Transcript: America This Week, Episode 72, January 19, 2024
Walter and Matt discuss the sinister Westworld cyborgs of the World Economic Forum and their annual self-congratulation festival. Plus, "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
Matt Taibbi: All right. Welcome to America This Week. I’m Matt Taibbi.
Walter Kirn: And I’m Walter Kirn.
Matt Taibbi: Walter, what’s going on?
Walter Kirn: It’s been a long New Year, these three weeks since New Year here in Montana, it’s been 30 below zero consistently. It’s now warmed up a little. That’s not a physical feeling of cold, it’s an existential cold.
Matt Taibbi: Is the word existential, have we used that word more in the last four years than the previous hundred?
Walter Kirn: Well, when I went to college in the early eighties, existentialism was still a thing, you know, Camus art, et cetera, and it was a pretty heavy word to use, and it basically meant living on in the face of annihilation and death, but living in a world without God and only your own actions, which may be meaningless, but you must carry on nevertheless.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Walter Kirn: And now it’s become just sort of an adjective for very, very much.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Trump is a very threat to democracy.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. Existential threats, existential challenges. Everything’s existential now. Beer probably is existential, existentially refreshing.
Matt Taibbi: It’s existential cold that you’re living in.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. So I’m going to just use the word the way it’s being used, but it was existential in the sense that it caused you to fear that you were a tiny organism, very vulnerable to the turns of the weather. And I grew up in a cold climate, but when I went outside and it was both windy and 30 below, I thought I could commit suicide this way.
Matt Taibbi: Yeah, you just sort of lie down.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. Just lie down and sort of meditate. And probably within five minutes my mind would be scrambled and I wouldn’t be able to feel anything, I’d start to numb up. So yeah, suicide by cold front, but I got through that. That was existential. See, suicide’s a big existential thing. And then I-
Matt Taibbi: That’s actually a big part of learning how to drink in the former Soviet Union.
Walter Kirn: What?
Matt Taibbi: You have to be conscious of not passing out in certain places.
Walter Kirn: How can you be conscious of not becoming unconscious?
Matt Taibbi: I mean, people do. Every year there’s a raft of, I can’t believe I used that term, there’s a slew of stories about guys who go out ice fishing, get hammered, and then forget that they’re on an ice floe and then freeze to death. But there’s also always stories about men who curl up on benches on the way to the subway station, or they go out to the kiosk to get more vodka and they just never make it home. So it’s sort of like you’re training to be a grown man and the former Soviet Union, you have to learn. You have to know your measure, as Graham Greene would say, to be not so completely hammered that you forget to actually duck inside a doorway before you lie down. Although it doesn’t work in the summer, that’s for sure. It looks like Appomattox outside most beer bars. At least it did when I was there.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. I haven’t had a drink since I was 30 years old. Had to stop.
Matt Taibbi: Really?
Walter Kirn: Yeah. But I always maintained that vigilance that you’re talking about. I practiced walking straight lines even when I was sober so that I could do it drunk. I had all kinds of boundaries then on my drinking that caused me never to get a DUI or get in a bad fight or anything. And I did think that was the height of responsibility to be able to be really, really drunk and yet still live and not be in jail.
Matt Taibbi: Right, right. Yeah. And that’s a sure sign that probably you’re drinking too much, is when you’ve got-
Walter Kirn: There were many sure signs. One was that I would go into bars where local bands were playing and promised that I could get them a record contract in LA. I was a expansive, grandiose drinker who believed-
Matt Taibbi: Uh-oh.
Walter Kirn: Yeah, I wasn’t mean. I was so nice. And then I’d come back to the same bar and the band would be playing the next night and they’d said, “Did you call the Eagles manager and get us that contract?” And I’d say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Matt Taibbi: That’s one of those things where you wake up in the morning and it’s like, who’s that director who makes Inception? Christopher Nolan? You get those extreme reverse zoom shots where suddenly everything flashes back to you about all the horrible stupid shit that you said the night before.
Walter Kirn: But here was the thing, I didn’t threaten people, I over-promised.
Matt Taibbi: Right.
Walter Kirn: And actually people will get angrier at you for over-promising than calling them a name. So no drinking to get me through the existential cold. And then my back went out during our live stream on the Iowa caucuses.
Matt Taibbi: Really?
Walter Kirn: Right before. I was in severe back pain that whole time. Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: So, mine too, but sorry, that’s really weird. Okay.
Walter Kirn: Really?
Matt Taibbi: Are you better now?
Walter Kirn: Two-thirds, three-quarters. I’ve still got a sort of Frankenstein vibe when I walk, you know, keeping the back stiff. But the latest thinking on back pain and all the psychotherapeutic books about it say it’s psychological and that the way to get through throwing your back out is to pretend your back’s fine and just keep moving while you examine your emotional state to see if anything is deeply stressing you. And there’s a whole book on this, and I know a lot of people who go on TV all the time for whom back pain is a professional risk and affliction, and they swear by this method. So that’s what I’ve been using.
Matt Taibbi: All right. I don’t know. I think if a doctor tried that on me, I might punch him actually. But I feel that way about a lot of things lately, so maybe that’s just not definitive. So, okay, we last spoke during the Iowa caucuses, which was pretty interesting I have to say. But this week is also marked by another, I would say far more sordid ritual in politics, which is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. We’re going to get back to Iowa, but this has gradually become one of the most loathsome things that happens on schedule in the world, and it feels like it gets worse and worse every year. What did you notice so far from the headlines this week? Or do we need to explain to people what this is?
Walter Kirn: The Davos World economic Forum is sort of like the Cannes Film Festival or-
Matt Taibbi: For oligarchs.
Walter Kirn: Yeah, for oligarchs, except they are the films. They give these frightening TED Talk kind of presentations to each other. They never show the audience so it’s unclear if all the CEOs and heads of state actually show up for the speeches or if they’re back in the ski lodge with their high-priced prostitutes.
Matt Taibbi: I was going to say that a singular feature of Davos is that it takes place in this kind of extremely exclusive sort of ski and buggery resort for the filthy rich, not just, I got a million and a half dollars, you have to have 100 million dollars to be like somebody there.