The terrific humorist, journalist, and novelist talks about the downfall of journalism, bureaucratic absurdity, and class cruelty in a blistering indictment of an America turned upside down
I know there’s frustration that Callin is still exclusive to iPhone, but in an effort to share some of yesterday’s wide-ranging talk about the state of the media, vaccine madness, the new urban snobbery, and the lost art of talking, I’m reproducing a partial transcript here. The first question came from a caller named Nick:
Nick: Where the hell is this thing coming from?
Walter Kirn: I had a psychiatrist once and when I came in with some dysfunction or problem, he said, “What happened right before that?” So I would say, “What happened right before?” What happened right before this was social media. It has created a sort of hyper-consensus engine, because these ridiculous takes that you’re talking about all just exaggerate a basic take.
It’s basically an arms race that’s going on now, in which people attempt to agree more intensely than they agreed before. I do credit social media, at least that’s the place where we see these takes. We don’t tend to hear them by CB radio or over the phone necessarily, but there’s something about this third particle accelerator of opinion that we call Twitter which seems to inflate the craziness.
Now, as to whether the liberals have changed? Yes, they’ve changed! They used to be gentle, interesting, controversial, humorous people. Now they’re strident ideologues who love every institution which they professed to detest and suspect in the old days…
Matt Taibbi: And have no sense of humor.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and that sense of humor and weirdness is something that they call out, rather than try to cultivate, unless it’s the weirdness that’s already been pre-approved — at which point they compete to inhabit it more completely than anyone else.
Nick: Matt, I mean your show and your writing, and Chapo Traphouse, was a big political awakening for me…
Walter Kirn: Look, Matt’s a dissident in this community. He may be disappeared before this Callin is over. The mainstream folks who are driving this are on the hunt right now for a sense of humor. If they find any in the landscape, they will launch an arrow. I mean, I have very funny friends who were last night on Twitter, who aren’t this morning.
Taibbi: What novelist would do the best job of capturing the current craziness?
Walter Kirn: It’s been a progression. About a year ago, it would’ve been someone like Kafka, who talks about these open-ended crimes and the insoluble cosmic mystery that the individual gets caught up in and never has an explanation for. But to cut to the chase now, it’s somebody like Joseph Heller, because we’re now in an absurd carousel of bad routines.
And that’s what Catch-22 is. I just re-watched the 1970 Mike Nichols version last night to prepare for this. Just a few outtakes: you’ve got these guys living on a bomber base in the Mediterranean and they’re dying one by one, their planes are getting shot down and they want to get out of it. But the Colonel in charge keeps raising the number of missions you have to fly in order to retire from the bombing. And that reminds me of the vaccines. You’ll need six! No, you’ll need seven!
The great conceit of the whole novel is that the base is slowly turning into a capitalist hell. Milo Minderbinder, the ambitious impresario, is selling the parachutes in Egypt for cotton. The bomber pilots wake up in the middle of runs and find out their parachutes are gone. It’s because this syndicate, which has developed out of their base, has sold them. In the end, Minderbinder does a deal with the Germans: they will buy up the excess cotton, which he spent all his money on and has gone broke on, if he will agree to bomb the base himself so the Germans don’t have to.
I look at COVID a little bit like that. We will agree to destroy our society for you, China… Our greatest product at the moment, this vaccine, our most expensive and profitable export, is the result of our suffering. And it isn’t seeming to cure it either, frankly, from my perspective, since every single person I know who’s gotten the booster in LA is now asking me for recommendations on zinc and other vitamins to take. There’s the famous saying, that the capitalist will sell the revolutionary the rope he will use to hang himself. Well, that’s kind of the situation I see us in. It’s as though there’s only one corporation in charge right now, and that is one Pharma/gov/tech conglomerate. Maybe it’s called BlackRock, or Vanguard.