Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi on the 1961 story and its relationship to the Kennedy Assassination, Trump, and digital censorship
Having lived in the Midwest my entire life, I find myself with a completely different read on the situation. I actually think a sour dose of Midwest humility is is exactly what the rest of the US needs. Force the Rachel Maddows and Twitter divas of the world to sit down and hear, maybe for the first time in their lives, that they aren't nearly as important as they think they are. "You're not special, and that's okay. Most people aren't, and if you think you're the exception you're probably not."
You're not on a holy crusade, you're not saving the world. You're just another yutz with an opinion, who happens to have a larger than average audience. You're not automatically right just because you claim the backing of divine mandate/the right side of history/The Science™. Get a grip, eat some humble pie, and check yourself before you wreck yourself and the rest of us along with you.
Now, two caveats to that. First I wasn't around in the heyday of Vonnegut. Maybe his message was the one that was needed back then. Second, what I'm talking about here is entirely different from the right to a minority on politics or religion or whatever else. By all means, be a rebel, just recognize that you could be wrong.
I wouldn't understand any of these meanings of Vonnegut's work without you guys explaining it to me. I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome as an adult which finally gave a lot of context to how things had been for me in my earlier life. If I had tried to read Vonnegut, which I am sure I did but stopped shortly into it, I would never have understood it. Sarcasm and satire are largely lost on me. I can work to understand them, but I don't really always get the meaning behind it. The way Walter and Matt talk about things is very insightful for me.
Maybe there are more people like me who are literalists and maybe that is how they get indoctrinated into group think and elitism, because they take it all to heart verbatim and they internalize all of it. Thankfully, I have a natural faith in God which makes narcissism seem ridiculous to me. But, I notice another type of Asperger's personality type that seems to completely lack the belief in God and they are the ones who seem to instigate or easily fall prey to the leftist authoritarian extremes.
I think it's really cool the way Walter and Matt, and so many of the other people who comment here, have instant windows into this kind of literary humor. I write medical science documents and so my writing is highly utilitarian. I like to feel that it is artful in its own way, but sarcasm in science is not a useful tool. Satire in science, however, does seem to be gaining some traction if some of the recent vaccine science is to be reviewed honestly. Okay, feeling like the outsider here but I am really enjoying the conversations anyway.
I'm am really enjoying these book discussions. Thank you.
I read Harrison Bergeron in middle school and it always occupied a space in the back of my mind. I often thought about it when stories came around of standards being lowered. I recently read it again and it’s more than a little scary.
Diana Moon Glampers would have made some excellent TikTok videos.
Every conversation is great, but you guys surpassed yourselves on this one. Your fans can't live without you. I mentioned this in the other comments but for those interested in Walter's comments re the evil eye, there's a very good book on this subject, including pagan, Jewish, and especially Christian traditions written by an Eastern Orthox priest Fr George Aquaro. Title: "Death by Envy"
I spent about a year in NZ and discovered what they call “tall poppy syndrome”.
I too have loved Vonnegut since I was about 13 and cherish his books like old friends. The only thing I would add with Harrison, which probably would have seemed obvious at the time, is his übermensch presence: he is the ultimate realization of Nietzsche's concept, the great man, the super human who rises above mere mortals and drags humanity to a higher plane. Having Diana Moon Glampers blast him with a shotgun is the perfect illustration of what 50's America thought of the Nietzschean Superman. This paranoia was only ramped up further as the 60's rolled on: "step out of line, the man come and take you away."
Brilliant conversation as always.
I'm not a comment guy for a couple good reasons to include I can't imagine I have much to add to what you already write so well. I get your newsletter for your writing.
This will be my only comment before I vanish back into the anonynmous internet ether where I belong.
I just want to thank you for adding your conversations with Walter Kirn to "The Racket." As good as you both are, you're unbelievable together. The Friday "America this Week" has become the highpoint of my week, which means you're either very good, or I have no life. Probably a little of both.
I also really, really appreciate that you have separated out your book reviews with him along with your writing on writing from the daily news stuff. I love your big picture global stories on things like military spending, Wallstreet, The Twitter Files, The source of the lab leak, etc", but actively avoid the daily stuff.
This has nothing to do with your writing, which is excellent. It's about a decision I made some time back about what I will allow in my life. In the past I had to guess from the lede if it was something I wanted to read. Now you've made it easy peasy. Thanks for that.
I love the book/short story discussions. Do they say what they will be talking about the next week? I’d love to read these stories before they discuss them instead of after.
