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Out of touch ... or brilliant?

How the ‘Useful Idiots’ of Liberal New York Fueled Income Inequality ... Kurt Andersen, founder of Spy magazine and the author of “Evil Geniuses,” on how affluent lefties slept through the escalating inequality crisis. Including him.


Peter Burgess
BIG CITY How the ‘Useful Idiots’ of Liberal New York Fueled Income Inequality ... Kurt Andersen, founder of Spy magazine and the author of “Evil Geniuses,” on how affluent lefties slept through the escalating inequality crisis. Including him.

Kurt Andersen, left, and Graydon Carter, founders of Spy magazine, in 1988.Credit...Marty Reichenthal/Associated Press

In his new best-selling book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History,’’ the author and cultural critic Kurt Andersen performs a deep excavation of the country’s inequality crisis. He finds the roots not only in the balance-tilting schemes of Wall Street and the champions of right-wing political economics but also in the obliviousness of the liberal professional class.

For decades, these liberals have been the “useful idiots,’’ as he calls them, in the plan that has funneled financial spoils to the tiny percentage of Americans now riding out the current catastrophes in Hamptons compounds, and left everyone else scrambling. Kurt, a former colleague at Time magazine (and by colleague, I mean boss), cops to his own part in the profound social reordering that has taken place since the 1980s.

For this and other reasons, I had questions for him — and also for myself. Below, an edited version of our conversation about how we got to this place and where we are headed.

Big City Let’s get right to the “useful idiots.’’ New York is full of them. What took them so long to come around?

Kurt Andersen In New York, college-educated liberal professionals of the media-reportorial-creative class live right along side college-educated liberal professionals of the banking class. It inclined a lot of them — us — to not think badly of our capitalist friends and neighbors. It prevented us from seeing the really problematic way in which the whole system was being twisted for the benefit of the rich. And Wall Street is here. You’ve got all this money sloshing around — backing restaurants, theater, everything.
And for a long time, creative-class liberals had the benefit of a much easier entry into the real-estate market.
Right — so a lot us of went along for the ride. Things seemed pretty good!
Your book delves into a lot of cultural history. Let’s look at what happened in the late 1980s and ’90s. Among my cohort — Gen Xers in New York — there was a great premium placed on irony and detachment over earnest engagement with pretty much anything. You are a founder of Spy magazine, one of the great satirical instruments of the city. How did the cultural mood of the period contribute to the kind of political blindness we are talking about?
Well, there’s a whole other mea culpa I need to give. As an O.G. of the irony epidemic, as the kids would say, I obviously helped stir that up among you young. There was a sense in which we, at that center of it, understood that maybe this has gone too far. Not everything is just a laugh.

That said, there were plenty of people unlike you and unlike me who were fully earnest throughout the ’80s and ’90s. But that didn’t make them more attuned to what they, as liberals, neoliberals, New Democrats, were going along with. It didn’t make them any more effectual in saying, “Hey, let’s be different from the Republicans.” Maybe irony went too far, but it wasn’t the main problem that we useful idiots fell prey to.

And where we saw real political engagement deployed, it was toward American foreign policy — toward what was happening in Latin America and South Africa and so on.

And, of course, toward Reagan’s failed response to the AIDS crisis and the emergence of a really activated gay rights movement. That is where the energy was going — toward cultural change and shifts in international policy at the end of the Cold War, not toward the ways that the system had been re-engineered to serve only the well-to-do and big business.
Spy excelled at skewering the very rich. Occasionally, I get letters from readers arguing that The Times in general, and my column in particular, “harp’’ too much on the excesses of the privileged. Is that kind of skewering merely cultural sport or moral imperative?
As soon as we turn the clock back on economic inequality and insecurity and immobility and de-rig the system and reduce Wall Street power, as soon we go back and replace market values as the supreme values in America, I’ll stop. Until that happens — besides being fun, it is one front in the critique of a system that disadvantages almost everyone.
Let’s turn to New York right now and the whole This City Is Over meme. The other day you mentioned a New York Post piece by a former hedge-fund manager titled “New York City Is Dead Forever.’’ Much of this sentiment is coming from the right — from people at the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post. What is the investment in this narrative? What’s in it for the narrators?
Well, different people have different reasons. That guy who wrote that foolish and shallow piece was basically saying: “What? There’s no more Broadway Theater for a while? What? I can’t go to my favorite restaurant in Midtown anymore?” Oh, yeah, right. I guess New York City is dead then. So he had his own reasons.

The other day, Trump retweeted someone saying “let the Democratic cities rot.” On the crudest level it is that: this is where everybody we hate lives. If the pandemic makes these places impossible to live, good, because then people will move to suburbs and become Republicans — that is, I guess, the theory. Or, it is just bloody-minded schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the fact that New York suffered early and hard in the pandemic.

Now, I don’t want to go in the other direction and be a Pangloss and say, “Yes, New York will come back because New York is indomitable!” Maybe. I hope so. And I think so, actually.
It boggles the mind that anyone who owns real estate in New York City would consider it a good idea to declare that New York is over, that prices are tumbling.
I know people who are trying to buy and sell real-estate right now and I haven’t heard that you can suddenly get a one-bedroom apartment for $200,000.
But there are definitely people leaving New York. Isn’t it incredibly shortsighted? At some point this will all be over. I know, as I am sure you do, people who high-tailed it out of the city after 9/11. And look how the city surged right after that.
Exactly. It’s funny that you mention that. At the time we had young children and I thought, “Is it really fair to raise them here, in a place terrorists could likely strike again?” We pretty seriously pursued — to the point of talking about jobs and looking at a house — the idea of moving to New Orleans. Well, what happened in New Orleans four years later? It was a real lesson in the folly of a certain kind of thinking.
Ginia Bellafante has served as a reporter, critic and, since 2011, as the Big City columnist. She began her career at The Times as a fashion critic, and has also been a television critic. She previously worked at Time magazine. @GiniaNYT

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 23, 2020, Section MB, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: Kurt Andersen Dissects Us Useful Idiots. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper

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