Kurt Vonnegut November 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007 /. / A Great American Artist /
ggKurt Vonnegut became a literary celebrity with the 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was followed three years later by a film of the same name. The book was inspired by Vonnegut's experience in World War II, when he witnessed the destruction of Dresden, Germany.
On December 14, 1944, Vonnegut became a German prisoner of war after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent to Dresden, an open city that produced no war machinery; thus it was off-limits to allied bombing. He and his fellow POW's were to work in a vitamin-syrup factory. On February 13, 1945, however, allied forces strafed Dresden, killing 135,000 unprotected civilians. Vonnegut and the other POW's survived the bombing as they waited it out deep in the cellar of a slaughterhouse, where they were quartered.
"I was a prisoner of war in a meat locker under a slaughterhouse when the worst of the firestorm was going on," Vonnegut wrote of his experience. "After that, I worked as a miner of corpses, breaking into cellars where over a 100,000 Hansel and Gretels were baked like gingerbread men."
(complete bio at bottom of page)
In November, Kurt Vonnegut turned 80. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952 at the age of 29. Since then he has written 13 others, including Slaughterhouse Five, which stands as one of the pre-eminent anti-war novels of the 20th century.
As war against Iraq looms, I asked Vonnegut to weigh in. Vonnegut is an American socialist in the tradition of Eugene Victor Debs, a fellow Hoosier whom he likes to quote: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
You have lived through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Reagan wars, Desert Storm, the Balkan wars and now this coming war in Iraq. What has changed, and what has remained the same?
One thing which has not changed is that none of us, no matter what continent or island or ice cap, asked to be born in the first place, and that even somebody as old as I am, which is 80, only just got here. There were already all these games going on when I got here. An apt motto for any polity anywhere, to put on its state seal or currency or whatever, might be this quotation from the late baseball manager Casey Stengel, who was addressing a team of losing professional athletes: "Can't anybody here play this game?"
My daughter Lily, for an example close to home, who has just turned 20, finds herself as does George W. Bush, himself a kid an heir to a shockingly recent history of human slavery, to an AIDS epidemic and to nuclear submarines slumbering on the floors of fjords in Iceland and elsewhere, crews prepared at a moment's notice to turn industrial quantities of men, women and children into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads. And to the choice between liberalism or conservatism and on and on.
What is radically new in 2003 is that my daughter, along with our president and Saddam Hussein and on and on, has inherited technologies whose byproducts, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.
Based on what you've read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bush's policies and the impending war in Iraq?
That they are nonsense.
My feeling from talking to readers and friends is that many people are beginning to despair. Do you think that we've lost reason to hope?
I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka "Christians," and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or "PPs."
To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is "The Mask of Sanity " by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!
And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.
What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!
How have you gotten involved in the anti-war movement? And how would you compare the movement against a war in Iraq with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?
When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.
And so it is with anti-war protests in the present day. Then as now, TV did not like anti-war protesters, nor any other sort of protesters, unless they rioted. Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, "ain't worth a pitcher of warm spit," as the saying goes.
As a writer and artist, have you noticed any difference between how the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of today view their responsibility to society?
Responsibility to which society? To Nazi Germany? To the Stalinist Soviet Union? What about responsibility to humanity in general? And leaders in what particular cultural activity? I guess you mean the fine arts. I hope you mean the fine arts. ... Anybody practicing the fine art of composing music, no matter how cynical or greedy or scared, still can't help serving all humanity. Music makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up.
But that is the power of ear candy. The creation of such a universal confection for the eye, by means of printed poetry or fiction or history or essays or memoirs and so on, isn't possible. Literature is by definition opinionated. It is bound to provoke the arguments in many quarters, not excluding the hometown or even the family of the author. Any ink-on-paper author can only hope at best to seem responsible to small groups or like-minded people somewhere. He or she might as well have given an interview to the editor of a small-circulation publication. Maybe we can talk about the responsibilities to their societies of architects and sculptors and painters another time. And I will say this: TV drama, although not yet classified as fine art, has on occasion performed marvelous services for Americans who want us to be less paranoid, to be fairer and more merciful. M.A.S.H. and Law and Order, to name only two shows, have been stunning masterpieces in that regard.
That said, do you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show?
"C students from Yale." It would stand your hair on end.
