Do-it-Yourself Truths

A conversation with Kurt Andersen

By Jan Alexander

Kurt Andersen

Kurt Andersen lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, and from the window of the room he uses as an office, he has a view of late 19th century residences that have only grown spiffier with time.  “Am I literally imagining that I’m living 120 years ago? No,” he says.

He’s defending himself, sort of, as an American who might harbor bits and pieces of magical thinking. He concedes that he’s played paintball wars and is superstitious enough to say, “knock on wood.”

“But,” he maintains, “I don’t think I was ever abducted by aliens.”

He doesn’t believe in alien abductions, of course. In America we all have our fantasy pursuits, but nowadays our socio-economic status and political ideology are the main determinants of where our unshakable faiths lie. And that’s part of the message Andersen delivers in his latest book, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, an exhaustive and provocative 440-page history of devout believers in the United States.

Andersen maintains that ever since the Puritans arrived in the 1600’s with their belief that a good Christian life was one consumed by Christianity—while further south, ships from England brought prospectors who were convinced there was gold in the land that is now Virginia—America has been a place where you can create your own truth and run with it.

God speaks to you, there’s gold in them thar hills, space aliens have landed, make America great again—whatever you fancy.  John Adams observed in his time that “facts are stubborn things.” More recently, Kelly Ann Conway validated all of Donald Trump’s inconveniently-untrue claims as “alternative facts.”

And while Andersen comes down hard on the cult of Trump, he doesn’t spare the liberal urban elites who constitute his own ideological tribe.

Nevertheless, we are, today, a nation of ideological believers, and Andersen is speaking from an elevated perch on the left side of the divide.  Nor am I about to challenge him, especially when he provides a highly relevant argument against the freedom to believe whatever you wish to believe; certain beliefs, like in assault weapons, are a danger to other people.

The thing about being knowledgeable, however, is that you know how much you don’t know. So, I’m sitting there talking with a celebrated journalist and author, host of the popular radio show and podcast Studio 360, a Harvard graduate, a chronicler and satirist of what makes America tick, and Andersen, who grew up in Omaha and has a self-effacing Midwestern manner, espouses the certainty that he can never be certain.

“As perfect as we think reason and rationality are, we are not perfect vessels for them,” he says. “Any kind of hubris or unshakeable faith that one is correct can be problematic.”

Reason, requiring constant self-assessment and re-examination, might seem antithetical to the magical beliefs that Andersen catalogs in Fantasyland, and to a certain extent, that is where the—let’s face it, elites—who will appreciate his book will see a dividing line between themselves and all those willfully deluded believers out there.

But consider that, as he writes, the Puritans, besides being phantasmagorical self-righteous believers, were also accomplished business owners, led by university-educated men, prolific readers and writers.

Andersen writes that if you’re part of a community of people “who hate allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of the Bible—and hate art because it could lead you to consider the Bible a book of allegory and metaphor, who love scientific scholarship; and who are personally responsible for your own daily survival in an unforgiving wilderness, aren’t you pretty much bound to become the most literal minded fantasists ever?”

Setting the ground work, perhaps, for a country where a politician can argue in the most thoughtful-sounding way for a religious interpretation of evolution and reproductive rights.

Furthermore, impossible dreams haven’t always been quixotic in America. Nor did quixotic quests originate on our shores, of course—fanatical beliefs exist around the world.

And it was the German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, in The Will to Power, that perspectives determine what a person sees as truth—we don’t see facts, only interpretations. We don’t have a monopoly on the magical thinking that Andersen attributes to the foundations of our country, but he does seem to be on to something in his conviction that the U.S. is the only nation, at least in recorded history, to have been founded on a set of unshakeable beliefs and to have provided fertile breeding ground for whatever belief suits your purposes.

So, we’re talking about dreaming impossible dreams, and Andersen says he deliberately didn’t write about the magicians of Silicon Valley and the billions of dollars they’ve conjured up, because this is a book about the downside of blind faith.  “Believing that you can do the improbable is not all bad, and indeed it’s been a part of why this country has been so successful in so many ways,” he says. But, pondering the Virginia gold prospectors, he says, “they self-selected to some degree, for boldness and adventure and the belief that they were going to get rich. “

The fact that eventually prospectors did discover gold—though it took a trek across the continent some two hundred years after the Virginia colonists’ arrival—only seemed to justify the myths that made America what it is today.

