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Since a boat of religious fanatics with buckles on their hats hit the shores near Plymouth Rock and claimed that this was their utopia, America has always been a little bit crazy. It’s this kind of wide-eyed “anything can happen if you believe” mentality that, at its best, can produce incredible art. But at its worst, it can be cruel and conspiratorial. We live in a country where people refuse to believe vaccination can help you and where a White House is spinning “alternative — but Kurt Andersen is here to say that this is nothing now. At the time of the Civil War, society had become split by two sides that refused to listen to each other. Back then, the political and social divide is stoked by a hyperbolic partisan media where anyone could publish whatever they wanted in a pamphlet without fact-checking. Sound familiar? It definitely should. Kurt’s latest book is appropriately titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC’s Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine’s architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called “The Imperial City” for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue. We were started by the Puritans in New England who wanted to create and did create a Christian utopia and theocracy as they waited for the eminent second coming of Christ and the end of days. And in the south by a bunch of people who were convinced, absolutely convinced that this place they’d never been was full of gold just to be plucked from the dirt in Virginia and they stayed there looking and hoping for gold for 20 years before they finally faced the facts and the evidence and decided that they weren’t going to get rich overnight there. So that was the beginning. And then we’ve had centuries of buyer-beware charlatanism to an extreme degree and medical quackery to an extreme degree and increasingly exotic extravagant implausible religions over and over again from Mormonism to Christian Science to Scientology in the last century.
And we’ve had this antiestablishment “I’m not going to trust the experts, I’m not going to trust the elite” from our character from the beginning. Now all those things came together and were super-charged in the 1960s when you were entitled to your own truth and your own reality. Then a generation later when the Internet came along, giving each of those realities, no matter how false or magical or nutty they are, their own kind of media infrastructure. We had entertainment, again for the last couple hundred years, but especially in the last 50 years permeating all the rest of life, including Presidential politics from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Ragan to Bill Clinton. So the thing was set up for Donald Trump to exploit all these various American threads and astonishingly become president, but then you look at this history and it’s…
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