'True Believers' by Kurt Andersen: An Interview About the '60s

The author discusses his new novel, about a woman who's hiding a secret from the mythical decade.

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This is going to sound sacrilegious, but it is my belief that Kurt Andersen's new novel, True Believers, could plausibly be included in same class as Goldblog's sixth-most-favorite Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral, which is a brilliant evocation of the dislocations, confusions, and insanities of the 1960s. Both American Pastoral and True Believers evoke the same wistful feeling in people like me who were too young for the '60s but would have liked to have understood firsthand why everyone went nuts simultaneously. Also, I would have liked to have seen Jimi Hendrix play guitar live, rather than on YouTube.

One difference between Roth and Andersen: There's more action in Andersen's book than in Roth's—but almost as many Jews!

Before I go on, let me acknowledge that Kurt is a friend-of-Goldblog, and that I worked for him in the 1990s (an inferior decade, though not as inferior as the '80s) when he was the editor of New York magazine, and that I enjoyed working for him very much.

True Believers is a first-person account of the life of Karen Hollander, a sexy-grandma lawyer, former Department of Justice official, and almost-Supreme Court nominee (hers is what Hillary Clinton's career path might have looked like had HRC not attached herself to Bill) who has been keeping a terrible secret about something she and a band of friends plotted to do in the 1960s.  I won't reveal more, because you should read it for yourselves. I had an e-mail exchange with Kurt about the book, and about the '60s, and about one of his book's very amusing Jewish subplots. Our conversation is reproduced below.


As I finished reading True Believers, I couldn't decide for myself whether you thought the 1960s were ultimately beneficial to the country. Yes, young people found their voice, but it turns out in some cases that it was the voice of a crazy person. And yes, the notion of radical individualism flourished, but the consequences of this notion haven't been wholly positive. The music was great, of course, but one lesson of the '60s—do what makes you feel good, or what feels right—seems to have given license to some people to become selfish without guilt. Can you, in less than a million words, tell me where things went right as a consequence of the '60s, and where they went wrong?

I think the 1960s were definitely a net positive for America and Americans. Civil rights and women's rights were unequivocal triumphs, as was the newly heightened awareness of what we then called "ecology." The greater tolerance for different kinds of people and for weirdness were excellent changes. Pop music had its awesome big-bang moment, as you say, and movies and visual art were transformed in interesting ways, and we middle-aged people now get to wear blue jeans and sneakers and go to rock concerts and generally behave as if we're young until we die.

But we threw some baby out with the bath water. The mistrust of government that blossomed in the late '60s has become a chronic and in some ways pathological condition. We got carried away with the idea of victimhood, so that now white people and Christians and Wall Street guys cast themselves categorically as victims of bigotry. The latent American tendency toward self-righteousness and apocalyptic thinking got ratcheted up. The idea of one's "own truth" started propagating, and that solipsism is now pandemic.

And as I recently argued in a Times op-ed which bugged a lot of of '60s-romanticizers on the left and libertarians on the right, I think the "if it feels good do it"/"do your own thing" paradigm of the 1960s also helped enable the greed-is-good hypercapitalism and general selfishness that grew and grew afterward.

As Walter Isaacson pointed out to me the other day, Steve Jobs is the great embodiment of both of these '60s strands. He's the ultimate Bobo, and his fellow bourgeois bohemians are the one cohort for whom both strands of the '60s legacy have been a win-win.

I think I'm almost at a million words.

You obviously have affection for your protagonist's granddaughter, Waverly, but there's also a bit of mockery in your portrayal of this polymorphously rebellious but stunningly naive (and commodified) high school senior. You've spoken about the Occupy movement as a kind of cover-band version of the rebellions of the 1960s. Why hasn't the Occupy movement achieved its goals, in the way the student protesters achieved many of their goals (and they achieved large things, including dumping LBJ, women's liberation, and so on.)

Two reasons. In the late '60s (and the early '70s, which were when The Sixties got scaled-up and rolled out to the mass market), there were two big, specific, demands: Stop the Draft and End the War. And in the '60s, too, the antiwar movement was part of and driven by the powerful and much larger new countercultural wave—sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, etc.

Whereas Occupy and kindred protesters today, while they have something of a '60s 2.0 critique of our political economy and institutions—corrupt, unfair, malign—do not have any big policy demand, and also aren't driven by a wholly distinct and exciting generational sensibility the way so many young people 40 and 45 years ago were.

