How on earth did we get here?
That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves since the 2016 election. The nation’s air — and airwaves — remain thick with accusations of fake news and claims of alternative facts. Reality is a matter of consensus, and right now we can’t seem to agree on anything.
Two recent books, Kurt Andersen’s brilliant “Fantasyland” and Kevin Young’s somewhat less successful “Bunk,” suggest that our current conundrum shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise. Americans, it turns out, have a history of embracing falsehood as fact.
Andersen’s chronicle sweeps us from the delusions and fantasies inspired by the New World to the prejudices and manipulations of the modern media state. He has great fun tracing myriad ecstatic and demonic chapters of all-American lunacy. But he’s also deeply worried.
“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational,” he acknowledges in “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.” The problems arise when people behave “as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts.” While that stance seems especially true in the Trump era, Andersen contends that it didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve always been susceptible to conspiracy theories, extreme beliefs, and “magical thinking.” But their intensity has increased in the digital era. “Before the Internet,” he notes, “crackpots were mostly isolated and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities.”
His aim in “Fantasyland” is to “define and pin down our condition, to portray its scale and scope, to offer some fresh explanations of how our national journey deposited us here.”
He succeeds to an extraordinary degree, starting with the first British settlers in New England and Virginia. It was an act of extremity, he believes, for them to make the move in the first place. “[M]ost of them abandoned everything — friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world — to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.”
For some, the lure was imaginary riches. For others, Andersen contends, it was “the freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished.”
Credence in fantasy wasn’t confined to theological concerns. The Panic of 1893, triggered by a burst railroad bubble, happened despite the Panic of 1873, which was also prompted by a burst railroad bubble. “Americans, predisposed to believe in bonanzas and their own special luckiness, were not really learning the hard lessons of economic booms and busts.”
In prose that’s lucid, supple, and powered by paradox, Andersen sees rationalism and irrationality as feeding each other in unexpected ways: “The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true.”
Andersen finds the source of our current political mudbath in the social upheavals of the 1960s. Political and cultural right-wingers, he notes, point to the decade as “the source of everything they loathe.”
“In fact,” he observes, “what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same coins minted around 1967. All the ideas we call countercultural barged onto the cultural main stage in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s true, but what we don’t really register is that so did extreme Christianity, full-blown conspiracism, libertarianism, unembarrassed greed, and more.”
Andersen argues that all these threads, abetted by a spirit of “epic individualism,” make up a distinctly American tapestry we inhabit today “where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.’’
“Fantasyland’’ delivers so much persuasive information that it’s troubling the book supplies no bibliography and few footnotes. His footnotes kick in only when he starts citing genuinely eyebrow-raising statistics — for instance, that out of the world’s 34 most highly developed countries, only Turkey gives less credence to the theory of evolution than the United States.
Pondering what has led so many Americans “to abandon reason and evidentiary standards,” Andersen speculates that “apparently harmless fictions” are “combining with particular religious and political mindsets to become dangerous, with impacts in the real world. There is a line extending from flying-saucer obsessives to 9/11 truthers to Donald Trump.”
While Andersen focuses on sizable American social movements or cults, African-American poet and cultural critic Young (“The Grey Album”) targets a catalog of individuals he feels are emblematic of our social ills. In “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” Young finds that lying and trickery have become embedded in American culture for going on three centuries and that African-Americans in particular have suffered because of it.
The number and range of his examples are both impressive but sometimes difficult to follow. Along with the tongue-in-cheek cons of P.T. Barnum, the literary exaggerations and scams of James Frey and JT LeRoy, and the identity manipulations of Rachel Dolezal, he also examines 19th-century spirit photographers, forged Hitler diaries, and a fake Stone Age tribe in the Philippines, among others.
Another shortcoming involves the way Young tries to make one word, “hoax,” carry more weight than it can comfortably bear. “[T]he hoax,” he writes, “is a kind of anxiety — a symptom, even a hysteria — surrounding questions of origins and the truth, suffering and redemption, innocence and righteousness and race.” Clearly he’s talking about more than the dictionary definition of “hoax” (“something intended to deceive or defraud”). But his dense, elliptical prose sometimes obscures points.
Things get clearer when he cites academic Ormond Seavey on newspaper hoaxes in the 19th century. “It was a time when the tall tale was first recognized as a characteristically American narrative. Both the deadpan teller of the tale and his impassive listeners were conspirators against reality.”
In fact, that collaboration between the deceiver and the deceived is a theme that threads throughout. Young’s take is that most deeply held cultural falsehoods, such as racial stereotypes, continue because they are deeply rooted in fears, fantasies, and prejudice. They are, therefore, “the ultimate hoax” perpetrated by whites against blacks, whether in minstrel shows, fiction, journalism, or other venues.
There’s the case of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, for instance, whose concocted articles for The New Republic profiled people and places (including members of the African-American community) that had no basis in reality. Glass’s 1996 story “Taxis and the Meaning of Work” theorized that recent Muslim and Asian immigrants were replacing African-American cab drivers in Washington, D.C., because “native-born blacks’’ didn’t want to accept the risks of the job “in pursuit of upward mobility’’ anymore. The story wound up focusing on a mythical “Korean-cab-driver-turned-vigilante” who used his “martial arts expertise” against “three brick-wielding black teenagers.” “[Glass] supplied things we imagined to be true,” Young says, “because we wanted them to be, or feared they might be.”
Young’s study does touch on Trump (about 10 pages, plus three on Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama), although the president gets far less treatment than the subtitle might suggest (or than many readers might want). Dubbing Trump “the modern inheritor to P.T. Barnum” Young sees him as embodying an “Age of Euphemism” in which “belief substitutes for truth, and truth is a commodity grown increasingly rare.”
If you’re trying to get a handle on how we landed in a pile of Trump, “Fantasyland” offers a clear, persuasive historical framework while “Bunk’’ provides some insights into why we’re too often plagued these days by torchlight processions of blind bigotry that defy explanation.
How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History
By Kurt Andersen
Random House, 462 pp., $30
The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug,
Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts,
and Fake News
By Kevin Young
Graywolf 560 pp., illustrated, $30
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.