Column: American crackpots used to be a charming part of our civic life, until they started steering the ship


We’re a big country; we’ve always had some space for the eccentrics and the crackpots and scolds, starting with the Puritans. We’ve made folk heroes out of the rogue and the loner, the huckster and the wacky believer. But recently, it feels as if these outliers -- the credulous, the fantasists and conspiracy theorists -- have taken control of the ship of state. Kurt Andersen set out to find out what that means.

When serious science is being sidelined as a plot, when a good education makes someone a dangerous elitist, Andersen says we’ve moved past healthy skepticism to a crisis of unhealthy, uninformed dogmatism. In his book, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History,” the author and onetime New Yorker writer goes looking for how that practical, level-headed, sensible America has lost its way.

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This is aspirational America, where we say you can be anything you want. But this book is actually about how Americans think they can believe anything they want, and I mean anything.

It is, and of course they are free to believe anything they want and that is part of what makes America great. This is beyond that legal freedom of thought. This is, “I can believe that every opinion or hunch I have is equivalent to a fact.” That’s the American problem.

What were our founding fantasies about ourselves in this country?

First of all, the New World, as it was understood by our English forebears, was a blank slate. It was this blank slate on which all kinds of fictional creations could be imagined. The Puritans’ theocratic utopia, the people who went to Virginia even before the Pilgrims to find gold. They thought that there was gold and silver and jewels to be had for the plucking, which turned out not to be true.

And more generally, that you could come here and absolutely throw off life as it existed and leave civilization and be whomever you wanted to be, pretend to be whomever you wanted to be. And then, as time went on, sell whatever you wanted to sell, because this is the land of freedom and opportunity, and part of that freedom and opportunity involved charlatans and suckers.

Do we make a distinction between sensible dissent and any sort of silly dissent? Do we think that all outcasts are heroes, and not sometimes just crazy people?

That’s tough to do. That’s the hurly-burly of the marketplace of ideas, where those distinctions don’t get easily made. For a few hundred years, with extremes and exceptions up and down, I think this country had a pretty good de facto system in place for sticking to the relatively straight and narrow. There was always an anti-establishment impulse and anti-elite and anti-intellectual, all of those things, but by and large the people who actually knew things were allowed to remain in control and say, “No, this is nonsense,” or “This is hogwash.” Until those old impulses that “I can believe absolutely anything I want and you can’t tell me different” arose out of control 40 or 50 years ago.

The country was created in the age of enlightenment, the age of rationality, and we had in among the founding fathers people who were profound rationalists, or who were men of science. So how did the margins break into the mainstream, and how often has that happened?

It depends on what you mean by the margins. People who believe whatever the 18th century or 19th century equivalent of “the Martians have landed and taken me away” did not break into the mainstream. And to me that’s what was good about our system for a long time.

We’ve gotten to a kind of cascade, where nothing is impermissible, and it does bleed out into the real world with real consequences.

But take abolitionism. Abolitionism was a kind of fringe idea in, say, 1800, and by 1830, 1840, 1850 it was no longer a fringe idea. So good ideas and moral ideas and correct ideas that were of a political kind or a moral kind or social kind that were stigmatized managed to make their way in, through years of activism and militants and writing and all those other things.

But here and there, people were still allowed to push highly unorthodox ideas that turned out not to be true. Like the first great “the world is about to end and Armageddon’s going to begin and Jesus is returning” -- the so- called Millerites in the 1840s. He attracted millions of followers, and that didn’t happen.

America is free, free to allow abolitionism to rise and slavery to be outlawed, free to allow everybody who believes whatever nutty thing to believe it. We had our system whereby the elites did their best to keep what they dismissed as wrongheaded or wrong or factually untrue.

All kinds of medical quackery and wacky and exotic beliefs of all kinds that were permitted because, as Thomas Jefferson said, “As long as it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg you can believe in 20 gods or no gods, I don’t care.” That was the way it worked.

You talk about Disneyland and Las Vegas as a kind of alpha and omega of fantasyland too.

Exactly, and both of them, as I describe them, when they were founded – simultaneously, essentially, in the 1950s, they seemed like strange, one-of-a kind, one-off outliers, out there in the West.

In both cases, and especially Disneyland to an extraordinary degree, they have become models and templates for great large swaths of American life. I mean, Main Street USA to my mind in Disneyland is kind of the first model for American urban and suburban development that followed.

And of course Las Vegas was the place you could gamble until the 1980s, and now there are a thousand casinos in the United States, and lotteries everywhere. They were important milestones in history.

And again, I love Disneyland, I love Disney World. Not everything that I include in this history as part of how we got here is a bad thing. I like Vegas, for that matter. But they are all pieces of this increasingly fantastical world that we’ve built for ourselves, and makes the reality-based part of our culture beleaguered.

How is that a problem, if we can inhabit our own fantasies? Or have we gotten to the point where there are public consequences to these private beliefs?

