The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

It saddened to learn yesterday of Kurt Vonnegut’s passing. He was one of those writers whose work cast a spell on me when I stumbled across it at a young age. I don’t know where it came from, but when I was about 10 years old I came across a copy of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater on a bookshelf in our house, and since I was already an avid reader by then, I picked it up and took it along to read on a family trip. My next trip was to the library to pick up Cat’s Cradle.

Now I think Vonnegut’s writing was probably more than my brain could handle then, but that didn’t stop me from trying. (In fact, the only book that did stop me was Ulysses, and I still haven’t attempted that one again.) So, it wasn’t until few years ago that I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, inspired by reading Vonnegut’s thoughts on the Iraq war and his assessment of George W. Bush.

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!

There’s more in this AlterNet Interview with Vonnegut from about the same time.

Basically, Matthew Rothschild is right. Vonnegut helped make it bearable to look at America today. When I read his words around the beginning of the Iraq war, I began to think maybe I wasn’t entirely crazy. Or, at least, if Vonnegut was crazy in the same way I was then at least I was in good company.

Ever idiosyncratic, he had semicolonitis and tried to blot out that punctuation mark from the language. He also tended to end his observations and ruminations with the coda: “So it goes.”

But his existentialism, his quirkiness, his pessimism, and his atheism didn’t lead him to nihilism but to a democratic socialism and a profound humanism. He was an atheist who truly believed in the Sermon on the Mount.

He first expressed this in his unforgettable Slaughterhouse-Five, his eyewitness account of the allied firebombings in Dresden, where he was a prisoner of war.

“An atheist who understood the Sermon on the Mount”? It’s possible.

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.

“Why are they so intent on making god a punisher?” “Because they enjoy punishment. It’s a form of entertainment.”

I could write a whole other blog post about that, but I’ll just point to the Left Behind phenomenon, which now includes movies and a computer game.

Vonnegut knew what he was talking about. For that reason, he will be sorely missed.