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Monday, July 16, 2012

Host Kurt Andersen Says ’60s Perpetuated Social Change, And Selfishness

Author and public radio host Kurt Andersen stopped by Here & Now studios at WBUR in Boston. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Author and public radio host Kurt Andersen created a ruckus in the New York Times, when, just in time for the July Fourth holiday, he published an op-ed that said that though the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s produced some good things, there was a less savory result: “Individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won,” he says. The reaction was swift, and from all sides. “In addition to angering people who thought I was condemning the civil rights movement, I also had plenty of critics on the right who say, ‘No! We’re not selfish!’” Andersen told Here & Now’s Robin Young. The conversation is excerpted below, and a selection from Andersen’s book follows.

You asked, why did the 60s revolution win on the social and cultural fronts with the progress in women’s rights, gay rights, a black president, etc…. But lose on the economic front with old-school, free market ideas gaining traction. You had an epiphany, which was?

Which was that people on the left tend to think of the 60s as their decade, when everything good began. And many great things began, like women’s rights, Civil Rights, gay rights, none of which I’m saying are selfish.

But what also began are the more hedonistic aspects of the 1960s: You can dress any way you want and you can have a lifestyle you want. So the right, for the last 40 years, has demonized the 60s, [saying] “That’s when everything went bad, that’s when the culture got coarse.”

But I suddenly realized that its not an incongruous contradiction that what began on the right as a result of this libertarian upsurge… and this I-can-do-whatever-I-want upsurge, was what became in the 80s and 90s and today this unfettered, market-worshipping era where anything I want to do to make a profit is fine.

The letters poured in. Here’s one from Jeremy, of Brooklyn. He writes, “So Kurt Andersen lays today’s corporate greed and the mega-indulgences of the one percent on the 1960′s era hippies who gave us organic farming, the feminists who create rape crisis centers, and the gay activists championing basic human rights. A generation of free-market ideologues who hacked at regulations, unions and what was left of the New Deal plays no role in his account of the ascent of the corporate license to pollute, off-shore jobs and overpaid executives.” In other words, yes, the financial collapse: Blame it on the hippies.

Not even the financial collapse. What I’m talking about is the larger cultural sense of old-fashioned, extreme free-marketism, and I’m not saying the hippies caused it. I’m saying that the late ’60s, which we think of as having only one stream, the counter-culture, the liberal progessivism, had another stream which I believe is flowing like mad today.

The letters go on. Your critics say, ‘Wait a minute, not all ’60s celebrants were celebrating hedonism, many were celebrating social justice, doing things for other, selflessness.

Exactly, and I wasn’t saying “the ’60s, they’re bad.” I was saying, something shares a taproot in the 60s, both these things that people on the left love and celebrate, the personal liberty and do-my-own-thing movements which are with us today still, that they share this taproot in the sixties with economic libertarianism. And in fact, in addition to angering people who thought I was condemning the civil rights movement and the great achievements of the sixties, I also have plenty of critics on the right, libertarians who say “No, we’re not jerks, we’re not selfish. We’re righteous in our beliefs in libertarianism.” But I think there’s a kind of headwaters where several rivers streamed out of.

They meet in your new book, “True Believers.” Your heroine lives through the ’60s and she remembers all of it: From JFK’s assassination, to “slip-and-slide and silly putty, frisbees, instant tanning lotion..” Is this you remembering this, or is this you at Wikipedia?

This is me, certainly, thinking about that jazzy, zazzy part of the early ’60s… then realizing there is, in addition to the solemn, serious crisis-filled idea of the sixties there was this non-stop fun aspect as well. I thought that was a way to sort of fire hose of references make that clear.

What are you saying about the ’60s in the book? When we meet her, she’s telling us this story that she’s about to tell the world. She’s now this 64, eminent law professor.

And trying to uncover and investigate and unravel the mystery. She doesn’t really know all that happened to her and all that she did and what the consequences were, so in real time today she’s trying to figure it out.

We don’t want to give away the ending, but we will say that, as children, she and a couple of her male friends had tight bonds, and it was based on their love of James Bond. They would act out the movies that they loved as they got older and in college. There was actually a plot that went somewhat awry. What are you saying? We know there was anti-war violence in the ’60s. There was also a lot of anti-Civil Rights violence.

We have read the memoirs of the famous weathermen and radicals who were fugitives and all that. I wanted to do a fresh take of people who were not-famous radicals who were only, in a certain way, briefly radicals and had this spectacular idea in mind to do, which went awry as you say, but which they all walked away from and lived their lives like you and I have lived for the last forty years and what that’s like, and the ‘getting away with it’. As I began writing it I began thinking, that’s one of the things that could be said about that generation, the baby-boomer generation is, for so many of them, us, really people were able to have their cake and eat it, too; posture as revolutionaries and have a wild and crazy youth, but then lead comfortable and successful lives afterwards as well.

