“We sit squarely in the middle of an absurdist drama,” Walter Kirn says.
In this episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek and author and journalist Kirn discuss lockdowns, mandates, and the frightening possibility of a union between Orwellian tyranny and the soft totalitarianism of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
Jan Jekielek: People keep sending me your new essay, “The Power and the Silence.”
Walter Kirn: That essay came from an anecdote told to me by a former president of a major U.S. bank. He was in a tournament at Warren Buffet’s golf course on the morning of 9-11-2001. Warren had a rule that cellphones were not allowed to disturb the golf tournament.
When the news of 9/11 caused those phones to ring, the CEOs and celebrities snuck away to learn that the Towers had fallen in New York. But so cowed were they by Warren’s ban on cellphones, they couldn’t show their reactions to this attack.
Their fear of displeasing Warren, their business superior, was greater than their need to react to an emergency. I used that anecdote to illustrate the point that pleasing those who have power over us seems the most prominent social instinct in people.
I think that explains a lot about human behavior, especially lately. The disasters and difficulties people are facing in this COVID era are inconvenient to the state because the line coming from the top is “we’ve got this handled,” or “the vaccines are working,” or “lockdowns have no cost.” People tend to yield to those lines of command and propaganda and suppress their own observations.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s also some portion of the population that seems to enthusiastically support whatever these decrees are, and in a cruel way, to vilify the people who aren’t participating.
Mr. Kirn: Time and again during COVID we’ve created scapegoats. Before the vaccines, before the scapegoats were the unvaccinated, it was the people who were reluctant to wear masks or the people who were keeping their businesses open. At every step, we’ve been asked to blame someone rather than those above us for the pandemic and the toll it’s taken.
Mr. Jekielek: You described this whole thing as a drama.
Mr. Kirn: If we confine it to the last couple of years, the drama consists of a hidden enemy suddenly showing itself with powers not yet comprehended, which forces us into a defensive position personally, professionally, and politically. And then we are directed to do various things to protect ourselves which become more and more absurd.
If you mask, they tell us, you’ll be out of the pandemic. If you distance yourselves, if you stay in your homes, if you take the vaccine, if you take the booster. Every one of these commandments led to a new surge of hope. Then came a crashing wave of disappointment. We’ve gone from a dark tragic drama to a dark tragic farce.
We sit squarely in the middle of an absurdist drama where the common sense ways of taking care of yourself and treating diseases with medicines became forbidden. You do everything but what you used to do when you got an airborne virus.
I really think we’re in the grips of some sort of capricious monster.
Mr. Jekielek: By monster, you’re not referring to any one person, but some emergent property. Is that what you’re thinking?
Mr. Kirn: An emergent property would be an academic way to describe a hydra-headed bureaucracy, which includes supporting characters like Bill Gates. We’ve got Gates, we’ve got Fauci, Walensky, the WHO, all of these authority figures operating pretty much in a coordinated fashion.
One common feature of this group is amnesia. Throughout COVID, they’ve asked us to take as gospel a series of contradictory directives showing little awareness of the recent past.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s almost like we’re losing touch with reality.
Mr. Kirn: Reality in the West is, supposedly, the foundation of our intellectual investigations. Science is classically defined as the exercise of experimentation and hypothesis in pursuit of deeper awareness of the real.
Political science, however, seems to be more and more about the construction of an alternative reality.
Sometimes I feel like these Fauci-like bureaucrats and some of these blowhard politicians are saying, “Reality is what I say it is.” They’re starting to diverge from anything that we formerly believed was sanity.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you’re grounded in some reality. You’re out in rural Montana.
Mr. Kirn: Living in a small town in Montana does put me in touch with a variety of people.
A small town is really a laboratory in pragmatism and getting things done. The business of a small town is surviving, and that’s the business of America for the most part.
The hardware store owner I know, the plumbing and heating guy, the truck driver, are reality-based. They’re making sure that their business can meet payroll, that they can pay their child’s tuition, and so on.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the consequences of pandemic policy has been a transfer of massive wealth to the wealthiest in the world and a huge cost to the working class and perhaps the middle class.
Mr. Kirn: The wealth transfer has been immense. The numbers of new billionaires and the extent to which those 15 top billionaires quadrupled or multiplied their wealth has now been calculated. The rich got richer, and they got richer faster than ever before.
Mr. Jekielek: Are we living closer to “1984” or to “Brave New World?” Is it Orwell or Huxley?
Mr. Kirn: In “1984,” which was a transfer of Stalin’s Russia to post-war England, the great reigning feature is austerity to the point of grim shortages, and people huddled in unheated apartments. Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth rule through fear and deception.
In the Huxleyan vision, rule is conducted through anesthesia. People conform and comply with the government through the use of amusement, entertainment, and drugs that cause euphoria or chemical gratification.
In “1984,” the people are scared. In Huxley’s “Brave New World,” they’re asleep or caught up in trivial gratification. In our present predicament, I see a merger of these two visions. We are anesthetized by TikTok, by illegal and pharmaceutical drugs, by Hollywood, by news as entertainment. On the other hand, to give the Orwell position, we are also afraid.
So, between the stick of Orwell and the drugged carrot of Huxley, we are, I think, much more complacent and more manipulable than we used to be.
Mr. Jekielek: On Twitter, you recently wrote, “My greatest fear right now is a perfect storm is in the offing, and not on the people’s timeline.” What did you mean?
Mr. Kirn: That came from an intuitive sense that the convergence of crises and emergencies over the last couple of years has become almost overwhelming. We’re seeing vast numbers of people suffering from depression and drug abuse.
People are not going back to work. There’s COVID and inflation. We’re about to add international conflict, whether in Ukraine or in a Chinese move on Taiwan, I don’t know, but I fear we are one or two crises away from a paralysis.
Meanwhile, Biden’s popularity 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? Instead, they’re 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. We have Bill Gates saying, “Wait for the next pandemic.” That’s ominous to me. To create some situation so that they can launch their Great Reset or hatch their plan for a new order doesn’t seem out of the realm of the possible.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s do the flip side here. You once said to me, “I absolutely allow for wishful thinking.”
Mr. Kirn: I allow myself to imagine what I hope will happen. We can’t write the script for recovery or for normalcy without wishful thinking, without a beacon.
Conservative thinkers often speak in terms of return to a past golden age, but I think it’s time they tried to picture not a paradise, but a better world, and start to lead by attraction and appeal rather than by scolding and criticism.
The situation we’re in has created a lot of distressed souls who are waiting for something nourishing and optimistic.
What I hope for is a new embrace of America’s unruly, tumultuous, truly democratic spirit.
The answers are to be found among one another, not by turning on the television.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.