Every generation has its moment where an older politician brings the fire and brimstone and plays cultural Moses....
On February 23, I walked up the steps to Kurt Vonnegut’s Midtown Manhattan brownstone and rang the bell. There was a smile and a mass of gray, curly hair to greet me. Then I heard, “Bite him!” At Vonnegut’s feet was a meek-looking small white dog. The master’s command went unheeded. The dog just looked up at me and seemed terribly bored. Vonnegut lamented that he could not get his dog to obey.
Everything you may have heard about this master storyteller, now eighty, is true. He is irreverent and insouciant. And he is very funny. When I confessed to him that I had not read all his books, he told me, “You can leave now.”
He was chain-smoking Pall Malls throughout the afternoon we spent together in his living room. When I pointed the obvious out to him, he said, “I’m trying to die. But it’s not working.” And then he laughed.
He’s recently been writing a column for In These Times, where he fields questions from readers. His disdain for Bush is palpable. “America was certainly hated all around the world long before the Mickey Mouse coup d’état,” he wrote recently. “And we weren’t hated, as 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 which have wrecked cultures.”
Vonnegut was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He was taken away to a POW camp in Dresden. His experiences there led to his celebrated novel Slaughterhouse-Five. It ranks among the great works of anti-war literature. Among his many other books are Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Jailbird, and Bluebeard, as well as what he calls an autobiographical collage, Fates Worse Than Death.
The same day I saw Vonnegut, he enthralled an SRO crowd honoring Howard Zinn at the 92nd Street Y. The event celebrated the one-millionth copy sold of A People’s History of the United States. Vonnegut read from the Zinn classic, as did Alice Walker, James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, and Marisa Tomei, among others.
Question: What’s your take on George Bush?
Kurt Vonnegut: We have a President who knows absolutely no history, and he is surrounded by men who pay no attention to history. They imagine that they are great politicians inventing something new. In fact, it’s really quite old stuff: tyranny. But they imagine they’re being creative.
Q: In 1946, Hermann Goering said at Nuremberg, “Of course, the people don’t want war. . . . But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.” Does it work the same way in the United States?
Vonnegut: Of course it does. Bush wouldn’t know what I’m talking about because he isn’t responsive to history, but now we’ve had our Reichstag Fire. After the First World War, Germany was trying to build a democracy. Then when the Reichstag, the legislature, was burned down in 1933, this was seen as such an emergency that human rights had to be suspended. The attack on the World Trade Towers has allowed Bush and his gang to do anything. What are we to do now? I say when there’s a code red, we should all run around like chickens with our heads cut off. I don’t feel that we are in any great danger.
Q: Today, war is being produced as a made-for-TV event; war is turned into a video game for the army of couch potatoes.
Vonnegut: It’s incumbent on the President to entertain. Clinton did a better job of it—and was forgiven for the scandals, incidentally. Bush is entertaining us with what I call the Republican Super Bowl, which is played by the lower classes using live ammunition.
Q: You live just a few blocks from the United Nations. On February 15, there was a mass demonstration in New York. You took part in it?
Vonnegut: I was simply there, but I didn’t speak.
Q; What do you think of the efficacy of people turning out at protests and marching?
Vonnegut: I’m an old guy, and I was protesting during the Vietnam War. We killed fifty Asians for every loyal American. Every artist worth a damn in this country was terribly opposed to that war, finally, when it became evident what a fiasco and meaningless butchery it was. We formed sort of a laser beam of protest. Every painter, every writer, every stand-up comedian, every composer, every novelist, every poet aimed in the same direction. Afterwards, the power of this incredible new weapon dissipated. Now it’s like a banana cream pie three feet in diameter dropped from a stepladder four feet high. The right of the people to peacefully assemble and petition their government for a redress of grievances is now worth a pitcher of warm spit. That’s because TV will not come and treat it respectfully. Television is really something.
The government satirizes itself. All we can wish is that there will be a large number of Americans who will realize how dumb this all is, and how greedy and how vicious. Such an audience is dwindling all the time because of TV. One good thing about TV is, if you die violently, God forbid, on camera, you will not have died in vain because you will be great entertainment.
Q: In Slaughterhouse-Five, you write about the firebombing of Dresden, and a couple of months later came Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Vonnegut: The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki. Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I’m glad I’m not a scientist because I’d feel so guilty now.
Q: At Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was the chief U.S. prosecutor, said that to initiate a war of aggression is the supreme international crime.
Vonnegut: People are lying all the time as to what a murderous nation we are. So let it be known. We’re behaving abominably. It’s like having a relative go absolutely nuts. Somebody has to say, “I think Uncle Charlie’s off his rocker.” We are behaving in a bizarre manner now. George Bush and his gang imagine they are being political geniuses.
You have never seen greatness in a Presidency; I have. It was a rich kid who you would think had every reason to be a horse’s ass—Franklin Roosevelt. He was humane and wise and resourceful. He was called a traitor to his class. With George Bush, that charge would never stick.
Q: When Bush began to play the Iraq card, it was exactly at a moment when there was an enormous amount of attention paid to the scandals on Wall Street—Global Crossing, Enron, Harken, Halliburton. It distracted the public from what was going on in the corporate sector.
