A history without historical perspective
No one attending to post-2008 politics in the United States, or to the country’s cultural and social trends since, will deny the generic presence of ignorance, unreason, or irrationalism. By 2016 and 2017, word-of-the-year nominations included“post-truth”and “fake news,” respectively. Somehow Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” did not make the cut for 2017. These trends have allowed fear, insecurity, and not a little paranoia about dystopian ends to permeate aspects of our social and political life. And that period builds on events since 9/11 and even the year 2000.
A unifying, umbrella term for this spectrum of concerns, anti-intellectualism, was made prominent by Richard Hofstadter in his 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life . That work was the first to give historical focus to sources of distortion, fear, and thoughtlessness in our public life. The book inspired and gave focus to subsequent cultural critics, even as the topic has waxed and waned in the years since it was published.
Courtesy of Hofstadter, the notion of ‘anti-intellectualism’ has exceeded the narrow literalism of ‘against intellectuals.’ It now encompasses various phenomena such as anti-elitism, misbelief, thoughtlessness, unreason, irrationalism, and ignorance. Anti-intellectualism is the general resistance, by groups and individuals, to the just demands of intellectualism — meaning sustained reflection, and basing (or limiting) one’s course of action on interrogation, evidence, and thoughtfulness.
Anti-elitism exists in this word cloud not because elites are intellectuals, but because experts regulate thought and reality in various subject areas. They use theory and evidence to make judgments. Experts, at various times in American history, have been perceived as pedants who control, or define, reality in relation to politics, policies, and institutions. Anti-intellectualism, to Hofstadter and others, is also about reaction and resistance to, or distrust of, experts, elites, and intellectuals. Life in a democracy introduces a tension: distrust of elitism. This means expertise in a democracy coexists with those at liberty to sometimes reject elitist experts who divide reality from fantasy.
Elbowing itself into this spectrum of concerns and the legacy of Hofstadter’s book is Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland (Random House, 2017). Its subtitle — How America Went Haywire: A 500-year History — reveals the book’s genre, its nation of concern, and the author’s sense of the nation’s trajectory. The title doesn’t announce anti-intellectualism as part of the narrative mission, and the term doesn’t appear often in the text. But, in the broadest sense, anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism permeate Andersen’s premise and his historical episodes. Andersen uses the term ‘haywire’ to encompass irrational individuals, delusional groups, magical thinkers, unreasonable events, trends, and cycles of thought. It’s clear that Andersen sees fantasization as the ultimate American barrier to proper dealings with reality and genuine, relevant thoughtfulness.
Andersen’s thesis is provocative: America is, at base, about the construction, maintenance, selling, and revision of fantasies. In many ways the nation is “the dreamworld creation of fantasists.” Huckster entrepreneurs and religious promoters sell these dreams to seekers prone to the fantastical. Over time the United States has turned itself into a “fantasy industrial complex.” Later in the book Andersen clarifies that his main thrust is to demonstrate “how so many parts of American life have morphed into forms of entertainment.” Though that particular aspect of American life was covered in Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason (2008), Andersen makes it the central premise of Fantasyland.
The book begins with foundational problems in the New World. The Reformation, as American Protestantism, enabled skepticism of organized religious institutions and freed individuals to rely on singular judgments and personal truth. The Enlightenment, Andersen adds, gave individuals reason to question everything — to be skeptics. In the colonies, both movements freed people to pursue spiritual and material progress. The Great Awakenings added distortions of the heart, of emotion and affect. Anderson believes that “Great Delirium” made America a “spiritual hothouse” of “magical thinking.” Our religious awakenings really functioned as a sedative, turning many Americans into somnambulants, numbing adherents to the sharp edges of realism. This view is not exactly original in our historiography. The power of Protestant Christianity to unbalance hearts and minds was first explored by Alexis de Tocqueville (mentioned) in Democracy in America, and later reinforced by Hofstadter and Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995, neither mentioned). “Those origins,” Andersen concludes, “defined us.”
In his coverage of the nineteenth century, Andersen reinforces the historical, popular tendency in America toward moneymaking and fantasization. He frames the 1849 Gold Rush as a turning point. It introduced the dream of grabbing sudden wealth as a “reality” and made personal reinvention possible. In the same period of the nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum functions as an exemplar for Andersen’s thesis. The huckster Barnum, through his famous show of outlandish curiosities, creates a fake-real dialectic for popular consumption. Andersen presents Barnum as a paragon of a “fantasyland mindset.” The latter defined by Anderson as a law of the American experience: “If some imaginary proposition is exciting, and nobody can prove it’s untrue, then it’s my right as an American to believe it’s true.”
Despite the nation being founded on wobbly religious, intellectual, and emotional premises, Andersen maintains that America’s fantasists and realists maintained a balance until the early twentieth century. There existed “a powerful animating tension between the two tendencies.” But the realist-fantasist balance began to tip in the 1920s, and was skewed completely by the chaotic 1960s, which ushered in all the elements for a full paradigm shift. In the former decade, Andersen argues, the emergence of the movies and radio helped instantiate a “fantasy industrial complex.” Those new technologies were “solvents… between real and unreal.” It was the Sixties, however, that cemented these changes.