What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?
Joel Bleifuss is the editor of In These Times.
Read hundreds (thousands?) of reader responses to "Kurt Vonnegut vs. the !&#*!@" HERE.
Q: What genuinely motivates al-Qaeda to kill and self-destruct? The president says, "They hate our freedoms-our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," which surely is not what has been learned from the captives being held in Guantanamo, or what he is told in his briefings. Why do the communications industry and our elected politicians allow Bush to get away with such nonsense? And how can there ever be peace, and even trust in our leaders, if the American people aren't told the truth?
One wishes that those who have taken over our federal government, and hence the world, by means of a Mickey Mouse coup d'etat, and who have disconnected all the burglar alarms prescribed by the Constitution, which is to say the House and Senate and the Supreme Court and We the People, were truly Christian. But as William Shakespeare told us long ago, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose."
... (MOW Editorial Insert)
And what remains the best-kept secret from the Second World War, because it is so embarrassing, is that Hitler was a Christian, and that his swastika was a Christian cross made of axes, an apt symbol of a political party for Christians of the working class. And there were simpler, unambiguous crosses on all Hitler's tanks and planes.
Again: One wishes, for the sake of the whole planet, that the people in and around the White House nowadays truly mean it when they say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," and that they respect as children of God the losers, the nobodies so loved by Jesus in the Beatitudes, in His Sermon on the Mount: the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peace makers and so on
. (MOW Editorial Insert)
But such is obviously not the case. George W. Bush smirks and gloats unmercifully as he boasts of his readiness to loose more than a hundred cruise missiles, what I call "Timothy McVeighs," into the midst of the general population of Iraq, nearly half of whom are children, little boys and girls under the age of 15.
His domestic policies, whose viciousness is peewee in comparison with what he is so eager to do to foreigners who don't look like him and talk like him, who don't have names like his, nonetheless inflict pain on those Americans of the sort enumerated in the Beatitudes, by depriving them of decent health care and educations, and of food, shelter and clothing when times are bad. It seems quite possible that his opinion of the American people has been formed while watching the Jerry Springer Show, which is Republican propaganda of the most pernicious kind.
But America was certainly hated all around the world long before this coup d'etat. And we weren't hated, as George W. Bush would have it, because of our liberty and justice for all. We are hated because our corporations have been the principal deliverers and imposers of new technologies and economic schemes that have wrecked the self-respect, the cultures of men, women and children in so many other societies.
It's that simple.
What are we to do when confronted by such hatred?
Respond to Code Red and runaround like chickens with their heads cut off.
Keep in touch,
"They have proved their superiority to admirers of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Jesus of Nazareth, with an able assist from television, making inconsequential our protests against their war. And they have turned loose a myriad of our high-tech weapons, each one costing more than a hundred high schools, on a Third World country, in order to shock and awe human beings like us, /like Adam and Eve, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers."
/ "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."
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GO TO ORIGINAL : http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=14919
Asked how he's doing, Kurt Vonnegut says, "I'm mad about being old and I'm mad about being American. Apart from that, OK."
Vonnegut has just turned 80. Although he claims he's retired from writing, he has just finished an introduction for a book of anti-war posters by artist Micah Ian Wright. Vonnegut continues to be a cultural presence, speaking out against war with Iraq to 10,000 protestors at a rally in New York's Central Park and making a spoken-word contribution to the new multimedia world music production, One Giant Leap.
While Vonnegut has always owned his Indianapolis sense of place, he has seemed less interested in grounding himself to a particular locale than in using place as a portal to some greater, universal understanding of life. Vonnegut has long argued that we are, ultimately, planetary citizens whether we realize it or not.
As extraordinarily popular as Vonnegut's work has proved to be virtually everything he's written is still in print he's hardly a bringer of reassuring tidings. History, he seems to suggest, is important not, as per Santyana, so that we can avoid past mistakes, but as a predictor of what we corrupt souls are likely to do to one another.
Vonnegut, after all, is an avant-garde artist, whose "aggressively unconventional" (his words) approach to storytelling would likely put readers off if it weren't for the wryly aphoristic, conversational tone of his voice. He has said he learned to effectively write the way he talked by having to phone in stories during his days as a reporter for the Chicago News Bureau.
