Andersen, Kurt; Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-year History. Random House; 2017 (1).
A book can be entertaining, interesting, insightful, provocative and even disturbing. This book is all of the foregoing. The title itself is an attention-grabber: note that in Andersen’s view, it’s “America” that has gone “haywire”; not just conservatives or progressives. And what’s this business about “500-year history” when our country is 230-years old? The answer is that the author has gone back another 270 years into European history to find the roots of what has brought us to our present state of “haywiredness”; i.e. a state of being increasingly consumed by the fantastical, the unreal, the unprovable, and the fact-free.
In assessing European history (see above), the author is careful to stick to the record without embellishment. His thesis is that the narrow, repressive, constricted thinking and speaking that characterized much of Europe during the period in question, gave way to our Founding Fathers’ deep commitment to freedom of expression, and to give it stature and primacy as our First Amendment. All well and good. But, as Andersen points out, freedom of expression is perhaps the sharpest of double-edged swords; it allows for not only the rational, evidence-based and verifiable, but the irrational, fact-free and unprovable. The framers of the Bill of Rights (2) believed that a sensible and informed public would come around to rejecting the latter so they made sure that no law could be enacted to stifle it.
Has that actually happened? In tracing our 230-year history, Anderson shows that the license provided by the First Amendment has found expression in virtually every part of our culture: public policy, science, psychology, religion, economics, the media, and increasingly, social discourse through the advent of platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
As the author notes, there have been periods when the irrational, fact-free and unprovable gained some traction only to be shunted aside by disproof, rationality, and evidence-based counter-arguments. This has happened over and over again just as the Framers believed would occur.
But, for Andersen, this salutary state of affairs has steadily given way to the embrace by too many of our citizens of the fantastical, unreal and fact-free. It is this trend that has put “America” in “haywire” mode (see definition above). In making this case, the author spares no one; both political parties, conservatives, progressives, and everyone and everything else gets examined and earmarked for their share of accountability. That said, Anderson draws heavily on objective sociological research findings to document how the irrational with little/no basis in reality has taken hold among less well-educated people who harbor longstanding resentments against government and the press, making them susceptible to investing in conspiracy theories that cannot be subjected to disproof, and public policies that have a documented history of failure. Alarmingly, social scientists have shown that these folks cannot be dislodged from their baseless beliefs because they view any attempts to dissuade them as conspiratorial and invalid, evidence to the contrary be damned.
The foregoing gives you a very general sense of the thrust of “Fantasyland”, but barely scratches the surface of the depth and breadth of Andersen’s scholarship and the scope of the case for “Haywired” that he makes. His book has been well-received and collected over 100, 4- and 5-star ratings. You can count this review among them.
- Available in Kindle version or hard-copy.
- James Madison, principally with an assist from Thomas Jefferson.