Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

Has America Lost its Mind?

The upcoming cover of the Atlantic's September Issue.

The upcoming cover of the Atlantic's September Issue.

The Atlantic now has an excerpt of Kurt Andersen's upcoming book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: a 500 Year History on its front page. Just from reading the excerpt this is a rich yet concise narrative of the cultural and intellectual history that has led to Donald Trump. This is an article that has been long coming, in my mind, and stands out from the numerous hot-takes and post-mortems of the election that have tended to look to economic trends as the key factor explaining Trump's rise. I.e: the white working class voter. And, while some commentary on Trump's rise has taken a historical and cultural angle, this has tended to go back only as far as the 1980s--in so much that this decade has been seen as the beginning of structural shifts in the economy that wrecked stable working class manufacturing jobs, and ushered in the Reagan Revolution of limited government. And, for that matter, as the decade so formative for Trump's own personal rise. But, as Andersen argues in this article, if we are to really understand the current age of "fake news" and utter collapse of a fact-based public discourse, we need to go back a bit further, to the 60s. 

The 60s? You mean counter-culture, hippies, anti-war protestors, bra-burning? Are these things really responsible for Trump? Well, not directly perhaps. But beginning in the 60s, according to Andersen, America began to turn its back on objective reality and venture into the land of relativism. Objective, knowable reality was criticized as the tool of the system, and of white patriarchal forms of knowledge. While the uber-individualism and growing tolerance for the fantastical in all realms of science, public culture, and eventually political conspiracy theories were originally associated with the liberal counter-culture, the Right has since begun to monopolize the market of crazy ideas, particularly since the 1990s. Amplified by partisan news, talk radio, the unregulated and all-democratizing internet, ideologues, spooks, and others have been given free rein to steer our political discourse into crazyland. 

While I am so far sympathetic of the larger intellectual claims Andersen is making, I'll have to wait for the book to get a sense of the complexity and breadth of his research and argument. In the meantime, a few thoughts and criticisms: 

1. Andersen excavates in great detail some of the intellectual and cultural currents of the 60s, and their obvious foreshadowing of some of the more recent trends away from objective fact-based reality (including the Esalen institute, The Secret Life of Plants, Charles Reich, and other currents of thought that made the fantastic and the unprovable acceptable). However, he doesn't adequately explain the jump from the 60's/70s to the 80s/90s, and why the counter-cultural trends begun by mostly leftist thinkers ended up fueling a more general mainstreaming of these practices, particularly as it relates to the rise of the religious right. He writes:

After the ’60s, truth was relative, criticizing was equal to victimizing, individual liberty became absolute, and everyone was permitted to believe or disbelieve whatever they wished. The distinction between opinion and fact was crumbling on many fronts.

But, the transformation of 60s individualism into the religious right of the 80s seems to be unexplained in any detail (perhaps more in the book?). Meanwhile, we are left to assume that the Christian Right in the 1980s was directly inspired by the likes of Foucault and Baudrillard. But somehow I find that unlikely. 

2. Economic transformations are largely ignored in this article. Indeed, this is a cultural and intellectual history. But to the degree that economics and culture are intertwined, this is a subject worth some thought. Were the 60's and the intense individualism fawned by its social movements explained by rising prosperity of the suburban middle classes? Anxiety about declining economic growth in the late 60's? How might the economic and structural shifts of the the late 1970s, the oil crisis, and the loss of manufacturing jobs play into the transformation of individualism into a more cynical distrust of government institutions? In other words, was it inevitable that the growth of individualism and anti-objectivity in the 1960s would metastasize in the way they have in more recent decades? Or is the dangerous turn this line of thought has taken more directly attributable to the neoliberal economic policies implemented in the U.S. as opposed to Western European countries?

3. American (Crazy) Exceptionalism? A main thrust of this article seems to be that the penchant or tendency towards the absurd and the fantastical have been with us ever since the mythical founding of our country--hence the inclusion of P.T. Barnum as a kind of ur-reality TV show star of the circus era. But other countries in the West (i.e. France, 1968) went through the cultural upheaval of the 1960s as well--in many ways the counter culture of the 1960s was felt across the world, and particularly the Western World. Why then do we see the U.S today having the most severe decline in reason and trust in facts of any other developed country? 

Also, an interesting piece of reading. This article by Helen Pluckrose which appeared earlier this year makes some of the similar claims as Andersen, although more broadly at Postmodern Theory and French philosophers in Europe and America, as opposed to the America-centric story that Andersen describes.