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Reality, to an American, is whatever he damn well says it is.
Kurt's book is an entertaining, wonderfully-written exploration of this thesis. He makes the case that this attitude is the core of what it is to be American. Is it?
America is, by far, the most "Christian" nation on Earth. Christianity is the ultimate conspiracy theory whose heroes are lionized precisely because they challenge "the establishment". They find their own truth. They know it's true because of "faith", not facts. By nature of its internal logic, it tends to become "establishment", then endlessly spin-off "anti-establishment" clones of itself, each "crazier than thou". Ultimately, we wind up with Mormonism, Scientology, and President Donald Trump.
The account makes sense as far as it goes, but, in the interests of keeping to his theme, perhaps Anderson is guilty of a bit of cherry picking. By his own statistics, belief in crazy religion and politics is strongly correlated with being white and uneducated. Religion of any kind, let alone he kooky versions, are not appealing to young college graduates. It is more accurate to speak of polarization than a hopeless slide into fantasy. Right now, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, but there are powerful counter-trends that deserve a book of their own.
The dark influence of kooky religions is the rule rather than the exception around the world. Viewed from a historical perspective, there is little to chose between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as depicted in the Old Testament. One is tempted to think that magical, counter-factual thinking is the natural state of mankind. Paying attention to the actual facts is difficult and often unpleasant. It is hard to find a place or period in history when "fake news" did not have a powerful effect on public opinion. Napoleon, for example, was famous for ensuring his own version of the facts were the ones that became common knowledge and, ultimately, history.
I'm also reminded of
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone
which documents the fact that we over-estimate what we really "know" about the world, whether we are hard-core "realists" or babbling charismatics. Anderson takes for granted that the vast majority of Americans (or any human beings) have access to some kind of objective reality. In fact, the dreadful American educational system guarantees that the average American has no idea of what a "fact" would look like. It is certainly worth asking if America's terrifying slide off the rails is due to its inability to think clearly as it is to its obsession with entertainment. Anderson ignores the fact that the Internet has also become a fire-hose of actual, factual information as well as a siren call for lazy people seeking confirmation bias. It's too early to say whether the Internet is a cancer or a cure.
All this is not to say that Anderson's book is not worth reading. America does have a case to answer for its deliberate, active and often enthusiastic attack on those whose professional careers depend on adding to our store of objective truth. To cite one small example: all candidates for the Republican presidential nomination either denied evolution or allowed belief to be optional - a matter of opinion. From this denial flows denial of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and physics. In fact, all of science. It is a claim that each of us is entitled to his own facts.
What Anderson seems to miss is that Trump and the Republicans are a laughing stock in the rest of the world and an embarrassment to the majority of Americans. There is nothing inevitable about America's current slide into the morass of "alternate facts".
This is an enlightening and wonderfully entertaining book. The writing style reminds me of Sara Vowell, and (like Vowell) Andersen takes us through history in a fascinating and lively way that eluded my high school history teachers. But, unlike Vowell, he has a unified and intriguing thesis throughout: American wackiness has been bred into our collective DNA from the beginning (well, not my DNA; I'm Canadian), so phenomena like Trump and Sarah Palin shouldn't come as such a surprise.
Not so much. Kurt Andersen nimmt einen mit auf eine irrwitzige, kurzweilige und unterhaltsame Zeitreise durch die Geschichte der Vereinigten Staaten, von der Besiedlung Virginias durch Goldsucher und Proto-Kapitalisten und Neu-Englands durch die christlich-fundamentalistischen Pilgrims, welche beide bis heute Hauptstränge des amerikanischen Charakters bilden, bis zum Aufstieg Amerikas zum Magneten für die Abenteuerlustigen, Individualisten, irren Christen, Snake-oil sellers, con-men und Waffennarren dieser Welt und der in der Zeit nach dem Krieg entstandenen Fantasy-Kultur die zunehmen den gesunden Realitätssinn überlagert. Fantasyland ist das Resultat aus über 200 Jahren Versuch, das Sein der Realität dem Sollen der Wünsche und Vorstellungen der jeweils individuellen Ideologien anzupassen. Phantastic! Donald Trump bildet dabei nur einen (vorläufigen) Höhepunkt dieser Entwicklung ab, die seit den 60er Jahren des 20. Jahrhunderts noch einmal einen ganz eigenen drive erhalten hat. Man darf gespannt, ob das Amerika der Realisten am Ende doch noch über das Amerika der Phantasten triumphiert. Derzeit sieht es leider nicht danach aus, doch die Hoffnung stirbt bekanntlich zuletzt.
I really wanted to recommend his book but I can't. While the scope, ambition and research of Anderson's book is admirable, I was ultimately left disappointed when I finished this. At times, particularly in the early chapters, the book reads more almost like an annotated bibliography where religious movements and key figures are introduced but never really flushed out in terms of a linkage to the overall intent of the work. In this regard, the book is a victim of its scope, never having enough space to flush things out before moving on to the next example. There is also a hint of unintended American exceptionalism in a lot of points of Anderson's argument that left me unconvinced. Whether it's certain religious sects, alternative movements (particularly the section on the 60s Hippies etc...) or intellectual trends, Anderson use of some of his key examples take for granted that they are somehow unique to America when that was most certainly not the case. There's also an underlying snideness in the tone of the book that appears to an unintended consequence of Anderson fighting the good fight against "post-fact" thinking and 'you do you' philosophy which I found quite off-putting.
Most important book on American culture. To understand how Trump became possible in America this book explains the factors that make a country such and only in America could it happen and did. Written the year before Trump was elected, remarkable how right on target it is, it’s still surreal that Kurt Andersen knew what he knew of this country. But, lord does it clear up, “ why are Trump supporters so stupid”, it’s called conditioning. Make believe is the core and gives you insight and compassion for a people so full of promise that it could possibly be their undoing.
Fantasyland is a fantastic read. If you've found yourself wondering how a great nation like the United States found itself with Donald Trump at the helm, read this book. Anderson clearly did a massive amount of research for this book and then put that into an immensely entertaining, insightful and truly remarkable piece of work. I came away with a much deeper understanding of U.S. history and, more importantly the American psyche. As enlightening as the book is, it also left me deeply concerned about the state of the States and the world we all inhabit.