Vonnegut vs. the !&#*!@
|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, a reader and
supporter of this magazine, 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.” - Joel Bleifuss
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
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
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 has worked as a investigative reporter, columnist and
editor since 1986. Bleifuss has had more stories on Project Censored's
annual list of the “10 Most Censored Stories” than any other
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