If you are confused and irritated by all the recent hoopla about “fake news,” “alternate facts,” and “reality-based communities” (as opposed to “unreality-based communities”), then you need to read and think deeply about Kurt Andersen’s very interesting and thought-provoking new book, FANTASYLAND: HOW AMERICA WENT HAYWIRE: A 500-YEAR HISTORY (Random House, 2017).
Although I haven’t finished the entire book yet, I did read Andersen’s lengthy overview in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine. According to Andersen, our fake news mania has a rather lengthy American history and he sets out to show how all sorts of alternate-fact-based beliefs have shaped our identity over the years.
A central thesis of Andersen’s book is that “Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes-relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.” For a pop culture fan like myself, Anderson’s book is required reading because it examines so many fads and trends that reflect our devotion to the outlandish and the downright bizarre.
Andersen believes the road to Fantasyland has been defined by “two momentous changes” that have taken place in the last half century or so–although these changes were a long time coming, and find their origins in the founding of our nation and even before (Andersen begins his book with a section entitled “The Conjuring Of America: 1517-1789). The first shift occurred during the much-maligned and much-misunderstood decade of the 1960s, the whipping boy of many historians, politicians, and pundits of all persuasions. Ever since that crazy decade, “Americans . . . have had a new rule set in their mental operating systems, even if they’re certain they possess the real truth. Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.” The second turning (and no-turning-back) point is represented by the exponential growth of online media and communications. Whereas older fantasies, conspiracy theories, and reality distortion took place in the world of snail mail, commercial TV, mostly confined and somewhat isolated communities, and “real” newspapers, these kinds of things are now magnified, distorted, and disseminated in ways never before possible by social media and 24/7 information and entertainment streaming. As a result, our world is more and more resembling an episode of Reality TV, where the lines between fact and fiction are rapidly disappearing. “The world looks a little more like a movie set,” says Andersen, “and seems a little more exciting and glamorous, like Hitchcock’s definition of drama–life with the dull bits cut out.”
Needless to say, the parameters that define Fantasyland have been responsible for many conflicts and contentions in our history. For example, Andersen very accurately describes the Civil War as “The War Between States Of Mind,” which is as accurate a description as we are likely to find of what happened to us in the 1860s. The war that resulted in the deaths of nearly one million Americans is thus best explained as a war between two conceptions of reality that eventually became irreconcilable. The 1920s (popularly known as the “Roaring Twenties”) provides us with a treasure-trove of alternate realities, from the ways in which the automobile changed our conceptions of travel and family to the rise of all sorts of fads and belief systems. Perhaps the most important development during that decade when it comes to alternate realities is the growth of Hollywood and the movie industry. During the 1920s, “most of the most famous Americans were not politicians or military men or writers or painters but actors–people renowned for pretending to be people they weren’t . . . .Movie stars were a new species of fantasy figure, demigods among us, beings whom the news media allowed us more than ever to imagine we practically knew.”
One of my favorite sections in Andersen’s book is focused on the late Sixties and early Seventies when we were led deeper into Fantasyland by a host of books, movies, music, and pop culture personalities that wowed us (and took our money) with bestsellers about ancient astronauts, the “greening of America,” alien abductions, religion with and without church, miracle diets, opening our minds with LSD, and hundreds of ways to get in touch with your true feelings. If you saw the last episode of “Mad Men” you saw a capsule summary of just how hokey all this stuff became.
I particularly enjoyed Anderson’s analysis of a book that I once-upon-a-time fell hook-line-and-sinker for. I’m talking about Charles Reich’s pop culture history textbook THE GREENING OF AMERICA, published in 1970, that gave us a very simplistic yet believable history of the United States from the late nineteenth century up through the 1970s. Reich’s contention that the two mindsets that had dominated our history from the 1880s up through the mid-1960s (“Consciousness I” and “Consciousness III,” both dedicated to the values of an industrial and corporatized society that surrendered the freedom of the individual to the all-encompassing authority of the state) was on the verge of being replaced by the dawn of a new era–”Consciousness III”–which would be ushered in by bands of young people wearing tie-dyed shirts and denim jeans (no doubt manufactured in a corporate factory) and accompanied by anti-establishment rock music. Of course, I envisioned myself as part of this band, and still wish Reich’s visions had come true a little more realistically. But, alas, this didn’t happen, and his book, along with Hal Lindsey’s related book of paranoid prophecy, THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, ended up on the discount shelves of bookstores across the land. I still have my original copy of Reich’s book, however, and often take in down from the shelf when I experience rare moments of nostalgic weakness. After all, this was my alternate reality touchstone when I was a little younger than Taylor Swift.
Read Andersen’s book. And be sure to start with the index for a preview of what you have in store.
See you next week with some real news.