Magical thinking has always run deep in America, but in the last 30 years things have begun to escalate. "Nutty fringe ideas" are making their way into the mainstream.
In the last 30 years religion has radicalized American politics and seriously harmed the perception of science, says journalist and author Kurt Andersen. This can be directly tied to the rise of the Christian Right in the 20th century. To see this, you only have to look at the response to the same question posed to Republican presidential candidates over three election cycles, from 2008 to 2016: "Do you believe in Darwinian biological evolution?" In 2008, the majority answered yes. In 2012, there were notably less. In 2016? There was only one of 17 candidates who said he did—Jeb Bush, and even he began to backpedal as he answered. "I don’t believe all those people believed what they said," says Andersen, "I don’t think all of them disbelieve in evolution, just some of them—but they were all obliged to say 'yes' to falsehood and magical thinking of this religious kind, and that’s where it becomes problematic." From climate change to Creationism and outright conspiracy theories, Andersen points to how the Republican party has come to increasingly incorporate fantasy and wishful untruths into its approach to social, economic, and foreign policy—and it's turning America into an anti-science spectacle. Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
Americans are inherently a little crazy. But now the crazy is being enabled by politicians in the White House and by the internet. How exactly did it get so bad?
Since a boat of religious fanatics with buckles on their hats hit the shores near Plymouth Rock and claimed that this was their utopia, America has always been a little bit crazy. It's this kind of wide-eyed "anything can happen if you believe" mentality that, at its best, can produce incredible art. But at its worst, it can be cruel and conspiratorial. We live in a country where people refuse to believe vaccination can help you and where a White House is spinning "alternative — but Kurt Andersen is here to say that this is nothing now. At the time of the Civil War, society had become split by two sides that refused to listen to each other. Back then, the political and social divide is stoked by a hyperbolic partisan media where anyone could publish whatever they wanted in a pamphlet without fact-checking. Sound familiar? It definitely should. Kurt's latest book is appropriately titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
Why does America confuse fantasy for reality, in pop culture and in politics? Kurt Andersen can pinpoint the moment it happened.
The start of the 20th century was the birth of a strange new reality in the United States. The advent of the moving image, of Hollywood and sudden celebrity, caused a quantum shift in how Americans thought about the experience of life. Actors were elevated to the status of superheroes and demigods, and those left in the obscurity of the masses began to desire that elusive privilege: fame. But where America really went haywire, author Kurt Andersen explains, is when the cult of celebrity and the cult of capitalism merged: it was the opening of Disneyland in 1955. A bizarre reality where advertising met animation. You could buy real wares, from fake characters, in real stores, with make-believe themes. "What happened in Disneyland... did not stay there," says Andersen. From Mickey Mouse all the way to the White House, Anderson doesn't find it at all surprising that Americans might have a hard time telling what's true from what's false. He calls it the fantasy-industrial complex, and it might just be America's beautifully branded nightmare. Kurt Andersen's new book is Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.