Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It was the riveting title and an interview of Kurt Andersen on The Hill's Rising which first compelled me to pick up Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America. The urgency in his voice during that interview is fully reflected in this work: it is a call to action for all American citizens to finally and totally reject the delusional haze of nostalgia that has effectively brought this nation to the brink.
It's a very particular kind of nostalgia, which Andersen does a very entertaining job of elucidating. This thorough body of work draws vivid comparisons between various eras in American history to show how economically, politically, and culturally, we've been held in a sort of stasis that has prevented us from making the progress necessary to protect ourselves from the challenges of our current time. The narrative is compelling. We're taken through the story of the purposeful alterations of our political and economic systems via changes to law and policy by captains of industry in order to rig the game completely in their favor. It is the story of how we've come to the point of socioeconomic stagnation and extreme wealth inequality burdening us today.
Rather than relying on conjecture, Andersen does a great job of collecting writings, interviews, meeting minutes, and the pivotal texts which undergirded the scheme to reverse the gains of the New Deal in order to reinstate the more laissez faire free market system which existed prior. It was a slow burn, a long game which involved making specific changes spanning from the particulars of the legal system to utilizing the media to influence public opinions regarding the role of big business in American society. Individuals like Milton Friedman and his ilk left no stone unturned when it came to executing their plan to mold the American economy in their image. Andersen does a great job of fleshing out this history and the cultural changes which happened in parallel.
As the book progresses, Andersen's call for change becomes more urgent. He raises the pressing question of automation and what this will mean for jobs. He brings up climate change and how our lack of preparation stems from the rash of deregulation which has occurred over the previous decades. He even rounds it all out with our current viral pandemic that we were naturally completely unprepared for. In laying out our current landscape and the challenges facing us all, Andersen is clear and comprehensive.
However, there were moments when I felt that much of his ire was directed quite stridently towards one end of the political spectrum while somewhat glossing over or ignoring the role of politicians on the other. Yes, he brings up many instances where Democrats clearly either dropped the ball or became "useful idiots" (I don't like this term) for "the other side", and he briefly mentions the changes in the Overton Window which have pulled many Dems further to the right, but I find myself unsatisfied with this narrative. I think a more nuanced view would have spent a bit more time deconstructing the ways in which corporate money has also become a damaging influence on the left, and how this has worked in synchrony to help propel the big business agenda of the right. It almost slipped into this angel/devil dichotomy which laid the bulk of the blame on the right while painting our politicians on the left as helpless actors within this system. A more thorough analysis of the corrupting nature of money in politics on both sides would have allowed for a more complete picture of how we got to where we are. The greed for green is a monster that has permeated the Democratic party far deeper than Andersen seemed willing to probe. Which is a shame because it is also a major obstacle preventing the institution of the very sociopolitical changes which Andersen himself pushes for in this book.
All in all, this was a very engrossing read. Oftentimes such works can be honestly boring as hell, but Andersen's entertaining voice, cool cultural references and relevant anecdotes helped to quicken the pace. In spite of my gripe regarding how soft he went on Democrats, I do feel that this is an important read which serves as a clarion call for us all to step up to the challenges of our time and demand the political and socioeconomic changes that will create a strong, fair and equitable society.
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