Americans are crazy. Kurt Andersen should know; he’s one of them, though he insists he is sane. Don’t all crazy people say that?
Fantasyland, which is published today, is a voyage through American history, a look at how American society reached the point where someone like Donald Trump could be elected as President of the United States. Trump, as Anderson explains, did not spring suddenly out of nowhere. He is rather the logical progression of American thinking over centuries. What Anderson cannot say is whether it is possible for a return to sanity.
Not being American I had expected this to be a rather humorous book, a chance to laugh at the foibles of our neighbour to the south. However, I found little to laugh at.
This is definitely a selective approach to history and, sadly, I think too much influenced by Andersen’s own personal demons. There is no doubt the United States has produced some odd religious behavior in the past four centuries, but he treats fringe as mainstream, and indeed spends his first ten chapters attacking Christianity. It seemed to me though that his attacks were ideologically based as opposed to reality based, more fantasy than substance. Which is a shame because this could have been a good book.
After all, who wouldn’t want to know more about the factors that caused Americans to elect Donald Trump as their president, a blurring of reality and reality television on a grand scale. Unfortunately, Fantasyland failed to really give the answers. To say that Americans have for arguable – but Christians would respond that their religions is based on history and reality, fact, not fiction. Nowhere do I get the impression in this polemic that Andersen was ever willing to seriously look at the historical roots of Christianity. Instead what I got was an atheist’s obsession along the lines of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. It’s all the church’s fault. Christianity is evil and should be ignored if it can’t be obliterated. Entertaining, but not exactly balanced.
There were times I was annoyed when he would mention the ideas of someone and not give a name. To me this is sloppy. Tough to evaluate the words of a “leading academic” if there is no name attached. Useful too if you just want to make a point sound authoritative.
This volume was touted by the publisher as a “must read” for anyone who wants “to understand the politics and culture of twenty-first century America.” It doesn’t quite succeed.
Even were I to accept Andersen’s culture musings, his political analysis is weak to non-existent. If I were to write a book on the topic (and I don’t intend to) I could make the argument that Donald Trump is not the product of an American fantasy culture but rather of an extremely cynical political establishment that has abused a binary political system. It’s not the church’s fault, but rather the responsibility of the founding fathers who rejected the Westminster political tradition and came up with the system the US still uses today.
As Andersen points out, those founding fathers were anything but Christian. Yet he still blames the Church for America’s problems. Fantasyland indeed.
A review copy of this book was provided by Random House Publishing Group.