“If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning big time, big time.”
Kurt Vonnegut needs no introduction.
His literary talents were as far-reaching as his wit, and he never hesitated to inject the harsh realism that so many of us need into his essays, short stories, and novels.
As a veteran of World War II and a great humanist, Vonnegut was never quiet about his anti-war sentiments; this theme was especially pervasive in Slaughterhouse-5 and the less popular but outstanding Mother Night.
It is a wealthy country (except for the insurmountable debt, but we’ll get to that a bit later), but a country that mis-allocates this wealth in a way that encourages, and subsequently rewards, corruption and greed.
It is a country that righteously claims the moral high ground over all other nations, declaring its status as the greatest force for good in the world at every opportunity, yet throughout history it engages in wars on false pretenses and supports brutal dictatorships; all the while lying to the people, spying on the people, and abandoning the welfare of the people.
And you are called a patriot if you simply ignore all the bad stuff, and focus on the good. The good ol’ American dream.
“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.”
This optimism slowly dwindled away, however.
“But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming human and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power.”
In 2004, in an essay in the magazine In These Times titled “Cold Turkey,” he voiced his opinion on the state of U.S. politics, our treatment of war and the troops, and the Bush II administration, with his usual combination of dark wit and thought-provoking prose.
And through the bleakness, he always, somehow, finds a way to invoke compassion and a strange kind of hopefulness, not that everything is going to be great, but that somehow we will get through it. Hopefully.
The Human Situation, and Religious Hypocrisy
Vonnegut begins by recalling some wise words by his son, doctor and author Dr. Mark Vonnegut:
That is Vonnegut’s one excuse for humanity: We all just got here, and none of us really know what’s going on.
And what’s worse, we have been indoctrinated into the “survival of the fittest” dogmas of economics and politics, so doing anything to help the poor and less fortunate is called Communism, something to be fought tooth and nail.
“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 free.
Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools or health insurance for all?”
Vonnegut goes on to detail our hypocrisy when it comes to our religious traditions.
“How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?
Blessed arethe 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. 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 the courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
We want to be righteous and peaceful, yet we reject the very principles which work toward this goal, and we give in to our power-hungry nature. That, for Vonnegut, is the Cliff Notes summary of the American, and indeed human, situation.
The “Tragic Flaw” in Our Constitution
“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!”
The Ridiculously Divided Arena of American Politics
The stark division in American political discourse between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, is a seemingly insurmountable problem. Neither side wants to give any ground to the other, and as a result the people are left out to dry. Most opinions in politics are reached not by a detached understanding of the facts, but by a herd-like acceptance of whatever the “team” believes.
There is no nuance, no thinking, just two separate herds of sheep at each others’ throats. If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be an extremely attractive source of entertainment.
“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 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.
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.”
Again, there is no nuance, just pick a team, and follow them to victory or defeat, convinced that the other side consists of a bunch of raving lunatics and that your side is fighting for what’s right.
Wars On: Drugs, the Middle East, and the Environment
The war on drugs is the longest, and most costly, war in American history.
And there is no doubt that those who waged it, and those who are attempting to continue it further into the future, have lost. Abuse of dangerous drugs such as heroine and cocaine and methamphetamine is still a serious problem; meanwhile, the government is incredibly concerned with tracking down those growing marijuana in their basements, locking them up, and ruining their lives.
Instead of focusing on treatment, we focus on punishment: A grown man/woman has the nerve to smoke a joint? Take his money or put him/her in a cage. That will teach them…
All I can say is that history will not judge this war kindly.
“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.”
And Vonnegut expressed the same antipathy to the wars in the Middle East as he did toward the so-called war on drugs.
“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 our generation and the next one with a perfectly enormous debt that you’ll be asked to repay.”
With all of the wars we’re waging or participating in overseas, it can be easy to forget that we are waging another war, a global war, with disastrous implications: the war on the environment.
“…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.”