“We sit squarely in the middle of an absurdist drama.”
Two years into this pandemic, we are living in a new world. And increasingly, we are seeing, perhaps, an emerging cocktail of tyranny that combines an Orwellian tyranny with the self-indulgence and passive obedience described in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” says author, journalist, and essayist Walter Kirn.
Tonight, we try to make more sense of our current political and cultural moment, from lockdowns to mandates, and how we got here.
“The results are in. The rich got richer, and they got richer faster than ever before. And they seem, it would appear, to have almost a rooting interest in this new status quo. Because why should they voluntarily retire from the business of getting richer?”
Jan Jekielek: Walter Kirn, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Walter Kirn: Great to be here. Great to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Walter, I think you must be, at least right now, one of my favorite contemporary students of the human condition.
Mr. Kirn: Well good. I have no degree in it, but I’ve aspired since boyhood to study it. So, mission accomplished. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, people keep sending me a new essay of yours, “Hey, have you seen this? This is interesting.” I know you’ve been looking at this. This is something that’s really been on my mind, what it is. It’s amazing to me over the last five, six years … I’ve discovered how incredibly important it is to people to have a sense of belonging and I think you actually built on that in the essay, just to make sure I get it right, “The Power and the Silence.” You said it has more to do with being acceptable to the person that has the power necessarily beyond this sense of belonging. I thought that was very fascinating.
Mr. Kirn: That essay was built on an anecdote that was told to me by a former president of a major U.S. bank. He was in a golf tournament at Warren Buffet’s golf course on the morning of 9-11-2001. And Warren had a rule that cellphones … the new fancy cellphone that man had invented … was not to be allowed to disturb the golf tournament. So, everyone was acting as though they didn’t have one in their golf bag or in their caddy’s pocket.
When the news of 9/11 started causing those phones to ring, the collected CEOs and world class celebrities at this tournament snuck away to learn that the Towers had fallen in New York and the Pentagon had been attacked. But so cowed were they by Warren’s prohibition or his ban on cellphones, they couldn’t show their reactions to this attack on the United States.
Their fear of displeasing Warren, their business superior, was greater than their need to react to an emergency of that scale. So, I used that anecdote to really illustrate the point that you made that in human behavior, we’re told it’s self-interest that rules. But in fact, as demonstrated by this story and many others, what seems to be the most prominent social instinct in people is to please those who have power over them, to make the command chain feel good about itself and be good soldiers in whatever effort is deemed most important at the time.
So, I think that explains a lot about human behavior generally but especially lately. As people’s sense of what’s going on around them and the disasters and difficulties they’re facing in this COVID era are inconvenient to state because the line coming from the top is “We’ve got this handled” or “The vaccines are working” or “Lockdowns have no cost.” Whatever the lines coming from the top are that are at variance with people’s actual experience tend to lead to people yielding to the line, yielding to the command or propaganda and suppressing their own reactions. That’s a reflex I’ve seen almost endemic to this situation.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and it’s fascinating, but there’s also some portion of the population that seems to enthusiastically support whatever the decrees are. And frankly, to some extent, almost in a cruel way, vilify the people who aren’t participating. Is it-
Mr. Kirn: Well, the thing that’s happened during COVID is that time and time again, we’ve gotten a scapegoat for the situation. Before the vaccines, before it was the unvaccinated, it was the people who were reluctant to wear masks or the people who were keeping their businesses open despite supposed efflorescence of cases. And so at every step, we’ve been asked to blame someone usually to the side of us rather than above us, for the pandemic itself and for the toll that it’s taken.
And people’s willingness to eagerly participate in that scapegoating has been troubling, but not if you know something about the history of social science. Surprising, we’re a species that has been shown in the lab … You see the Milgram experiment often alluded to in this context. We’re a species that is quite willing to administer pain and blame and anger to one another, rather than look up and question the authority that would have us be aggressive or angry or divisive.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. I do see the Milgram experiment, I guess, referenced a lot, as I guess the same idea as your story.
Mr. Kirn: Yes. The absence of the Milgram experiment was that I think it was conducted using students, our guinea pig population even now, because they seem to be bearing the brunt of our COVID policies. But the idea was that they were given orders by an authority figure, I guess the chief scientist involved, to administer shocks to people in other rooms. I think people that they could even see through transparent partitions, and they were willing to do this to an extent that was nauseating maybe to a general audience, but in the confines of the lab showed remarkable willingness to be sadistic almost on behalf of power.
Mr. Jekielek: Right, and frankly almost not really be aware. And that’s the part that I find really interesting. Not be aware that that’s what you’re engaged in.
Mr. Kirn: Yes. Well, there has been a sense throughout this pandemic that to be on the right side of it will bear no consequences, that if you are operating in accord with the authorities, you won’t face punishment, even if the people you’re vilifying, demonizing, ostracizing are your own neighbors. You’d think that feedback from them, or backlash from them would be the most urgent concern for people, but it seems to be that this favor from above trumps that.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you described this, let’s call it this whole thing, this whole milieu that we’re in as a drama. What is the drama? Explain it to me. What is the drama you’re seeing?