Kurt Vonnegut recently took some time to talk from his home in New York City about how he thinks things are going these days:
In 1991, you spoke to the Wordstruck Festival in Indianapolis right after the end of the Gulf War against Iraq. During your speech you remarked on television footage you'd seen of Iraqi soldiers who'd been taken prisoner and said, "Those men are my brothers."
Vonnegut: All soldiers are.
And here we are on the brink of another war with Iraq.
I don't want to belong to a country that attacks little countries. I don't want to belong to that kind of a country. I wrote a piece for 7 Stories Press here in New York. They're about to publish a book of anti-war posters by a guy nobody's heard of before he's a pretty good artist and so I was asked to write a piece for it. Would you like me to read it?
(Reading) "These anti-war posters by artist Micah Ian Wright. are reminiscent in spirit of works by artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz and on and on during the 1920s, when it was becoming ever more evident that the infant German democracy was about to be murdered by psychopathic personalities hereinafter P.P.s the medical term for smart, personable people who have no conscience. P.P.s are fully aware of how much suffering their actions will inflict on others but do not care. They cannot care.
"The classic medical text about how such attractive leaders bring us into unspeakable calamities is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. An American P.P. at the head of a corporation, for example, could enrich himself by ruining his employees and investors and still feel as pure as the driven snow. A P.P., should he attain a post near the top of our federal government, might feel that taking the country into an endless war with casualties in the millions was simply something decisive to do today. So to bed.
"With a P.P., decisiveness is all. Or, to put it another way, we now have a Reichstag fire of our own.
I mean, this is a defect, but women are attracted to them because they are so confident."
CASES IN POINT: (VONNEGUT INTERVIEW continues below)
"Faith didn't make Bush a decisive person. He's always been one. His birthright as a His birthright as a Bush gives him a sense of obligation to serve, and a sense of an entitlement to lead.
"They appreciate his moral clarity and decisiveness. But they wonder if he is ignoring nuances in what sounds like a messianic mission." "A frat man at Yale in an increasingly radical time-the late 1960s, he came to loathe intellectual avatars of complexity and doubt, especially when they disparaged his dad." --NEWSWEEK, "Bush and God"
(MOW editorial insert)
"Cheney is my ideal man. Because he's solid. He's funny. He's very handsome. He was a football player. People don't think about him as the glamour type because he's a serious person, he wears glasses, he's lost his hair. But he's a very handsome man. And you cannot imagine him losing his temper, which I find extremely sexy. Men who get upset and lose their tempers and claim to be sensitive males: talk about girly boys. No, there's a reason hurricanes are named after women and homosexual men, it's one of our little methods of social control. We're supposed to fly off the handle.
They are supposed to be rock-solid men. Dick Cheney exudes that. Can you imagine him yelling at Lynne Cheney? No. Every female I know finds that so incredibly attractive."
seems to be an entire right-wing subculture out there that inexplicably
views W. as some kind of pinup-in-chief.
For the over 50 crowd, there's former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan breathlessly comparing Bush to Superman: "For a moment I though of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximm danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big 'S' on his chest."
(MOW editorial insert) (MOW Editorial Insert)
As with her unrequited love for the Gipper two decade before, Noonan likes to indulge "leader of the free world" fantasies, but they are strictly PG-rated. Sure, she blushes at the notion of Bush tearing open his shirt, but all she really seems to want is a nice romantic dinner and maybe a little bit of manly nation building.
Women voters agree: President Bush is a hottie! BY LISA SCHIFFREN Wall Street Journal Friday, May 9, 2003 http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110003472
I had the most astonishing thought last Thursday. After a long day of hauling the kids to playdates and ballet, I turned on the news. And there was the president, landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stepping out of a fighter jet in that amazing uniform, looking--how to put it?--really hot. Also presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as commander in chief. But mostly "hot," as in virile, sexy and powerful.
(MOW Editorial Insert)
You don't see a lot of that in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (I'm told there's more of it in the "red" states.) I was mesmerized. I flipped around watching W. land on many channels. I watched the whole speech, which was fine. But a business suit just doesn't do it the way a flight suit does. In the course of this I peeked over at my husband, the banker. He was in his third month of reading a book about the Six Day War and didn't seem to notice.