We’re on to the California gold rush and other larger-than-life illusions that came with the 19th century. An angel appeared before Joseph Smith, or so he claimed, and guided him to a set of ancient texts that he turned into the Book of Mormon.

It was the age of P.T. Barnum, whom Andersen calls “the founder of infotainment.” The second great infotainment founder, he says, was William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, a genuine cowboy who turned his adventures into Wild West shows that became the template for Hollywood westerns—and, perhaps, for a myth that partly explains our God-given right to carry guns.

Alongside the rise of faith healing and medical quackery, utopian communes, and the sensationalist tabloid press, this was the century of rapid industrialization—an era Andersen previously researched in minute detail for his 2007 novel Heyday, which was set in 1848.

I ask if the scientific miracles that gave us the steam engine, the telegraph, the telephone, and as of 1895 the first motion picture might have played a role in strengthening the belief that anything at all is possible.

He says yes. “With the telegram, and railroads, those inventions were used again and again by writers, and in a popular understanding that if this is possible why can’t we speak to the dead.” he says. “Now, this burgeoning of technology, along with the creation of a public education system of a kind the world had never seen was happening simultaneously with the birth of all these exotic new religions and the spread of pseudo-scientific medical facts and all the rest.”

Andersen is as rapid-fire in conversation as he is in his writing, and he’s about to leap from the 19th century to another time of monumental change, the 1960s.  The thing is, he says, in the 19th and early 20th century, the rationalists were in charge.

“A religion like Christian science could grow and thrive and have many hundreds of thousands of followers. But the elite, the mainstream, the establishment, kept such phenomena in their place. Yes, you have a right to believe that, but you’ll be kept to some degree on the margins. That’s how it worked; that’s how we could become a thriving nation that became the definition of the modern and the practical and of all the rest, and simultaneously have all these strange, retrograde, pre-modern, unscientific effusions.  Because the grownups were in charge and maintained the Enlightenment idea of reason and rationality and a secular approach to most of life.”

In Fantasyland, Andersen has a section he calls “The Big Bang: The 1960s and 1970s.” He was 15 when Woodstock happened in 1969, so he witnessed the mind expansion and mayhem as the Age of Aquarius descended, as well as the ways it went too far.  We gained all kinds of personal freedom, we gained civil rights and feminism.

Certainly, freedom brought some kids a little too close to the edge. Andersen had siblings who became devotees of the teenaged Guru Maharaj Ji.  My brother was a follower too. But Andersen also sees a longer-lasting number of conditions as consequences of the 60s—“extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracies, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more.”

(Those, of course, will be bad things in the eyes of most of his readers, though not to all Americans). He posits that the damage began with the famous Gestalt prayer, written by psychotherapist Fritz Perls.

Every counterculture teenager of the era had the poster with the words in psychedelic-greeting-card script: “I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

The prayer told us we could shake off all parental demands, flee the trap of married life in suburbia; we were free to just be.

“Fine,” writes Andersen, “Except that in America, which began on a slippery slope of subjectivity, this new creed helped accelerate the giant slalom toward a concoct-your-own-truth culture and society.”

As we’re talking, I remember a ubiquitous phrase of the 1960s: “question authority.”  It was a mantra that let us go way too far, says Andersen. “And now we’re seeing a strange combination of a president whose followers treat him like a sort of cult leader and believe everything he says, yet his whole underlying approach is that everything the establishment says is rigged or false. Everything you wish to believe is true and everything you wish to disbelieve is untrue.”

Thanks to what Andersen calls a second big bang in the form of the Internet, we are now living in what he calls “a fantasy-industrial complex.”

He finished Fantasyland just as Trump came along as president. “Even though much of the discussion I’ve had about the book begins with oh, it explains Trump, it was a set of ideas and a history and a finished manuscript before he was even nominated for president,” he says.  Which kind of verifies his point.

You can feel righteous about your own rational skepticism as you read Fantasyland. But Andersen, who co-founded with Graydon Carter, and Tom Phillips, Spy magazine way back in 1986 to expose the antics of “rich and powerful jerks” like Trump, as he describes it, begins to sound as if he’s stumbled into a void almost too dark for satire when he talks about America circa 2018.

In the book he expressed hope that the present day could turn out to be Fantasyland at its peak. But he says the past year hasn’t left him feeling optimistic.

“There are too many conflicting certainties at work,” he says.

Jan Alexander, a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review, started this column interviewing modern writers.

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