Rating: 3 Stars
These are, it goes without saying, strange times in which we live. By career, I am a software developer, so rationality, logic, facts, and science seem to be obviously irrefutable guideposts in our modern world.
So what do I make of these times? Climate change is almost unanimously believed to be real by those who have dedicated their lives to the research, but around half of Americans believe it to be a fraud. Evolution is the basis for many branches of science, yet some forty percent of Americans are strict creationists. Vaccines have saved literally millions of lives, yet there are a ton of Americans that refuse to vaccinate their children, causing the comeback of several previously essentially eradicated diseases.
Other parts of the Western world don’t share these beliefs. What’s so special about America? Is it something new? Was there some trigger?
This discussion underlies Fantasyland. Anderson’s thesis is that this is how we’ve always been, going all the way back to the Puritans. Due to a couple of possible factors, there is something native to the American character that impels us to irrational thought.
Before I go into more detail, which, despite the somewhat lukewarm three star rating, I did find thought provoking, let me talk a bit about why it only got three stars.
The first beef that I have with it is that he just covers too much real estate. The chapters are short and provide very little context. It’s like you’re driving by on a tour bus at full speed and the tour guide shouts at you every time you pass by something significant. You’re barely processing what you just saw and now already there’s another thing.
The second beef is the fact that it’s pretty clear that he himself was once a free thinking hippie but now has come to the true religion of rationality. Life a reformed alcoholic, he just can’t keep the sneer out of his voice as he talks about those that have not seen the light of reason. The tone of the book suffers as a result.
The first two groups of settlers to America were in Jamestown and Plymouth. In one case, the inspiration for the settlement was religious zealotry. In the second case, it was a pursuit of riches. These two threads run common throughout America’s history and form the basis of our national case of irrational thought.
Protestantism is one of the threads. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism actively encourages decentralized thinking. There is no central figure that dictates edicts. From the time of Martin Luther, the idea is that everyone should read the bible themselves and effectively become their own priest.
It starts off this way, but inevitably a group coalesces around a particularly charismatic figure. That figure then effectively starts his own branch and rules over it with some variation of an iron fist. Inevitably, someone in that branch will take Protestantism to heart and will take issue with the leader’s dogma and question it. That usually results in the skeptic being thrown out of the flock, which results in the skeptic attracting a flock of people to his own teachings, after which he creates his own branch of Protestantism. Rinse and repeat.
This process ends up creating highly individualized thinkers who construct their own belief systems, which may or may not have a basis in reality.
The second group, the fortune hunters, have their own brand of unreality. They hear rumors of gold and blindly chase after it, regardless of its veracity. Their very occasional successes spur a further army of fortune hunters. This chase against all odds and in the fact of insurmountable hurdles brings out primarily those not susceptible to normal rational arguments.
These are our Americans.
This books goes on to list nearly innumerable examples. He talks about PT Barnum and his highly popular museum that mingled fact and fiction in a jumble. He talked about the role that irrationality played in the various Great Awakenings (four to date) that have taken place in America. He talked about the great fraud perpetuated by the Sun paper in New York City, which had people believing that a recently installed telescope had discovered life on the moon. He talked about the various Southern myths that arose out of the ashes of the Civil War.
He gives special focus to the 1960s because it was a great era of irrationality from both the left and right. Most people know about the left and how they went to great lengths to abandon scientific, rational principles. Tenured professors wrote serious peer reviewed papers about the falsity of reality itself.
On the right, it was during the 1960s that there was a strong movement to reinforce concepts such as hell, which was falling out of favor from the mainstream branches of Christianity. The Left Behind series is a product of that movement. Creationism rose to the forefront of many Protestant teachings. Previously backwoods practices such as speaking in tongues came out front and center.
Today, we have the unreality of reality shows. We have the internet pumping every conspiracy theory or crazy philosophy into our household.
And out of this mess arises irrationality incarnate, Donald Trump. He believes that Trump is the natural apogee of our country’s history.
What can come next?