Kurt Vonnegut In Honor of Labor Day

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Yesterday I mentioned that I had been reading the Kurt Vonnegut collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?  I thought that the following speech, when he received the Carl Sandburg Award in 2001, would be the perfect thing to post for Labor Day.  In the book this speech is called Don’t Despair If You Never Went to College.  

We are America’s Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people.  Whenever I swim in the ocean I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.  

I thank you for this honor, although it is a reminder that I am not nearly the passionate and effective artists Carl Sandburg was.  And we are surely grateful for his fog which came in on little cat feet.  But tonight seems an apt occasion as well for celebrating what he and other American socialists did during the first half of the past century, with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity, and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.  

That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen.  I speak of course, of Carl Sandburg of Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln, of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois.  Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like ourselves.  

Hooray for our team!

I know upper-class graduates of Yale University who can’t talk or write worth a nickel.  

Socialism is no more an evil word than Christianity.  Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition.  Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal, and should not starve.  

Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer.  He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis.  Hitler also had crosses painted on his tanks and airplanes.  The swastika wasn’t a pagan symbol, as so many people believe.  It was a working person’s Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.  

About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today:  Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that “Religion is the opium of the people.”  Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective pain killers anyone could take.  Marx himself had taken them.  He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him.  He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress.  It was a casual truism, not a dictum.  

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet.  Whom do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then?  Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Stalin was happy to take Marx’s truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.  

The statement has also entitled many in the country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefor absolutely loathsome.  

I never met Carl Sandburg, and I wish I had.  I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such a national treasure.  I did get to know one socialist of his generation, who was Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis.  After graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize, in order to get better pay and safer working conditions.  He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.  Another of our freshwater ancestors was Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana.  A former locomotive fireman, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison.  He said, “As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it.  As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Some platform.  

A paraphrase of the Beatitudes.  

And again:  hooray for our team.  

And our own beloved Carl Sandburg had this to say about the fire-belching evangelist Billy Sunday:

You come along – tearing your shirt – yelling about Jesus. I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus.  

Jesus had a way of talking soft, and everybody except a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem liked to have Jesus around because he never made any fake passes, and he helped the sick and gave people hope.  

You come along calling us all damn fools – so fierce the froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips – always blabbering we’re all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.  

I’ve read Jesus’s words.  I know what he said.  You don’t throw any scare into me.  I’ve got your number.  I know how much you know about Jesus.  

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the worms have eaten ‘em.  

You tell $6-a-week department store girls all they need is Jesus.  You take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.  

You tell poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day, and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right – all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.  

Jesus played it different.  The bankers and the corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their murderers to go after Jesus because Jesus wouldn’t play their game.  

I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunk shooter in my religion.  

Hooray for our team.  

And I now take advantage of your hospitality by declaring myself a child of the Chicago Renaissance,  powerfully humanized not only by Carl Sandburg, but by Edgar Lee Masters and Jane Addams and Louis Sullivan and Lake Michigan, and on and on.  

I propose a toast to an individual who wasn’t an artist or working stiff of any description.  She wasn’t even  human being.  Ladies and gentlemen of Chicago, I give you Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  

Code of Hammurabi and Sledgehammer

I was reading a Kurt Vonnegut book today called If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?  Here are a few snippets from an address to Agnes Scott College, which is a women’s college.  The piece is entitled Advice to Graduating Women (That All Men Should Know). 

I am so smart I know what is wrong with our world.  Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, “What’s gone wrong?”

What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi,  a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago.  And you can find his code echoed in the Old Testament, too.  Are you ready for this?

“And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

A categorical imperative for all who live in obedience to the Code of Hammurabi,  which includes heroes of every cowboy show and gangster show you ever saw, is this: Every injury,  real or imagined, shall be avenged.  Somebody’s going to be real sorry. 

Bombs away – or whatever.

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross, he said, ” Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.”  What kind of a man was that?  Any real man, obeying the Code of Hammurabi,  would have said, “Kill them, Dad, and all of their friends and relatives, and make their deaths painful.”

And later…

Revenge provokes revenge which provokes revenge which provokes revenge – forming an unbroken chain of death and destruction linking nations today to barbarous tribes of thousands and thousands of years ago. 

We may never dissuade leaders of our nation or any other nation from responding vengefully,  violently,  to every insult or injury.  In this, the Age of Television,  they will continue to find irresistible the temptation to become entertainers,  to compete with movies by blowing up bridges and police stations and factories and so on.

Fires, explosions.  Come look.  Oh my gosh – hey wow.

To quote the late Irving Berlin: “There’s no business like show business.”

It seems that not only in our response to slights, not only do we not take the high road,  but our responses create the unbroken chain of violence that Mr. Vonnegut speaks of.  One only has to look at the Iraq War and now the emergence of ISIS.   It also seems as if our response is always disproportionate to the original slight. 

I was reminded today, while reading this, of a show I used to watch as a kid.  It was called Sledgehammer,  and it was a spoof of the kind of over the top Dirty Harry character that always uses excessive force.  I think the link to the video is a good metaphor for our foreign policy.  In the clip the police are being shot at by a sniper.  Rather than simply take the bad guy out, Sledgehammer pulls out a bazooka and blows up the entire building in which the sniper has his nest. 

Oh my gosh – hey wow.

