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Walter Kirn on How America Lost the Plot

If America is a story, then who better to diagnose its ills and prescribe a treatment than a novelist? Walter Kirn was born in 1962 in Ohio and grew up in Minnesota. After Princeton and Oxford he embarked on a literary career in New York media, reviewing books and writing for New York MagazineThe New York Times Book ReviewTimeThe New Republic, and Harper’s.

Kirn’s 2001 novel Up in the Air was made into the critically-acclaimed 2009 film starring George Clooney. His memoir Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever chronicles his own adventure going from rural Minnesota to the Ivy League. Lately, he co-hosts the podcast America This Week and is the co-founder of County Highway, a new print magazine about America in the form of a nineteenth-century newspaper.

In late June, I flew to Montana and drove out to meet Kirn at his home in Livingston, on the Yellowstone River, where he’s lived for 33 years. Livingston’s last industry, a local sawmill, fully shuttered a few years ago, and the town now sustains itself on summer tourists to Yellowstone National Park.

Downtown Livingston could be confused for a Hollywood backdrop, which suits its resident part-time Writers Guild of America screenwriter. He tells me he’s on strike for “the duration” and can’t talk to the producer of the new film he’s writing. He’s also working on a new book that’s a travelog of his road trip across the Mountain West during the pandemic.

Between meals in Livingston’s hipper cafes and a long drive out into the mountains in his pickup truck, I ask Kirn how it was that the big American story got so far off script.

There seems to be a growing chasm between the real-life experiences that people have and the grand narratives about our common story—about what we suppose is normal. How did we get here?  

I’m 60 years old. I went to grade school in Minnesota, in very small rural public schools. I was aware from maybe the fourth or fifth grade, through film strips and prepared lesson plans from textbook companies, that we lived in an endangered world. Outside of basic teaching, we were given the overriding message that we should be optimistic about things like computers and space, but there was a louder drumbeat about pollution, racial division, and the Cold War.

Because I was an ambitious kid who wanted to succeed in school, I was always attempting to discern the lesson behind the lesson. What I saw was that I was being asked to be very concerned and anxious about mankind’s stupidity and selfishness. That seemed to be the lesson underlying the pollution lectures—that people in their cars and their desire to have too many things were dirtying up the world.

The Cold War lesson was more sophisticated and went on even longer into junior high and high school. It centered on books like Nineteen Eighty-FourAnimal FarmFahrenheit 451, and other depictions of the dangers of a totalitarian world. We were asked to congratulate ourselves as young Americans on our freedom and clarity and basic goodness compared to this lurking threat from the Soviet Union, in which the citizens were all forced to think alike, act alike, and be alike.

Over the years, it has caused me great consternation that the heavy aversion to totalitarian, dictatorial, and top-down systems that was implanted in me is now kind of useless—and even dangerous. As I discern trends in our society that seem to resemble those I was warned against and raise my hand to say that I don’t like this, I’m told that, somehow, I’m out of step, I’m overly alarmed, and I’m maybe even on the wrong side.

But, I want to reply, this is only what a seventh-grade Minnesota public school student was taught to fear, taught to be on the lookout for, and now you’re telling me it constitutes some kind of dissident position to be afraid of these things?

The final lesson wasn’t that any of this was inevitable, but that by growing up and being good citizens and standing with the right kind of people, it could all be averted. It was portrayed as navigable. It wasn’t portrayed as catastrophic but merely as a set of challenges that we would no doubt overcome. Even the Soviet Union and the threat of the atomic bomb were construed as something that would probably not occur because we were so strong, so influential, so virtuous.

As I grew up and went to college in the early 80s, the sense of these dangers seemed to dissipate somewhat. I knew that on the religious right, among the born-again evangelicals, there was a continuing fear of some kind of theological apocalypse. Because my family had converted to Mormonism when I was twelve, and because I was a listener to late-night talk radio, out in the country—which was dominated by current event shows done by apocalyptic religious types—I was very aware of this possibility. But it did not feel like something that was bearing down on us in the real world—perhaps in some spiritual realm, that I, for one, didn’t buy.

