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The Fiction of Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland”

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Kurt Andersen is the author of the “instant best-selling” book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire—A 500-Year History (Random House, 2017) – a problematic volume which deserved the more suitable subtitle Why America’s Elites Can’t Think!  This much is clear from reading Andersen’s 13,000 word essay (as adapted from Fantasyland) that was featured in the September issue of The Atlantic. Providing an intriguing overview of the leading proponents of magical-thinking (i.e., believing in UFOs, superstitions, miracles, etc) over the past half century, this subject matter, as interpreted through Andersen’s factually-troubled article, has been given its very own fantastic twist. Blame for widespread irrationality apparently rests with the delusions of the working-class majority, not with the powerful elites who have actively reaped the benefits from sowing seeds of confusion. As Andersen bluntly puts it, perhaps two thirds of Americans are now so hopelessly lost that “the solidly reality-based” citizens are now just a minority… “maybe a third of us…” This classic case of victim-blaming dovetails with Andersen’s electoral fantasies. Thus, in the recent faceoff between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, he arrived at the wrongheaded conclusion that the only realistic choice for the people of America was to plump for the Wall Street Democrat, Hillary, a serial liar and warmonger to boot!?

So when Andersen repeatedly refers to “we Americans,” I can only imagine that what he is really referring to are fellow liberal elites who, like their right-wing counterparts, have no faith in the working-class to make democratic decisions about America’s future. As he explains “we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.” Too right as far as the elites are concerned. And there is nothing more feared by libertarian or liberal elites than the prospect of the collective and democratic empowerment of ordinary people. This is precisely why this class-based aspect of history remains marginalized by Andersen and his undemocratic cohort of pessimists who peddle their toxic wares in the mainstream media.

Like the many conspiracy theorists that he so despises, Andersen is mostly wrong… and right only occasionally. For instance, he seems to stumble over the truth when he lays blame for the current state of affairs at the doorstep of mainstream institutions including the “media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate”. These institutions have, as he points out, “enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades.”[1] But rather than being a problem of recent pedigree, such institutional elite commitments to fantasy far predates the last few decades. It is a problem that is umbilically-connected to capitalism and its perpetual need to place profit before human need. Thus, contrary to Andersen’s rose-tinted view of history, capitalist institutions have never had any principled dedication to keeping the public well-informed about anything much except the righteousness of the political system.

The Descent to Fantasy

Somewhat arbitrarily the befuddled author in question, rather than focus his full rage against mainstream institutions, traces the “descent into full Fantasyland” to two “momentous changes.” One, he says, was the onset of the new era of information” that allowed ordinary people to have easy access to new narratives of social change that had previously been excluded from the liberal media. And secondly, that there was “a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s” that led many people to start doing their own thing – his problem being that people started to explore political and social alternatives to the deadening confines of a consumer society. But here, should I be accused of wilfully misrepresenting Andersen’s deep-seated anxieties, he says that he has no regrets regarding “the ways the ’60s permanently reordered American society and culture”; “just that along with the familiar benefits,” there have also “been unreckoned costs.”

Attacking the publics’ ability to think comes easily to Andersen, but again, almost in passing he reiterates that fantasy-thinking has always found a welcome home within elite networks which have incubated all manner of idiocies before serving them up to the public. Andersen states that on the forefront of the evolution of such nonsense in the recent period was the Esalen Institute which had been formed in 1962 by a pair of wealthy Stanford graduates. Esalen as it turned out became something of “a pilgrimage center for hundreds and thousands of youth interested in some sense of transcendence, breakthrough consciousness, LSD, the sexual revolution, encounter, being sensitive, finding your body, [and] yoga”.

As Andersen surmises, this group’s impact on the spread of New Age modalities has been huge: “Esalen is a mother church of a new American religion for people who think they don’t like churches or religions but who still want to believe in the supernatural.” But while it is true that one should recognize the detrimental influence of Esalen on rational thinking, the individualist spiritual ideas peddled therein had been doing the rounds for decades – as exemplified by the popular spiritual cult that was theosophy. Nevertheless, all manner of supernatural and anti-socialist ideas were certainly thrown into the melting pot of ideas at this new institute, producing irrational fads which were soon consumed and popularized by middle-class drop-outs like for instance Harvard psychology lecturer Timothy Leary. Indeed, much like the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, many of these well-funded social experimenters then set about the task of building small communities of resistance in the belly of an inhumane society. The limited ambitions of these budding utopians however stand in stark contrast to the determined social projects embarked upon by socialists like the Black Panthers who during the same period sought to build mass based movements for social change along class lines.

