriculum are not merely old-seeming as a byproduct of the functional intentions of the program (to teach life lessons, socialize boys, have fun, etc.). They represent a non-functional effort to recreate some supposed historical ideal, just like so many elements of American culture. A few analogous examples:

None of this is to disparage anyone who buys any of these items; I own Vans and have gone to Orioles games. At a larger level, though, it may indicate cultural preoccupation with nostalgia.

3. Combining real and fake

Fantasyland’s third interesting theme is the frequent combination of fantasy with reality or credibility, mostly as a means of lending legitimacy to the former. Conspiracy theorists go out of their way to find and present genuine evidence alongside complete fabrication. Climate deniers find (or finance) people with PhDs to go on CNN and Fox. WWE stars incorporate unplanned events in their real lives into matches’ reality-show storylines.

While such combinations need not be deceptive or harmful (as is often the case in entertainment), untruths can be much more nefarious and powerful when bestowed with undeserved credibility. There is a reason why the anti-vaccination movement massively accelerated after a paper linking vaccines to autism was published in a prestigious journal (and has since been retracted).

4. Americans believe crazy things

After point 1 above, my second biggest takeaway is that Americans believe some kinda crazy shit. I know that some people might answer polls in bad faith, and that recent political polling errors have cast doubt on the validity of other forms of polling that never have their answers checked in real life, but even still. A few examples:

  • one in nine adults, 25 or 30 million Americans, are sure they’ve “experienced/witnessed the devil/evil spirits being driven out of a person”

  • in the fall of 2016…an Economist/YouGov survey found a majority of Republicans still believed Obama probably or definitely was born in Kenya.

  • Only a third of us…believe with some certainty that CO2 emissions…are the main cause of Earth’s warming…[and] more than a third of us believe that…it’s a hoax perpetrated by a conspiracy of scientists, government, and journalists.

  • Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts.

  • A quarter believe that vaccines cause autism and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016…

These proportions remain pretty high even after we subtract Scott Alexander’s proposed 4% “lizardman constant.” Other beliefs or practices aren’t so much crazy as merely surprising, at least for someone in a liberal, educated bubble like myself:

  • A majority of Americans tell Pew they pray every day; in the rest of the developed world, those fractions are one-tenth or one fifth.

  • In early 1998, as soon as we learned that Clinton had been fellated by an intern around the Oval Office, his popularity spiked, according to the polls.

And perhaps most importantly:

When I say a third believe X or a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the U.S. population.

It’s fashionable and important to decry naive scientism and identify the hidden functions of folk wisdom (as I discussed in a previous post), but it can be easy to forget that a lot of American adults believe things far outside the intelligentsia’s Overton window.

(A thought: I can imagine some of my own beliefs/things I consider plausible being characterized as “crazy shit” by someone writing a different version of this book: panpsychism, the simulation hypothesis and concern about human extinction from AI, for example).


IV. The Bad

Some people might be put off by the author’s contemptuous tone, which I suspect is a product of Andersen’s history as a novelist and humorist. In fact, much like in Nassim Taleb’s work, this may be part and parcel of his ability to clearly and unapologetically state his case.

In comparison to his mocking of socially-harmful practices or beliefs, I’m much less sympathetic to the antipathy aimed at genuinely benign forms of leisure. Who cares that “at least a third of the people at theme parks are adults without children” or that “Walmart alone sold $200 million worth of coloring books for adults in 2016” or that folks with families and jobs go to Comic-Con or LARPs or Civil War reenactments? Life is hard enough. Let people enjoy things.

Ultimately, though, this is a matter of taste and doesn’t bear directly on any of his arguments. Here are a few more substantive disagreements or issues I have with the book:

1. Lack of Explanation

While the book’s mass of historical evidence and comparison between the U.S. and other countries makes a convincing case that fantasy/deception/pretend/subjectivism has been a persistent and important element of American culture, surprisingly little ink is spilled on explaining the more fundamental reasons why this is the case.

If I had to articulate an explanation espoused by the book, it would be that this ethos was instantiated at America’s founding by its religious fundamentalist and gold-seeking settlers, and has proliferated due to something like memetic or cultural evolution.