Religious apocalypticism I found somewhat entertaining. Environmental apocalypticism seemed to be weakening as I grew up because the air and water got cleaner and everyone who had a soul seemed to be on the side of conservation, environmental protection, and so on. Then came the fall of the Soviet Union, and by that point I was intellectually mature—out of college at Princeton and Oxford, writing and editing in New York glossy media—and everything seemed like a kind of carnival. You’re living in a prosperous country whose chief enemy has just disintegrated.

The end of history. 

Yeah, exactly. I’m capable of reading Fukuyama at that point and seeing that democracy has triumphed and we’re in our final stage, after which everything is going to be a steady state of liberal democratic paradise. Or if not paradise, then at least some kind of predictable and peaceful world. It was only toward the end of the 90s with the rise of global warming that I felt like this was déjà vu—returning to something like the tone I remembered as a school child. Then came 9/11, the War on Terror, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Still, though, there was not a sense that these were insuperable challenges. Global warming was something that, through some adjustment of our carbon output, we could deal with. The War on Terror, though frightening, consisted of outlier groups that we now had the laws and the military capabilities to counter. It was only around the mid-2010s, with the election of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that I felt the clouds really begin to gather again.

When I went to cover the Republican Convention in Cleveland for Harper’s in 2016—this is not remembered very clearly now—we had the Ferguson riots, and we had a few really astonishing outbreaks of what seemed like racial violence. A bunch of Dallas police officers were shot not long before the convention. Reporters were actually warned, in a way that made the news, that they might want to wear bulletproof vests in Cleveland; it was imagined that it might very well turn into Chicago in 1968.

My earliest memories as a child were of the Vietnam War on TV and the student protests. Bridges in Minneapolis were blocked by protesters, bonfires were lit, and there were bombings all the time. If you turned on the TV until about 1976, you were getting a constant down-beat feed of internal dissent—and, of course, assassinations. I was old enough to be conscious by the time Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot.

Right around the time I went to Cleveland, I saw that my wife was concerned for my well-being and that there was reason for her concern in the rhetoric that was breaking out on the news. But when I got to Cleveland, nothing much happened. Alex Jones was driving around with a bullhorn and there was a lot of noise and circus-like convention rhetoric, but nothing bad happened. I thought, wow, this is all overblown.

At the convention, I felt that I was at the tip of a narrative that had caused me to expect something to happen that did not occur. I started to be skeptical about that new apocalyptic strain. I thought, why do they keep on this in the absence of actual events? At the time, I was writing a cultural column for Harper’s. My filter for the world is literary and dramatic, not political, chiefly. I see things in terms of stories, plays, dramas, characters, symbols, themes, and motifs.

As the Trump presidency started, almost instantly—even back at the convention—the notion was that he was a kind of instrument of dictatorial Russia. I was thinking, are they going to keep this up into his presidency? I can see why, in the heat of a campaign, you might throw all kinds of overheated accusations at somebody.

I had expected Trump to win, especially after the convention. I was astonished by the novelty of his performance. He came on the stage like a casino pit boss, shooting his cuffs, rearing up as tall as he could be, coming out from a curtain that first showed his silhouette to all this spectacular music. Four years earlier, in 2012, I had written a cover story for The New Republic contrasting Obama and Romney—two very polished and establishment figures between whom it’s now, in retrospect, hard even to tell the difference.

Trump ran through the American predicament in very dark terms, as if he was our last defense against some vaguely described cultural and economic enemy that was undermining the normal progress of the country. It reminded me of when punk rock came to the Midwest. This was a new sound—good, bad, or whatever. It breaks through the encrusted coating on the brain and makes more neurons fire than usual. If nothing else is clear about America, it’s that our society is addicted to novelty and Trump was something completely new. The archetype of the salesman had not had much play in our politics in a very long time.

When Trump won, I saw that rather than come together, as had been the norm after previous presidential elections, the suspicion of this figure ramped up. There were lists in the mainstream press of publications that were suspected to be Russian fronts; they included all sorts of outlets I happened to read, from CounterPunch on the left to the Drudge Report on the right. I thought, are we really going to push the narrative that the president is a Russian agent and a huge part of our media has been infiltrated and subverted by enemy agents? That America is headed for some terrible reckoning over race, international alliances, and so on?

Since the fall of 2016, it has gotten worse and worse. More American institutions have been cast as dubious, unpatriotic, and perhaps manipulated from abroad. More American attitudes, whether they be religious, cultural, or even intellectual, have been redlined as dangerous. More individuals from citizens to media figures to authors and artists have been cast in the role of dangerous dissenters.

