Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland Probes American Society & Politics

© 2017 Kurt Andersen

Best-selling novelist (Heyday), nonfiction author (Turn of the Century), and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Time, Kurt Andersen is also the cofounder of Spy magazine. His latest book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (see the starred review, LJ 9/1/17, p. 131), offers a probing look at the current state of American society, factors leading up to the Trump presidency, and the influence of mass media, past and present.

How do you define fantasy-industrial complex, a concept referred to throughout your book?
The American fantasy-industrial complex, Fantasyland, is a societal state of mind that has always encompassed some of the news media. A remarkable and early example discussed [in the book] are the widely believed 1835 New York Sun articles about the discovery of a civilization of flying creatures on the moon. Back then, the fantasy-industrial complex also included the new pharmaceutical industry and its traveling medicine shows.

What is the relationship between the fantasy-industrial complex and modern media?
Today the complex extends to much more of the news media, as well as conventional entertainment, such as Hollywood [film studios], theme parks, and gaming. It has also expanded to include presidential politics, publishing, the Internet, and significant parts of other businesses, like real estate and restaurants. Early American preachers pioneered the merger of Christian evangelizing and entertainment; [as a result,] the contemporary fantasy-­industrial complex has large religious sectors. In America, almost everything becomes show business.

How does the election of Donald Trump fit into the narrative?
Fantasyland is a history of Americans’ special knack for creating and penchant for believing the untrue; that we feel entitled to our own facts and opinions and create alternate realities to fit those beliefs. I started writing Fantasyland in 2014, a year before Trump announced his decision to run for president, and finished a draft before he was nominated on the Republican ticket. His candidacy and presidency became the fulfillment and embodiment of essentially all the threads and arguments made throughout the book.

How do the struggles of the Democratic Party attest to Fantasyland’s strength?
Americans of all political persuasions give themselves over to wishful make-believe. But, for a variety of reasons described in the book, during the last two or three decades right-wing ­fantasists have achieved vastly more influence in the Republican Party than left-wing ­fantasists have in the Democratic Party—and as a result, our first true Fantasyland president is a Republican.

Why is Fantasyland ingrained so strongly into American culture, as compared to other nations?
Some early European settlers were believers of a new anti-Establishment religion who wanted to create a theocracy in the wilderness. Others were dreamers desperate to find gold and get rich overnight. Also, the United States was founded during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. This period not only empowered reason, but what comedian Stephen Colbert refers to as “truthiness”—a form of over-the-top individualism: the freedom to believe or disbelieve absolutely anything and everything based on one’s feeling, opinion, and whim.

You consider the 1960s and 1990s to be the heyday of the fantasy-industrial complex. What conditions led to this in the respective decades, and are there more differences or similarities between them?
For more than three centuries, Americans had maintained a dynamic balance between make-believe and pragmatism, and dreams and reality, which accounts for much of our success as a nation. After the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans suddenly felt even more individualistic, more entitled than ever to find their “own truth.” At the same time, gatekeepers in the media, academia, and elsewhere became content with accepting more hogwash. A generation or so after that, in the 1990s, the Internet became the perfect new infrastructure for promoters and believers of the unreal and untrue to find one another, recruit more believers, and make their fantasies appear to be real. In the 1960s, everything seemed new and bizarre. In the 1990s, however, all the strangeness seemed normal.

You stress the firm relationship between religion and Fantasyland. How has one contributed to the other?
America has always been not just more religious than other developed countries, but more flamboyantly religious. There is more belief in the imminent End Times, more people who believe they’re in direct current communication with the divine, and more interest in faith healing and speaking in tongues. America is also unique in that it is a place that has sprouted all the most improbable and successful new religions: Mormonism, Christian Science, Pentecostalism, and Scientology. In America, a sort of unclear, unconscious Golden Rule applies when it comes to believing the preposterous; If those people believe that, then certainly we can believe this.

What is the “X-Filing of America” and why has it found a happy home in Fantasyland?
It’s what happened in the 1990s, when conspiracy theories proliferated and mainstreamed in America, thanks to a combination of chatter and best-selling books at the grass roots level. There was also the legitimization of extraterrestrial abduction claims, unleashed talk radio, the Internet becoming a mass medium, and the success and influence of The X-Files when network television still dominated consumer markets.

Can we escape Fantasyland? If so, how, and do you see this happening any time soon?
I’m doubtful we can “escape,” or roll it back, but I think we probably can contain it, or keep its worst aspects from subsuming more and more of American life. Talk to me in 20 years.—Karl ­Helicher, formerly with Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA

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