Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HIstory, by Kurt Andersen

Kurt Andersen has a belief about America. He believes that too many Americans live in a fantasy land, leading them to make warped decisions and hold to warped ideologies. His book outlines examples from history to make his case.

He begins with the first English to visit the continent, the first landing at Jamestown, Virginia, in what began as James Fort, under the control of the Virginia Company of London. The goal was to find gold that did not exist in the amounts they hoped.

From this he moves to Puritans building their ideal home absent of any dissent, to the mad witch trials, on through religious movements, gold fever, and wars.

Where he lands is a country that still values new versions of snake oil and idolizes permanent youth. A country in which politics is entertainment and entertainment is mind numbing. A country in which conservatives distrust science on evolution and climate change while liberals distrust science on vaccinations and genetically modified foods. A country in which millions of men play fantasy sports and others lose themselves in video games. A country that thrives on what Andersen calls the “fantasy-industrial complex”. A complex that generally nurtures the madness of crowds.

Andersen piles on example after example. Some are well-known bits of history with the author’s own, and sometimes cynical, perspective. Others are less known examples showing that America was always a little haywire but has become incredibly haywire in the past half century.

The author doesn’t really offer any solutions, though a little self-awareness and insight can go a long way toward jumping off the fantasy train.

The book is funny, sharp, and historically accurate and offers a view of American idiosyncrasies that seem familiar but, when stacked with the other examples, can be more than a little depressing and embarrassing. It’s a worthwhile filter through which to observe “youth culture”, economics, and politics in an age where all seem absurd.

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