The sum total, to bring it right up to the present, is that we now live in an age of profound anxiety. The political emergency, the environmental threat, and later COVID, were all globbed together as one giant example of our need for vast controlling authority that would keep us from dying. No longer could the citizens be trusted to make their own decisions, associate freely, speak openly, and spontaneously carry out their lives. All the risks had risen to the ultimate level, DEFCON 1. Our communications had to be monitored—and even manicured. Politics was too dangerous to be left in the hands of the population. Very suddenly, on every front, there seemed to be a rationale for total control and also a scenario in which, should we fail to yield to that control, doom was certain.

This is not to speak to the truth or accuracy or validity of these warnings, but merely to the social and emotional cost of them. We talk a lot about environmental sustainability but I am also concerned with emotional and social sustainability. I see no way that we can sustain this level of panic, fear, mutual suspicion, and anger. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, other writers and journalists, I don’t blame it on Donald Trump. I see him as a player in a drama that involves many characters, but whose basic storyline was set before he even came along, and which is now grabbing a whole new set of characters like Elon Musk and other supposed villains.

I’ve lived in Montana for thirty-three years. Montana is often portrayed in the national press, even recently in The New York Times, as some hotbed of reactionary and ultraconservative rebellion. Every few years, Montana is brought out on the stage and painted as a haven for antisocial rebels. Because I live here and know that’s not true, I have a hard time with the new schema around white supremacy and so on. If the place is so damn full of white supremacists then how come I haven’t met them? I drive everywhere, I talk to everyone. I consider everyone to be a source for my journalism, from the guy at the hardware store to a farmer whose truck is broken down by the road. I gather stories from all of them, and it’s just not true that there is some nascent revolution about to break out here.

But the fact that it is imputed so often has started to scare me. Because those who want conflict and those who profit from it are creating boogeymen all over the place. That causes me to think there is, not a plan, but rather an expectation that events will occur in which this thematic structure can be brought out for political gain. I await that moment with trepidation.

You mentioned the social and emotional state of affairs, in which people treat each other with suspicion. That has not been the normal condition in American society, has it? 

It’s absolutely the opposite of the normal condition!

This fact seems so basic and so true and yet so ignored and unremarked upon in favor of these other narrative explanations—like this idea that you should be very afraid of the other half of the country.

COVID was a nonstop opportunity for narratives about how one part of America does not care if the other part of America lives or dies. States that were relatively laissez-faire about their COVID rules were depicted as wanting some kind of death cult vengeance on more progressive states. It was as though everyone was carrying this grenade called “COVID” and the good people were making sure that the pin was in place while the bad people wanted to throw it at the others.

The notion that people without symptoms of a terrible disease were the most likely to spread it allowed for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers science fiction terror of other people to which I had seen no equivalent in my whole life. I’m now supposed to fear other people as such? Their decision to walk too close to me or to travel is in itself an aggressive act? Not locking yourself down, covering your face, and withdrawing from society was prima facie evidence of a murderous heart. That was nuts!

It’s hard to be optimistic about a society that would frighten and harm itself at these levels with such obvious economic consequences, especially for people at the bottom and especially for the young. During COVID there were kids in this town who were harming themselves. They had lost their social lives at school—maybe they weren’t getting regular meals. They were unmoored from their social lives and their emotional bonds. That was a real disaster.

Where are the big stories to shed light on these disasters? Everyone I know has some experience of deep distress themselves or within one degree of separation, but these are interpreted as personal crises that people are expected to bear on an individual basis. They are divorced from any big narratives, which focus on these supposed massive emergencies, the mutual suspicion, and why you should be deathly afraid, and so on. The big narratives don’t reflect these personal traumas.

In America today, if you are having experiences going about your day that run counter to the mega-narratives on the news and social media, you have a choice. Do you compare notes with other people? If you do, you have an instinctive sense that somehow you are endangering yourself. Because you’ve seen other people be mocked for it and examples made of famous figures who have stepped out of line.

Isn’t this the very essence of social sense-making and reality—to be able to talk to your family and friends and not to have your every experience intermediated or interpreted narratively for you in advance by your iPhone or some kind of institutional apparatus?