Mr. Kirn: Well, if we’re going to confine it to the last couple of years, the drama consists of a hidden enemy suddenly showing itself with powers as yet to be comprehended, which forces us into a defensive position in every fashion, personally, professionally, politically. And while we are reeling from the assault of this … Trump used to call it the hidden enemy or something … we are being directed from on high to do various things, to protect ourselves, protect the community and so on, which have in their cumulative effect become more and more absurd.
We are promised ways out of this pandemic. It’s like one of those escape rooms that people go to for amusement. The door opens but there’s another locked door behind it. And if you mask, you’ll be out of it. If you distance yourselves, if you stay in your homes, if you order your food from DoorDash, if you take the vaccine, if you take the booster.
And every one of these commandments … and if it’s going to be a stage play, they come maybe from a megaphone on high … has led to a new surge of hope that this new difficult regime is about to end. And then a new crashing wave of disappointment that in fact it isn’t. And so as a drama, it maybe went from a dark tragic thing to a dark tragic farce, and that’s where we’re standing today, I think. I’ve said that the novel “Catch-22” about the absurdities and contradictions of bureaucratic rule is the best fictional avocation of our situation.
And now, I think we sit squarely in the middle of an absurdist drama where what we thought was common sense is portrayed to us as a problem. The common sense of taking care of yourself and treating diseases with medicines that decrease the symptoms and so on, that’s outrageous. You wait for the super vaccine. You do everything but what you used to do when you got an airborne virus.
So, I really do. I think we’re in the grips of … If you’re going to personify it … a mad captain, Captain Queeg or some sort of capricious monster.
Mr. Jekielek: By this monster, you’re not referring to any one person. This is some emergent property or something, or what are you thinking here?
Mr. Kirn: An emergent property would be a nice academic way to describe a hydra-headed bureaucracy, which includes supporting characters like Bill Gates. Never in my lifetime, in all of the crises I’ve lived through, has a billionaire weighed in as some actor in a public emergency. But we’ve got Bill Gates, we’ve got Fauci, Wilensky, the WHO, all of these authority figures operating pretty much in a coordinated fashion.
When you say it’s an emergent thing, a certain behavior seems to be common to this whole group. One of the signal features of that behavior is amnesia. I have been asked throughout COVID to take as gospel a series of absolutely contradictory directives, which show very little awareness of the past or even recently past directive that didn’t work.
So, “Groundhog Day” would be another popular movie that might afford some allegorical amusement in this situation, because we do seem to be cycling through the same process of looking to authority, being disappointed by it, and then redoubling our search for an authoritative answer.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that’s really been on my mind throughout all of this is this idea, and I started thinking about it when I was thinking about woke ideology, or the elect as John McWhorter calls the people that practice it, is this disjunction between intention … or connection between intention and impact.
So you hear when it comes to people’s feelings, according to this ideology, it doesn’t matter what your intention is, it’s the impact. If someone’s feelings are hurt, you’re at fault. Now, the crazy thing about this is, and this keeps drilling into me, is that when it comes to implementing policy, it’s actually the exact opposite.
It’s on the intent that matters, but whatever the consequence, however outrageous, it doesn’t matter. It’s the good intent that matters. Reality, it should be the other way around, at least in my mind—anyway.
Mr. Kirn: By their fruits, you shall know them. That’s been suspended, and it’s by their good intentions, you shall judge them. But you’re right there, there’s a real intellectual contradiction here in the landscape. On the one hand, we live in a time of microaggressions and speech is violence, and as you say, if I feel bad, it doesn’t matter if you were trying to make me feel bad. It only matters that I do.
Then we suspend that, we suspend that criteria for the very powerful now who are constantly excused on the basis of having good aims. And every time one of their edicts falls apart, or every time they say something like, “Oh, but cloth masks never worked,” we’re told, “Yeah, but their heart’s in the right place. They care for the community and new information has emerged.”
And so, we constantly have to forgive the consequences, and often the dire consequences, of their commands for some floating sense of their civic mindedness. But at a certain point, only in politics do results not matter.
Politics seems to be the art of doing something ineffective or even damaging but having an ideological justification for it that survives the disaster and goes on to create more. We are deep into the process of denial about the consequences of the COVID regime and we are also deep into this occult adoration of the people who have made these mistakes and propounded these, to my mind, awful policies.
Mr. Jekielek: The thing that brings all this together for me is it’s almost like we’re losing touch with reality, almost being important. I know you think a lot about this because you’re commenting on the metaverse all the time, which is Reality(TM). But, in a world where reality is just what someone says it is in a given time or what someone feels in a given time, that’s the reality where everything you just described becomes possible. Right?
Mr. Kirn: Well so reality is, supposedly in the west, the ground of our intellectual investigations. Science is as classically defined, the exercise of experimentation and hypothesis in pursuit of deeper and deeper awareness of the real. That’s science. Political science, and they become confused, seems to be more and more about the construction of an alternative reality, which is to be preferred in fact to the substantial reality that science investigates because politics has taken a social view of events such that it is their engineering and their manipulation that’s more important than their essence.
I sometimes wonder if the political leaders of the moment and the bureaucratics and their bureaucratic instruments even believe that reality exists independently of their machinations. It is what I say it is. They’re like Norman Desmond, the imperious silent movie star who says she’s living alone in her mansion and hasn’t had a movie in years, and they ask her what’s wrong and she says, “Well, the movies got small. It wasn’t me.”
