Some trenchant truths about Iraq and the present state of the world from Kurt Vonnegut, written more than a year ago. You can see why the networks haven't been giving him much air time! In his Sirens of Titan, Earth's history is discovered to have been manipulated by aliens, and in this January 2003 interview, he remarks: "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." -- Kurt Vonnegut, born in 1922, was born in Indianapolis, dreamt a two-year-long "boozy dream" at Cornell, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was captured as a POW, worked briefly for General Electric after the war, and then became a full-time writer. His work is marked by satire, black humor, a sense of the absurd, and a sympathy for those who pay for the sins of others -- in other words, his work is as appealing and timely now as when it was written, if not more so....
KURT VONNEGUT vs. THE !&#*!@
Interview with Joel Bleifuss
In These Times
January 27, 2003
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: ìAs 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.î
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. Ö 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: ìCanít anybody here play this game?î
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 momentís 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 youíve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bushís 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 weíve 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 díÈtat 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, a.k.a. ìChristians,î and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or ìPPs.î
To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athleteís 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 canít. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybodyís 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, ìainít worth a pitcher of warm spit,î 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 canít 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, isnít 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?
ìC students from Yale.î 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, where he has worked as an investigative reporter, columnist and editor since 1986. Bleifuss has had more stories on Project Censored's annual list of the ì10 Most Censored Storiesî than any other journalist.
IN THESE TIMES Q&A
The [above] interview has become the most popular story at www.inthesetimes.com, with hundreds of readers expressing their opinions. In light of this response, the magazine has agreed to field questions to Mr. Vonnegut on their site. Here is the first such question, and Mr. Vonnegut's response.
QUESTION: What genuinely motivates al-Qaeda to kill and self-destruct? The president says, ìThey hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,î 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 arenít told the truth?
KURT VONNEGUT: One wishes that those who have taken over our federal government, and hence the world, by means of a Mickey Mouse coup díÈtat, 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, ìThe devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.î
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 Hitlerís 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, ìForgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,î 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.
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 ìTimothy McVeighs,î 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 donít look like him and talk like him, who donít 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 díÈtat. And we werenít 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.
Itís 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,