Highly recommend 2081, a short film about Harrison Bergeron and the handicapper general aka DIE/ESG commissar: https://www.teaching2081.org/
The mention of “Invasion of the BodySnatchers” reminded me again of this passage from Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel THE PUPPET MASTERS, which reminded me of the Taibbi/Shellenberger appearance before the House. The protagonist has been requested to testify before a joint session of Congress:
The head of our bio lab testified, then I found myself called to the stand. I gave my name, address, and occupation, then perfunctorily was asked a number of questions, about my experiences under the titans. The questions were read from a sheet and the chairman obviously was not familiar with them.
The thing that got me was that they did not want to hear. Two of them were reading newspapers. There were only two questions from the floor. One senator said to me, "Mr. Nivens—your name is Nivens?" I agreed that it was.
"Mr. Nivens," he went on, "you say that you are an investigator?"
"F.B.I., no doubt?" "No, my chief reports directly to the President."
The senator smiled. " Just as I thought. Now Mr. Nivens, you say you are an investigator—but as a matter of fact you are an actor, are you not?"
He seemed to be consulting notes. I tried to tell too much truth. I wanted to say that I had once acted one season of summer stock but that I was, nevertheless, a real, live, sure-enough investigator. I got no chance.
"That will do, Mr. Nivens. Thank you." The other question was put to me by an elderly senator whose name I should have known. He wanted to know my views on using tax money to arm other countries—and he used the question to express his own views. My views on that subject are cloudy but it did not matter as I did not get to express them.
The next thing I knew the clerk was saying, "Stand down, Mr. Nivens."
Read Vonnegut starting at the age of 14; my father's (so it goes) greatest gift to me was encouraging my reading.
But this isn't about the story, this is about you. Your ability to write without investment in persuading, present without defensiveness, just say what's so from your observation and perspective is what keeps me reading. Yeah I've said it before, but it's been a few months, so saying it again.
About the story, the take of niceness as the undergirding for handicapping is new, and thoughtful. Thanks for that. I don't buy it as cause (agreeing with another commenter that true niceness stems from humility), but see niceness used as a cugel by the nefarious. Whose drive for "equity" is actually rage against life itself that can never be satiated because life is not and can never be equitable.
And as others have said loving these book discussions overall. Thank you.
"The people who were had to walk around with weights around their necks. They had internal mechanisms that made their brains blast really unpleasant noises if they were smarter than other people and were tempted to have thoughts that raced them ahead of others."
Read "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress. I think this is a more realistic possibility than is egalitarianism by hobbling those with greater personal capability and traits (although, this is exactly what the woke grievance ideology is attempting to accomplish).
In the book, one of the main characters, Leisha Camden is a genetically engineered as ‘Sleepless.’
Her ability to stay awake all the time has not only made her more productive, but the genetic modifications have also given the ‘Sleepless’ a higher IQ and may even make them immortal.
The genetic modifications are done in vitro and the fetus is thus endowed with these greater capabilities. The process is very expensive and only the wealthy can afford it. So the elite perpetuate the advantage of the elite. The egalitarian aspect is that their higher productivity allows them to satisfy the basic human needs of everyone else.
This is a model for what we see happening today. The well-educated spawn the well-educated that work in professional class roles and develop new technology like AI, and middle and lower-class opportunity for independence fades away to be replaced with cries for Universal Basic Income.
Those pushing collective egalitarianism almost always do so with the feeling of security that there will be a two-tier system of privileged elites and the rest... and they will be part of the former. They are progressively more supported by those that cannot make a good enough living and desire more money from government to make ends meet.
The problem, as always, is that these schemes fail from the fatal flaw of "to those that cannot from those that can" degrading to "to those that do, to those that don't"... and the system crashes from running out of other people's money.
I love the literary discussions. I used to be a high school teacher and I taught Harrison Bergeron every single year as part of my dystopia unit. Always one of the best lessons and class discussions of the year. I wonder now if I'd even be able to teach this anymore, which is sad. I always read the story as a defense of "classic liberalism," but I love reading your examples of how it could be anti-commu ist, anti-banal, etc. As only good literature can let us do!
I read Vonnegut back in the 70's and loved him. I remember Kilgore Trout saying that he thought he might be a character in a book. Since I was probably high when I read it, I wondered if, perhaps, I was too!
Like many, Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors in college (possibly because a professor I distrusted disparaged him). I loved his short stories like Harrison Bergeron partly because I could sit down and read a short story all at once and get the full effect. I had trouble putting down novels, which "wasted" weekends (and didn't help my chemistry grades).
Always liked Slaughterhouse Five (and the movie). Billy Pilgrim, the accessible everyman, becoming unstuck in time (which his family and friends would just have to accept and say "He's gone again"), would relive the good and horrific times of his life, intensely, repeatedly. A longer much richer life in a way.
Now of course Big Pharma has some great drugs to get a person like that stuck back in time "where he belongs".