Why do we so often prefer fantasy to reality?


According to Kurt Andersen, we live in a world of fantasy, often paying scant attention to the world of reality. After all, the real world is a lot less fun and much more troublesome. Why bother with reality?


Canadians share many of these fantasies, but here is one example mentioned by Kurt Anderson in his book FantasyLand that is particularly American and less Canadian:

“We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same.”

I do not want to suggest that Canadians are immune to these fantasies. It is just less common here. We must remember that most of Andersen’s book was written before the tumultuous events of 2016 when the people of the United States, through the zany machinations of the Electoral college, elected as their president a man who breathed fantasies as the rest of us breath air. Andersen described that change this way:

“And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.”


Why did this happen? That is the really interesting part. Andersen’s book explores why and I found that exploration endlessly fascinating. But he did give a short answer:

“The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”


The even shorter answer, I would submit, is Americans wanted to believe that. In the American ideology wants are supreme. Facts are puny.

Andersen says the historic institutions that kept unreason at bay have over the last few decades in particular, been eroded. It is not just American democracy that has paid the price. The American people have as well. They have lost their way. Instead of helping to constrain unreason this is what happened:

“Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.”


Many of those institutions are commonly mocked and we all pay a very high price for that. Most of us are complicit. And it is not getting better. That means that things are likely to get much worse.


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