Nonetheless, I know that I am not the only one who entertained these untoward thoughts. The American media were fully aware of how stunning the president looked last week. And they chose to defuse it by referring endlessly to the "photo-oppiness" of the event. The man uses overwhelming military force to vanquish a truly evil foe,
(MOW editorial insert)
facing down balking former "allies," and he is not taken seriously as a foreign-policy president.
He out top-guns the Hollywood version, and all the media can talk about is the impending campaign commercial.
Meanwhile David Gergen, arguably as bloodless a creature as has ever graced too many White Houses and TV shows, actually broke into a grin and said: "This will set the standard for advance men for years to come." Advance men? I think it will set a new standard for women voters.
I decided to run a reality check among the soccer moms I spend my days with. At my daughter's East Side school, my friend Emily, a mother of two and probably a liberal, examined the picture of the president in his fly-boy gear that I just happened to have in my purse. She looked carefully, grinned and said, "He's a hottie. No doubt about it. Really a hottie. Why haven't I noticed this before? He looks so much better than Michael Douglas in that movie we saw," comparing the tired, indifferent megastar of "The American President" to the totally present leader of the free world.
Alexandra, an unmarried event planner in her 30s, e-mailed: "Hot? SO HOT!!!!! THAT UNIFORM!" In a more restrained way, my friend Maggie, a writer/mom, explained: "I think he is actually protecting me and my sons, and I find that attractive in a man." Suzi, who did her mom time and now writes biographies, also began with restraint. I asked, casually, what she thought about President Bush. She answered, carefully, "He's so confident. He is a very credible, trustworthy leader." "Yeah," I pursue, "but do you think he's sexy?" "Oh God, yes," she said. "I mean, that swagger. George Bush in a pair of jeans is a treat to watch." This from a soft-spoken woman inclined to intellectual pursuits.
Back on the West Side, among the liberals I live surrounded by, there was dissent. At my younger children's preschool, comments ranged from "well he's cute, but not my type" to "I can't think of anything more revolting." Many of them still cite Bill Clinton and his allegedly penetrating intellect as more appealing.
Liberals make such a fetish of intellect. But who cares how smart you are if you can't make a decision and follow through?
Mr. Clinton could not seem to do that with foreign policy, or with Miss Lewinsky. Still, I concede that having a Republican president with sex appeal is kind of a new idea. We haven't actually seen one in living memory.
--Lisa Schiffren, Wall Street Journal http://www.kathygorman.com/georgebush.htm
It should be noted that Schiffren works for the Independent Women's Forum, a group that, despite the moniker, is expressly dedicated to encouraging women to be as dependent as possible. Schiffren's one claim to fame is penning that Dan Quayle speech chastising TV character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock.
Murphy Brown = immoral Murder & maiming of 100,000 innocent people, half of whom are children = HOT! _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________/ / "Faith didn't make Bush a decisive person. He's always been one. His birthright as a His birthright as a Bush gives him a sense of obligation to serve, and a sense of an entitlement to lead. "They appreciate his moral clarity and decisiveness. But they wonder if he is ignoring nuances in what sounds like a messianic mission." "A frat man at Yale in an increasingly radical time-the late 1960s, he came to loathe intellectual avatars of complexity and doubt, especially when they disparaged his dad." - NEWSWEEK, Bush and God" \/ ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ /?/ "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." - Mark Twain, inscription beneath his bust in the Hall of Fame ________________________________________________________________________________________________________ ... "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubt." - Bertrand Russell ... . /////(Fool)//////////////////////(Fanatic) // "Liberals make such a fetish of intellect. But who cares how smart you are if you can't make a decision and follow through?" "He's so confident. He is a very credible, trustworthy leader. "Yeah," I pursue, "but do you think he's sexy?" "Oh God, yes,"she said. "I mean, that swagger."/ - Lisa Schiffren (above) _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
"VONNEGUT AT 80", (interview, continued from above)
I mean, this is a defect, but women are attracted to them because they are so confident.
Has television played a part in this?
We have no idea what technology has done to us. Last night I went to a party for Gordon Parks, a black genius. Walter Cronkite was there. Cronkite's an old friend. I said to him, "You know, the country you did so much to shape seems so shapeless now." One thing about TV is you don't have to do anything.
(MOW editorial insert)
We become spectators.
Yes. And that's enough. We're thanked for that: "Thank You For Watching ..." (laughs)
Ratings are becoming more important than votes.