Book Excerpt: ‘True Believers’

By: Kurt Andersen


My publishers signed me up a year ago to write a book, but not this book. “A candid and inspirational memoir by one of the most accomplished leaders and thinkers of our times,” their press release promised. They think they’re getting a slightly irreverent fleshing out of my shiny curriculum vitae, a plainspoken, self-congratulatory chronicle of A Worthy Life in the Law and the Modern Triumph of American Women, which they’re publishing, ho-hum premise notwithstanding, because I’ve written a couple of best sellers and appear on TV a lot.

By far the most interesting thing about my life, however, is nowhere in my résumé or official bio or Wikipedia entry. I’m not exactly who the world believes I am. Let me cut to the chase: I once set out to commit a spectacular murder, and people died.

But it’s not a simple story. It needs to be unpacked very carefully.

Like a bomb.

Trust me, okay?

I am reliable. I am an oldest child. Highly imperfect, by no stretch a goody-goody. But I was a reliable U.S. Supreme Court clerk and then a reliable Legal Aid lawyer, representing with all the verve and cunning I could muster some of the most pathetically, tragically unreliable people on earth. I have been a reliable partner in America’s nineteenth largest law firm, a reliable author of four books, a reliable law professor, a reliable U.S. Justice Department official, a reliable law school dean. I’ve been a reliable parent—as trustworthy a servant, teacher, patron, defender, and worshipper of my children as anyone could reasonably demand, and I think on any

given day at least one of the two of them would agree.

I was not an entirely reliable wife for the last decade of my marriage, although my late ex, during our final public fight, called me “reliable to a goddamned fault,” which is probably true. And which may be why the surprising things I did immediately afterward—grabbing his BlackBerry out of his hand and hurling it into a busy New York street, filing for divorce, giving up my law firm partnership, accepting a job that paid a fifth as much, moving three thousand

miles away—made him more besotted by me than he’d ever seemed before. As my friend Alex said at the time, “That’s funny—telling Jack Wu ‘Fuck you’ finally made him really want to fuck you.”

I am reliable, but I’m not making the case that reliability is the great human virtue. Nor am I even making the case that reliability is my great virtue. In fact, after four decades in the law, I’ve lost my animal drive for making cases for the sake of making cases, for strictly arguing one of two incompatible versions of the truth, for telling persuasive stories by omitting or twisting certain facts.

So I am not arguing a case here. I’m not setting out to defend myself any more than I am to indict myself. I’m determined to tell something like the whole truth—which, by the way, I don’t believe has ever been done in any American court of law. To tell the whole truth in a legal case would require a discovery process and trial that lasted years, hundreds of witnesses each testifying for many weeks apiece, and rules of evidence rewritten to permit not just hearsay and improperly obtained information but iffy memories of certain noises and aromas and  hallucinatory hunches, what a certain half-smile or drag on a cigarette decades ago did or didn’t signify during some breathless three A.M. conversation.

From the Book, TRUE BELIEVERS by Kurt Andersen. Copyright © 2012 by Kurt Andersen. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Guest:

  • Kurt Andersen, author and public radio host of Studio 360

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  • J Frog

    I don’t think we are any more selfish.  Its about the speed of consumer information.  People won’t settle for a just a “good” price/quality in this world of internet “Pricegrabber” search apps.  It effects everything: wages, prices, choices.  The best get massively rewarded and the mediocre get buried.

  • Ockitaris

    Most of the hippies I knew were very unselfish.    However many after the clear thinking marijuana allowed there macro personalities and behaviors could have become like Romney’s.      Capitalism forces selfishness on us. 

  • Guest

     Total Boycott!!!!  Kurt is the most LAME announcer on the Radio as exemplified by his emotional outburst during the disastrous hijacking of the Oakland’s Children’s Museum by Palestinian protesters using the pretense of “Children‘s Art.”   I have boycotted him and his show and anything else that associates with this lame dude. He can’t even have a picture taken with him smiling! That’s says it all about this hateful entity.

  • Lew

    Andersen makes a great point to the extent that the self-realization and economic-libertarian movements both involve self-granted licenses to pursue personal gratification, albeit of different kinds. 