And sometimes I feel like these Fauci-ian bureaucrats and some of these blowhard politicians are saying, “Reality is what I say it is. It’s not I that was wrong. It’s the world.” They’re starting to diverge from anything that we formally believed was sanity.
Sanity as defined by some correlation between your belief system and what’s actually happening. Their belief systems have become preeminent, and that’s what happens, especially I think, with left wing ideology. It’s so concerned with the engineering of a utopian future that it sees the present only as material to be shaped for that purpose, rather than something having an independent life.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and there’s this other element where it’s basically just about power, where whoever holds the power wields the power, decides and … everything is built around trying to get that, keep it.
Mr. Kirn: It’s a very cynical time, and it’s a cynical time that believes itself to be an ideologically pure and even optimistic time. You hear people saying things like … which used to be jokes … “It’s not who votes, it’s who counts the votes.” But you now hear that from the top. It’s who puts out the statistics, not the reality that creates them that’s important. That’s the sense in which I think our leaders are becoming almost fatally detached from the ground. They have begun to think that the painting that they make is more important than the landscape they’re trying to depict.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you’re grounded in some reality. You’re out in rural Montana. You don’t like to come here to New York. I know that.
Mr. Kirn: I like it as a diversion. Were I to be trapped here without a flight home, I’d get anxious after about four days. But rural Montana is really just part of the great Midwestern, non-coastal American heartland. It’s no longer the place of cowboys and whatever Yellowstone, the TV show, depicts. It’s not quite like that.
But, living in a small town in Montana does put me in touch with a variety of people that I might not be in touch with if I lived in a place like New York. The hardware store owner across the street … Now, current economic problems involve shortages and inflation and so on were evident to me many, many months ago just through my conversations with the guy who owns the hardware store. “I can’t get these bolts. I can’t get these power tools. I can’t get this sort of lumber.”
So knowing that, I’ve not been surprised at all by these supply chain problems and the persistence of inflation and so on. A small town is really a laboratory in pragmatism and getting things done. We don’t generate in Livingston, Montana the opinion that moves millions. We aren’t a center of legislative power, of media power, of commercial power. The business of a small town is surviving, and that’s the business of America for the most part.
As people report on their adventures in survival, I get very good information and it’s proven correct time and again in later trends. One reason it tends to be good information is that the incentives to lie are very small in a little town. The incentives to please power, because power isn’t really present there, are very low.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and the cost of lying too much, you have to face your neighbor the next day once you get found out.
Mr. Kirn: Exactly. A hardware store owner, plumbing and heating guy, a truck driver … name a few of the professions of people that I happen to know in my daily life … are reality based almost to a fault in the sense that a lot of America I think right now is immersed in the business of making sure its bank account shows a positive balance at the end of the month. Making sure that their business can meet payroll, making sure that their child’s tuition can be paid, and so on.
It’s unfair to the country to accuse it of being out to lunch or in denial or deluded when we realize that in fact most of them are just very busy. Their need to, or their desire to form big picture analyses and forecasts of things is … Maybe they’ve got 15 minutes before bed to do that if they want. They also are dependent on commercial media to do that for them. A dependence which I think a lot of them are weaning themselves from.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, we’re definitely going to have to talk about media because it’s really interesting how someone with your journalistic pedigree … Well, you’re not talking the same way a lot of other folks with similar pedigree are talking right now, so I want to talk about that. Before we go there though, this is what strikes me.
One of the consequences of pandemic policy has been, I think unequivocally, a vast, vast upward transfer of massive wealth to the wealthiest in the world, and a huge cost to the working class and perhaps the middle class. Certainly, the working class, I’ve seen those numbers.
So, what you’re talking about makes a ton of sense. People are busy, busy surviving in these places. And so, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think this is something that there’s a huge awareness of but there’s been a massive shift over the past couple of years. People talk about Gini coefficients and it’s important to not get it too high. Well, I don’t know what it is going to be for the coming year, but it’s going to shift.
Mr. Kirn: Why should the hardware store next door to me have at one point to close its door when the Costco warehouse with its parking lot for thousands of cars practically, hundreds certainly, be wide open? Why should Amazon be able to come right to your door and send its drivers out in the middle of a pandemic and so while everyone else has to stay locked up?
The wealth transfer has been immense. It’s been measured. The numbers of new billionaires, the extent to which those 15 top billionaires quadrupled or multiplied their wealth has been now calculated. The results are in. The rich got richer, and they got richer faster than ever before. And it would appear to have almost a rooting interest in this new status quo because why should they voluntarily retire from the business of getting richer when it’s working so well?
They tend to identify what’s good for Bill Gates is good for the country. They used to say what’s good for General Motors is good for America. It’s frightening, frankly, to see the most powerful people in society incentivized to continue this regimen, which is such a disaster for everyone else. They aren’t protesting. They aren’t trying to get kids back in school. They aren’t worried about the survival of small businesses or the excess deaths that seem to be occurring. And Bill Gates, I read last night, is warning of even worse pandemics.