However, this is never stated explicitly, and other non-cultural explanations are hardly considered. For instance, Andersen at most vaguely gestures toward the theory that the U.S. has absorbed immigrants particularly genetically-predisposed to believe in myth, and thus has descendent citizens with similar inclinations. While I have no idea if this theory holds any water, there is a whole subfield of “dual inheritance theory” studying the interaction between genetic and cultural evolution.

Likewise, I can imagine many plausible economic, geographic, or political factors at play; perhaps America’s large amount of unsettled (by white people) land for much of its history was partially causally responsible. Perhaps its relative economic and political freedom and/or economic mobility (again, for some of its history and for some citizens only) was somehow causally responsible.

Maybe Andersen thinks that some or all of these things are obvious and implicit, but that’s not the sense I got from the book.

2. Out-of-hand dismissals and misrepresentations

At several points, Andersen seems to reject some concept or proposition as incorrect without due consideration or misrepresents the claims of some text, scholar, or subfield.

In particular, he dedicates most of an entire chapter to academia’s new espousal of “relativism” beginning in the 1960s, and how “postmodern intellectuals…turned out to be useful idiots for the American right.” While the symbiotic relationship between various forms of relativism and rightism is interesting and plausible, Andersen fails to even consider whether some of these intellectual “Squishies” might actually be correct.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that many propositions are definitively true or false, and even tentatively believe in some form of moral realism. However, Andersen seems to conflate some very different forms of epistemic relativism - namely, one in which a single proposition is in fact true for one observer/culture/society and false to a different one, and another (much more plausible) version in which there are no observer-independent means of ascertaining whether a statement is true or false. For a good intro to the latter position, see this 1982 paper.

It is completely possible both that the second form of relativism is correct and that it has had a negative impact on American society, but that’s not what you’d get from reading Fantasyland.

3. Excessive credulity

Perhaps my biggest issue with the book is its relatively uncritical stance towards science and expertise. In framing many harmful trends (e.g. anti-vaccination, creationist education) primarily as antithetical to institutional authority, Andersen consistently implies that experts and scientists are the “good guys” living in “Realitystan” adjacent to Fantasyland.

In many circumstances, this is basically correct; mainstream medicine, for example, is almost certainly correct that vaccines are safe and good and effective. Other times, not so much. Large segments of social science are reckoning with the realization that their fields’ empirical foundations are misleading or incorrect (and if you don’t know much about the replication crisis, I highly recommend this piece).

As has become salient recently, public health experts basically lied (or if you prefer, misrepresented the quality of evidence) about the effectiveness of masks in preventing COVID transmission, siphoning away much of their hard-earned credibility.

I also think it’s safe to say that nutrition as a field is largely in the same boat as social psychology. As Alvaro de Menard writes in “Are Experts Real?

nutrition is pretty much completely fake, yet the government dutifully informs you that you should eat tons of cereal and a couple loaves of bread every day. A USDA bureaucrat can hardly override the Scientists…

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that “Most Published Research Findings Are False” (a paper with its own Wikipedia page!)

In ignoring how institutional authority - the closest thing to the book’s protagonist - itself often lives in Fantasyland, Andersen presents a biased portrait of America’s epistemological landscape.

V. Conclusion

I’d recommend Fantasyland to anyone willing to approach it with a humble and skeptical stance, with bonus points for reading it alongside thoughtful objections to naive rationalism/empiricism/scientism (e.g. “Are Experts Real?“Relativism, Rationalism, and the Sociology of Knowledge,” and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions linked above; The Black Swan and A Secular Age).

To reiterate a point from section III, it can be easy to get caught up in these sorts of interesting and thoughtful objections. Fantasyland serves as a reminder that folk wisdom is sometimes just wrong and nonfunctional, experts and scientists often are more correct than the masses, and many of our fellow Americans believe in things like QAnon, exorcism, the causal power of prayer, and vaccine-induced-autism.

Having never enjoyed studying history in its own right (though I wish I did), this book also made for an entertaining reintroduction to many of American history’s most important social and political currents. If you want to understand the legacy behind this week’s insurrection, Fantasyland is the place to go.

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