There’s a Solzhenitsyn quote that at some point we wondered if we were allowed to talk about the experiences of our own lives, and I think America is at that point. I live in a kind of throwback America. I live in a town of 8,000 in Montana. Because it’s a tourist town, and because it’s become a sort of shelter-from-the-storm city since COVID, it has people moving in from all over. Even the newcomers kind of conform to the preexisting culture, which is to meet at the post office, talk, stand on the corner, share the news, and understand life through gossip, storytelling, and anecdote. That’s still a legitimate way to understand life here. It was sorely tested during the pandemic in particular, when people were afraid to talk.

The main news source in this town is the steps of the downtown post office, but people hurried up and down with eyes averted and masks over their faces. That media source was blotted out. People started to understand things going on here through social media and even national outlets rather than by talking to someone who had just been there. The crushing of the anecdotal, the personal experience, as a valid form of cognition was amazing to watch. And it wasn’t completely successful here, but I imagine in other places that don’t have as deep a tradition of street corner news, it was much worse.

Yeah, this process was almost total in San Francisco or in Boston, where I’m from and lived for part of the pandemic. These are places where people were already more atomized, not only in the sense that they may not have known their neighbors to begin with but also in a lot of their social life. Even with local friends, life occurs by text message or on social media.

Growing up, I thought that if a town had a Dairy Queen, it was a city, and I looked out toward the Oz-like horizons where stores were open late and pizza was available. In the American West in general, especially in the small-town Mountain West and the Midwest, there is a high tolerance for crankiness and outsider opinion. Partly, this is due to the person-to-person game-of-telephone distortions that come with gossip and oral sharing of information.

If you grow up in farm country, you grow up in a place where everyone has an opinion but the weather has the final say. It’s a place where all sorts of forces exist, which outsiders don’t understand at all, that govern your daily life. If you grow up in rural America, you can’t afford to hate your neighbor or withdraw into tribal groups because your car might break down and someone from one of those groups might be your only hope of getting a ride to the tire store or the gas station.

There’s a dependency on other people in that context. One of the things you get with the rise of digital technology is less material reliance on other people. Once you don’t have to rely on other people, you can let go of the emotional and psychological dependence too.

You can edit people out of your life. You can block them. Here, I can’t edit my neighbors out of my life. If I decide to have a feud with someone, I better be pretty stoic, because I’m guaranteed to see them the next day at the grocery store or need them when I pull into the mechanic with a busted fan belt. So tribal and factional withdrawal is not an option in any practical way—unless you don’t need to go to the store, or the post office, or leave your house at all since you have a one-way Amazon channel through which to get all your goods.

But isn’t that the tendency of the way things are going even in a place like Livingston, Montana?

It certainly is. There’s a tendency toward the curation of your social life at a granular level. It starts on social media but it creeps out into the street. Although I would give Montana a solid B+ in its ability to retain civility and humanity in the face of these constant gales of apocalyptic catastrophizing media, there has been a degradation even here. It’s because you can make virtual friends to replace the real friends you’ve lost on the street. You can get people to agree with you in ways that you probably couldn’t if you went down to the bar. You can obviously create a synthetic social life that is almost, in some ways, as gratifying as the one you used to have—surely, it’s less risky in some essential facets.

It’s easier on your ego probably. 

And you don’t risk a fistfight!

In the metropoles where people are so atomized, and supposedly every need can be met by Uber or Amazon or Twitter, the default preference is clearly never to escape one’s own little bubble. Why would you risk it? Someone could invalidate the story you are telling yourself about who you are, what is true, and who the heroes and villains are in your own psychodrama. 

I like to imagine the world from the vantage point of an alien or someone who doesn’t speak the language and see what’s going on in structural terms. I think you hit on it. Instead of this lateral relationship with our community and our neighbors and our family, what’s being proposed is that everyone triangulate their relationships through an authority center. Whether the method of that triangulation involves having talking points for Thanksgiving dinner or just going on social media to find out what good people think and then repeating it, the trend seems to be toward the outsourcing of all responses, thoughts, and reactions.

Why do I hate that so much? Maybe that’s the solution to our ignorant and fallen status in society. Let’s take the devil’s advocate there. Over the last few years, we’ve been told that there are certain infallible organs of truth: the intelligence community, Science with a capital S, mainstream media, etc.