I have seen a lot of dystopian movies and I read a lot of science fiction, but in very few of them have the world’s richest or second richest person appeared on TV to scare and terrify the populace with scenarios of death, destruction and disease. That’s not a healthy society in which that either happens or is tolerated.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s go into the media question that I was mentioning a bit earlier. How is it that Walter Kirn has this? I think when we were chatting another time, I called you contrarian. You contested that. I thought that was very thoughtful actually. But let’s say a different, quite different perspective on the world and people than frankly your peers.
Mr. Kirn: Well, it has to do with my path through life frankly. I grew up in rural Minnesota. I grew up on a farm. I went to a school that’s now closed because it didn’t have enough students. Kindergarten through 12th grade in one building. And that was my reality until I went off to Princeton University. You can imagine the collision between farm kid and child of wealth at Princeton that I experienced.
I then went to Oxford University on a fellowship. I was academically fit to do that, and forever grateful I was given the opportunity. Came back to New York City, worked at “Vanity Fair Magazine” and many other magazines. I’ve written for “Time.” I’ve written for “The New Republic.” I’ve been a columnist at “Harper’s.” These last two magazines, very establishment, liberal magazines.
And so, rather than a contrarian, I’m still just that kid, Dorothy from Kansas maybe, seeing the ways of power without a lot of stakes in affirming the ways of power. I just feel like a kid who snuck into the fair and is peeking in the back and seeing how the con artists operate and so on, and how the carnies seduce their marks. But it’s not contrary because I’m not reacting to anything.
I’m simply reporting with a natural skepticism, which I thought was the job of all reporters. The reason I set out to become a journalist or become a writer was I wanted to tell the truth that those people who have authority and power in society might not want told. Or might not even be able to see by virtue of their position.
They’re subject to agreements and tribal loyalties that may not allow them to perceive correctly what’s going on, and I thought the job of a reporter was to be that little boy who sees the emperor naked … and, I found out to my chagrin that there’s a name for that. They call it a contrarian. They might even call it a conspiracy theorist, if you are to note that a few of them got together to do something that wasn’t good. I always thought of it just as the job.
So yes, I do reject contrarian just as I reject a lot of the labels they’re using now to marginalize people. They call people who don’t want to take the vaccine anti-vaxxers, as though they have an ideology. Well, they don’t. There’s a certain medicine that they feel dubious about and maybe don’t feel they need.
And so, the establishment, the system, which does exist … I’m here to tell you that my voyage from farm to the canyons of midtown Manhattan media has taught me yeah, they know each other. There’s a group. There is a set of institutional affiliations, marriages, old school ties, financial bonds that in aggregate do create an establishment which does have some consciousness of itself, its own needs, desires and interests. To honestly reflect that fact is not to me to be contrary. It’s simply to be clear.
Mr. Jekielek: Also, and of course now I’m thinking about another essay which you wrote, which a number of people actually sent my way, which is … Well actually, I can’t say the name on the show, The BS.
Mr. Kirn: Yes, the BS. I grew up in the Mormon church. I don’t like to swear, but I decided that my revulsion with the media, and the big, electronic and corporate media especially, deserved an exception to my policy of Andy Griffith euphemisms, so I called it “The BS,” used the whole word. That came about one morning when I was sitting on my Apple iPhone and looking at the headlines it pushes at me.
My wife said to me, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I’m just looking at today’s BS.” I decided because part of my job as a writer, I think, is to take things that are complex and render them simple, or at least to translate them into simpler terms … And I said, “Oh, that’s just going to be my word for the whole thing.” The stuff that comes in your iPhone, the stuff that streams on your TV, the internet headlines every time you log on to Yahoo or whatever, it’s all the BS.
And never has it behaved more like the BS than now. I’ve actually gotten to a radical point at which I wonder if consuming this stuff at all is good. People argue, “Well, even if it’s not all credible, you should know what they’re saying.” And, I used to believe that myself, but now I don’t even know that I should know what they’re saying, because the minute I know what they’re saying, the minute I know the stories they’re launching and the fables they’re telling and the propaganda they’re pushing, I become enmeshed in it and I become emotionally agitated, and I start to push back against it and debate it when in fact I should not be in that neighborhood.
Why go into a neighborhood where there’s only trouble? Why not try to create a separate parallel un-meeting and superior process for understanding events? This one is so … To use the legal term, it’s all the fruit of the poison tree. If the tree’s poisoned, why do I keep picking the fruit? Even if it’s to put in my mouth and reject it, maybe I should get out of that forest and find another one or grow one, even.
Mr. Jekielek: So, this is evolution because I actually pulled something on exactly this topic from that essay. You had wrote engaging with the BS news stream for defensive deconstructive reasons has been my personal program for a while now. The game can be intellectually amusing and confers a sense of brave revulsion, but now you’ve evolved from this position, it seems.
Mr. Kirn: I don’t want to be outraged anymore because to be really folkloric with you, I think they want me outraged. We know that campaign politics has a thing called the wedge issue, an issue that isn’t really pressing in reality, but which if brought into the conversation will cause people to sort themselves into war camps, and hopefully 51 percent of them will come to your side.
