Kurt Andersen on the Morbid Symptoms of America
Kurt Andersen in Conversation with Andrew Keen on the Keen On
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
On today’s episode, Kurt Andersen, author of Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, discusses the dismantling effects of nostalgia and the tedium of a culture in which nothing is ever new.
From the episode:
Kurt Andersen: Jimi Hendrix, when one heard it at 13 in 1967—like, holy cow, what is this? It’s that kind of radical newness in the culture that for whatever set of reasons ceased. Part of me frankly finds the pandemic, for all of its horrors, not exciting, but I have some glimmers of hope that, well, I wanted change. I wanted weirdness. I wanted unfamiliarity. Here we are.
Andrew Keen: You describe yourself as an example of being a “useful idiot” when it comes to this liberal aristocracy. What do you mean by that?
Kurt Andersen: Well, useful idiot was a term used earlier in the 20th century by communists, in some cases, to say, oh, we can get these liberals to do our bidding and be liberal and lefty, but we’ll get rid of them when we don’t need them and become totalitarian Leninist communists. Then it was used by the right to disparage people who were in favor of civil rights or free speech or all the things of the mid century. You’re a useful idiot of the communists.
What happened, ironically it seems to me, is a lot of us who were in media or people in politics and, in general, liberals, many of whom describe themselves as “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” That was the thing that people described themselves as for the 80s and 90s, meaning don’t raise my taxes but go ahead and do whatever you want to, be gay, whatever. So that’s the way in which we were useful idiots, I think, is basically standing down on economics.
The Democratic Party in the 1930s and 40s, and along with the labor union movement into the 50s and 60s, had a real left-wing vision. And then it abandoned it. The differences on economics between Republicans and Democrats in this country became almost insignificant. And that is how we were useful idiots: just saying, yeah, OK, fine, because we were part of the minority at the top 20 percent or whatever. We’re doing well.
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Kurt Andersen is the bestselling author of the novels Heyday, Turn of the Century, and True Believers. He contributes to Vanity Fair and The New York Times and was the host and co-creator of Studio 360, the Peabody Award-winning public radio show and podcast. He also writes for television, film, and the stage. Andersen co-founded Spy magazine, served as editor in chief of New York, and was a cultural columnist and critic for Time and The New Yorker. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. He lives in Brooklyn.