  • AnitaC1040

    Because of the 1960 protests, William F Buckley said that he was disgusted that the masses could question their leaders. He set about making sure that he distroyed the middle class so that we would never question our elite leaders ever again. Buckley had nothing but contempt for the working class who were able to put their kids through college and now “these little ingrates were fighting/questioning them”.  This kind of right wing elite thinking has lead to tearing down the middle class, getting rid of unions and shipping jobs overseas to leave America without the means to climb up the ladder.  Also at this time, the right started to invest in more and more politics and buying politicians to their side.  Corporations taking over more and more of the lobbying to our elected leaders.  This caused the elites to have more and more power and the middle class to have less.  The rich use to pay more taxes, now they pay less. The middle class use to pay less taxes, now they pay more. The rich have essentially turned this country into a Banana Republic which means they can control the message more. Fox news was born and we see what that properganda has done to the uneducated.  What is going on now, is what was going on prior to FDR and the Depression. We now have robber barons in charge in the wild boom and bust in the financial industry. If you watched Bill Moyers last night you will see, that we have less regulations than when FDR was in charge and no will power on the part of our government to enforce the already existing regulations. The female Indian physics professor told an old story, one of Monsanto and it’s corruption of foreign powers and these foreigners didn’t go through the 1960′s. What we have is crony capitalism all over the world. This situation is the responsibility of the right wing elites and their lackies in Congress. Not the people who protested the unfairness of the then society. Jeez, you could run a Mac truck through his logic. Let’s not have some yo-yo write revisionist history for the uninformed or young. I guess this propaganda is the cap to the 40 year war on the middle class. Thanks for doing such a poor job with this obvious right winger.

  • Guest

    Communes, a  “libertarian” lifestyle???? I don’t think so!! Don’t remember any bunkers or guns there.

    This is all nonsense! It is precisely BECAUSE the 60′s didn’t emphasize money and power that is the REASON it didn’t gain traction and couldn’t survive – because it didn’t have an organized, capitalist, large scale, consumer based, economic framework The values of the 60s didn’t survive because they were clearly anti-capitalist – it’s as simple as that. Wall Street became king again – isn’t that pretty obvious??!! Also, most people were not real hippies, they just went along with things without even knowing why they were doing it. The 60′s were mostly a great time for liberation and creativity (just listen to the music). I din’t know any selfish people back then (compared to what you have now). This guy is an idiot!

  • Guest

    He must have been one of the many 60′s ‘phoneys’ (going along just for the dope, music and “chicks”)!!! YES – guys like this WERE selfish hypocrites (and most of them are now on Wall Street)!!!

  • homebuilding

    I believe the proper question is, “Who was seduced (more) by advertisers?” since this is at the core of consumption and selfishness.

    I know far more boomers who are somewhat skeptical of the recent years of ubiquity of fancyfones, etc.   The twenty and thirty year olds simply must have the stuff…..and there are many other examples of the total inability to say “no” to the next shiny, bright thing. 

     

  • amygdala10

    I thought it was the 80s which fostered the virtues of greed and selfishness (the movie Wall Street).  Or did I misunderstand that period?

  • Guest

    This honestly sounds to me like the same narrative that many of his generation believe, that the world began in the 60′s and everything before that was “Leave it to Beaver.”  Virtually none of the movements he named began in the 60′s.  Feminism began in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a result of industrialization placing women into the same roles as men but without the same rights, not as a result of some new individualism.  Free market fundamentalism has been more the rule than the exception throughout the industrial age, with only a brief reprieve during the early 20th century that, unfortunately, ended in large part as a result of the rise of the Soviet Union as the other great land empire of the past century.  The roots of neoliberalism lie in the McCarthy era and the propagandizing of an entire generation against the communist “other,” not in some form of 60′s individualism.

    To be fair, one can easily blame one social ill on the 60′s: the reactionary “law and order” that turned LBJ’s attempted “War on Poverty” into Nixon’s and later Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”  That backlash against the populist youth and minority movements by the entrenched power elites replaced Jim Crow with a prison system with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

    Though a lot did change in the 60′s, they must be viewed in context of a larger historical narrative that does not glorify earlier decades as something they were not.  Radical individualism at the expense of the community has been a theme throughout American history, back to before even the Revolution.  In fact, I would venture that the sense of community and goodness of the 50′s (and then only for middle and upper class whites) only existed because they were preceded by the 40 most horrifically violent years in human history.  One must look back at the 60′s and earlier decades with the eyes of a realist, not with nostalgia that overemphasizes their importance.

