By David Swanson
Kurt Vonnegut, at age 82, has published over two dozen books. His latest is called “A Man Without a Country.” It’s a book that is brutally honest in its hopelessness, in fact – I think – overly hopeless, and yet humorous. It may even be hopeless in order to better be humorous. Vonnegut discusses in the book the use of tragedy to heighten laughter. But certainly the humor works to lighten the load of dismay and despair that this book ever-so-lightly dumps on us.
“I know of very few people,” Vonnegut writes, “who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.” Later he writes this epitaph for the Earth: “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”
Vonnegut cannot be comforted with the fantasy that our destruction of the Earth is all part of some benevolent plan beyond our ken, because he doesn’t believe such rubbish. “My parents and grandparents were humanists,” he writes. “what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any familiarity, which is our community.”
Vonnegut does not have consolations or comforts, but he does have humor. He continues:
“I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, ‘Isaac is up in heaven now.’ It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.
“How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, ‘If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?’
“But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
“I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
So, Kurt has no religion. But why does he say he has no country?
Well, there’s this: “…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 instead is that it was taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable.”
Kurt blames many of our problems on a drug: “Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t the TV news is it? Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”
And this, of course, leads Vonnegut to despair but not to lose his sense of humor: “…I know 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.”