Fantasyland 9. Myths and infotainment

Preface. This is the last of the Fantasyland review series.

Links to the 9 parts of this book review:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Kurt Andersen. 2017. Fantasyland. How America Went Haywire.  A 500-Year History. Random House.

The Gold Rush: the start of impossible dreams, luck, and the shape of reality

For Americans, I believe, the Gold Rush was an inflection point, permanently changing the way we thought about impossible dreams and luck and the shape of reality. Maybe there would be an eternal heavenly reward, but life right here could become a fabulous romance, reality as marvelous as any tall tale. Personal reinvention was not just theoretically possible but suddenly happening wholesale.

Gold in California resurrected the distinctly un-Puritan ambition of the first Virginia settlers—the individual and piratical freedom to grab for instant wealth, with little or no adult supervision.

Right around the time Tocqueville arrived and the Gold Rush happened, its meaning expanded to encompass people starting every sort of business. “I know of no country where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men,” Tocqueville observed. “Love of money is either the chief or secondary motive in everything Americans do.

The myth of the South: how Southerners came to think of themselves as civilized gentlemen and ladies who had been opposed forever by the same breed of unromantic fanatics

Following the first colonists in Virginia, the ones whose dreams of gold came to nothing, a generation of aristocrats arrived from England with titles to large American estates. They came because they’d been on the losing side in the English Civil War against…the Puritans. Just as Puritan was originally a slur against Protestants, the Puritans in turn had denigrated their opponents as imperious and snobbish Cavaliers, who adopted the name themselves. The transplanted Southern Cavaliers set about re-creating feudal Olde England in the New World, with black slaves instead of white serfs.

By the 1800s, of course, not many Southerners were either well-to-do or aristocratic, but the myth endured. And as the North grew still more northern—urban, calculating, censorious, grasping—and started phasing out slavery, the Southern myth was fomented and believed more devoutly than ever.

Southerners’ fictionalized self-conception was encouraged and shaped for decades by novels that enshrined the Cavalier myth and depicted the plantation system as idyllic.  Swallow Barn, published in 1832, was immensely popular. “I am quite sure they could never become a happier people than I find them here,” the narrator says of the fictional slaves on a Virginia plantation. “No tribe of people has ever passed from barbarism to civilization whose…progress has been more secure from harm, more genial to their character, or better supplied with mild and beneficent guardianship, adapted to the actual state of their intellectual feebleness, than the Negroes of Swallow Barn.

Walter Scott’s books—such as Ivanhoe, Waverley, and Woodstock, or The Cavalier—are overwrought, sentimental historical fictions of English and Scottish knights and lords and ladies of centuries past. There had never been an author more popular. He published a new novel every 18 months between 1814 and 1832, just as Southerners became desperate to justify and romanticize their slave-based neo-feudalism.

Mark Twain noticed this, and wrote in Life on the Mississippi: “Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments,” and the change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person. By his single might [he] checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion;…with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs…and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote….It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war…. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.

Twain’s conclusion still bears repeating: a particular set of historical fictions and fantasies led to secession and Civil War.

Southerners were driven by nostalgia for the time before slavery started becoming untenable. The overriding theme of the first great popular songwriter, Stephen Foster, was nostalgia for a South that he imagined from up north in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Southern Nostalgia brings the KKK into being

Robert Love Taylor, Tennessee’s former governor and future U.S. senator, lectured throughout the country on the glories of the Old South. “Every sunrise of summer was greeted by the laughter and songs of the darkies as they gathered in gangs and went forth in every direction to begin the labors of the day,” he’d say. “I never shall forget the white-columned mansions rising in cool, spreading groves. And stretching away to the horizon were the cotton fields, alive with the toiling slaves, who, without a single care to burden their hearts, sang as they toiled from early morn till close of day.” This was typical of the treacly, long-sigh fantasy visions of Old Dixie being propagated in the early 1900s.

In 1915 the director D. W. Griffith released a motion picture that was more cinematically ambitious, sophisticated, and compelling than any so far—the movie of the year, of the decade, hugely profitable. It was The Birth of a Nation, a shameless three-hour-long piece of propaganda for the mythical Old South and its Ku Klux Klan redeemers.