Vonnegut: One thing I learned, with permission of the school committee of Indianapolis, was that when a tyrant or a government gets in trouble it wonders what to do. Declare war! Then nothing else matters. It’s like chess; when in doubt, castle.
The polls demonstrate that 50 percent of Americans who get their news from TV think Saddam Hussein was behind the Twin Towers attack. Man, have they got ways for getting half-truths out right away now, thanks to TV! I think TV is a calamity in a democracy.
Q: What about the importance of reading books?
Vonnegut: It’s hard to read and write. To expect somebody to read a book is like having someone arrive at a concert hall and be immediately handed a violin and told to go up onstage. It’s an astonishing skill that people can read, and read well. Very few people can read well. For instance, I have to be very careful with irony, saying something while meaning the exact opposite. Slaughterhouse-Five is read in high schools, and sometimes the teachers tell the students to write the author. Some of them write that the events are not sequential! It’s hard enough to read a book with Wednesday followed by Monday.
Q:Your father was an architect. But you said you never saw him read a book. Your Uncle Alex, an insurance salesman, was the one who pushed you to read.
Vonnegut: Yes, he did. And his recommendations were absolutely first rate.
Q: Like what?
Vonnegut: The prefaces to George Bernard Shaw’s plays were an enormous influence on me. To hell with the plays. I remember the title to one of his prefaces was “Christianity—Why Not Give It a Try?”
Q: Shaw, who you’ve described as a hero of yours, was also a socialist.
Vonnegut: It’s perfectly ordinary to be a socialist. It’s perfectly normal to be in favor of fire departments. There was a time when I could vote for economic justice, and I can’t anymore. I cast my first vote for a socialist candidate—Norman Thomas, a Christian minister. I had to cast it by absentee ballot. I used to have three socialist parties to choose from—the Socialist Labor Party, Socialist Workers Party, and I forgot what the other one was.
Q: You take pride in being from Indiana, in being a Hoosier.
Vonnegut: For being from the state that gave us Eugene Debs.
Q: Eugene Debs of Terre Haute on the Wabash.
Vonnegut: Where Timothy McVeigh was executed. Eugene Debs said (and this is merely a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount, which is what so much socialist writing is), “As long as there’s a lower class, I’m in it; as long as there’s a criminal element, I’m of it; as long as there is a soul in prison,” which would include Timothy McVeigh, “I am not free.” What is wrong with that? Of course, Jesus got crucified for saying the same thing.
Q: With two million souls in prison today in the United States, Debs would be very busy.
Vonnegut: Debs would’ve committed suicide, feeling there was nothing he could do about it.
Q: There is another Hoosier you write about who is unknown, Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. Who was he?
Vonnegut: Powers Hapgood was a rich kid. His family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis. Powers was radicalized. After he graduated from Harvard, he went to work in a coal mine to find out what that was like. He became a labor organizer. He led the pickets against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. I got to know him late in his life when he’d become a local CIO official. There was some sort of dustup on a picket line, enough to bring the cops into play. Hapgood was testifying in court about what was to be done about CIO members who had made trouble. The judge stopped the proceedings at one point and said, “Hapgood, why would a man with your advantages, from a wealthy, respected family, Harvard graduate, lead such a life?” Powers Hapgood replied, “Why, the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” Not bad, huh?
Incidentally, I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the great science fiction writer and biochemist Dr. Isaac Asimov. John Updike, who is religious, says I talk more about God than any seminarian. Socialism is, in fact, a form of Christianity, people wishing to imitate Christ.
Q: Christianity pervades your spirit.
Vonnegut: Well, of course. It’s good writing. I don’t care whether it’s God or not, but the Sermon on the Mount is a masterpiece, and so is the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The two most radical ideas, inserted in the midst of conventional human thought, are E=MC2—matter and energy are the same kind of stuff—and “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In 1844, Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” He said this at a time when opium and opium derivatives were the only painkillers. And he said it helped a little. He might as well have said, “Religion is the aspirin of the people.” At the time he said this terrible thing, we had human slavery as a perfectly legal enterprise. Now in the eyes of a merciful God, who was more hateful back then? Karl Marx or the United States of America?
Q: You’ve said that you wouldn’t have missed the Great Depression or World War II for anything. Why did you say that?
Vonnegut: Well, I actually saw it all. I didn’t have to read about it. I was there, so for that reason I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I have really been an infantry private. I didn’t read about it; I was it. That’s a matter of pride. I was a police reporter for Chicago City News Bureau, which was the outfit that was the inspiration for the play The Front Page. I covered Chicago as a street reporter. I really did it. And I’ve been a teacher and all that. I’m glad for the opportunity to see so much.
Q: When you go to college audiences and give lectures, you’re talking to twenty-somethings. What kind of response do you get?
Vonnegut: Very warm, very enthusiastic. You think crack cocaine is a high? Try being me facing one of those college audiences. It is marvelous.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book is “Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics.” His most recent interview for The Progressive was with Gore Vidal in the August 2006 issue.