Who 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:The forces that have brought us to where we are today? It depends on how far you want to wind the “way back” machine, I guess. I suppose winding it really far back, monotheism has brought us where we are today in terms of most religions of the world. I would say that the craving for, or at least the apparent craving, and at least in the west, to hedge my bet, for individual freedom of expression in all of its forms. But certainly somewhere that is maybe, certainly one of the most significant forces that has shaped where we are today over the last 400 or 500 years.
More recently, I would say that the various technologies beginning, or at least having a spiking point in the middle of the 19th Century, with photography, and the telegraph, and the railroads which all came to be history in the same decade or two. But that really is a set of forces, technological innovation and capitalist, or I suppose non-capitalist, exploitation of those technologies have led us to where we are today. Because to me, the Internet and television and all the rest – jet planes even – are just refinements on what was essentially invented between 1825 and 1850.
I think that the first French Revolution that happened in 1789 had a pretty profound impact in terms of a specific moment. If you go back to the Renaissance as a set of moments; but I’m not sure there was a . . . necessarily a particular moment that brought us to where we are today.
The technological innovations right at the middle of the 19th Century that I mentioned – telegraph, photography, speed, steam engines– obviously steam engines came a little earlier – but got going in the 1930s and ‘40s – that moment, if you can call 20 years a moment, is hugely influential.
I think you have to say that the American Revolution as a particular event was hugely significant. The world would be very different had the United States of America not come into existence. In Canada, because I can hear your Canadian accent, I think. I mean North America.
What else? It’s hard to know what events were the most significant. You can do counterfactual history. What if, the Germans had won World War II? What if the Soviet Revolution had been suppressed in the early ‘20s? So all those were important, but it’s hard to do counterfactual history anything more than kind of almost science fiction in a speculative way, because we live in with the history we’ve got. We have the world we’ve gotten. The period from the American Revolution to 1850 or so, that’s 75 years, I would say probably the majority of the important events that got us to where we are today.
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
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