It was my privilege to meet a physicist named Murray Gell-Mann who discovered the subatomic particle known as the quark. But he also is the namesake for a principle of skeptical inquiry called the Gell-Mann Effect. When you read one article or piece in a newspaper on a subject you happen to know something about and you find it to be misinformed, wrong, or even deceptive, why do you then assume that the same paper is accurate about subjects that you don’t know about? Why would you extend credence to that source on other topics when you’ve caught it lying or being wrong about one you do know about?

Do you have an answer to that? 

Logically, of course not. My dad was a lawyer. I see a lot in terms of the law. If a witness is caught lying early in their testimony and can be shown to be lying, or just nutty or incompetent, it colors everything they say afterward; they are discredited, and sometimes that’s the end of their usefulness in that trial. But this doesn’t extend to journalism. A certain amount of wrongness can be put down to just error and mistaken-though-well-intentioned failure. But after a while, that no longer explains it and you start to see almost systematic wrongness on certain topics particularly. So why do we keep going back to the well for poisoned water?

Yeah, this is what I want to know.

It’s very interesting. I have several guesses. I was a Mormon in my teen years. Young adolescents are the most skeptical beings. They are starting to catch adults in inconsistencies and acts of hypocrisy, so they are really heat-seeking missiles for error and contradiction and lies. So you’re in the Mormon church, and it’s all your friends and your parents’ friends. And someone with status in the church, maybe an elder, says something. Maybe it’s about doctrine or the news, and it’s just a whopper. You know it’s untrue or absurd. You are then faced with a problem. Do you leave the church? Do you stop going? Do you lose your social circle? Do you flush down the toilet all the stuff that you bought into? Do you retcon it all as junk and then go off on your own? What is there to go off into? Isolation? Loneliness? You know that you’ll be mocked once you disappear. They’ll be talking behind your back.

Not that the newspapers will talk about you behind your back if you stop reading them. But if you’re a journalist, and you stop writing for them, they will. I have seen endless examples over the past few years of journalists who left the consensus on some particular issue and then woke up one day to find themselves the subject of a “What Happened To X” article.

Persona non grata.

So one of the reasons you don’t leave if you’re a journalist is you will be disciplined, mocked, and cast out. If you’re just a consumer of news, you think, but where else do I go?

But surely there are truer big-picture stories we in journalism could tell about what is going on? That’s what I’m asking.

There are. But you see, I’ve lived through an economic change of fortune for the press in my lifetime since I’ve been writing for it. It’s an expensive proposition to send people out, to have people in the field, to interview a lot of sources, to get on planes, and to maintain stringers like Time Magazine did in every major community in the country. Why do that when you can supposedly find out about anything virtually?

You can just report the Twitter feed.

Most reporting now is some kind of Escher-like circle that turns in on itself. Almost all stories now are media stories. Hard news stories are now media stories in which the most salient element is how something will play and whether it will serve the interest of the good people or the bad people. The underlying actuality is secondary. It’s as though reality only exists to provide fodder for media now.

A total simulacra in which the referent to the real only exists for the symbol, not the other way around.

In that, it’s all literary criticism. If you want to find out who actually believes what, you have a very hard time. But if you want to find out which imagery supports what narrative, they can tell you all day long. And as an actual literary critic who has made money for decades reviewing books and weighing in on art and so on, to see that domain take over the news is utterly amazing and disheartening for me.

All events are to be judged according to optics. I remember when that kind of language—that sort of second-order critical language—entered the conversation on the news. A few years back they started using the term “the narrative” and a few years before that they would talk about “optics.” But now it’s just full-blown. There’s almost no other topic.

It’s just the appearance, the perception. 

Everything is a kind of dream. And it’s another way in which primary reality is being lost. In fact, to even use the phrase “primary reality” as I sit here causes me to recoil slightly because I know it marks me as some kind of nineteenth-century character or Enlightenment throwback. What am I, John Locke, sitting here talking about natural law? I don’t want to be trapped in this critique, but I can’t help but make it.

So how do we wake up from the dream? 

Well, that’s the real question. I’m going to stipulate—no one has to agree with me on this, but I have tried the case and come to this conclusion for myself—that between the deceptiveness, the agenda-driven nature, and the social-media-oriented vapidity of the press, it is no longer a reliable source of information about the world. It’s a very good source of information about itself. If you wish to know who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, who scored points and lost points, it’s a great scorecard. But if you’re looking to find out what’s going on, it’s a terrible one. In fact, it will actually conceal what’s going on in almost every respect. So I’ve given up on it.