I don’t know that I want anymore to have a wedge issue per hour inserted into my consciousness, such that I can’t see the big picture. And like I say, I used to think, “Well, imagine I’m in a communist country. I watched the propaganda channel just to see what the party wants me to believe so that I can what? Counter it, not believe it, laugh at it, be angry about it?” But, at least in the U.S., there is still an alternative, which is to cultivate other sources, to grant credibility if earned to other authority figures.
There is a very dynamic, alternative press in the United States now. It’s not as easy to read. Its factory just doesn’t send out one headline that you swallow whole. There are often strong personalities involved and sometimes actual misinformation. It requires a lot of critical and analytic and social wisdom to interpret, but the result to me is often something approaching reality. While, whereas the result of swallowing whole the daily line, the seven words soundbite is fury, confusion, and demoralization. And more than anything, I think all of us are fighting demoralization.
It would be very easy given the drama that I described earlier to reach a point of inert, numb detachment and even depression. We’ve seen that in the country. We’ve got an actual epidemic of depression and some of it comes from people losing their jobs and their livelihoods and being forced to let relatives die in institutions that they can’t walk through the front door of because of some COVID policy. But I think some of that depression comes from a real collapse of faith in the reality guides that we used to rely on.
Mr. Jekielek: I keep seeing various types of messaging. For example, on Twitter, which both of us use quite a bit, I see … and, I don’t know if this is just for me or if it’s for the whole population because I don’t know how their algorithms work. But for example, I see fact checks being prominently displayed sometimes days on end. The one that has been up for the last two days for me has been The Great Reset is the World’s Economic Forum’s Proposal for Post-COVID Economic Recovery—Reuters and BBC report. And then they explain that they’re debunking all sorts of conspiracy theories around the concept of the Great Reset.
I’m thinking to myself what is that? How are they deciding and what do they think this will do for the viewer?
Mr. Kirn: First of all, that’s not a fact check. That’s a concept check. That’s a thought check. A fact check would be, is there such a thing as a Great Reset or not? Does it come from the language of the World Economic Forum or not? What this is is here’s how you should think about the Great Reset. Here are its real purposes. Its intentions are to reconstruct society at the end of COVID.
I can fact check that and tell you that the Great Reset was a concept that preceded COVID, that the notion that there was this fourth industrial revolution, as the World Economic Forum likes to call it, in which digital identification and other tools will be used to reformat the economy and our interactions with each other … That was going on long before COVID. COVID may have been the proximate excuse to hasten its advance, but … That fact check in itself I would submit is erroneous. But this notion that we need to be constantly rapped on the knuckles every time we-
Mr. Jekielek: Think the wrong way, really.
Mr. Kirn: Think the wrong way. They’re not so much the thought police as the thought hall monitors, or the thought bathroom attendants. They work below the level of the law and below the level of actual punishment to keep us constantly in motion in the direction that they wish us to go. They’re like sheep dogs nipping at the heel of the herd. And more and more, this seems to be what journalism believes its mission to be. We think of journalism, or I do in my old-fashioned way, as revelatory. It’s about revealing and exposing and opening up a view of the facts.
But journalism has become disciplinary in this most recent time. It’s about disciplining the response to events. It’s about disciplining the thought streams of the audience. It’s about calling out misinformation and disinformation, which is an … I saw the other day that CNN has just put out a call, an employment advertisement, for its new misinformation unit. Not only do they want to be the presumed bearers of the true story, they want to be the punishers of the untrue. Well, to do that second thing, you have to do the first thing well and they haven’t.
Mr. Jekielek: Are we living something closer to 1984 or something closer to Brave New World? Is it Orwell or is it Huxley? And, I’m not going to say what I’m thinking these days. You tell me.
Mr. Kirn: Okay, well when I was at “Harper’s” … a little background because I’ve done a lot of thinking on the relationship of dystopian literature to the present … I wrote a column for “Harper’s” in which I made the observation that I think dystopian literature, despite being depressing, is so popular because we think that if we read about it, if we worry about it in advance, it won’t happen. That’s proved to be a false hope. The fact that you can identify a malevolent trend doesn’t at all prevent it from reaching completion. Those are two pillars of the dystopian cannon that you’ve mentioned.
In “1984,” which was in a way a transfer of Stalin’s Russia onto the post-war landscape of England, the great reigning feature is austerity to the point of grim shortages and people huddled in unheated apartments and so on. And, the rule of the party is through fear. Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth and the other instruments of government rule through fear. They rule through fear and deception.
In the Huxleyan vision, rule is conducted through anesthesia. People are made to conform, comply and go along through the use of amusement, diverting entertainment and actual drugs that cause euphoria or chemical gratification.
So in “1984,” the people were scared. In Huxley’s “Brave New World,” they’re asleep or caught up in trivial gratification. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive scenarios because what I see as our present predicament is a merger of the two visions. We are at once anesthetized by TikTok, by pharmaceutical drugs, by illegal drugs, by Hollywood, by news as entertainment. On the other hand, to give the Orwell position, we are also afraid. We know ourselves to be surveilled.
As a journalist, there was a year when I realized that private communications with sources were not private, or could not be presumed to be. And every good journalist now uses some form of signal or other communication app thought to be less surveilled, or surveillable.
