Kurt Andersen

No one really wants to hear about a silver lining when they’re in the midst of misery. Such cold comfort usually gets dismissed, as victims of a particular calamity focus more on assessing the damage. The recent economic meltdown not only recalibrated the tone and possible outcome of the 2008 presidential election, it served as a slap on the wrist to all the purveyors of greed and excess who had a hand in driving us headlong into the ditch. But after a season of pointing fingers, throwing Bernie Madoff and his ilk into prison cells, passing swift stimulus bills, and assembling rescue packages, enough time has passed that maybe we can start thinking about what good might come from all this.

In his new book, Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values And Renew America, novelist and NPR’s Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen posits that “history tends to rhyme, not repeat,” and that this financial meltdown just might create a better nation in its wake. That is, if we take the time to actually learn from what got us here in the first place. Andersen recently visited with The A.V. Club to discuss Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, “birthers,” health-care reform, Wile E. Coyote, Peter Pan, Donald Trump, and how to turn lemons into lemonade. 

The A.V. Club: In Reset, you examine past economic crises and our recoveries from them as a guide out of the current meltdown. Are historical parallels always useful, or can they obscure what’s unique about what is happening now?

Kurt Andersen: Well, that’s a very good question. I think we tend to be kind of ahistorical, and think that life as we are living it in the moment is all we know. Like anything else, used in moderation, I think historical analogies are good. I think it was partly because I wrote a novel [Heyday] where I spent so much time reading history—and therefore kind of taking the long view—and while I was doing that, I turned 50, which probably inclined me to take the longer view because I’d now lived a full unit of history. [Laughs.] Again, because we don’t know that much about what has happened before, it’s useful. But either we will recover and progress, or the alternative is that it’s all downhill from here. So I would just as soon believe, in my optimistic Midwestern American way, that we will recover and maybe even make lemonade out of the lemons that we are faced with.

AVC: You refer to the economic fallout of 2008 and 2009 as a “panic.” There are terms like “recession” and “depression” which imply that they occur regularly like weather and aren’t our fault, whereas a panic implies we are culpable.

KA: I think in this case, it’s true. Panic is a slightly old-fashioned word; that’s what they used to be called. I liked it because it was fresh; people see words like “recession,” and it’s almost like white noise. I think in this case, one can blame poor governance, bad regulatory policy, all these things. Blame institutions. But, as I try to explain in the book—and I think it’s true—most of us bought into the mania and magical thinking for a lot of years, and then when we suddenly, like Wile E. Coyote, found ourselves over the edge of the cliff, we all panicked last September, October, November. The whole thing seized up. In my reading of the history of panics, this is exactly how they occur again and again and again. 

AVC: White House Chief Of Staff Rahm Emanuel received a lot of criticism early on in this administration when he said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” But in your book, you side with him, arguing that a crisis can “allow some of the rot and dysfunction to be cleared away,” especially in regard to health-care reform.

KA: [Political journalist] Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as someone in Washington telling the truth. I think Emmanuel’s comment was absolutely true. In our society, maybe all societies, and even in our lives, when crises happen, we fix the things that may have caused them. A fire starts, so you get a smoke alarm. Your kid doesn’t have health insurance, and she falls down and breaks her chin; she’s convinced then she should buy herself health insurance. So I just think it’s undeniably true, and what I like about it is not so much that this or that health-reform bill will pass, but that it means that lots more stuff politically is on the table that wasn’t on the table before, because “Holy Christ, this system doesn’t work, this thing’s fucked up, that doesn’t work…” So, you know, more things are open for discussion than usual. If things are going okay, we tend to sit back on the couch and pop a brew and not think about it.

AVC: You also argue that this crisis could create a post-partisan political environment. Do you still think that is true, or are people retreating deeper into their own factions for comfort?

KA: Both. What’s going on in Washington D.C. specifically is slightly depressing in this light, because I do think professional partisans and people who are invested in the system as it has been defined in the last few decades with the lifetime of the people there, yeah, they default to “Okay, I’m a liberal Democrat, therefore I believe this. Or, I’m a conservative Republican, therefore I will say this.” I really do think, based on talking to a lot of people around the country, is that the professional politicians and the professional pundits on television are behind the curve. They were content with their fixed positions and the way things were. Post-partisanship doesn’t do anything for you if you’re MSNBC or Fox News or Nancy Pelosi or her Republican counterpart. 

AVC: You write that Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh are now “artifacts.”

KA: I find them both… Well, to be honest, Rush Limbaugh is more outrageous and extreme and powerful, just because of how many people listen to him, but Keith Olbermann… Watching his show, he asks questions that end in a question mark, but they are rhetorical questions posing as actual questions. It’s basically, “Don’t you agree with me that X, Y, Z?” [Laughs.]

