I’m wondering how we should think of America’s role in global affairs.
Globalization has been going on a long time—150 years, not just 20. But I think it has come to some tipping point moment while we are still a superpower, yet how profoundly dependent we are on say, China, and the rest of the world, that I do think this is an important moment for America to have some finesse with its dealings with the world. Which again, in our bi-polar way that I talk about it in other ways, we go from fighting World War II, to being isolationists, to invading Vietnam and Iraq to never wanting to go… Well obviously to me the correct posture in the world is to be engaged and fight a war when you have to, but to be neither ‘fortress America’ or ‘bully America.’ I think it’s a particularly important moment to achieve that middle-path. And on that path, I am hopeful that we’re growing up a little bit. I think the last 10 years, since 9-11 has been… I see it as a fairly hopeful moment of growth. There are bad people in the world who want to do us harm, but, invading Iraq wasn’t such a good idea. And I have the sense that there’s a kind of level-headedness about national security and foreign policy that wasn’t there. This book is really from a slightly Olympian level, so when you see Sean Hannity or when I look at the actual sausage making of health-care reform, it’s hard to maintain my sort of sense of…to sort of see the forest for the trees. I mean the trees are ugly often unpleasant. But I do think that to me, that’s one place, our place in the world. After Vietnam and Vietnam Syndrome that now, we do have a working consensus about what makes sense in the world for how America should play in the world.
How does amateur-ship fit into all this?
Well it’s been a hobbyhorse of mine for a long time.
Weren’t all States, at one point, built by amateurs?
This country, more than any other country, has a history of that kind of fundamental improvisation as they built and create institutions, the country itself obviously. And when I started thinking about this as an important piece of the American character and spirit and history it was about 10 or 15 years ago, before the digital revolution had fully flowered. And so I became more and more hopeful on that front. Here’s another example of painful, creative destruction: For people who run magazine or newspapers or movie companies or record companies or whatever, but it seems to me that all of these hundreds of thousands of amateurs making Linux or music or web-apps or videos or whatever, that is a flowering of the amateur spirit that when you can find that one out of one hundred things that’s worth pursuing, that’s exactly how a civilization thrives and moves forward. Out of leaving the narrow boxes of the guilds of the professionalized worlds that say, ‘This is how you do it.’ Or the corporate monopolies that say, ‘This is how you do it,’ and stop thinking of news ways of doing things. When I began being slightly obsessed wit this idea of the amateur spirit, I thought, it’s too bad this amateur spirit has sort of dissipated and disappeared so much. But then in the last decade, I have become hopeful even as half of my friends are out of work because of the amateur spirit in the media.
You think it’s been a positive development for the culture?
Well, that’s a thing that’s hard to judge when you’re in the middle of it. I do, actually. I think that it wasn’t so much the amateur spirit, but technology, and what it could do as in a zillion cable channels and a thousand, zillion web channels to turn over all these rocks under which birthers and truthers crawl out. So is that good for the culture? No… Maybe no, maybe yes. It means that we normal people, we sane, healthy people, have to see a lot of whack jobs that we would never have to see before. I remember when Jerry Springer came out, people said oh god, the Jerry Springers of the world are making all this happen. But they’re not, they’re just turning over all the rocks and we have to see it. But do I think having many, many people empowered to find things out, to publish things, to find things out, to make things is more than bad? I do. Are there unfortunate downsides like many millions of otherwise sane and intelligent people thinking that say, vaccines cause autism and wont believe otherwise no matter how many times scientists tell them otherwise?
So that’s the dark side of the amateur spirit?
It is. That’s still one of my great questions: Is there going to be a moment in my life 10 years hence, say, 20 years hence, where things have settled down and people…this sense of great flux we’ve been in for now since before the end of the last century. We’ve begun to feel that it’s gone on for so long, certainly in the worlds we occupy, that it feels like man, this is like, the new normal. This sense of, the sky is falling, we don’t know what’s next, how is media going to exits. Will the flux end? If you look at it historically, you think, probably so. And the idea that, forget American exceptionalism, but generational or momentary exceptionalism, ‘This is a new economy. Everything is different! The rules are different!’ I’m skeptical of those things and I imagine the flux will end and new Time Warners of the worlds and the new New York Times of the world will arise and there will be a new normal that feels more normal.
What do you think that will be like?
Well, if I knew that…
What do you think the media will look in the future?