My fear that I’m being watched, which is rational because I am, comes with a fear of being ostracized, which is even more acute and I think even more influential in our day-to-day life. We put up an opinion on social media, or even in conversation, and we find ourselves rather instantly … if it’s Twitter especially … attacked, denigrated, called names or just dropped. I blocked him.
So, between the stick of Orwell and the drugged carrot of Huxley, we are, I think, a much more complacent and malleable and somewhat manipulable society than we used to be. And the people whose job, or who see it as their job, to govern us, to guide us, to direct us and to exploit us often have used a combination of these age-old tools.
Listen, it’s much more Huxleyan than Orwellian to be locked up in your house by official decree, but to find it pleasant because you can play video games and order food. And maybe if you live in a medical marijuana state or a legal marijuana state, be high. That’s Huxley to a tee. Vax cards, presenting your papers. Worrying if something you’ve said on Twitter is going to get you canceled, canned from your job, or rejected by your friends, that’s Orwell. And, we’ve got a great cocktail going, I say with morbid humor.
So these are compatible and fully interoperable visions that for all I know we were used as templates by the more sinister forces in society. And there are sinister forces. We have a multi-billion, hundreds of billions dollar intelligence budget in this country. Where do we think that money goes? We’ve been studying for 100 years techniques of propaganda and behavioral manipulation, often to use in societies where let’s say want to de-radicalize Islamic extremists. The military has perfected the PSYOP, and then the other day I read a Bloomberg headline on Twitter in defense of PSYOP’s as ways to combat misinformation.
It was actually the headline. To paraphrase, PSYOP’s are good because they combat misinformation. Oh well, maybe that’s news perhaps to the naive American. Oh, I’ve been the subject of psychological operations? A military term? Well, it’s not me suspecting that. It’s Bloomberg celebrating it. I never thought we’d get there. Not so quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: There was a head line from a little while ago, which I thought was really interesting. It’s tied to a book that is at the top of my list right now out of the UK where …. I forget what they’re called. Behavioral-
Mr. Kirn: Nudges?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, yeah. Basically, but there’s actually governments have these behavioral units, behavioral modification unit or something like this where they do the so-called nudging of the population in a particular direction. Some of these people in this book are basically saying, “I think we may have gone a little too far on the fear side of things.” They’re admitting … and just reading about this, I thought that’s fascinating.
But aren’t we talking about the removal of core democratic agency here? Isn’t that corollary of this type of activity? I mean, it’s incredible that … Well, the point is that this is obviously being done without the awareness of the population, which is supposed to be electing the people that are putting out the decrees about what they’re going to do, what these units are going to do.
Mr. Kirn: So to break down what you just said. Yes, the UK found that its use of psychological techniques to create fear in the population so as to foster compliance with the COVID regimen, went too far. It’s like they have a soundboard. One of the levers is labeled hope, one of the levers is labeled financial incentives, one is labeled fear. Well, now they’re admitting we turned the fear level a little too high. Shouldn’t the news be that we were doing this at all but then we did it wrong? But, they buried the lead and they said, “We did it a little bit incorrectly.”
Here in the United States, we have this Harvard psychologist, Cass Sunstein, who was brought in under the Obama administration to nudge and use his academic knowledge to nudge people into what were thought to be socially desirable decisions. It’s a pseudoscience of getting people to do things for their own good that they thought was helpful for desirable civic ends.
But in both cases, you’re talking about overriding agency. You’re talking about overriding free will with invisible manipulations in order to get a desired response. Now, is that incompatible with the project of democracy as classically understood? Because democracy was thought to be the collective exercise of the will of the people, and that will was thought to be the result of their hopefully educated and enlightened sense of their own interests and of reality.
What sort of democracy is it where it’s a robotic and automated process of getting people to vote? Yes, they sign off on decisions that in a sense they haven’t made, that were made for them and installed in their consciousness. That’s a travesty. It’s a philosophical travesty.
Yes, everyone gets a vote and we decide what it is, and we install the opinions and the urges that lead to that vote. That’s a subversion of the democratic ideal at its very root. But there seem to be these Dr. Strangelove type characters in modern technocratic government who believe that it is fitting that people be moved to do the right thing below the level of consciousness, that their instincts and their emotions be engineered to bring about outcomes that the state itself has identified as desirable.
When we talk about elitism, what we’re really talking about is a class of people who believe it’s their job to engineer and bring about right behavior using tools that often only they know they have. And, that elitist vision of democracy has gotten to my mind … I mean, it’s all well and good to guide and form, exhort, and use all of the traditional political tools to bring about your desired outcomes. But to get into the operating system of the human mind and program it without its knowledge, that’s a matter for science fiction writers, not American citizens.
No one should be aspired to be an automaton. And yet, some seem to feel content being one, and it’s because their deep conviction is that these people want the best for us and they’re advertising their own virtue. Our leadership advertises its own virtue nonstop.
It’s forgivable to think that they are the saints or seers and priests of the new good that they purport to be. How wearisome it is to wake up every day having to interpret the propaganda, fight back against the buzzwords and the emotional button pushing. It’s just exhausting. In a war, the side that wins first is the side that still has energy left and the side that loses is the one that gets tired. I think to some degree, we’re all tired of this dance that we’ve been playing with authority, this dance we’ve been engaged with in authority, or a card game, even, in which they seem to hold cards that we can’t see.