Well, technology has fucked us up in many ways. What I've said about the computer revolution is that it's allowed white collar criminals to do what the Mob would have loved to do put a pawn shop and a loan shark in every home!
(MOW editorial insert)
Technology changes us, yet it's very difficult for us to recognize the changes because we're in their midst.
Of course it does. Life asks us for this and asks us for that: Go get yourself some food. You have tasks, it turns out, in order to get satisfied. But you don't have to do them now. You can sit at home and it's simply done to you. So we're not terribly interesting animals anymore.
You've talked about how the Bush Administration seems driven by revenge.
It's a story to tell. He's in the same business I'm in. He's telling stories. It turns out this is the simplest of all stories to tell. I mean, I want to hold attention when I write something. What he wants to be is interesting. And revenge is interesting. I've said there are two radical ideas that have been introduced into human thought. One of them is that energy and matter are pretty much the same sort of stuff. That's Einstein. The other is that revenge is a bad idea. It's an enormously popular idea but, of course, Jesus came along with the radical idea of forgiveness. That was radical. If you're insulted, you have to square accounts. So this invention by Jesus is as radical as Einstein's.
You've placed a high premium on what you call decency.
One kid said he had the key to all my books and he put it in a sentence. He said, "Love may fail but courtesy will prevail." Love does fail all the time, you know, and it makes people vicious.
That's interesting because it seems that psychopathic personalities tend to give courtesy a bad rap. They find it weak.
They are decisive. They are gonna do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid.
You've used satire as a tool to defend against the world's insanity. Can it also work to change things?
I guess it works some. Just telling people, "You are not alone. There are a lot of others who feel as you do." We're a terribly lonesome society. For all I know, all societies are. You can make a few new friends, that's all. You can't change history. History is happening to us now. George Bush has hydrogen bombs if he needs them. It really matters who's around and who's holding attention. I don't think television will let anybody else hold attention.
Why is that?
During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we've ever been in and which we lost every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high. (laughs)
Powers Hapgood was an internationally known Indianapolis radical and socialist. You met him didn't you?
Oh, yes. He was an official of the CIO then. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Think of Eugene Debs from Terre Haute. What Debs said echoes the Sermon on the Mount: "As long as there's a lower class I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Now why can't the religious right recognize that as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount? Hapgood and Debs were both middle-class people who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. They wanted a better country, that's all. Hapgood's family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis and Hapgood turned it over to the employees, who ruined it. He led the pickets against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Hapgood was testifying in court in Indianapolis about some picket-line dust-up connected with the CIO and the judge stops everything. He says, "Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you're a graduate of Harvard and you own a successful business. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?" Powers Hapgood actually became a coal miner for a while. His answer to the judge was great: "The Sermon on the Mount, sir."
My God, the religious right will not acknowledge what a merciful person Jesus was.
Why are they so intent on making god a punisher?
Because they enjoy punishment. It's a form of entertainment. The reason we still have the death penalty in this country is because it's a major form of entertainment a way of holding attention.
You left Indianapolis for the East Coast. But you've also said there's good reason for staying put.
You leave home because of lonesomeness, no spiritual reason. You're not going to be able to have shop talk. So you're going to be terribly lonesome. So yes, you go to Greenwich Village or somewhere else where people are talking all the time. The turning point in my life, even though I was an established writer, was when I went to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. We were talking about literature all the time! On Cape Cod there was nobody for me to talk to. It's a very simple social reason. Of course, I've also said the more provincial a story is, the more universal it becomes. That just happens to be true.
Why is that? Attention to detail?
Yes. It's going to be a totally human story which people are going to recognize as such and so they'll resonate with it. I mean: Madame Bovary how provincial can you get?
Your work moves people across generations. How do you account for that?
I don't have to. All I know is it happened
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In These Times May 10, 2004 http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/cold_turkey/
Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America's becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas
When you get to my age, if you get to my age, which is 81, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged, what life is all about. I have seven kids, four of them adopted.
Many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.
I put my big question about life to my biological son Mark. Mark is a pediatrician, and author of a memoir, The Eden Express. It is about his crackup, straightjacket and padded cell stuff, from which he recovered sufficiently to graduate from Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: "Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is." So I pass that on to you. Write it down, and put it in your computer, so you can forget it.