  • mtnmom

    As a 64 yr old grandma, the 60′s were super important for me. I am not speaking theoretically, but as one who the values of the 60′s have shaped my life. I remember them as years of great social upheaval & change. Not all of us were “Tuning in, Turning On, & Dropping Out.” We were striving to be authentic, to reject what we saw as the hypocrisy of previous generations, and the traps of societal pressures that forced people to live in ways that made them both mentally and physically ill. “Free Love,” meant love given without strings. Women didn’t have to pay the $$ with an unwanted pregnancy or the stigma of  unwed pregnancy made possible by the availability of cheap & effective birth control. Organic food, back to the land, creative expression, respect for individuality, individual & civil rights, gender equality and protection & reverence for nature. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. Our generation saw the use of drugs such as mj & acid as comparable to the historical use (& abuse) of alcohol. Certainly no more dangerous. For many drugs were a path to enlightenment & freedom. We felt a responsibility to speak out & take action on injustice, the cruelty and often hidden motivations for war, the exploitation of the worker and the need for working together for the common good. We did not see our attempts to live an authentic, self-actualized life as “Selfish.”  Nor do I think any honest person would. There were many in my generation that did live selfish and idle lives. That was in there nature only waiting for its expression. There have been idlers & leaches in every age and in every society. Many of the highest goals of the 60′s, much of what I personally worked for, have been expressed in my life and in those of my children & grandchildren. Also in the lives of many of my friends. I think that after listening to Mr. Andersen in this interview, reading his oped pc. in the Times and thinking about the  span of history, that the selfishness of the investment & mortgage industries spanning  the 80′s, 90′s and particularly through 2008 has its roots in the nature of those people that seem to work only for the “main chance” & what they might get away with. Looking for their free lunch. Rish takers-adrenalin junkies have lived in every age, pushing the limits is certainly not a product of the 60′s, greed didn’t begin with Midas, nor Hubris with the ancient Greeks. If you believe in the Bible, Lucifer wagered & lost. Whatever age, whatever metaphor. Just don’t try to tweek history, or ignore the countless  examples of selfishness run rampant, to justify your shallow epiphany. It just doesn’t work, Mr. Andersen.

  • mtnmom

    As a 64 yr old grandma, the 60′s were super important for me. I am not
    speaking theoretically, but as one who the values of the 60′s have
    shaped my life. I remember them as years of great social upheaval &
    change. Not all of us were “Tuning in, Turning On, & Dropping Out.”
    We were striving to be authentic, to reject what we saw as the hypocrisy
    of previous generations, and the traps of societal pressures that
    forced people to live in ways that made them both mentally and
    physically ill. “Free Love,” meant love given without strings. Women
    didn’t have to pay the $$ with an unwanted pregnancy or the stigma of 
    unwed pregnancy made possible by the availability of cheap &
    effective birth control. Organic food, back to the land, creative
    expression, respect for individuality, individual & civil rights,
    gender equality and protection & reverence for nature. Taking
    responsibility for our lives and our actions. Our generation saw the use
    of drugs such as mj & acid as comparable to the historical use
    (& abuse) of alcohol. Certainly no more dangerous. For many drugs
    were a path to enlightenment & freedom. We felt a responsibility to
    speak out & take action on injustice, the cruelty and often hidden
    motivations for war, the exploitation of the worker and the need for
    working together for the common good. We did not see our attempts to
    live an authentic, self-actualized life as “Selfish.”  Nor do I think
    any honest person would. There were many in my generation that did live
    selfish and idle lives. That was in there nature only waiting for its
    expression. There have been idlers & leaches in every age and in
    every society. Many of the highest goals of the 60′s, much of what I
    personally worked for, have been expressed in my life and in those of my
    children & grandchildren. Also in the lives of many of my friends. I
    think that after listening to Mr. Andersen in this interview, reading
    his oped pc. in the Times and thinking about the  span of history, that
    the selfishness of the investment & mortgage industries spanning 
    the 80′s, 90′s and particularly through 2008 has its roots in the nature
    of those people that seem to work only for the “main chance” & what
    they might get away with. Looking for their free lunch. Rish
    takers-adrenalin junkies have lived in every age, pushing the limits is
    certainly not a product of the 60′s, greed didn’t begin with Midas, nor
    Hubris with the ancient Greeks. If you believe in the Bible, Lucifer
    wagered & lost. Whatever age, whatever metaphor. Just don’t try to
    tweek history, or ignore the countless  examples of selfishness run
    rampant, to justify your shallow epiphany. It just doesn’t work, Mr.
    Andersen.

    • Cjtindonny

      I’m 64 too… I had the same experiences… we fought the hypocrisy… the government lied to us….  I was at Grosvenor Square and was beaten mercilessly by police for nothing…the music was great… the pill brought great advances… drugs played a part… sex was just everywhere…But there wasn’t the awful greed that is now endemic… we really loved… It was history… the world didn’t begin in the 60′s, but it was a time when we decided to something about how it was… there is no such thing as a free market in western style economies: everything is manipulated and controlled by so called ‘Democracy:… As for nostalgia, realism does not apply, because it is just the application of short-lived, meaningless and trivial contemporaneous wisdom.  I’m still doing it and enjoying it!

  • http://www.mrmedia.com Bob Andelman

    If you only have time to watch one video interview with Kurt Andersen this year, make it this one. Funny and more than a little revealing, the author of ‘True Believers,’ host of NPR’s ‘Studio 360′ and co-founder of Spy magazine easily makes for one of the best Mr. Media shows of 2012. And get a load of what he says about Dave Eggers, Donald Trump and Anderson Cooper! http://www.mrmedia.com/2012/07/just-another-true-believer-spying-on-kurt-andersen-2012-video-interview/

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