My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.
Frankly, I think they’re right.
It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.
“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”
That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.
That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)
And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)
Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.
He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.
The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.
After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.
She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.
You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.
So everybody ends up in the muck.
Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”
Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.
Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.
I recommend “Idiocracy.”