Thursday, 8 February 2018

Kurt Anderson's 'Fantasyland': A Noisy Rickshaw Ride With A Dogmatic Driver

To read the American historian David McCullough is akin to travelling in a Rolls Royce. The ride is quiet and smooth, details are precise, the view clear. At the end the reader is enriched.

In contrast, reading another American ‘historian’, Kurt Anderson, is rather like travelling in a rickshaw. The ride is bumpy and very noisy, the exhaust constantly spluttering. There are details, but they are like the dust and smells and random colours of a street in a bustling Asian city. And so quickly does all this heat and noise come at you it is not easy to know what you are meant to be looking at. There is no clear view. At the end of the journey the reader feels rather tired and unsure about the journey he has been on.

Most difficult of all is the driver. Unlike a true historian like David McCullough who lets his properly researched history tell its own story, Kurt Anderson is constantly shouting at you with his massive generalisations and dogmatic opinions.

And the tone is less than gracious.

Like a racist who assumes his readers will share his simplistic views about colour, Kurt Anderson assumes his reader will agree that science has proved that God does not exist and so – hey ho - all believers are fantasists.

And so he demeans them with his language. Christians are ‘berserk’; their beliefs ‘fantastical, terrifying’. The Christians who founded America were ‘a nutty religious cult’, ‘whacked out visionaries’. The respected theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards ‘was all about believing and feeling the magic’. What other historians refer to as a revival or an awakening, Anderson has to call a ‘delirium’. Billy Sunday does not preach against evolution, he ‘snarls’. And when it comes to Pentecostalism and speaking in tongues our ‘historian’ just has one cartoon word ‘gibberish’ to describe a movement made up of 279 million people: Such patronizing, juvenile and simplistic sniping at Christianity and her nearly two billion adherents is less than endearing.

The tone is not that of serious history; nor really is the substance. Anderson’s thesis is that American is a land where fantasy holds sway, not facts. And this is the result of the country’s history. The Puritans, the gold seekers, the cults, the conspiracy theories, the Christian fundamentalists, even the enlightenment, the Pentecostals, the gun lovers, all have played a part in this and the final result is President Trump.

As with a bumpy rickshaw ride, the smells and colours from the street have their own fascination, and Anderson’s tabloid style keeps you reading. And the dogmatic opinions, especially on how America relates to the enlightenment, are not without interest. But it’s all too simplistic with Anderson brazenly breaking the first two rules of serious discourse: don’t generalize (especially over the mind set of 316 million people) and define your terms (who exactly is a fantasist?)

So, long before you are even half-way you know – especially if you’re accustomed to reading historians like McCullough – that you are in the hands of an amateur. Or rather a professional journalist used to writing punchy articles to be thrown away the next week. Tied together into a bulky book, it’s not so impressive.

There is irony on the book’s cover. We are told it’s a 500 year history. Well, only in a very rough fashion. It’s more just a collection of stories from America’s past – especially the last fifty years – that support Anderson’s argument. And then at the top Walter Isaacson tells us that this is ‘The indispensable book for understanding America in the age of Trump’.

Indispensable? I don’t think so. That is why I have put it in the bin. 

So a man writing about ‘Fantasyland’ has allowed fantasy to appear on the front cover of his book.

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