Arguing in a mode not dissimilar to Susan Jacoby — who saw most new popular culture as lowbrow distractions and who also made the 1960s pivotal — Andersen asserts that everything presently bad, on the right and left, was set up in that decade. Intellectual and materialistic individualism won, “finally eclips[ing] all competing ideas.” Americans entered into an “unspoken grand bargain,” expressed by Andersen as ‘do your own thing’ and ‘everyman for himself.’ He adds that “absolute tolerance became axiomatic” within a “deep and broad believe-anything-you-want ethos.” In his narrative of decline, these 1960s developments demonstrate our fantasist extremes: “hyperrationalist” liberalism, Civil War reenactors, the counterculture, Renaissance Faires, new forms of pseudoscience, postmodernism, fresh conspiracism, an “extreme American Christianity,” the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and even plastic surgery. By 1980 the boundaries between real life and entertainment had been utterly dismantled. This unmooring, furthermore, resulted from erring in the direction of “too much democracy and individualism.” This echoes Hofstadter, who blamed excessive “egalitarianism” for our anti-intellectual tendencies.
Treating the 1980s and 1990s as extensions, or accelerations, of 1960s trends, Andersen laments the proliferation of celebrity news, reality television, live action role playing, fantasy sports camps, megachurches, Oprah as religion, the growth of the Internet, homeschooling, child panics, UFOs, excessive gun enthusiasm, science skepticism, survivalists and preppers, conspiracy mongering, MilSim activities (military simulation), Disney products, and investment wishfulness. All represent the uprooting of reality in favor of fantasized conclusions and distorted facts.
These formations demonstrate, to Andersen, the ideological fissures noted by Daniel Rodgers in Age of Fracture (2011). They also complement the cultural and intellectual phenomena discussed by Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America (2015). While neither is cited, Andersen’s story follows. The advent and maturation of the Internet is presented as the accelerator of all post-1980 trends. American exceptionalism is now a negative trend toward fantasy.
Andersen’s apex is the year 2000. It represents a full paradigm shift — or “full Fantasyland.” American politics since then rest on force and capitalism over reason. American arguments are now won with guns. Second, Andersen argues that Republicans since 2000 have become the “fantasy party.” And, as of 2016, President Donald Trump serves as their “pure Fantasy being.” He has lived in, and used, the fantasy industrial complex. His investment in “truthful hyperbole,” reliance on instinct, reactionary impulses, sense of persecution, and belief in conspiracy theories make him the natural political result, argues Andersen, of a Disneyfied and Barnumized culture.
Concluding the book with Trump gives Andersen’s analysis a teleological feel. The author’s evidence points too clearly, or naturally, to the conclusion. It resembles a pointed critique in Kenneth S. Lynn’s now-forgotten review of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism. Lynn accused Hofstadter of “relating history to the morning headlines.” The present dictated, it seemed, the story of the past. Historians try to avoid analytical and narrative excesses that open their work to charges of violating the fallacy of presentism. Fantasyland embraces the fallacy.
While Andersen’s theme is compelling, it is often imposing and all-encompassing. It is deployed in a heavy-handed fashion. It becomes fatiguing. This arises, in part, because of another similarity to Hofstadter. Rush Welter warned readers of the “protean nature” of anti-intellectualism, and against believing Hofstadter had “prove[n] more than he intended.” The idea of fantasy shares that protean nature, inclusive of forms that cross over into positive territory. The United States is often admired, for instance, by patriots and fans abroad, for its churn of creativity. That creativity has been put to altruistic as often as delusional or destructive ends, whether in technology, non-profits, or art. Diversions can protect one from evil even while preventing full engagement of the faculties.
The author’s preoccupation, later in the text, with the fantastic diversions and less-than-stellar endeavors of modern American life feels elitist. Again, there is a parallel to the reception of Hofstadter’s work. Merle Borrowman accused him of selecting and emphasizing “prize examples…from the lunatic fringe.” Susan Jacoby also cherry-picked examples from bad television and terrible politicians. If an author wants to see imbalance, there will never be a shortage of examples from American cultural, social, and political life.
Fantasyland is quite accessible. The consistent theme, while fatiguing for some, also makes it an easy, entertaining read. But that accessibility comes at price: in this case, notes are scarce and there is no bibliography. When notes appear, the criteria for their inclusion are inconsistent (e.g., some are given for numbers and statistics). I question, for instance, how much Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism underpins Fantasyland. References and citations of it are conspicuously absent. Why? Apart from Hofstadter, the overall lack of transparency about sources makes Andersen an unwitting participant in the cultural tendencies he denounces. He appears to have constructed a narrative to fit his ends and gripes.
Beyond scholarly problems and fatigue with the theme, other topical absences and biases will annoy careful historical thinkers. Race is treated as a secondary phenomenon. Religion and religious events are dealt with unfairly. There is a lot of space for Christians engaged in magical thinking about raptures and end times, or their pastors who are independent entrepreneurs distributing magical emotional tonics, or other pastors who whip up their congregations about Satanists, Muslim invasions, and Sharia Law. There is no room for Christians who fantasized about the emancipation of slaves, the nurturing of labor unions, or the elimination of war. Andersen’s personal investment in a negative slant is made clear in the text.
Andersen’s conclusion adds to a sense that the book lacks proper historical perspective. He exhibits a strange, liberal naïveté for someone who has just recounted numerous negative aspects of U.S. history. The author states that, until recently, he had believed in the “unstoppable momentum” of American progress. But now, presumably due to Trump’s election, he “can imagine, for the first time in [his] life, that America has permanently tipped into disarray and decline.” While all critics are entitled to their feelings, someone purporting to understand the long span of American history should know better. How optimistic have slaves and people of color felt throughout American history? What of the Civil War? What of the Great Depression?
In spite of the criticisms and reservations aired here, Fantasyland is worth reading. Professional historians and cultural critics will find it maddening. But, if consumed cautiously, the book is timely and deserves an audience. The theme resonates, providing a key insight into recent maladies of American thought and culture. But don’t let the book’s protean feel keep you from picking up other historical works, old and new, on ignorance, anti-elitism, unreason, and thoughtlessness.
Tim Lacy is a cultural and intellectual historian who works at University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.