I have to say that's a pretty good sound bite, almost as good as, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." A lot of people think Jesus said that, because it is so much the sort of thing Jesus liked to say. But it was actually said by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, 500 years before there was that greatest and most humane of human beings, named Jesus Christ.
(MOW editorial insert)
The Chinese also gave us, via Marco Polo, pasta and the formula for gunpowder. The Chinese were so dumb they only used gunpowder for fireworks. And everybody was so dumb back then that nobody in either hemisphere even knew that there was another one.
But back to people, like Confucius and Jesus and my son the doctor, Mark, who've said how we could behave more humanely, and maybe make the world a less painful place. One of my favorites is Eugene Debs, from Terre Haute in my native state of Indiana. Get a load of this:
Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran
5 times as the Socialist Party candidate for president, winning
900,000 votes, 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912, if you
can imagine such a ballot. He had this to say while campaigning:
As long as there is a lower class, I am in it.
As long as there is a criminal element, I'm of it.
As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Doesn't anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?
How about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
And so on.
Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.
(MOW editorial insert)
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
"Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.
But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are!
I was born a human being in 1922 A.D. What does "A.D." signify? That commemorates an inmate of this lunatic asylum we call Earth who was nailed to a wooden cross by a bunch of other inmates. With him still conscious, they hammered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dangled up there where even the shortest person in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that.
Can you imagine people doing such a thing to a person?
No problem. That's entertainment. Ask the devout Roman Catholic Mel Gibson, who, as an act of piety, has just made a fortune with a movie about how Jesus was tortured. Never mind what Jesus said.
During the reign of King Henry the Eighth, founder of the Church of England, he had a counterfeiter boiled alive in public. Show biz again.
Mel Gibson's next movie should be The Counterfeiter. Box office records will again be broken.
One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.
And what did the great British historian Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794 A.D., have to say about the human record so far? He said, "History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."
The same can be said about this morning's edition of the New York Times.
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, wrote, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."
So there's another barrel of laughs from literature. Camus died in an automobile accident. His dates? 1913-1960 A.D.
Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.
But I have to say this in defense of humankind: No matter in what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got there. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren't crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf and girls' basketball.
Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
Actually, this same sort of thing happened to the people of England generations ago, and Sir William Gilbert, of the radical team of Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote these words for a song about it back then:
I often think it's comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.
Which one are you in this country? It's practically a law of life that you have to be one or the other? If you aren't one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut.
If some of you still haven't decided, I'll make it easy for you.
If you want to take my guns away from me, and you're all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other, and want to give them kitchen appliances at their showers, and you're for the poor, you're a liberal.
If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you're a conservative.
What could be simpler?
My government's got a war on drugs. But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W. Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed or tiddley-poo or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 41. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
And do you know why I think he is so pissed off at Arabs? They invented algebra. Arabs also invented the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which nobody else had ever had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals.
We're spreading democracy, are we? Same way European explorers brought Christianity to the Indians, what we now call "Native Americans."
How ungrateful they were! How ungrateful are the people of Baghdad today.
So let's give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That'll teach bin Laden a lesson he won't soon forget. Hail to the Chief.
That chief and his cohorts have as little to do with Democracy as the Europeans had to do with Christianity. We the people have absolutely no say in whatever they choose to do next. In case you haven't noticed, they've already cleaned out the treasury, passing it out to pals in the war and national security rackets, leaving your generation and the next one with a perfectly enormous debt that you'll be asked to repay.
Nobody let out a peep when they did that to you, because they have disconnected every burglar alarm in the Constitution:The House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the FBI, the free press (which, having been embedded, has forsaken the First Amendment) and We the People.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse. I've been a coward about heroin and cocaine and LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn't seem to do anything to me, one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then, and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I'll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver's license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.
And my car back then, a Studebaker, as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused and addictive and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialized world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won't be any more of those. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn't like TV news, is it?
Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.
And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on.
© 2004 In These Times GO TO ORIGINAL
The following is adapted from a Clemens
Lecture presented in April for the Mark Twain House in
First things first: I want it clearly understood that this mustache I'm wearing is my father's mustache. I should have brought his photograph. My big brother Bernie, now dead, a physical chemist who discovered that silver iodide can sometimes make it snow or rain, he wore it, too.
