Best-selling author Kurt Andersen, Harvard-educated host of public radio’s Studio 360, a Peabody Award-winning program, has performed a service to U.S. citizens and those around the world mystified by what is unfolding in the USA. As an immigrant, like most U.S. citizens, I am baffled by what happened to my beloved adopted country in 2016 and the electoral college victory and presidency of Donald Trump over the almost 3 million popular vote margins for Hillary Clinton.
In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (2017), Anderson offers the best explanations yet – delving into our past 500 years for the seeds of the present unhinging of US politics and society. This deep dive into the foundations of our extreme religiosity and why it persisted after secularism took over in most other developed countries goes beyond all the now-obvious reasons for our current polarization and chaos caused by Russian and other hackers planting fake news on Facebook and other social media. Andersen comments less on the resurgence of white nativism, economic nationalism, anti-immigrant and racist fears stoked by Trump’s campaign, preferring to examine how they were exploited.
I read Fantasyland as my home state of Florida was battered by superstorm Irma, while Texas and other southern states were still flooded by superstorm Harvey. While wall-to-wall TV news avoided discussing the obvious role of climate change, they covered the worst human calamities. Millions like me who were unharmed but inconvenienced were not news. Our friends, panicked by the TV images, envisioning Armageddon or the biblical “end times”, filled the over 1,500 e-mails I found when my internet service returned. Andersen explains how the USA’s founding Christian beliefs fed into our media: from circuses to revivals, theater, films, TV, radio and lately, social media, gaming, big data, algorithms, AI and virtual reality - all companies in the new growth sectors of our economy and major US exporters of this “fantasy-industrial complex".
As European and other developed countries became secular democracies, the USA’s secularism and rationalism was created from Enlightenment roots and similar foundations: institutions, rule of law, the Constitution, economic, academic and scientific progress. These formed the infrastructure and the firm traditions we now hope will survive the onslaught of right-takeover obscurantism, conspiracy theories, Breitbart, Bannon, Sessions, neo Nazis and the Tea Party takeover of the Republican party. These were all used by the Trump campaign and psychographic targeting by Cambridge Analytica, all funded by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who still bankrolls much of this movement. Joined by the fossilized 19th century sectors of the US economy - coal, oil, gas, internal combustion powered automobiles, industrial agriculture, chemical, plastics, pharmaceuticals, the manufactured food industry - whose stocks are still touted by many Wall Street firms and fill our 401ks and pension plans. All these forces, funded by the Koch brothers and their right-wing donors network, still block the growth of the renewable-resource sectors and support climate deniers and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accords. As global realities, North Korea’s threats and rising Asian power faced Trump, he pivots on trade and the importance of multilateral agreements and the United Nations.
The anti-environment climate change-denying forces fund myriad think tanks and university courses, as documented by Jane Meyer in Dark Money (2016), and play into the myriad Christian and other belief systems, as their cults proliferated away from sober hard-working Protestantism famously described by Max Weber. They morphed into Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, evangelicals, Pentecostals and the some 50% of US citizens who deny evolution and believe literally in the bible and its prophesies. Andersen doesn’t spare the cults of the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war hippies or the later New Age doctrines that led to the hyper-individualism “do your own thing" relativism and tolerance of the overturning of older verities and “elite" establishments in government, science, academia and corporations. He lampoons its enabling psychiatry and psychology, alternative therapies, homeopathy, herbal remedies and California’s Esalen Institute. For full disclosure, I have given workshops there - on global citizenship, technological globalization and the United Nations' role in global norm and standard-setting - while others were communing in group therapy, primal screams and enjoying the hot baths.
Andersen stresses the key link between the rational, hard-working traditions, laws and precedents of the secular-humanist democracy traditions and institutions and the ever-proliferating beliefs of religious and spiritual groups: All share the overarching ideology of the primacy of the individual. This morphed into hyper-individualism and free market fundamentalism, as expressed, for example, in Ayn Rand’s books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, prominent on the bookshelves of Wall Streeters, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and current House Speaker Paul Ryan. They heeded Margaret Thatcher’s view that there is no such thing as society, rather that the individual is primary, even though this is disproved by most anthropologists and biologists who see humans as a communal species. This drove competitiveness while overlooking the vital role of cooperation, the ethical glue holding societies together. Economists laud Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) while ignoring his view of our human community relations in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) discussed in our TV show “"How Adam Smith and Charles Darwin Were Hijacked".
Andersen sees Wall Street’s hype, money-worship and “greed is good” culture as another sector of the “fantasy-industrial complex”. Money is confused with real wealth, a belief now being upended by the rash of cryptocurrencies. Financial media glorify financiers’ addiction to trading and short-termism, promises of riches, managing risks through clever algorithms, securitization, while selling its esoteric derivatives to pension funds or unwary municipalities and school boards. Even high-frequency trading and dark pools on new electronic platforms remain unregulated, as I document in "Perspectives on Reforming Electronic Markets and Trading". Many see, as I do, the next “flash crash”, this time global in scale. Yet excesses curbed after 2008 by Dodd-Frank are being unraveled by the Trump administration and its fossilized, Wall Street billionaire cabinet bent on deregulation. We now look to European Union financial regulations coming into force on January 3, 2018 to hold the line, as I describe in "Who's Afraid of MIFID2?".
Andersen notes that our fantasy economy with promises of ever rising GDP -measured growth, along with the rise of all these new media, advertising-influenced news, gaming, "click-bait” business models driving Silicon Valley, including “fake news”, binge-watching and focus on screens of all sizes --- continue to act as "solvents of the mental barriers between the real and the unreal". Many sociologists share his concern, and wonder about how all this is affecting our children, their ability to concentrate, since most such commercial media are aimed to sell, bypassing the forebrain and targeting the amygdala. Now Facebook (FB) faces scrutiny for running fake news and ads to the 50% of Americans who rely on the site for their news.
At last, serious critiques of Silicon Valley’s focus and profit drive toward capturing and selling “big data" on everyone, using algorithms that can amplify biases, is described by Harvard mathematician Cathy O’Neil in "Weapons of Math Destruction" (2015). Broader critiques include Frank Foer’s "World Without Mind" (2017); Doug Rushkoff’s "Throwing Rocks at the Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Bus" (2015) and political scientist E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norm Ornstein (co-autor), Thomas E. Mann, "One Nation After Trump" (2017). Sociologist Sheryl Cashin agrees with Ornstein that Trump represents a huge “speedbump “in US society, but sees hope in her "Loving: Interracial Intimacy and its Threat to White Supremacy" (2017) and makes a case that multiculturalism is growing and that our “E Pluribus Unum” From Many One meltingpot can survive and flourish.
I termed the trends Andersen describes in Fantasyland as the rise of "Mediocracies and Their 'Attention Economies,'" whatever overt political system, democracy, republic, monarchy or dictatorship (Henderson, 1996). All sectors from business, the arts, academia to politicians were cognizant of the power of media, and the need for “branding“ their policies, products and services and employing media strategists and spinmasters.
Meanwhile, as the investigation into Russian dealings closes in on Trump and his cohorts, many watch with bated breath for how much longer this presidency and its charade can last. Kurt Andersen provides little reassurance, but this deep dive into how we arrived at this point in the United States of America is required reading, as we continue to swing from extremes of gullibility to the destructive depths of skepticism and cynicism. Stay tuned!
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I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.