The press is a document, it’s a stage play, it’s an artifact, and insofar as I want to use its own methods and study it as such, it’s kind of fascinating. But as a guide to what’s happening? It’s worse than useless. It’s beyond propaganda. Propaganda was a kind of simple word that described boosting a point of view in a pretty obvious way.

Propaganda fide. The propagation of the faith. 

Yeah. Destroy the Hun! Look at the Kaiser with his bloodthirsty fangs! Here’s a real American with muscles holding a bayonet! Propaganda usually could be seen as such, and you almost liked it for that reason. It was morale-boosting. It made you hate the enemy and love your side. It simplified issues and you kind of knew it was propaganda. You let it work on you the same way you let a salesman work on you because you want to be sold. It gets you aroused for the fight and it reminds you of the basic values involved.

So propaganda is almost a simple and innocent version of behavioral pressure. This is something else. This is a world-concealing layer of diversionary and illogical and internally inconsistent noise, under which the world exists somewhere.

We’re like passengers in a plane who know we’re flying over Kansas but can only see a cloud layer. And drawn on the cloud layer are simple pictures of Kansas. Do we want to see underneath it or will we be content with this cartoon that’s drawn on the cloud? I can’t be content with the cartoon—not as a human being, not as a journalist, and certainly not as a novelist.

There is no excuse as a novelist for not knowing how people are actually living and behaving and thinking. You can maybe write a satire of people who are misled and who are acting robotically according to engineered inputs, but you have to know it’s satire. You can’t write sincerely about that as though that is reality; you must see below it. Your job is to see below it.

How do you deal with it? I’ve grown increasingly radical in my beliefs about this. At first, I thought you interrogated and inspected it and looked for patterns. You almost reverse-engineered it. You looked at the news layer knowing it was false but also that it was false in certain ways that showed certain trends. You could detect what’s being hidden and what’s being pushed, in the way that the CIA used to analyze pictures of party congresses at the Kremlin to see who was sitting where and who wasn’t in the picture at all. The idea was that I could decode reality by deconstructing this information layer that’s being spread out before me. But I no longer think this is fruitful.

You hear people say that they consume “both sides” of the news—because they watch both FOX and MSNBC, or read both The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—and imagine that they are well-informed.

Garbage in, garbage out. This idea is that you can somehow split the difference between various sides. But anyone who is at all a systematic thinker realizes the sides were conceived in opposition to each other. So if the first one was wrong, the second one is just the opposite of it, but it’s as wrong in the opposite way. And maybe a third one came along that was some kind of combination of the two, but it was just the combination of two things that were wrong. And now I’m going to put them together, divide by three, and come up with the real answer?

You don’t get any closer to the truth by performing that operation. All that operation reveals is who the powers that be are, what they think is going to work, and what’s succeeding now in terms of getting attention versus what was succeeding yesterday. You are fooling yourself if you think you can decrypt this misinformation layer—whatever you might call it—and get to reality. This game of running a counterintelligence operation on our information streams appeals to the ego, and to our sense of intrigue and our own skill, but there’s no reason to believe it gets us any closer to the truth and it may indeed take us further away. On issue after issue, we seem to be involved in prefabricated dialectics, oppositions, and architectures. Maybe the issue du jour isn’t even an issue at all.

That’s my big question here. If we were the aliens, like you mentioned, or if we’re looking back as historians a hundred years from now, are we going to care about any of these narratives? 

Dude, I already can’t remember the significance of things that I was urged were of apocalyptic import a few years ago. Will we remember them? No—because structurally the assault is on memory itself in issue after issue. A memory is a drag on action. It causes you to raise your hand and go, wait a second.

Let’s take the problem of where COVID came from. The very latest, as we speak now in June of 2023, is that COVID leaked from a lab in China. It’s pretty strongly suggested that it came from a lab in China that was doing terrible research and that the virus itself is some kind of engineered entity. Go back three months. This was still being debated, and people who were fundamentalists on the lab leak were, still three months ago, certainly six months ago, thought to be somehow unkosher, perhaps xenophobic, and maybe Trump-adjacent radicals. But if we go all the way back to the beginnings of COVID, it was almost the first common-sense assumption. Each slice of this narrative is only credible if you forget the one before. Wait a second, I’m being told that the much-vaunted American intelligence community has now “officially determined” the same thing that got me kicked off of social media eight months ago for agreeing with?