During the next decade, the popularity of the revived Klan exploded. Along with the hideous nostalgia for unquestioned white supremacy,

As a million and a half black people migrated from South to North during the 1910s and ’20s, four of the five states with the largest Klan memberships were Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. At its peak in the early 1920s, probably 5 percent of white American men were in the KKK. The meteoric rise and fall of the Klan aside, white Southerners’ myth of their own special goodness—honorable, honest, humane, and civilized guardians of tradition, unlike the soulless Yankees—did not wither. It endured in new forms in the new century, with Daddy’s and Granddaddy’s Civil War a noble and glorious Lost Cause that tragically failed to preserve their antebellum golden age. Slavery qua slavery? No, no, no, the war hadn’t really been about that; slavery was a detail. In fact, white Southerners had fought the war to defend their right as Americans to believe anything they wanted to believe, even an unsustainable fantasy, even if it meant treating a class of humanity as nonhuman.

Slavery’s spread was stopped, but not the nationwide spread of certain unfortunate Southern habits of mind, along with increasingly berserk versions of Christianity.

Mythologizing of American Leaders and others

We started to believe attractive falsehoods about our founding. Successful leaders had been glorified always, but America’s mythologizing happened immediately and had a particular sanctimonious flavor. The best-known fact about Washington’s first 45 years, concerning the cherry tree—“I can’t tell a lie, Pa…. I did cut it with my hatchet”—was a lie in a bestselling biography that appeared months after he died. One of the best-known facts about his war service, the time he knelt in prayer at Valley Forge, was almost certainly untrue.

A bestselling work of fiction in the 1800s, The Legends of the American Revolution, 1776, included a story called “The Fourth of July, 1776.” A quasi-angel—“a tall slender man…dressed in a dark robe”—mysteriously appears among the Founders in Philadelphia and delivers a five-minute speech (“God has given America to be free!”) that makes them finally stop arguing and sign the Declaration. Then he mysteriously disappears. Americans from across the religious spectrum chose to regard that fantasy as historical fact, and they still do today.

As the Yale religious historian Jon Butler has written, the early United States was an “antebellum spiritual hothouse,” Christian faith blending freely with folk magic—belief in the occult, clairvoyance, shamanic healing, and prophetic dreams, much of it old folk superstition no longer constrained by Puritan doctrine and order. America was ripe for and rife with magical thinking of every kind.

Boone lived 37 years as a celebrity, surviving and thriving on the edge of the American wilderness as he made it progressively less wild, more pastoral. His life, authentic and extraordinary but also fictionalized even as he lived it, became for his fellow citizens a real-time, real-life fantasy of the ultimate American Natural Man, an early version of the kind of super-celebrity that Buffalo Bill would fictionalize and monetize a half-century after Boone died.

The American pastoral ideal also grew out of the new Christianity that considered itself more perfect because it was more pure and primitive. Americans’ loathing of Catholicism and later of monarchy devolved into a loathing of Europe and of cities as well. All of which made it easier for Americans to turn the lemon of the New World—the horrifying wilderness—into lemonade, to make the new nation one in which (tamed) nature was ever present. Americans wanted it both ways, the prosperity and comfort that required towns and cities and factories and railroads, but also the picturesque fantasy that one was still Boone-like, living near where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.

Henry David Thoreau invented a certain kind of entitled, upper-middle-class extended adolescence. After college he hung around the nice Boston suburb where he’d grown up, taught some school, wrote the occasional essay, networked, became personal assistant and protégé to a famous local writer (Ralph Waldo Emerson), decided eating meat was bad,

Then, at 27, in 1844, he hatched a high-concept plan for a project that epitomized the pastoral fantasy that American suburbanites and hippies and country-home owners have reenacted ever since. On a wooded lot that Emerson owned, young Henry built a one-room cabin. He moved in on the Fourth of July—nice touch—and imagined he was an American hinter-lander, rustic and self-reliant, fully communing with nature, pure and virtuous.

Then, at 27, in 1844, he hatched a high-concept plan for a project that epitomized the pastoral fantasy that American suburbanites and hippies and country-home owners have reenacted ever since. On a wooded lot that Emerson owned, young Henry built a one-room cabin. He moved in on the Fourth of July—nice touch—and imagined he was an American hinter-lander, rustic and self-reliant, fully communing with nature, pure and virtuous.

Walden was the book of pensées he published chronicling his two years “in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself…and earned my living by the labor of my hands only….I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life….Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow—no gate—no front-yard—and no path to the civilized world.

In fact, his cabin, which his friends helped him build, was barely a half-hour walk from the prosperous old town where his mom and dad and a couple of thousand other people lived, and only a seventeen-mile trip on the new railroad from the third-largest city in America.