The Postmodern Fantasy Machine

Providing useful context for understanding the renewed interest in mysticism, Andersen is correct in stating that such developments were “understandable, given the times: colonialism ending, genocide of American Indians confessed, U.S. wars in the developing world.” Yet as he goes on to explain, in their keenness to reject all that capitalist society had bequeathed them, spiritual seekers at Esalen and elsewhere went awry when they combined their social experiments for change with frontal attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment and the core tenets of the scientific process itself.

Thriving in this irrational milieu, anti-socialist intellectuals then took their cue from the mainstream to hype the emerging New Age. Andersen points towards influential books like professor Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969), and Yale Law School professor Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970). Both books were well-publicized by elite media outlets and Reich’s bible soon “became The New York Times’ best-selling book (as well as a much-read 70-page New Yorker excerpt), and remained on the list for most of a year.”

Here Andersen once again emphasizes the backward role play by elite institutions, noting how in the 70s “mainstream publishers and media organizations were falling over themselves to promote and sell fantasies as nonfiction.” One good example is The Secret Life of Plants (1970) which wasa big best seller arguing that plants were sentient” which Andersen notes made the outlandish claim that this new truth about plants was being “suppressed by the FDA and agribusiness.” Other similarly ludicrous books mentioned by Andersen included Uri Geller’s 1975 autobiography, and Life After Life (1975) by Raymond Moody, the latter being “a philosophy Ph.D. who presented the anecdotes of several dozen people who’d nearly died as evidence of an afterlife” and whose “book sold many millions of copies”.

In addition to these developing fads, Andersen observes how “During the ’60s, large swaths of academia made a turn away from reason and rationalism as they’d been understood.” This was most pronounced in that area of intellectual enquiry now commonly referred to as postmodernism. Early leading lights in this field, as highlighted by Andersen, included the French philosopher Michel Foucault — a man whose “suspicion of reason became deeply and widely embedded in American academia.” Andersen continues: “Ever since, the American right has insistently decried the spread of relativism, the idea that nothing is any more correct or true than anything else.” This may be true, but Andersen neglects to mention that the relativist proponents of post-modernism have always faced vocal opposition from socialists (and particularly Marxists), i.e., those people who are serious about organizing and not just theorizing about ending oppression.

By contrast, ever content to muddy the intellectual waters of history, conservatives continue to promote the lie that an authoritarian clique of cultural Marxists control and dominate America’s academic institutions with relativist mumbo jumbo. However, those on the Left continue to oppose both the conservatives and all irrational philosophical turns precisely because they recognise the threat posed by such intrigues to the future of democracy. Andersen partially comprehends this danger, writing that when this relativist groundswell eventually “flowed out across America” “it helped enable” the spread of “extreme Christianities and lunacies on the right—gun-rights hysteria, black-helicopter conspiracism, climate-change denial, and more.” More to the point he adds:

“The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”

Attacking the Left and Right

Keen to badmouth both socialists and conservatives, Andersen contrasts what he calls the “zealots on the left” with the moderate left. He was apparently particularly taken by the “sweet and reasonable” founding manifesto that was drafted in 1962 by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which Andersen holds in esteem because, he states, they declared themselves “in basic opposition to the communist system.” To be polite to Andersen, this is a fairly mechanistic appreciation of the founding of SDS, as a good case can be made that it was the powerful lobbying efforts undertaken by liberal civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin that were most responsible for convincing SDS to adopt his own fierce opposition to communism. In later years Rustin was not as successful in foisting his views upon other young activists, as he failed to get the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to moderate their constitution to include a formal commitment to anti-communism, while SDS themselves had no qualms about working alongside the far-left.[2]