Which isn't to say it couldn't happen again. Occupy in 2011 may be analogous to the left-wing protest movements in the early '60s. Maybe they just require event(s) analogous to the Vietnam War and the draft and ghetto uprisings to light the fire.

Even beyond hippies and protesters, when I was in junior high, the Generation Gap became this Major American Issue. It seemed very real. And that generation, the boomers, by staying forever youngish and maybe by being helicopter parents, has so far prevented a new generation gap from forming.

You know, it's funny, your last thought caused me to realize that my children can't rebel against my music, because their music is my music. Do you know how thrilled I was to see them embrace Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Cream? I mean, that sort of thing didn't happen in the '60s. Maybe I'm not giving them enough space to rebel. There's really something to your theory.

As for your kids' music being your music, and that generation-gap-lessness being weird but pleasurable (and pre-modern): absolutely. It also connects to my other recent hobbyhorse about the cultural ice age that started 25 years ago. Someday I will merge it all into my personal Theory of Everything.

And as for Israel, it just...came up as I was writing, the way things do in fiction. There was no plan. But once I'd invented my apostate-lefty neocon character Buzzy, a guy who went from hard-left to hard-right during the 1970s and '80s, it seemed like an issue that would be important to him in the present day—partly because it permits him to feel the sort of righteous black-and-white New Left conviction he felt when he was young in the late 1960s. The fact that  Buzzy is a conservative Christian made his Likudite passion more interesting to me. And then, too, it seemed apt that modern Israel came into being geopolitically in 1967, around the time half my novel takes place.

In fact, 1967 was when Israel first loomed large in my consciousness. That June I was 12, and my irreligious and politically moderate parents held a Seven-Day War victory barbecue party in our front yard in Omaha, with little blue-and-white banners. Their closest Jewish friend, a bald guy, arrived wearing a Moshe Dayanesque eyepatch. I tell this story, I guess, as an illustration of how deeply, unambiguously, merrily pro-Israel regular Americans—non-evangelical-Christian gentiles in the heartland—felt back then.

A Seven-Day War party? Who would have thunk it? Also, Jews in Omaha? But that's another issue.

The obvious question is, what happened to that feeling? Why did non-evangelical culture shift, to the extent it actually has shifted? (I think it remains true that Israel is still more popular across America than its enemies, but no one is throwing parties like that anymore.) Which brings us to one of your inventions, the Paul Plan, a foreboding aside in your neocon riff: The libertarian Paul family in your book proposes a plan to extract the Jews from Israel and resettle them in America, as a means of solving the Middle East crisis. But there's a deadline for Israeli participation. After the deadline, those Israelis who remain would be left on their own. This bit struck me as the logical conclusion to Roth's "Diasporism," from Operation Shylock. Do you think you're on to something apocalyptic about the near future?

For sure Israel remains vastly more popular among Americans than any country in its part of the world. But that's a very low bar. A few years ago at a swank Manhattan dinner party I got in a serious shouting argument with a Brit who'd said that Israel was a worse country than its neighbors. Americans have not yet become reflexive Euro-style anti-Israelites in significant numbers. But the country has gone in my lifetime from being our bestest non-European buddy, our spunky amazing inspiring heroic pal, to being...a friend, a friend who's in a tragic and terrible tight spot, a friend most Americans these days would prefer not to think too much about.

Of course the Paul Plan, embodied in legislation sponsored by Ron and Rand Paul in the House and Senate, is fantastical. (And thanks making for the Roth connection. I only thought of Operation Shylock and Diasporism after I'd finished True Believers; American Pastoral I thought about from the get-go.) But: If the Pauls or people of equal stature seriously proposed such a plan? I think it would get traction, right, left and middle. Because Americans don't like open-ended foreign entanglements or insoluble-seeming large problems, and because the West Bank Palestinians are looking like pretty reasonable un-Arafats, and Netanyahu and his settler-centric government is not easy to embrace enthusiastically. A Paul Plan would feel to a lot of Americans like the ultimate Gordian-knot-cutting act of magnanimous national tough love—and who would object to getting a well-regulated influx of a few million smart, ambitious, prosperous, English-speaking immigrants, and developing an undeveloped chunk of the American West in the bargain? But it is fiction.

