Books: Nightmares in the dreamworld

Written By: Ian Hernon
Published: January 26, 2018 Last modified: January 26, 2018

Fantasyland – How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
by Kurt Andersen
Ebury Press £20

It is alleged that a quarter of Americans believe Barack Obama may have been the anti-christ, and believe in witches, and believe that the media uses mind-controlling broadcast signals, and believe that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the US government. A third believe that extra-terrestrials live among them. They all believe Donald Trump is their President. Which he is, for now at least.

This timely book by a New York Times best-selling author goes some was towards explaining the phenomenon whereby a vibrant nation of go-getters can be so easily fooled by crooks and phonies. Kurt Andersen describes his country as “the dreamworld creation of fantasists, some religious and some out to get rich quick, all with a freakish appetite for the amazing.” He goes on: “Our nostalgic tic also explains a lot. Americans have always been apt to think of America as the best place on Earth – but also that it used to be so much better, more pioneering, more charming, more virtuous, more authentic. People imagined in the 1700s that it was better in the theocratic wilderness of the 1600s, then in the 1800s that it was better in the 1700s, before the racket and speed of the railroads; in the 1900s we imagined it had been so much better in the 1800s, when we still depended on guns, before we moved from farms and small towns into noisy crowded cities; today, on top of those older nostalgias, we miss the good old days when Americans worked at secure well-paying jobs for years on end. In 1900 a lot of people were nostalgic for the time when Americans were all Protestant, later for when Americans were all Christian, and now for when we were practically all white – and when men were men and women were women and the love that dared not speak its name didn’t speak it.”

Such sentiments, when applied to the semi-mythical Wild West and the central rustbelts who voted for The Donald, go a long way towards explaining the failures amongst the Washington elites to recognise the danger Trump posed. But myth, sentiment and a lack of self-awareness are built into the Eastern consciousness as well. Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation had to create its own history. Hence, the adventurer and all-round dodgy character Christopher Columbus was first popularized by Washington Irving in his 1829 biography, a book constructed almost entirely out of romance rather than history. It spun a fable of an individual who challenged the unknown sea, as Americans confronted the promise of their own wilderness, creating a land free of kings and class prejudice. Captain John Smith’s 1624 account of the Jamestown colony was devoured not because of its description of hardship and colonial greed, but because of his fabled rescue by the Red Indian princess Pocahontas, a legend that has persisted ever since. There is no evidence that the Mayflower’s pilgrim fathers ever disembarked on any rock, never mind Plymouth Rock, and the first written reference was penned 121 years later.

Andersen points out that over the last “modern” century, Americans who began believing in miracle cures, invasions of their bodies by Satan and a “civilisation of “lunar batmen”, ended up putting their trust in fake news, the cult of celebrity, advertising and the life-enhancing potential of rampant capitalism. He writes: “Each was predicated on freewheeling blends of the fanciful and the real. Selling ourselves dreamy fabrications on a national scale became routine, part of the American way.” Trump is not the first beneficiary of such dreamy fabrications based on the perception that the bigger the lie, the best chance it has of being believed.

About Ian Hernon

Ian Hernon is Deputy Editor of Tribune