Returning to Andersen’s left-wing zealots, it turns out that the group that he had to the fore of his mind when making this point was the terrorist group Weather Underground — the tiny successor organization to the SDS. Having set up his own crude caricature of what constituted left-wing politics, Andersen then adds that the right-wing had become “unhinged” as well. He explains how leading agencies of the State (including the police, the FBI and the CIA) began to “to spy on, infiltrate, and besmirch” organizations on the left which he said “thereby validated the preexisting paranoia on the new left and encouraged its wing nuts’ revolutionary delusions.” But on the issue of repression this is an understatement to say the least as State agencies went far beyond merely besmirching the left, they also helps others to firebomb their offices and murdered their leaders. A prominent example of the latter took place on December 4, 1969 when the police slaughtered two leaders of the Black Panther Party, a group which had been successfully working alongside many others on the left including the SDS. We should also recall just one of the many other reasons why the left might have been feeling paranoid in the 1960s. For instance, the US government gave vital aid to Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship that upon assuming power in 1965 proceeded to murder hundreds of thousands of “left-wing zealots”!

Having ostensibly established the unhinged nature of left-wing politics, Andersen then draws attention to the far-right conspiracies of the John Birch Society — an organization that had been founded in 1958 and is truly deserving of the unhinged descriptor. Andersen, however, fails to see the connection between the exceptionally paranoid anti-communism of the Birchers and the ingrained anti-communism of liberals like himself, or of the Cold War liberals of the past. It was, after all, the fear of the influence of the Marxist left upon the working-class that had led liberals to lay the groundwork for the McCarthyite excesses that followed. Cold War liberals threw fuel on the fires on conspiracism that were raised to new levels by demagogic groups like the John Birch Society who went on to denounce both Republican and Democratic presidential Cabinets as including “conscious, deliberate, dedicated agent[s] of the Soviet conspiracy”.

Although Andersen states that “Delusional conspiracism wouldn’t spread quite as widely or as deeply on the left,” he remains astounded that “more and more people on both sides would come to believe that an extraordinarily powerful cabal—international organizations and think tanks and big businesses and politicians—secretly ran America.” But what Andersen is describing here is not really a conspiracy at all, it is capitalism at its most effective. An “extraordinarily powerful cabal” – that is, the ruling-class – do run America as best they can, but they definitely don’t do it secretly. Their profit-driven actions only appear to be hatched in secrecy because of the mainstream media’s ongoing failure to accurately report on the exploitation of the global working-class; and much like Andersen, the media continue to downplay or ignore any successful efforts to resist their misrule. Nevertheless, Andersen is correct that “real life made such stories plausible.” And although he primarily faults the far-right for this confusion, he feels compelled to reiterate his critique of the left by stating: “the belief that the federal government had secret plans to open detention camps for dissidents sprouted in the ’70s on the paranoid left before it became a fixture on the right.” Yet this troublesome concern should hardly be surprising, as in 1973 the US government openly backed the rise of the dictatorship in Chile where vast detention camps had been openly employed to devastating effects against democratic activists on the left. (Here a powerful early film that warned against the potential persecution of left-wing activists in America was the 1971 mockumentary Punishment Park.)

Ruling Class Delusions

Of course, in spite of his disdain with the so-called irrationality of the majority of citizens, who, as he puts it inhabit a “post-factual America,” Andersen repeats again (with little emphasis) that elite forces in society have nurtured America’s interest in conspiracies. Specifically, he draws attention to the international best-selling book Chariots of the Gods? which was written by the “convicted thief and embezzler” Erich Von Däniken – a book that describes how extraterrestrials apparently seeded life on Earth. Andersen then explains how the subsequent spin-off documentary “had a huge box-office take in 1970” and was only topped when NBC “aired an hour-long version of the documentary in prime time.” This was all part and parcel of the disempowering media milieu that titillated both the liberal left and the far-right but was categorically rebuked as a dangerous distraction by the socialist left. As always, the upper-class strata within society, whether they be in the corporate world or at the top of the CIA, were particularly enamoured by such irrationalities, and “In the ’70s, the CIA and Army intelligence set up their infamous Project Star Gate to see whether they could conduct espionage by means of ESP.”