When Thoreau left Walden Pond to spend a couple of weeks in the true wilderness of northern Maine, he was horrified—“grim and wild,” “vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature.” After 800 days living deep and sucking out all the marrow of existence, he returned to town, helping run his father’s pencil-making business, living for the rest of his life at his parents’ big house on Main Street. Thoreau epitomized this particular have-your-cake-and-eat-it American fantasy, a life in harmony with nature as long as it’s not too uncomfortable or inconvenient.

In addition, Thoreau believed in fairies and astrology and thought the full moon enabled him to have out-of-body experiences. He and Emerson were Transcendentalists, the lightly Asian-flavored link between the bland, educated Protestantism of the American Enlightenment and the spicy potluck animism and mysticism efflorescing when I first read Walden. “Standing on the bare ground,” Emerson told an audience shortly before Thoreau published Walden, “my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifting into empty space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Humans are essentially good. All creation exists in a magnificent web of interconnection. Nature is God and God is nature. What’s not to like?

‘Live in the all,’?” Melville wrote to Hawthorne. What nonsense!… This “all” feeling…there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

Citizens in the 1800s with idiosyncratic ideals—political, economic, nutritional, sexual—set out into the countryside to form better, more perfect micro-nations within their new nation. More than a hundred utopian communities were established across the American countryside during the First Great Delirium.

The other settlements ranged in size from a dozen to hundreds of people, ridiculous and fascinating and adorable American fantasias. Except for the free-love Oneida Community, which had multiple branches in the Northeast and lasted for decades before morphing into a major cutlery and tableware company, they were short-lived—but in the late 1960s, at the birth of modern American Fantasyland, they reincarnated as communes.

The American Dream required living in a little house on the prairie, in the big woods, on the banks of a creek or shores of a lake. Or rather, as the 20th century proceeded, in some plausible facsimile of such a place. It was a perfect amalgam, nostalgia for the pioneer life along with a sense of spiritual purity. And so, going on two centuries after Thoreau played backwoodsman, most Americans today live in suburbs.

Fake News

The New York Sun was the great pioneer penny paper, and in 1835 it published an extraordinary six-part, 16,000-word series. Every day for a week, a battalion of newsboys—also an invention of the two-year-old Sun—shouted the extraordinary news on the streets of America’s largest city: famous astronomers at a new super powerful telescope in South Africa had discovered life on the moon! The moon had forests, oceans, lakes, rivers, birds, tiny bison and zebras, blue unicorns, giant shellfish, beavers walking upright and carrying young in their paws.  To venture to express a doubt of the genuineness of the great lunar discoveries, was considered almost as heinous a sin as to question the truth of revelation.

Three years later, long after the story had been exposed as an entirely fictional hoax, a New York writer remarked that “very many in our city [still] regard those revelations with more of reverence and confidence than any of the established truths in physics.

The second founder of infotainment

Barnum was America’s first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment, but the second was Cody.

The true story of Cody’s life is like a work of fiction. For a dozen years, from boyhood into young manhood, he was a scout, soldier, buffalo hunter, and Pony Express rider on the Plains and in the West. Then at 23e, he featured as the title character in a highly fictionalized “true” story, “Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men,” published in a New York newspaper. And starting at twenty-six, the year he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading a squad of cavalry against some Sioux, Cody became a theatrical performer: he played himself in a play called Scouts of the Prairie—written by the author of the earlier newspaper story, who also published dime novels about Cody. Buffalo Bill had become a star. In his late twenties, he started publishing his own dime novels starring himself, and he toured the East in more theatrical productions playing Buffalo Bill—even as he continued working off and on in the far West as an Indian fighter.

In the summer of 1876, three weeks after General George Custer’s catastrophic defeat, Cody was riding the Plains with the army a few hundred miles to the southeast of Little Bighorn. One day, wearing his Buffalo Bill stage outfit—black velvet, red and lace trim, silver buttons—he killed and scalped a Cheyenne warrior called Yellow Hair. Within a few months, Cody was back east, touring a new play based on that event, The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. Yellow Hair’s weapons and scalp were exhibited in each town where the show played. According to Cody, the show provided “ample opportunity to give a noisy, rattling, gunpowder entertainment, and to present a succession of scenes in the late Indian war.” Buffalo Bill was thirty, and from then on, for forty more years, he devoted himself exclusively to live-action cartoon portrayals of the “settlement” of the West.