That British story suggests that they used fear by what? Amplifying disturbing statistics? Using rhetoric that was darker than need be? Well, when you inflict such stress and anxiety and apprehension on a subject population, it will after a while grow weary and demoralized and dispirited. That’s the worst case scenario for this relationship with government, that people actually grow tired and weary of the constant barrage of emotional provocation.
Mr. Jekielek: As we finish up, I want to talk about a couple of things. The first one is, you actually expressed recently on Twitter your greatest fear, but I didn’t fully understand it and I want to get you to clarify for me. You wrote, “My greatest fear right now is a perfect storm is in the offing, and not on the people’s timeline.” And so, what is that?
Mr. Kirn: Well, that was a late night tweet that comes from my gypsy Nostradamus side. It’s not a fully articulated warning, but it comes from an intuitive sense that the convergence of crises and emergencies that has dominated our public life for the last couple of years has just by itself become almost overwhelming. We’re seeing people in vast numbers susceptible to depression, drug abuse.
People not going back to work. People who seem to have lost their way by all metrics. That’s COVID and that’s inflation. We’re about to add international conflict, whether it comes in the Ukraine, as seems at this moment to be possible. Whether it comes in a Chinese move on Taiwan, I don’t know, but I fear that we are one or two crises away, I think from a paralysis and what they might be …
As I say, it could be an international conflict. It could be domestic terrorism, which we’re constantly being warned against in this ominous way that leads me to believe where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Either there is this actual white supremacist nascent nativist insurrectional threat, or they’re happy to have us think there is. I don’t know, but add too many more logs to this fire and it could turn into a conflagration. I think it is the desire of every ambitious and proto-autocratic regime to want to rule by fiat. And, fiat rule is made most attractive to people when they feel powerless and swamped.
So, sometimes I wonder, Biden’s popularity plummets, plummets, plummets, yet he never changes course. Why are they so content to see the crises pile up? Why are they not acting to moderate the stresses on society? In fact, they seem to be talking about insurrection and threats of domestic terrorism in advance of anything really happening.
They’re turning up the fear. They’re turning up the apprehension, and a few more of the … And, we have Bill Gates saying, “Wait for the next pandemic.” That’s ominous to me. The idea that maybe our leadership is invested to some degree in a situation that the people will find overwhelming such that they can launch their Great Reset or hatch their plan for a new order.
It doesn’t seem out of the realm of the possible. They are looking at the world as a Lego set, and they’re only going to be free to build the utopia castle that they crave if the former structures are completely disassembled.
Mr. Jekielek: And there is precedent for such things. As you’re talking, I’m thinking about the Cloward-Piven strategy basically being enacted in New York City and so forth. That’s interesting.
Mr. Kirn: Well, Hegel, the great philosopher of political history saw progress, and he was a philosopher of progress. He believed that politics and history were leading toward the creation of an all powerful state, which he identified with the deity in fact. The process for which they did this was conflict. The dialectic, the synthesis and the antithesis. And so in his abstract way, he suggested that we go forward through this constant internalized conflict and crisis machine. I sometimes worry that that’s the politics of the day, that sometimes they are waiting for the pretext for reforms that they believe are inevitable and perhaps are even willing to help that pretext along.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s do the flip side here. I’m just also remembering something you told me in conversation in the past. And, I love this. Actually, I wrote it down. You said, “I absolutely allow for wishful thinking.”
Mr. Kirn: I allow in my intellectual process a place for wishful thinking. I allow myself to imagine what I hope will happen because I see no other way of making it happen if we don’t first picture our desires, articulate our hopes, and even dream past likelihood or probability of a world that’s better and in which things work out.
We can’t write the script for recovery or the script for normalcy and revitalization without wishful thinking, without a beacon, without a sense of how ideally things could happen because without imagination analysis is retrospective. It can only tell you what’s happened. It can only examine that which history is already presented. But how do you make history? How do you turn the wheel of events and time to your benefit? And that comes from imagination. And insofar as people say, “Walter, you’re on the right, or you’re a conservative,” and I don’t know that those are accurate labels …
I say one problem for me with conservatives and right-wing thinkers is that they’re not doing a good job right now of imagining the future they want. They often speak in terms of return to classical or past golden ages … classical situations or golden ages … but I think it’s time that those in the dissident, free thinking, conservative, libertarian whatever community allow themselves to picture not a paradise, but a better world, and start to lead by attraction and by appeal rather than scolding and criticism.
The left has become a very scold-ful world. Put your mask on, take your vaccine, shut up, don’t say that word, et cetera. The right … I’ll call it that … I think has a great opportunity to corner the market in hope. And, they should do a better job of it because the situation that we’ve been in for a couple of years has left a lot of distressed and depressed and I think hollow souls out there who are waiting to be filled by something a little more nourishing, a little more optimistic. We don’t have a Ronald Reagan yet right now who is capable in his actorly way to say there’s a city on a hill, a shining city on a hill and sell it.
But we have to be moving in that direction now because pointing out the hypocrisies, the contradictions, the failures, the institutional conflicts of the media, or corporate and governmental power will get you only to the point of disgust. But how do we get to the point of motivating optimism?