Speaking of weather: Mark Twain said some readers complained that there wasn't enough weather in his stories. So he wrote some weather, which they could insert wherever they thought it would help some.
Mark Twain was said to have shed
a tear of gratitude and incredulousness when honored for his writing
by Oxford University in England. And I should shed a tear, surely,
having been asked at the age of 80, and because of what I myself
have written, to speak under the auspices of the sacred Mark Twain
House here in Hartford.
What other American landmark is as sacred to me as the Mark Twain House? The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln were country boys from Middle America, and both of them made the American people laugh at themselves and appreciate really important, really moral jokes.
I note that construction has stopped of a Mark Twain Museum here in Hartford -behind the carriage house of the Mark Twain House at 351 Farmington Avenue.
Work persons have been sent home from that site because American "conservatives," as they call themselves, on Wall Street and at the head of so many of our corporations, have stolen a major fraction of our private savings, have ruined investors and employees by means of fraud and outright piracy.
Shock and awe.
And now, having installed themselves as our federal government, or taken control of it from outside, they have squandered our public treasury and then some. They have created a public debt of such appalling magnitude that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes, will come into this world as poor as church mice.
Shock and awe.
What are the conservatives doing with all the money and power that used to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be absolutely terrified, and to run around in circles like chickens with their heads cut off. But they will save us. They are making us take off our shoes at airports. Can anybody here think of a more hilarious practical joke than that one?
Smile, America. You're on Candid Camera.
And they have
turned loose a myriad of our high-tech weapons, each one costing more than a hundred high
schools, on a Third World
country, in order to shock and awe human beings like us, like
Adam and Eve, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
The other day I asked former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton what he thought of our great victory over Iraq, and he said, "Mohammed Ali versus Mr. Rogers."'
What are conservatives? They are people who will move heaven and earth, if they have to, who will ruin a company or a country or a planet, to prove to us and to themselves that they are superior to everybody else, except for their pals. They take good care of their pals, keep them out of jail-and so on.
Conservatives are crazy as bedbugs. They are bullies.
Shock and awe.
Class war? You bet.
They have proved their superiority to admirers of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain and Jesus of Nazareth, with an able assist from television, making inconsequential our protests against their war.
What has happened to us? We have suffered a technological calamity. Television is now our form of government.
On what grounds did we protest their war? I could name many, but I need name only one, which is common sense.
Be that as it may, construction of the Mark Twain Museum will sooner or later be resumed. And I, the son and grandson of Indiana architects, seize this opportunity to suggest a feature which I hope will be included in the completed structure, words to be chiseled into the capstone over the main entrance.
Here is what I think would be fun to put up there, and Mark Twain loved fun more than anything. I have tinkered with something famous he said, which is: "Be good and you will be lonesome." That is from Following the Equator. OK?
So envision what a majestic front entrance the Mark Twain Museum will have someday. And imagine that these words have been chiseled into the noble capstone and painted gold:
One of the most humiliated and heartbroken pieces Twain ever wrote was about the slaughter of 600 Moro men, women and children by our soldiers during our liberation of the people of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Our brave commander was Leonard Wood, who now has a fort named after him. Fort Leonard Wood.
What did Abraham Lincoln have to say about such American imperialist wars? Those are wars which, on one noble pretext or another, actually aim to increase the natural resources and pools of tame labor available to the richest Americans who have the best political connections.
And it is almost always a mistake
to mention Abraham Lincoln in a speech about something or somebody
else. He always steals the show. I am about to quote him.
Lincoln was only a Congressman when he said in 1848 what I am about to echo. He was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us.
We were making California our own, and a lot of other people and properties, and doing it as though butchering Mexican soldiers who were only defending their homeland against invaders wasn't murder.
What other stuff besides California? Well, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
The person congressman Lincoln had in mind when he said what he said was James Polk, our president at the time. Abraham Lincoln said of Polk, his president, our armed forces' commander-in-chief:
Holy smokes! I almost said, "Holy shit!" And I thought I was a writer!
Do you know we actually captured Mexico City during the Mexican War? Why isn't that a national holiday? And why isn't the face of James Polk up on Mount Rushmore, along with Ronald Reagan's?
What made Mexico so evil back in the 1840s, well before our Civil War, is that slavery was illegal there. Remember the Alamo?