You will be tempted—deeply, seriously tempted—to answer the following question with a one-liner, but don't, unless you can't truly help yourself: If Mitt Romney were a character in this novel about the '60s, and about the legacy of the '60s, what role would he play? Not so much in the plot, which I don't want to give away, but what would he symbolize? And how much of a product of the '60s is he? (I'm obviously thinking of the greed-is-good flipside of the if-it-makes-you-happy-it-can't-be-that-bad ethos you talk about to such good effect, but maybe I'm wrong.)

Great question! Mitt graduated college the same year my characters do, 1971. But he was, of course, living in an alternate Mormon universe, willfully insulated from The Sixties. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Except that's why he seems so strange and anodyne and Conehead-y and Ward Cleaverish to people—the era made no apparent marks on him. (I mean, for instance, look at his Spotify playlist: It's like he plugged his ears after "Good Vibrations" was released when he was 19, the year after he cut the bohemian kid's hair.) Which is to say, he's a generational outlier, and it's hard to imagine him as anything but a minor and somewhat implausible comic character in True Believers. Even his success in business, although it may have been enabled by do-your-own-thing anything-goes hypercapitalism, is that of a 1950s McNamara-esque efficiency expert, not a post-'60s buccaneer.

Karen Hollander, your heroine, has juvenile diabetes, as do you. You explore the emotional and interior-life consequences of diabetes quite carefully and lovingly, and I'm almost tempted to ask—ok, I'm tempted—if you think that your experience with diabetes has made you a better, or at least different, writer. The second Hollander question is, are you a little bit jealous of her? She had the full-'60s experience; you were just a bit too young to get the full blast. By the time you came up, it was moving more from a Woodstock sort of experience to a bitterish Altamont kind of thing.

For the record, they call it "Type 1" as opposed to "juvenile" these days. (Juvenile diabetes, juvenile delinquent—why did the j-word get retired across the board after the 1960s?) Anyway: a better writer? If only. But it did have the effect, getting diagnosed at age 32, of concentrating my mind in a wonderful-ish Samuel Johnsonian sense, of knocking out of me a certain youthful lah-di-dah sense of endless time. So it definitely made me a different person. Maybe a bit tougher and wiser. And as a writer, as it's turned out with this book, it gave me material. Which is like blood for a vampire.

I'm actually not jealous of Karen. At the time I would have been—when I got to college in 1972, it felt like I'd just missed all the fun. But now I'm actually kind of glad I didn't get the full blast—or at least, I tend to feel more generational kinship with people born during the second half of the Baby Boom... what the writer Josh Glenn calls The Original Generation X. It's why I like Barack Obama, and Comedy Central "news" shows, and you.

This book ultimately is about the virtues of pure belief, and the price of pure belief. You come down squarely on the side of moderation, but you also have deep sympathy for the passions that animate the Occupy movement, and its predecessor movement, the big one of the 1960s. The question is, is it over now? Are we going to let another whole generation pass before there's a kind of disgust-driven rising at the Way Things Are?

Yes, the book is a story about passionate belief (and secrets and lies), especially at crazy historical inflection points when the center doesn't hold and empirical reality gets all mucked up by rampant magical thinking. Such as now. Were Q3 and Q4 of 2011 the full extent of ADHD America's protest season for this half century? Could be. But I sort of doubt it. As Norman Mailer said in 1964, when almost no one else had any inkling of the thrills and chills and madness that were just months away, "There's a shitstorm coming." The Sixties were a function of the baby boomers coming of age and feeling entitled, and the impending shitstorm, if it comes, will be partly a function of baby boomers getting old and feeling entitled—and of 21st century young people, as in the 1960s, having an overwhelming and annoying clarity that The Way Things Are is deeply, systemically, untenably wrong. History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes, as Mark Twain apparently did not say.

But, onward: There's a very interesting sub-theme in your book I wanted to ask you about, which is the way Israel kind of flashes in and out, in two different ways: In your alternating 1960s chapters, one of your main characters views a relative of his who fought with the Jewish underground in Palestine as a revolutionary role model. In the present-day chapters (well, present-day + about a year), Israel is held up by another of your main characters, an apostate leftist, now a Fox commentator, as the bulwark of Western civilization against Muslim radicals and the international left. I know, from previous conversations, that you think about the way in which Israel is understood in American cultural and political thought quite a bit, so I'm wondering if I could get you to talk about why you've deployed Israel the way you have.