Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History is as fascinating and disturbing as it sounds, a detailed account of our country’s love affair with magical thinking and conspiracy theories. According to Andersen, our national character was seeded by hucksters luring gullible Englishmen to the colonies with false promises of easy gold and religious zealots, too extreme even for Protestant Europe, striking out for an new promised land. Even when these expectations failed to jive with reality, these first transplants felt fortunate to find what seemed to be unlimited space and freedom to start the world anew. “In America,” writes Andersen, “there was an infinity of highways and new places not so far away where outcast true believers could move” (35). Andersen is referring to exiled Puritan Anne Hutchinson here, but he could just as easily be writing about Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, or Joel Osteen.
After highlighting several uniquely American examples of quackery, capitalist-fueled fantasy, and religious fanaticism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Andersen settles on the 1960s as ground zero for Fantasyland, an inflection point in our national history that helps to explain where we are today:
The 1960s gave license to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly – superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age shamans; fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials; compulsive pornhounds and gamblers and gunlovers. Do your own thing. Our epistemological and ontological levees were blasted apart and never repaired thereafter. Mistrust authority. Nonfiction fantasies were no longer held back or filtered out from the mainstream as they used to be. Find your own truth. Henceforth reality will be whatever you – you inviolate individual, you empowered American, you priest of your own religion, you author of your own story – wish it to be (174-175).
Andersen argues that academia, a drug-fueled counterculture, and Christian fundamentalism all contributed to this scrambling of reality, and the relativism that bloomed and took root in the aftermath became co-opted by both liberals and conservatives. Andersen also recognizes what we all know at this point, that the internet has exacerbated our cultural disconnect. If the 1960s gave us permission to believe anything and question everything, the internet allowed us to find our tribes and remove ourselves from challenging discourse. Our opinions, our favored fictions, can all be validated online, if not in real life.
As much as it’s complicating things for us now, fiction may in fact be the secret to our success as a species. Reading Fantasyland reminded me of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This was the book that introduced me to the concept of inter-subjectivity, a way of describing the collective fiction we agree upon to function as a society. School communities, city-states, religions – they all work because enough people believe in the stories and rules that govern these institutions, even though none of these rules are objectively true.
Sapiens also taught me that several species of the genus Homo – as many as six, including neanderthalensis, erectus, densisova, and of course, sapiens – walked the earth at the same time (I had always thought of them as coming one after the other in succession). Of all these human species, Sapiens emerged as the last standing. Harari suggests that it was our ability to tell and believe in stories together that enabled sapiens to function in larger, cooperative groups (social groups with more than 150 individuals, be they chimpanzees or humans, tend to break down without formal structures in place). Harari explains that these successful group structures, built on shared myths, allowed us to thrive and perhaps even annihilate our competition:
In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell – and revise – stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges (34).
I find this idea fascinating – that believing in stories together is the key to human survival. If this is true, then what happens when, as Andersen warns, we are unwilling to believe in a shared story, not to mention shared facts? When reality becomes subjective rather than inter-subjective? Do your own thing. Mistrust authority. Find your own truth. Are we at risk of losing our evolutionary advantage?