Fan­ta­sy­land: How Amer­ica Went Hay­wire

The Week (US) - - 22 - By Kurt An­der­sen

(Ran­dom House, $30) No, Kurt An­der­sen’s lat­est book is not specif­i­cally about the Trump era, said Kevin Can­field in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. An­der­sen, a nov­el­ist, NPR ra­dio host, and founder of Spy mag­a­zine, be­gan dig­ging into Amer­ica’s propen­sity for mass delu­sion two years be­fore Trump an­nounced his White House bid, and our 45th pres­i­dent fig­ures promi­nently only in the last chap­ter. Still, An­der­sen’s “rous­ing” his­tory of huck­ster­ism and cred­u­lous­ness proves “a per­sua­sive work of di­ag­nos­tic jour­nal­ism.” In An­der­sen’s view, Amer­i­cans have in­sisted on their right to be­lieve what­ever they want since the Pil­grims sighted Ply­mouth Rock, and the coun­try’s foun­da­tional com­mit­ment to reli­gious free­dom has metas­ta­sized in re­cent decades into a dan­ger­ous pen­chant for em­brac­ing lies and fan­tasies. Hold on tight, though, be­cause An­der­sen has a hum­ming­bird mind, and “it can be hard to keep up.” When you fin­ish and close the book, how­ever, you’ll see past and present “con­nected by an in­vis­i­ble thread,” said Hanna Rosin in The New York Times. Those noble Pil­grims, An­der­sen re­minds us, were “a nutty reli­gious cult”; they vowed to hang any Quak­ers who got in their way and they in­sisted that feel­ing some­thing to be true made it so. Plenty of com­mer­cial huck­sters—from P.T. Bar­num to Oprah Win­frey—also march across the book’s pages, and 1960s nar­cis­sists and rel­a­tivists are blamed for pro­mot­ing a find-yourown-re­al­ity ethos that kicked Amer­ica’s delu­sion­ary im­pulse into over­drive. Still, An­der­sen’s anal­y­sis “goes wide rather than deep.” He makes a strong case that our cul­ture, with all its con­spir­acy the­o­rists, plas­tic surgery ad­dicts, and peo­ple who talk to an­gels, has lost its grip on re­al­ity. But it’s hard to share An­der­sen’s con­fi­dence that we’re ca­pa­ble of reel­ing in the crazy.

But An­der­sen is at least as delu­sional as most of his tar­gets, said James Bow­man in The Weekly Stan­dard. Though some of his in­dict­ments are de­served, he winds up la­bel­ing as fan­ta­sists ev­ery­one who’s not a sec­u­lar­ist and pro­gres­sive; he suf­fers, in short, from “the fan­tasy of the in­tel­lec­tual that of all the ri­val sys­tems com­pet­ing for our at­ten­tion, his alone is re­al­ity-based.” In blam­ing Chris­tian be­lief for spawn­ing all of Amer­ica’s for­ays into mag­i­cal think­ing, he “could not be more wrong,” said David Jimenez in TheFed­er­al­ist.com. If any­thing, the post-1960 col­lapse of main­stream re­li­gion has en­cour­aged the pro­lif­er­a­tion of loony al­ter­na­tive world­views. “Ul­ti­mately, con­spir­acy the­o­ries and fan­tasy best thrive when gen­uine faith—with its aware­ness of the sin­ful frailty of ev­ery believer—re­cedes from a cul­ture’s shores.”

A ’60s love-in: Feel­ing our way to en­light­en­ment

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