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Books–A Man Without a Country November 11, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, Education, Other.
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Happy Birthday Mr. Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut is 84 years old today. And he still ranks as one of my favorite authors of all time. He is always easy to read, and until his latest book, A Man Without a Country, he has always been scathingly funny. (a side note: Unless you are a real fan like me, this book will probably disappoint you. It seems to be an extremely pessimistic work that repeats some sentiments, anecdotes, statements, and stories he has already put in print in earlier books and essays.)

A Man Without a Country is mainly a contemplation of the current state of the world and there is a little bitterness in it, bitterness that I cannot recall seeing in his other works. I don’t think of Slaughterhouse Five as a particularly pessimistic work, for example. And yet, as I think about it, the firebombing of Dresden is about as sad a thing as you could possibly write a novel about. His pessimism has a deep taproot, possibly several of them. Here’s one source:

“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 becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us 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 lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

Now it would be easy for those who support the military to bristle at such a statement. Take the Kerry incident that preceded last week’s midterm elections, for example. John Kerry, one of my State’s two Senators, floated a lame joke in a speech. Apparently he forgot (in some Freudian slip) to aim the joke at the President and it turned into a moralistic and elitist screed about the ability of educational opportunity to keep our sons and daughters out of the War. Although he probably didn’t mean to say what he said, most people think that he believed it nonetheless.

Kerry’s Ivy League degree didn’t keep him out of his generation’s war because he volunteered. It would be easy to believe that doing so had more to do with the knowledge that serving in the Navy would make him seem even more like J.F.K., would help his political career immeasurably in the future. Regardless, to say that education will keep you out of a war is like saying it will somehow make you smarter.

I’m not knocking education or educational opportunity. Education will help those who want to be “educated;” It will help them earn a college degree, for example. It will probably, almost certainly, help them learn valuable skills of some sort. For those who want to serve in the military an education might help them to become officers. It might give them different perspectives on military service. If anyone has any research about whether educated people, ceteris paribus, are less likely to join the military (adjusted for the fact that to be in college you have to postpone service until you are older and cannot serve while in college) I’d really love to see it. You can just cite it, of course, because I have excellent access to a wide variety of online journals to which my University subscribes.

Back to Vonnegut’s book for a moment, and the roots of his pessimism. A Man Without a Country takes issue with the Iraq War and with a number of other things, including the Bush Administration.

“George W. Bush has gathered around him 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, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.”

The title of this slim volume makes a certain amount of sense. You see, Vonnegut feels that politicians should be ashamed of themselves for not speaking out against the war, and other injustices, global warming, etc., more vehemently. And that this country is different from the one he fought for because nobody is ashamed of not doing the right thing anymore.

I have to admit that my glee over the rascals being thrown out of control over Congress is tempered by the knowledge that a different set of rascals is now in control, the set of rascals who, in the main, lacked the courage to take a stand against the ones who stampeded toward war in the first place. So I’m not optimistic that we will see much of a difference with the changing composition of Congress.

I couldn’t help but wonder when things will change, if they will ever change. And then I thought that maybe there has to be some moment when somebody takes a stand and says “you should all be ashamed of yourselves.” And then this made me think of the Army McCarthy Hearings (1954?), in which on national television somebody asked the Wisconsin Senator “have you no shame?”

So what’s different now? What’s different is that there is no such thing as television in the way it was back then. Our President seems to have no problem with lying about things. I was listening to NPR the other day and heard him equivocating about statements that he made about Rumsfeld during the campaign. He knew that he would be exiting the Cabinet, but during the campaign he claimed, nonetheless, that Rumsfeld would stay until the end of his administration. It’s a small and innocuous lie, when you compare it to some of the whoppers that came out of the last six years. But his explanations seemed to justify the lie in a way that was really pathetic—that was the campaign.

But NPR is not national television. Everybody does not listen to or watch the same channel anymore. A few weeks ago I went to hear a friend of mine, Doug Muder, talk about blogging. I came away from that feeling a little more optimistic about the state of this thing, this difficult-to-grapple-with manipulation of Americans (not me, of course, just the rest of you) by corporate media. Today I cannot remember where that optimism came from. But I wish that I could make Mr. Vonnegut feel better about some of this on his eighty-fourth birthday. So many times he has made me feel like life is indeed worth living.

Happy 84th, Mr. Vonnegut. I am a big fan. Thanks for trying.

Next Up: Dean Koontz–Forever Odd

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1. Born on Armistice Day, Kurt Vonnegut « Pretty Good on Paper - April 12, 2007

[…] anti-war humanist humorist author.  I reviewed his most recent book last year on his birthday (here).  In that book he recounts his remarks to some fellow humanists about Isaac Asimov, another […]


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