Cody’s own extraordinarily successful traveling pageant, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, featured Indians playing Indians and white performers playing soldiers and settlers. Each reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand was immediately followed by Buffalo Bill—the actual person—riding in to reenact his killing of a particular Indian, played by an Indian. The show started in Omaha, in eastern Nebraska, in 1883; in the western part of the state, the Indian Wars continued. Cody enlisted the Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who’d been one of the commanders of the forces at Little Bighorn, to be his co-star.

His Wild West was the prototype from which movie westerns evolved. But the shows were even more importantly peculiar and unprecedented, a key milestone in our national evolution. Practically in real time, Cody—no, Buffalo Bill!—turned news and history into entertainment, turned real-life figures of historic consequence (himself, his pal Wild Bill Hickok, his enemy Sitting Bull) into simulated versions of themselves, riding real horses and firing real guns outdoors.

During the 19th century, a new form of nostalgia emerged as an important tic in Americans’ psychology, an imaginary homesickness for places and times the nostalgists had never experienced and that had in some cases never existed. In politics, just when Americans started using the phrase olden times, Democrats were driven by nostalgia for the America of their youth, before large-scale capitalism.   Fenimore Cooper, the first famous American novelist, specialized in nostalgia for the earlier American wilderness, and Twain wrote his greatest books about the bygone America of his antebellum youth. So by the time Buffalo Bill became a professional fabulist in the 1870s, Americans were completely ready to accept the virtual reality of his Wild West tableaus. The nostalgia he stoked and served was new in several ways. It was jolly, giddy.

It was instantaneous. It was also anticipatory, nostalgia for the end of a western frontier that hadn’t yet ended—like the nostalgia of Southerners years before the Old South passed away. Buffalo Bill distilled the previous half-century of the Old West into a montage using actual participants and artifacts, for audiences who had mostly never been west of the Mississippi. Forever and everywhere in the world, the popular imagination tends to blur reality and fantasy over time, but now the two were being immediately and systematically fused.

We’d been a rough frontier nation the day before yesterday. From the turn of the century through the 1920s, new spiritual fads and kooky religious denominations arose, along with aversion to migrating hordes—Italians and Jews over from Europe, African-Americans up from the South. But to the self-confident mainstream, all those reactionary outbursts looked like last gasps, rear-guard actions by primitives, exceptions to smart-set modernity that proved the rule.

But in America, and pretty much only in America, that rationalism was viscerally opposed by lots and lots of people who didn’t cotton to the inrushing newness—fancy foreign art and ideas, jazz, movies, sexual looseness, racial equality, women’s suffrage—let alone science that contradicted their understanding of the first book of the Bible.

TV, movies, video-games, and other media encouraged fantasy even more

Starting in the 1900s, from coast to coast and seven days a week, Americans more than anyone on Earth could immerse in the virtuosic fantasies created and sold by show business and the media. This was a new condition. As we spent more and more fabulous hours engaged in the knowing and willing suspension of disbelief, experiencing the unreal as real, we became more habituated to suspending disbelief unconsciously and involuntarily as well.

My argument here is that movies (and then television, and then videogames and video of all kinds) were a powerful and unprecedented solvent of the mental barriers between real and unreal—not that that was Hollywood’s explicit intent

Americans were now being entertained and fooled and fed fantasy on several fronts. Such as advertising. Marketing had just acquired its modern meaning, and advertise, until recently a general term for publishing information, came to mean only the paid promotion of products (and ideas and people) by whatever mix of facts and fiction and dazzle did the trick and made the sale. Advertising became ubiquitous, produced by a huge, formal, American-dominated industry essential to almost every other industry. Patent medicines had been fantasy products advertised as cures for serious problems, but in the twentieth century, advertising gave mundane problems like hygiene new fantasy subtexts

Newspapers and most magazines had always sold advertising space, but the ads had been pretty strictly informational, small and printed in small type, and not the main revenue source for most publications—until the 1900s.

Even cheap newspapers cost a few cents. So when the magical new medium of radio came along, because there was no way to charge listeners, its founding American impresarios required some time to figure out a business model. The wheel they reinvented was the medicine show: they could broadcast a mixture of entertaining fiction (Amos ’n’ Andy, Mystery House, Let’s Pretend) and occasional information (news) and give it all away, because their actual business would be—d’oh!—charging companies to broadcast mixtures of information and entertaining fiction in the form of advertisements.

For the first time, most of the most famous Americans were not politicians or military men or writers or painters but actors—people renowned for pretending to be people they weren’t.



This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Critical Thinking and Scientific Literacy, Human Nature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.