AVC: There’s an argument you make about this new generation of “forever young” Peter Pans, that the same people who grew up with The Beatles went to see Paul McCartney headline Coachella, iPhones are really just adult walkie-talkies, and grown-ups who had comic books as kids now rush off to see X-Men and G.I. Joe. In Obama’s inaugural address, he mentioned how we should “put aside childish things.” Is this your version of that, that we’re all in arrested development and can’t seem to ditch old habits?

KA: I’m not saying we should suddenly behave like my parents’ generation behaved, and wear suits and ties all the time, and uncomfortable shoes, and not eat ice cream. But I do think this whole package of “Hey, we never really have to grow up!” that we adopted effectively with my generation, and people a bit older than I… There are some consequences in living as though there was no responsibility and no accountability, and we can just go on a spree. I do think that great takeaway of the late ’60s, early ’70s was “Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, let’s party!” And given that at the end of this long era that I hope, that I believe has just ended, that same idea is what really enabled the mainly Republican, free-market, no-regulation, “do whatever crazy thing you want” thinking in the financial industry. I think there’s a connection there. It’s sort of ironic, and maybe paradoxical, that this countercultural instinct for hedonism became embraced by the right, but I do think in some not-so-mysterious dialectical fashion, that they are connected. 

AVC: If 9/11 alone wasn’t enough to encourage us to “reset” in the manner you put forth in your book, and it took an economic crisis that directly affected personal wealth to reform some of our long-held philosophies, what does that say about the American mindset going forward? Is it always going to be about money?

KA: Both of them were shocks. Before 9/11, we thought, “We’ll never be attacked. That happens elsewhere in the world.” And because this [economic] boom had gone on—yes, with a recession or two—for so long, most Americans hadn’t known anything else, practically, so it too came as a shock. I often set two alarm clocks because I’m afraid the first one won’t actually make me get up. I think that’s kind of what happened in this case. I hope that the economic meltdown was the second alarm that actually makes us wake up and pay attention and be alert.

AVC: You refer to China as “the greatest country of the last century.” Do you see them driving into the same ditch we’re now trying to climb out of? 

KA: I don’t know about our ditch, but I think they will only get so far. They’ve gone from poverty and miserably underdeveloped, to almost first world in 30 years. And they’ve gotten very far doing that in this very authoritarian, and in some ways un-American way. I think they’ll hit their own various kinds of walls. I don’t think they’re going to get into our ditch, at least not in my lifetime, because they have to be convinced to spend money, the Chinese, as opposed to Americans [Laughs.] who don’t need much convincing. I think the political authoritarianism—as obviously effectual as it’s been for them economically—I think that’s going to start to be a problem for them, not so much that there’s going to be a political uprising… Well, that too, there will be more dissent to tamp down, and that will start to have an economic impact. Young Chinese will still want to go to places like Europe and the United States, and I don’t see many Europeans and Americans wanting to go to China. In a global labor market and a globalized business world, those kinds of things, they’re going to be paying a price for. That regime will have to decide when that price becomes too much to pay. We’ll see. We have 300 million people crazily driving our own bumper cars into the ditch, and they have fewer people driving their own bumper cars.

AVC: Because we were in the midst of this crisis, you mention that we still don’t have the proper perspective to realize what a monumental thing it was to elect the first African-American as president. Now, with things like the “birther” movement, charges of Marxism and socialism, and the people who showed up to town hall meetings with Obama-as-Hitler signs, even guns in some cases, this not-so-subtle racism seems to be bubbling up as the immediacy of the economic meltdown fades. It’s as if some people are just now scratching their heads and thinking, “Wait, how did we let this happen?” 

KA: You’re absolutely right. I wonder to what degree the “birthers,” for instance, are consciously racist. And some of them presumably are, but I think some of them aren’t. As you were saying, it’s like, “Holy cow! We’ve got a black president. That can’t be in my America! Therefore, he is not the president, because he was born in Kenya!” It is a funny sort of delayed reaction. It’s interesting and funny if it weren’t so sad, but I think it’s a fringe thing. But you’re right, after the worst of the economic emergency has passed, there is a bit of, “Hey, wait a minute, look! He’s black!”

AVC: In the book, you call Donald Trump “a clownish reality-show artifact living the high life in Manhattan and Palm Beach.” Trump responded by calling you “a third-rate writer and an unsuccessful one at that.” Did you want to respond?

KA: Once a decade, once every eight years, Donald Trump finds some pretext to say I suck and that I’m bad. This was just the one for this decade. It entirely amused me, although it made me feel like some character in a comic book who comes back years later to fight the villain that he’s destined for eternity to battle. I thought it was funny that somebody at [The New York Post’s] Page Six had the idea of I guess, a) reading the book, and b) finding this one sentence about him and reading it to him, so he could say that I’m a jerk. [Laughs.] It made my Amazon ranking spike for a couple of days, so that was fine for me.

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