The persistence of grand delusions and magical thinking within ruling elites is of course nothing new, and in many ways such fantasies have been a mainstay of American history. But amongst the broader public a good case can be made that the flight to fantasy tends to ebb and flow depending upon the tempo of working-class struggles. During times of vigorous and successful grassroots organizing one might expect to observe a decline in supernatural thinking, while during periods of intense repression and political defeat the intrigues boosted by the “fantasy-industrial complex” are able to rise to the fore. These problems are further exacerbated by a corporate media environment that serves to confuse and befuddle the public, all the better to allow corporate elites and their shareholders to profit from our hard labour. Thus, the same mainstream media that is so intent on ridiculing socialists, alternatively places the gurus of mumbo jumbo on a golden pedestal. From this position they are able to make immense profits, both for themselves and the mainstream press, and confuse the public to boot!

What is to be Done?

Moving to the present day, Andersen is again partially correct to say that Donald Trump rose to power because he was able “to exploit the skeptical disillusion with politics,” but he is wrong to suggest that Trump can be credited with any form of “genius.” The orange-tinted beast only did what any mildly intelligent demagogue does when their opponents are discredited: adopt populist rhetoric that appeals to a section of angry people — those who can still stomach voting — who have been worn down by the lies and poverty of the status quo. The key in the matter is that Trump’s Presidency represented change. Furthermore, we should never forget that Trump has only been given the opportunity to sell his populist right-wing lies to the public because his so-called progressive counterpart, Hillary Clinton, was so downright appalling. Only a genuine socialist representative of the 99% could have undermined the rising tide of division and hate that is personified in Trump. The Democrat’s have therefore proved once again — as they have throughout the past century — that the American public desperately needs a genuine working-class alternative to that raised time and time again by the tired old corporate shell that is the Democratic Party.

With Trump now in the White House, Andersen, having plumped for the fantasy candidature embodied by Hillary, is apoplectic with the majority of Americans who he blames for the rise of Trump. “I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland.” But apparently because Andersen remains a fact-loving American, fortified by his faith in the shining power of truth, we can breathe a sigh of relief as he still remains “(barely) more of an optimist than a pessimist.” This is despite the fact that Andersen is adamant that America has entered a period of “foolishness and darkness” where “too many Americans are losing their grip on reason and reality”. If one truly believed Andersen’s ill-informed diagnosis then surely any level of optimism would seem unwarranted.

If anyone is living in Fantasyland it is Andersen himself, who concludes his shallow list of reasons for being (barely) hopeful by saying: “Since 1981, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the globe has plummeted from 44 percent to 10 percent.” This statement of apparently uncontroversial fact is emblematic of an individual who has retreated into the statistical depths of unreason. Andersen is wrong on so many fronts, not least the decline in poverty. But if he really wanted to understand the poverty of the world around him, but especially within America itself, he might look to books like The American Way of Poverty or more critical texts like They Rule: The 1% Vs. Democracy – the latter of which highlights the ritual complicity of the Democrat’s in the ongoing transfer of wealth and power to a tiny plutocratic elite.

When Andersen concludes his essay by asking “What is to be done?”, ironically echoing the title of a seminal text by one of history’s most renowned “left wing zealots”, his own fantastic and irrational response is to admit that he doesn’t actually “have an actionable agenda” for change; although almost as an afterthought he adds, we should do our best to “stop things from getting any worse.” To undertake this task he rallies his troops, pleading that “we in reality-based America” must now stand firm and commit to waging a “struggle” of fact against falsehoods. He sees no urgent need to fight for meaningful political change, or to even partake in collective democratic action. Instead he implores his reality-based readers to “Fight the good fight in your private life.” But remember, he warns “You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger” who persists in promoting magical thinking; save your energy for winning over only your acquaintances, friends and family members (particularly your “children or grandchildren” if you have any). On that note of fantasy, I will leave you (the reader) to decide whether you stand in solidarity with Andersen or with the ordinary Americans that the author of Fantasyland has so little respect for.

Notes.

[1] The publisher of Fantasyland, Random House, is a good example of a mainstream media organization that derives immense profits from selling all manner of mumbo jumbo from Erich Von Daniken’s infamous books about ancient aliens, to an endless stream of books about anti-scientific health remedies written by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil.

[2] James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Open Hand Publishing, 1985 [1972]), p.220.

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Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).

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