Walter Kirn: “American life has invariably had a tension between the hicks and the sophisticates”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Tunku Varadarajan headlined “Walter Kirn Is Middle America’s Defiant Defender”:

The Kyle Rittenhouse case reminds Walter Kirn of an incident from his youth in rural Minnesota. “I remember one night, as a Midwestern kid out in the country, sitting with a loaded gun at the top of my stairs,” he says. A violent inmate had escaped from a nearby prison and was hiding in people’s barns. “I was 16,” Mr. Kirn chuckles, “and I sat up with a shotgun, probably somewhat delusional, convinced I could protect our farm.”

Mr. Kirn, 59, is the author of seven books, including the novel “Up in the Air” (2001), which was adapted into a seductive and successful movie. Already a writer of some repute when the film was released in 2009, Mr. Kirn reached a “different order of fame” when he became “part of a Hollywood Oscar campaign and attended parties with George Clooney.” These days, he draws most attention as a commentator on America’s political and cultural divides, particularly the one “between city and country—one of the oldest political fissures known to mankind.”

He talks by Zoom from his ranch in Livingston, Mont., the day after a jury acquitted Mr. Rittenhouse of reckless endangerment and homicide. “There could not be a more crystalline example of the fissure in America,” he says of the trial, which he calls a “terrible indictment of the media.”

Reporters with an agenda described Mr. Rittenhouse as “a racist vigilante, aggressively seeking trouble,” Mr. Kirn says. The evidence at trial suggested something different: that he was “a sort of boy, a little bit out of his depth, in a terribly chaotic situation of fires and looting and destruction, who thought he was going to be a Mark Twain character—an armed Huckleberry Finn.”

Unlike on the Kirn family farm in the 1970s, where no confrontation took place, two men ended up dead in Kenosha. “I don’t see myself in him,” the writer says of Mr. Rittenhouse, “but he’s not someone who I don’t know.”…

Mr. Rittenhouse “became a proxy for the general contempt visited upon white folks in the middle of the country who don’t have a lot of money, and whose values tend to be small-c conservative.” Those values include protecting property and “going up against the bad guys personally.” Mr. Kirn’s “horror over the case” arises because the trial was “loaded with so much hatred, so much stereotyping, that it couldn’t help but end—either way—as a vindication of the worst instincts of 50% of the country.”

Mr. Kirn has lived in Montana for 30 years. He grew up as a kid with literary ambition in a Minnesota village of 600 and earned admission to Princeton in 1980. In “Lost in the Meritocracy,” a 2009 memoir, he describes being the only boy on his high-school bus not swigging cherry schnapps on the way to take the SAT. He attended Oxford on a scholarship before moving to New York in 1985.

As a writer for Vanity Fair, he became aware of the contempt that cosmopolitan Americans had “for regions of the country which are dear to me.” He remembers a prominent book editor whispering to him at dinner that the socialite across from them was “secretly just a Midwesterner.” In 1990, when Mr. Kirn mentioned that he was going to live in Montana, a magazine editor remarked that it sounded like “a good place to become an alcoholic.”

Mr. Kirn sums up the attitude of the urban elite: “The boogeyman is always somewhere west of New Jersey and east of Palo Alto.” American life has invariably had “a tension between the hicks and the sophisticates,” Mr. Kirn says. It was a feature of literature a century ago, when Sinclair Lewis depicted narrow-minded small towns, Sherwood Anderson portrayed “lonely, desperate lives” in the Ohio countryside, and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby.” But the distinction was always “part of a mural,” Mr. Kirn says, “not of a jihad.”

Apologizing for sounding “corny,” he insists that small-town America has always been “a reservoir of idealism”—an idealism that led him to abhor bullies. “I see the American establishment playing the part of the bully towards its own people,” he says. He recently tweeted that the U.S. government “acts increasingly like a haughty, impatient, insecure, and rather paranoid colonial administration.”

In our interview, he elaborates: Washington and Wall Street “extract wealth, energy and other things from the provinces and then give back contempt as their end of the deal.” They deliver it through the media: “As I sit here in Montana and watch the news use the middle of the country as a kind of wedge in politics, as a caricatured source of prejudice and wrongthink and irrationality, I know them to be not just wrong, but lying.”

A laid-back man with a drawling voice, Mr. Kirn bristles briefly: “The point of view of people who live where I do has been so falsified that I feel I have to speak up.” In liberal eyes, the Trump years turned America into a place of “absolute dichotomies”: “You were a racist—or you were not. You were an uneducated boob who distrusted science and modernity, or you were one of the enlightened, system-bred liberal class.”

Doesn’t the antagonistic stereotyping go both ways? “Absolutely,” Mr. Kirn allows. When he was preparing to leave for Princeton, people around him “acted like I was going to war. They thought I’d be mugged, kidnapped. They felt I was embedding with the Communist Party. And this fearful, gossip-based generalization about the East and the big city was the obverse of this other prejudice that I talked about.”

But there’s a difference. “The people who have these unfounded beliefs about cosmopolitan America,” he says, “aren’t powerful in the society. They don’t run our institutions. They don’t broadcast our media. They don’t make financial moves on Wall Street that change the complexion of whole parts of America.”…

He scorns today’s left for adopting “this temporal, generational narcissism that sits in judgment on all that came before.” Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” he says, is a canonical liberal text, “and yet here we are, crowding onto the judges’ stand rather than sitting with the witches.”

In 2018 he wrote a column for Harper’s titled “Illiberal Values,” which “went back over my life experience and concluded that the liberals of my youth in small-town Minnesota, who spoke glowingly of human freedom and civil rights, had become insufferable pedants and sermonizers.” The magazine terminated his contract shortly after, in “a one-minute phone call” in which Mr. Kirn says he was “not allowed to speak.”

He’s now working on a book—a “travelogue” based on a three-month 2018 road trip through the American South and West. His premise was that “we could learn something about ourselves by talking to people.”…

Mr. Kirn isn’t sure how the book will be received, and he’s braced for “all sorts of criticisms of the distribution of various identity groups” in his narrative. “Did I talk to as many of these people as that people? It’s almost impossible to escape the lash of the identitarian political types.”

As he recalls the America of his youth, Mr. Kirn apologizes for sounding as if he’s “on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ” a 1960s sitcom set in fictional, bucolic Mayberry, N.C.: “I had a sense of America as this place that had amalgamated all kinds of difference under the banner of fairness, freedom, representative democracy and so on.” Although he says he gets accused of feeling that way because he’s white and didn’t grow up in poverty, he stands by the ideal of a stalwart Middle America: “It’s good to have a population that doesn’t change all that much and isn’t subject to every new whim and sensation.”

One of the biggest fallacies about “flyover country,” Mr. Kirn says, is that it is populated by “big clusters of the disaffected.” Most Middle Americans are preoccupied with raising their kids and making a living. “And yet, the picture is that they’re somehow meeting at night in the shadowy back lots, organizing the overthrow of the U.S. government.”

Tunku Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.


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