Where are we?
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: I read pretty much every word on Iraq and the Middle East just to depress myself, I suppose. The apparently intractable set of issues involved in all of those countries, and what the United States can or can’t do, or ought/ought not to do in those, are hugely important, and have ramifications in terms of almost every other realm of issue.
You can say, “Oh! How the countries of the world are going to together and solve global warming is big.” And it is a big issue. But how how are we managed or managed the messes and opportunities – scarce as though they are in the Middle East – and reestablish the United States as a force for constructive engagement and change in the world, will affect how well we can or can’t, or how quickly we will or won’t, begin to deal with climate change issues.
I get the climate change alarms; but to me the Middle East is, to me, the set of issue, and wars, and history in the making that I find most troubling and fascinating.
I mean the biggest challenges for the world very specifically in the next 10 to 20 years involve probably a nuclear proliferation actually. If you had to really get down to a concrete example, that’s it. Or we could say, “Oh, multilateral engagement blahbety, blahbety, blah,” but it’s trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of crazy people, bad people, irresponsible people, I think is our great challenge.
Presidential elections are complicated things. And we can reduce them to issues like what the United States’ role in Iraq and around Iraq should be in 2009, 2010 and 2011. And I think that’s a huge issue that is not being that much talked about because Iraq question is mostly divulged to a kind of easy, pollster question of, “Out now or stay the course?” And very few people actually believe in either of those. And so given only those two choices, it’s a false choice and you have to choose one. But I think most people, actually forced to consider, understand that neither of those options is likely or probably good. We know this has been a mess. We know this has been egregiously mismanaged. But what happens in 2009, 2010? So I think that is an issue that these candidates need to discuss very specifically, and with some intellectual honesty.
I would say the Constitutional questions that are being addressed pretty acutely in this term of the Supreme Court, that what do we as a nation do we think is right, and do we think the Constitution says about affirmative action, and freedom of speech, and rights to privacy and all those things. Presidential candidates can easily pump that one by saying, “Oh no! It’s at the Supreme Court.” Or by saying, if they’re a Democrat, “Oh we’ll fill the new vacancies in the court with people who agree with us,” which is a reasonable response.
But I think that conversation is an important conversation beyond the single issue versions of it – should Roe v. Wade be upheld or overturned or whatever.
But presidential elections are a funny thing because we are voting not really about a particular issue. We are voting about our sense of these people and whether or not they would be competent, inspiring people we want to be blabbing in our living rooms every day and every night. Focusing on the issues, in a kind of college syllabus or newspaper headline way is only half the story. I think for better or worse, presidential elections – and this one in particular [i.e. the 2008 US presidential election] – is going to be about the measure of these people. Which is a hard thing to talk about.
It’s much easier to be able to say, “Okay, the environment. Okay, healthcare.” By the way, healthcare, I think that’s going to be, must be, and will be a huge issue that needs to be discussed. I feel as though we’ve reached a point in the debate, in the national mood with a sense of how dysfunctional our healthcare system is; that that actually will be a focus of maybe throughout the debate next year .
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
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