Kurt Andersen is a man of many talents. In addition to hosting Studio 360, the radio show from Takeaway co-producers WNYC and Public Radio International, Andersen just published a new novel, "True Believers."
Most of the action takes place in the 1960s, a decade of stunning change across the United States. Throughout the novel, Andersen's narrator, a law professor named Karen Hollander, reveals just how much the social upheaval of the 1960s continues to influence our lives in the 21st century. In the novel, the natural self-obsession of teenagers becomes a widespread movement, which envelopes Hollander. Fast forward a few decades, and she is a successful lawyer with what people think is an immaculate record. Hollander becomes disillusioned with the system that has made her successful.
"She is tired of living this big lie," Andersen says. "Her Catholic girlhood, her desire to confess and be at one with her God in whom she doesn't believe, that's what's driving her now."
Andersen also wrote about the social and economic consequences of the 1960s in a recent op-ed for The New York Times called "The Downside of Liberty." After the straight-laced 1950s, characterized by conformity but also a closer sense of community, a certain kind of "if it feels good, do it" became ingrained in mainstream American culture. "Suddenly, the impatience, the self-righteousness, and self-obsession of teenagers was suddenly acknowledged and validated by the culture at large in a way that it never had been," Andersen says.
"In lots of ways, good and bad, Americans and, to some degree, the Western world, [were] given permission to never grow up and to stay forever young from adolescence into dotage."
Selfishness did not begin in the 60s, Andersen writes in the piece, but it did spark a me-first mentality that has persisted to the present day. It has manifested itself in drastically different spheres of American society; the youth of Woodstock defended their rights to do as they wished, while the business world called for decreased regulations.
"But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed," Andersen writes. "A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed."
"Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes, or social opprobrium."