Mocking our Make-Believe by the Sultan of Snark
Reviewed in the United States on 11 August 2018
Having read a gushing review in The Atlantic, I was looking forward to reading Fantasyland: How America went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Written by Kurt Andersen and published in 2017, Fantasyland has the potential to tick off two-thirds of adult Americans, from squishy relativists, video game addicts and survivalists to end-time rapture brigaders, Star Wars/Trek nerds, devotees of intelligent design and many battalions of (already ticked off) Trump voters.
Midway through, I was poised to give Fantasyland a five-star rating. After a good bit of reflection – much more than this reviewer usually invests in a read – the score has been downgraded.
It isn’t that Prosperity Gospel hustlers, Old Testament bigots and 6,000 year-old earth adherents aren’t worthy of scorn and a proper skewering. They are.
Andersen addresses the giant themes of religious belief-as-anti-reason throughout the book. To his credit, he includes human potential movements and their true believers in his critique, throwing scores of his fellow baby boomers under the bus, mocking their Dianetics pamphlets, men’s drumming circles and healing crystals. Andersen finds general differences between large groups of Western religious believers and grades them accordingly. Jews and Catholics get a pass (sort of), Mormons are viciously skewered, and Protestants are graded on a curve. It is unfortunate that Andersen does not acknowledge one of the primary reasons for possessing religious faith: that there is potential for a joyous life after death, one that promises to be superior in every aspect to the actual one being lived in the present. That promise, illusory, elusive – all right, irrational - brings millions to pews on Sunday morning. Countless more tune in to religious broadcasts, hoping, praying, maybe still halfway believing in The Rapture. We agnostics, atheists and Unitarians can choose to respect those belief systems, hoping for a measure of reciprocation, or we can unleash sneering condensation in the manner of Richard Dawkins or the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Babe Ruth was the Sultan of Swat. Dire Straits recorded the Sultan of Swing. As regards matters of individual religious belief, Kurt Andersen is the Sultan of Snark.
There is one prominent theme that does not fit his Fantasyland paradigm; our post-World War II movement to the suburbs. Millions of Americans have moved from small towns, farms and inner cities to suburbs for very rational reasons: less crime, more green spaces, better performing public schools, compatible neighbors. We haven’t done so in pursuit of some little house on the prairie fantasy life. Andersen gives us a proper east coast progressive scolding, waiting until page 321 to share the real reasons behind his contempt for suburbanites. “Take the soft fantasies that underlay our monomaniacal suburbanization of the last seventy years” he writes. “Aesthetics and the illusions of pastoral life aside, they wound up creating a highly problematic national dependence on cars and oil, made commutes too long and too many good jobs too far away from where workers live, and encouraged people to become unnecessarily overweight and therefore unnecessarily expensive for society to keep alive.”
And there you have it: suburbanites drive cars – worse, SUVs and trucks. They – we – drive to work and back, to the grocery store and pharmacy, to hobby stores and soccer practices. They – we - hog all the good jobs in the city where the more deserving people live and get fat in the process and – to top it off – use more than our share of health care. We must have a time out and forego our afternoon whole wheat cracker and think about what we’ve done.
Most of the rest of the book is worth the purchase price. Fantasyland is chock full of delightful observations about our 21st century Civil War re-enactment world. There are spot-on observations about our national obsession with conspiracy theories, a topic worthy of a non-academic oriented book all its own. What do you say, Kurt?
A lot of our trips to Fantasyland represent nothing more than a re-prioritization of our leisure time. Quite a few of our fathers and grandfathers spent many an hour at the corner tavern hoisting a cold one (or seven), a pack of unfiltered Camels within easy reach. Their children and grand-children have discovered different leisure pursuits, most not involving alcohol or tobacco.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my SimLeague baseball teams. One of them is only four games behind the wild-card leader and we can make the post-season if our corner outfielders can just step up their offensive production.
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