A lot of the newspapers that existed in the past 50 or 100 years are going to be gone and a lot of the magazines and radio… but I also am enough of a believer in the invisible hand and people like me, who want quality journalism, and who will pay $3 in the pot to have smart people stationed in Baghdad and to tell me what’s going on there—that those enterprises will find a way to sustain themselves. And in terms of local stuff, it’s sort of unsexy to think, what newspapers will come out of Philadelphia or Omaha, but we need tough local journalism…I mean local journalism has sucked for a long time in most places, so it’s not as though, I’m not sure there’s been a golden age… I certainly haven’t lived through is as I travel around as I read local newspaper and watch local television. But I do think that, in terms of local media, in addition to whatever audiences exist for good tough journalism about how cities are being developed and planned and so forth. I think the local gym and restaurant and futon store and the rest of it needs a place to advertise. And again, what do I know I’ve never run a daily newspaper so what do I know, but when a newspaper like LA Times, or Seattle papers say ‘Well, we had 600 journalists, now we have 300.’ ‘We had 1000, now we have 600.’ I understand this horrible thing you’ve been through and how it’s unimaginable that you can continue to create quality with this, half the number of people. But then I look at it and I say, Jesus, if somebody said to me, give me 300 journalists and go on a website and cover L.A., I think I could do a pretty good job.
I guess it’s a glass half-full type thing?
Yes, but I remember thinking this back when CBS was in decline and when FOX was starting. Fox Broadcasting. And thinking, if you were the Tiffany Network and you were basically trying to manage the steepness of your decline, that’s depressing. And it’s depressing if you’re Time Inc. It’s depressing if you’re in that position. If you’re starting from scratch, like FOX Broadcasting, or an unnamed media entities starting in garages as we speak, it’s a whole different approach. It is the entrepreneurial, jazzed approach to creating something from scratch without all the legacy costs and legacy culture as opposed to managing your death, or slowing down your death.
In characterizing the value of your book to contemporary political conversations would you say it is in bringing a more sober historical perspective to these conversations?
Absolutely. That’s for others to say, but yes. I think we are pretty ahistorical people. I think this is in many ways, an ahistorical time, as well. What happened yesterday, or last year, or as far as a decade ago are the only relevant matters. Or some one moment that people, for whatever reason, get obsessed about: ‘Not since 1932’ or, ‘It’s the Roman empire all over again.’ There are these sort of tendentiously chosen moments in history become history. As opposed to, let’s look at the time between 1932 and the 1970s. Let’s look at the time between… a fair-minded look at the whole of the story, at history. I think is important for people to not get too panicked or depressed. Or on the other hand, get more frightened. Because you know, civilizations decline. So yes, to have as full a historical understanding as possible I think is what we need in political discourse, as individuals, trying to think about what America could be, how our lives should be.
Who are the thinkers who inform your historical analysis?
Henry Adams and Emerson wrote about the cycles of history. Neil Ferguson is an interesting writer. A piece of work sometimes, but he’s somebody I’ve read avidly the last decade. And it’s as much beyond… you know scholarship in its nature tends to work in silos. Because I’m not a scholar, or a historian, I can ignore the silos and think bigger and connect dots that no academic would dream of doing because he has a career to worry about. I think I come to this with the virtue of the amateur.
So you think of yourself as an amateur historian?
It’s funny, when I published Heyday, my first public discussion of it and reading of it was at this very august, NYU academic institute for Humanities. I started thinking: They’re gonna bust me. I’m a fraud. And I got through that and as the book came out, I was waiting for people who actually know about the Mexican War and know about the Revolution of 1848, and okay… I guess I felt as though it gave me some confidence, the fact that I wasn’t totally screwy or crack-potty in my historical understanding.
It just occurred to me that your work seems to be getting more and more earnest.
It could be, that’s true. You could make that case.
Though I read you in NY Mag and there’s still a lot of humor in what you do.
There is a lot of humor in what I do now. And there was serious intent in Spy. As boring and cliché as it is, it’s a function of going from 30 to 55 and having children and skin in the game for the future. You know what I do in terms of what I’ve written…what can I say? It’s what interests me to do at a given moment and what seems not to be being done much that draws me. Heyday was when I started thinking about this—that there was this is a weirdly empty zone of American history in terms of both the popular historical imagination and the fiction or movies that have been done. I’m not saying it’s entirely virgin territory, but relatively speaking, it is. Just as Spy, nobody is doing this, so maybe we can do this. So you find empty zones of art or media and see what you can…when I go to the beach, I tend to move away from where everybody else has their umbrellas.
Reset is not a very ironic book.
No, certainly not. It’s not without humor, but it is straightforwardly earnest about what I think went wrong and how we might try to put things right. It’s definitely post-ironic.
Who do you think is doing the best satire today?
You know I see bits and pieces. I’m a daily/nightly watcher of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and they’re amazing and we’re fortunate to have them. The thing is, in this Internet age and this post-Spy age, there are so many different examples of people trying to be satirical in so many different places that it’s hard. There is no central place, other than those two shows on Comedy Central. I see funny stuff all over the place, but other than those two shows, there is no other place that I go for satire.