My great-grandfather's name was Clemens Vonnegut. Small world, small world. This piquant coincidence is not a fabrication. Clemens Vonnegut called himself a "freethinker," an antique word for humanist. He was a hardware merchant in Indianapolis.
So, 120 years ago, say, there was one man who was both Clemens and Vonnegut. I would have liked being such a person a lot. I only wish I could have been such a person tonight.
I claim no blood relationship with Samuel Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri. "Clemens," as a first name, is, I believe, like the name "Clementine," derived from the adjective "clement." To be clement is to be lenient and compassionate, or, in the case of weather, perfectly heavenly.
So there's weather again.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born on
the eleventh day of November, 1922, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
His birth date, which fell on Armistice Day, would prove to be
an omen for his pacifist views. He was the grandson of the first
licensed architect in Indiana, and the son of a wealthy architect.
The Great Depression, however, left Vonnegut's father out of work,
and the wealth of the family soon diminished.
It was at Shortridge High School
in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience.
During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the
editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high
school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut
learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate
feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the
form of a teacher.
After graduating from Shortridge
in 1940, Vonnegut headed for Cornell University. His father wanted
him to study something that was solid and dependable, like science,
so Vonnegut began his college career as a chemistry and biology
major, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Bernard,
who was to eventually be the discoverer of cloud seeding to induce
precipitation. While Vonnegut struggled in his chemistry and biology
studies, he excelled as a columnist and managing editor for the
Cornell Daily Sun. But by 1943 Vonnegut was on the verge of being
asked to leave Cornell due to his lackluster academic performance.
He beat Cornell to the punch by enlisting in the army.
By this point Vonnegut's parents had given up on life, being unable to adjust to or accept the fact that they were no longer wealthy, world travellers. On May 14, 1944, his mother committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. His father was to remain a fairly isolated man the rest of his days, in full retreat from life, content to be in his own little world until his death on October 1, 1957 (Jailbird 12-13; hereinafter identified as "J").
On December 14, 1944, Vonnegut
became a German prisoner of war after being captured in the Battle
of the Bulge. He was sent to Dresden, an open city that produced
no war machinery; thus it was off-limits to allied bombing. He
and his fellow POW's were to work in a vitamin-syrup factory.
On February 13, 1945, however, allied forces strafed Dresden,
killing 135,000 unprotected civilians. Vonnegut and the other
POW's survived the bombing as they waited it out deep in the cellar
of a slaughterhouse, where they were quartered.
Vonnegut was repatriated on May 22, 1945, and on September first of that year he married Jane Marie Cox, a friend since kindergarten, for he thought, "'Who but a wife would sleep with me?'"
Vonnegut spent the next two years in Chicago, attending the University of Chicago as a graduate anthropology student, and working for the Chicago City News Bureau as a police reporter. When his master's thesis was rejected, he moved to Schenectedy, New York, to work as a publicist for General Electric. It was here that his fiction career began. On February 11, 1950, Collier's published Vonnegut's first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect." By the next year he was making enough money writing to quit his job at GE and move his family to West Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
In 1952 his first novel, Player
Piano, was published. By the time his next novel, The Sirens of
Titan, was published in 1959, he had had dozens of short stories
published, worked as an English teacher at a school for emotionally
disturbed students, run a Saab dealership, seen his father die,
witnessed the death of his 41-year old sister, Alice, due to cancer,
which occurred less than forty-eight hours after her husband had
died in a train accident, and had adopted three of Alice's four
children to add to his own stable of three kids.
The sixties were highlighted by
the publication of four more novels, a collection of short stories,
and a two-year residency at the famous University of Iowa Writers'
Workshop. The decade culminated with the publication of Vonnegut's
sixth, and still best, novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in 1968.
The early seventies were an interesting
and hectic time for Vonnegut. Much in demand as the voice of the
college-aged generation, he spent time teaching creative writing
at Harvard, wrote a mildly successful off-Broadway play, got divorced,
and saw his son Mark suffer a schizophrenic breakdown. By the
time Breakfast of Champions was published in 1973, Vonnegut's
life was starting to slow down just a bit as he dropped from his
pinnacle in the national spotlight. The critically lambasted Slapstick
appeared in 1976, which was followed by 1979's Jailbird.
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