Mr. Jekielek: So Walter, when it comes to media, the media environment, we’re in this situation now it seems where a number of people who were once on the inside of the corporate or mainstream media environment, like yourself, are now on the outside. Many notable examples come to mind and they’re trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Some have been very successful and some haven’t necessarily.
Mr. Kirn: Well, what you’re describing is a Matt Taibbi leaving “Rolling Stone” and starting a Substack. Glenn Greenwald leaving “The Intercept,” a publication he helped found and left because he didn’t feel it was being honest in its reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop before the election. Those are two prominent figures. Bari Weiss from “The New York Times” going out and starting her own Substack, which has become a miniature newspaper in that she has many guest writers and reporters on her platform.
This movement is one I applaud, one I’m a part of. I write chiefly about politics when I do through Substack, after having columns in mass circulation magazines. And yet, I see a lot of people, even writers, who are thinking of going to this mode or readers who are not quite comfortable getting their information from this array of sources, hesitating to commit to the new model.
And, I have a term for this phenomena, this phenomena of resisting the new media; I say people have to get over their “prestige addiction.” As writers and as readers, as producers of content and as consumers of it, we have to break this attachment to the old … I sound like a revolutionary … to the old esteemed legacy media.
It’s not that we need to reject it. It’s not that we need to silence or tune it out. But, we do need to break this prestige addiction we have, which assigns greater value to stories based on the cultural charisma of their sources that keeps us bound to those mastheads, those New York Times, those Atlantic’s and so on.
It’s especially hard for writers. I talk to writers all the time who have a story that they know won’t run … The editors at this or that mainstream magazine won’t run … but they’re reluctant to publish it on Substack or to start a Substack themselves, or to go on a podcast with their story. And I go, “You’re prestige addicts. You just can’t get that monkey off your back. You want the credentials. You want the diplomas.” In the Wizard of Oz when he says, “The secret to a learned man is a diploma,” as though the card or the certificate is what’s important.
And I think we have to move past that. We can’t evolve if we’re continually entranced by now, I think, the expired legacies of some of these institutions.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so then let me ask this as we finish up, a couple of things. Number one, what is your wishful thinking? What are your hopes? And number two, what are you working on these days?
Mr. Kirn: Yes. The wishful thinking I’m doing these days, in other words, when I look at the situation and I try to imagine an optimistic outcome for it, what I hope and what I sometimes see … maybe I’m confusing it with my hope … is a new embrace of America’s unruly, tumultuous, truly democratic spirit.
I think that to the extent that we have survived this COVID crisis, we’ve done so because of our disorganization, in some ways, because of our Federalist system, because we have states that try different solutions to the same problem, and some succeed, and some don’t. The ability of Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom, let’s say, to take two different approaches to COVID and then to be able to measure the success of one or the failure of the other and draw conclusions has really helped us, I think.
There hasn’t been a lot of diversity in the international community in the response to COVID. The thing that I love about this country is that, besides being individualistic and aspiring to traditional democratic goals, we seem to be a country that’s willing to try stuff. Just try it for the heck of it, tinker in the garage and see if you can make that car that’ll go on water or whatever. And, we get the personal computer from that, or maybe we get the light bulb, or maybe we get a new medicine. I just think that we’ve forgotten to properly value our own creative chaos.
And I think that one of the ways we’ve gotten through this crisis in terms of the media is that we really have probably the most heterodox and zoologically diverse media landscape on earth, where we’ve got Joe Rogan interviewing scientists and doctors and getting a bigger audience than CNN.
We’ve got Substack writers who’ve left major newspapers or magazines and couldn’t maybe write what they write or think the way they think under an advertising regime, selling directly to the audience. We’re constantly reading that that diversified media landscape is an opening for misinformation and disinformation, but I see it much more of a research and development laboratory for good information in the end.
So, that’s my positive vision for things, that the shambolic, ruffune, multi-tonal nature of our society will once again be seen as a real resource rather than a dangerous source of error.
Now, what I’m working on now is something I’ve been working on for years. It’s a little bit complicated. In 2018, I set out across the country to write a book that’s not written much more. A non-fiction travel log, a lot like John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” that would try to take the temperature of the society by the simple means of getting in a car, getting on the road, not knowing where I was going to stop that night, having conversations with everyone along the way and by that means, try to draw a sketch at least of where we were. I completed that trip and here comes COVID, and COVID has been, if anything, a restraint on movement.
That Jack Kerouac style, jazzy improvised way of setting out and learning all of a sudden seemed anachronistic. And rewriting that book, which is largely written, with cognizance of the COVID interlude is my next project. It’s Travels with Charlie with a big interruption, big intermission.
I love this country. I’m an old, unguarded not just patriot but fan of the American people. They raised me, they’re my friends. They taught me, and their language, their ways, their opinions are all to me fascinating and nourishing. I think it’s time this country stopped looking to the top for its solutions and started investigating its own self, started looking sideways, started exploring again.
The answers are to be found among one another, not by turning on the television, and I think that’s become clearer than it’s ever been in this society.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Walter Kirn, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mr. Kirn: It was great. A great pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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