That’s exactly the problem. Again, if it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg, go crazy. Live your private fantasies, whatever they may be -- if they’re private. But if, for instance, when I decide that, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, vaccines cause autism and I stop vaccinating my children, or when I decide, all scientific evidence to the contrary, that climate change and global warming don’t exist and start pressuring to have public policy to be legislated according to that belief -- that becomes problematic.

I think a good deal of the politics that have made gun regulation impossible over the last 40 years is born of various kinds of fantasies -- that’s a problem.

As long as it just affects you and your family and your fellow members of whatever tribe you belong to, I have no problem. We have gotten to a place where so much magical thinking and fantasy and even delusion are permitted and allowed and encouraged, we’ve gotten to a kind of cascade, where nothing is impermissible, and it does bleed out into the real world with real consequences.

You look at the roots of this in the 1950s and 1960s ideas that you can simply do your own thing, one example being the hippie compound, living off the grid, that that has now become the survivalist -- from a commune to a compound, I suppose. That’s one example of the kind of relativism you say now underpins conservative as well as liberal thinking in many places.

I don’t want to do a both-sides-are-equally-guilty thing, but the history I’m talking about, the problematic parts of it, are not limited to right or left. They are highly asymmetrically right, right now in our politics. But it’s not simply a left-versus-right thing. All these good things about America -- this skeptical instinct that was born of the Enlightenment, the anti-establishment instinct -- all these things, they’re great, they are defining parts of what truly made America great.

Until they got wildly out of control over the last several decades. Survivalists are, instead of believing that some kind of wonderful revolution New Age is about to dawn, believe everything is about to collapse and go to hell.

In many instances there are these two sides. My late New Yorker colleague Michael Kelly coined the phrase 20 years ago “‘fusion paranoia” to talk about how people of the general vague left and the general right were meeting in their beliefs, in their shared paranoia about giant conspiracies that were oppressing them.

And indeed the ’90s are when we reached our final tipping point. What really blew up in the ’60s and ’70s had a generation to spread, and then we had the Internet and we were off to the races, or choose a new metaphor. We were gone.

Now we have the leadership which may see its role as, rather than keeping the fantasies and the conspiracies at bay, maybe leveraging those for its own advantage.

Well, exactly, certainly leveraging them to their own advantage of various kinds, whether it’s media organizations, television channels, publishers who put out all kinds of material that they are selling as nonfiction that is clearly fiction, whether it’s the real-life story of mermaids, the documentaries about mermaids or swamp monsters or books about alien abductions.

In the case of the Republican Party, yes, leveraging, as you say, the conspiracy beliefs of many of its most fervent partisans about a New World Order, or about how white people are really more subject to prejudice than black people -- an absurd and dangerous and widely believed fantasy – to “climate change is a conspiracy of liberals and scientists and foreigners to somehow cripple America.”

Really, for a generation, I would say, from the late ’90s through very recently, the rational, realist establishment in charge of the Republican Party thought, “Oh, we can handle this, we can use this,” and then suddenly they couldn’t. And then suddenly they weren’t in control.

How do you put this back in the bottle? With all of this happening, how do you run a country that depends on the rule of law, the existence of real facts, the veracity of math and science?

I wish I knew that. You know, at the end of my book I talk about some things we can do. I think what those of us in a position to have conversations like this in the public sphere should become less squishy, less permissive, like, well, yeah, you’re entitled to that opinion – you aren’t entitled to that opinion if you’re expressing it as a fact.

And it’s true in our families, in the way we raise our children, in the nutty brother-in-law who we don’t want to get in a fight with because he believes his nutty things. So maybe there’ll be a pendulum swing slightly, but I don’t think we’re going all the way back. I don’t, in the digital age.

If we can all get together and we can stop it from getting worse, I think that this may be peak fantasyland.

And I want to make clear to people that I was finished with the first chapter of this book by the time he got nominated, so it wasn’t written to be an explanation of Donald Trump. He embodies every argument I make, virtually, but if he hadn’t been elected – if Hillary Clinton had been elected, if Bernie Sanders had been elected, whomever -- the case I’m making for where we are, where we’ve gotten, would still be the case. We would simply have missed the bullet of Donald Trump.

Do you have a brief answer to someone who would say, “We are still the most prosperous country in the world, we’re the most powerful country in the world, so what are you griping about?”

All that’s true. We are that, although the last 20 years of flat-lining wages and increasing insecurity and inequality and all the rest makes me wonder if my children will be able to say that in 20 years.

But no, I’m not saying that as a political economy we’re goners yet. We’ve got fixable problems of the infrastructure, of healthcare, you name it, that can be fixed. They can’t be fixed, and we’re not going to remain the strongest, best, greatest country on Earth, if different halves of us can decide they live in a different world.

It’s not just that I wish more of my fellow Americans were reasonable and rational – I do – but that there are real consequences in keeping America great, frankly, and whole and functional.

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