It’s so weird for me because I was raised on all of these fables like The Emperor’s New Clothes and the one about the good old boy who put his finger in the dyke. What was more valorized in my youth than anything else was being the lonely person who, like in the Norman Rockwell painting, stands up at the town meeting, raises his hand, and says, “I won’t stand for this,” or, “over my dead body.” Now that person is subject to an FBI investigation because they did it at a school board meeting. And I, for noting this cultural change, am some kind of dissident, when all I’m doing is remembering what I was taught?

Entire generations were taught the same lessons. Are most people just remarkably flexible? Did they not learn the moral of the story in the first place? Did they forget it when it was no longer convenient or enforced in the same way? 

Kids who are in their early twenties now, who I speak to because I have family members that age, will often tell me that they feel very old. You’re 23 and you feel old? “Yeah, because I remember what it was like not to have an iPhone.” Or, “I grew up watching Hannah Montana and a few basic shows on TV rather than TikTok.” What used to be called generational change now takes place culturally like every two and a half years. I’m meeting 20-year-olds who already feel ancient compared to 14-year-olds.

I feel like I’m from the nineteenth century, and I’m 27.

Yes. And so where is memory going? Is it that people are forgetting these particular cultural lessons I cited about standing out, being skeptical, speaking up when you see a wrong, and going against the crowd? Every damn movie I saw as a kid was about not succumbing to peer pressure. The entire anti-drug propaganda effort of my youth was about being the kid who sat back while everybody else got drunk and high. They trained me in that and now I’m expected to forget it?

But once you start preaching the virtues of forgetting, everything gets forgotten. The reason people want to forget is that they don’t want to be slowed down. Everything that you remember is in a sense stuck to a world that has now been superseded. Forget the particular moral lessons. To remember at all is to be inefficient in your encounter with the present.

One of my formative intellectual influences is a guy who some consider a crackpot, a psychologist named Julian Jaynes who taught at Princeton while I was there. He was an outlier in the academic community and he published one book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

His thesis was that before about 3,000 years ago, consciousness was an entirely different thing. People didn’t “think” consciously, they experienced life as getting commands from a seemingly outside god-like agency. Instead of the modern form of consciousness, “I think I should go to the store,” causing me to get up and go to the store, ancient people heard a command: “Go to the store.” And it was often in the voice of an ancestor, a leader, or a god. Jaynes claimed the primordial form of consciousness was a lot like what we now call schizophrenia; it was hearing voices, hearing commands, and acting immediately on them: “Go out and start planting!” I think we may be returning to that state, where consciousness is no longer an interior process, one that we carry around with us, one that is locked in the suitcase of the mind.

If you want to throw off the ballast of the past in order to be more responsive to the present, there’s a logical next step which is to be no longer loyal to the present—to exist in a constant state of anticipation—such that one does not even form memories to get attached to! You don’t bond with the present because you’ve learned that it’s about to become the past, and the past is a bad thing, and memories only hold you back, so why even form them? Why even have experiences? Because if I have an experience that lodges deeply enough in me, it will turn into a memory and it will hold me back.

In other words, I need to sail in front of the wind! I need to get on the front of the wave. Not only do you not want to have memory, you don’t even want to have profound experiences! Where are you then? You might think that you’re on a great individualist adventure ahead of everything else. But what you really are is a total pawn of someone else’s power. You are a perfect victim. You are owned. Not only are you not attached to the past, but you don’t even fall in love with the present. You can’t even counter their story with your own. You don’t have a story at all.

As a dramatist, I can tell you that without memory, you don’t even have a story. Unless Othello remembers what it was like when he first saw Desdemona and fell in love with her, then Iago’s attempt to get him to distrust her is meaningless. Unless the temptation to see her as deceptive is posed against an earlier honeymoon period, it has no meaning. When you live perpetually slightly ahead of the present, never bonding, never settling down, never letting yourself be penetrated—even by experience let alone memories to hang onto—you are a digital bit of information to be formed into anything. You volunteered for it!

Matt Ellison is executive editor of Palladium Magazine and executive director of American Governance Foundation.


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