Mother Night

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I’ve been thinking about my gig at the Redneck Country Club which I mentioned in a previous post called A Late Encounter With the Idiot.  Basically if you haven’t read that, or don’t have time to read it, I played a gig at a club owned by conservative talk show host Michael Berry.  It got me thinking the long ways around about Kurt Vonnegut’s extremely powerful Mother Night.  Both the novel and the movie version, unlike most movies of Vonnegut’s work, are worth checking out.  

Mother Night is the story of an American, Howard Campbell Jr., and his role as a Nazi propagandist.  Campbell meets a member of the U.S. War Department before the beginning of World War II and is asked to work as a double agent.  Campbell agrees and as his cover he becomes a radio host that tries to persuade Americans over to the Nazi’s cause.  Campbell’s decision to take on this role slowly cause his life to crumble around him.  

I first found out about Mother Night by catching the movie version, starring Nick Nolte, on TV one night.  I didn’t know what it was, but it was like watching a car crash in slow motion as things descend further and further into despair.  Unlike most Vonnegut works this one has very little humor, aside from some things like the character of The Black Fuhrer. (pictured above)  However, this is a compelling story because it asks many relevant moral questions for our times.  

As one thinks about Glen Beck, Michael Berry, Rush Limbaugh, one cannot help but ask if these people are true believers or if they are at least partially playing a role for whatever reason.  There are many things that make one think that at least Rush is partly playing a role.  However, it matters not.  The moral of Mother Night, which is actually given to the reader in the introduction to the book is:  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

God is (Not?) Dead

While I was looking through movies to possibly go to tonight I happened to notice a movie with the title God’s Not Dead.  The movie is about a person of faith that has a college professor that asks his class to write God is Dead on the first day of class.  If they will not do this they face a failing grade.  As you can predict the student of faith challenges his professor and apparently this results in a movie that ends in a face off between the person of faith and the college professor.  I haven’t seen the movie so I am not going to criticize it.  Maybe it is even an interesting intellectual debate, but I doubt it.

However, it made me want to convey several ideas.  Let’s say for sake of argument that there is a God.  If he/she is all powerful and created the entire universe does he/she need mere mortals defending him/her?

Also, again if he is all powerful and created everything doesn’t that mean he created humor and insults too?  Can he not laugh at him/herself and take some insults?  Is he/she really going to get their panties in a bunch if I say he/she doesn’t exist?  Is his/her ego so big that they need to constantly be praised all of the time?  Wouldn’t a truly enlightened being much rather see us treat the poor and weak among us kindly, rather than use all of our energy building shrines and praising someone that already has unlimited power?

I think our purpose here on earth is, like Kurt Vonnegut says, “to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”  If there is nothing after this world than we have defiantly been kind in the face of nothing.  I would say that is pretty noble.  If there is a god then hopefully they are a kind enlightened being that will judge us for how kind we have been, and not based upon if we observed a bunch of superstitious rituals.  If he/she isn’t so kind then maybe we will need to help each other in the next world too.

The Rush Hour Rat Race

I often wonder our country is so obsessed with the automobile.  I mean on one hand I get it:  They are part of our myths, our songs, our stories, our movies, etc.  We also have had a very powerful auto-industry, more powerful at certain points than others, that has pumped out an untold amount of money selling us these things. 

I also understand that there is a small portion of the population that happens to be general automobile enthusiasts.  I’m not here to pick on those people today.  Maybe everyone needs their hobby to keep their mind off the oncoming storm of life.  Lord knows I spend a stupid amount of my income on things that are part of my passion.  If you genuinely love cars and love taking them apart, putting them together, or what have you, then have at it.  I’m not talking about someone that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on cars, which in a world of such poverty seems greedy.  I’m talking about people that might have an extra vehicle or two in the backyard that they get some kind of pleasure from.  I know people like this, sometimes of small means, that temporarily escape by day dreaming about cars in one form or another.  Who am I to question such pleasures?  I can easily imagine spending an hour or two looking at expensive guitars, when my $150 dollar bass that I use gets me by just fine. 

However, it seems to me that a large amount of people that buy into our long running fascination with cars for no reason other than it is just part of the status quo.  I wish these people could see the public transportation in Europe or Japan.  It is so efficient, so comfortable, and so much easier than driving.  We don’t even have to get into how much automobiles pollute our world, which is a lot!  Especially if you live in a city you should be all for any politician that wants to increase public transportation.  In Austin, when I was working a day gig, I used to work 12 miles from my home.  This ride in evening rush hour took anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.  No matter how good of a day you had you wanted to drink someone’s blood by the time you got home, or at least I did.  I can only imagine that many people feel similarly when in such a situation.  This is so ridiculously inefficient!  There are thousands of people, in one city no less, sitting in their own vehicles barely moving, getting angry at their fellow travelers, and pumping out pollutants into the air. If you were riding some kind of easily accessible form of public transportation home you could be resting, or reading, or playing games, or getting work done.  And you could be doing any of these things while contributing less to pollution! 

I feel like a lot of people associate the automobile with freedom.  How is it freedom when you are locked in a small barley moving cell for 90 minutes a day?  I just started reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called Landscapes for Politics.  This book talks about how our landscapes influence our society and how we influence our landscapes.  It’s an amazingly fascinating read.  I’m only about two chapters into it and I feel like I have put a book mark on every other page as it is filled with so many interesting ideas.  One idea that was mentioned so far was how cities that have better public spaces and transportation are actually better for democracy.  This is because people aren’t as isolated and can also organize more easily. 

The idea I wish we could really get away from is the idea that what kind of automobile you own defines your identity.  I was recently on tour in Oklahoma and the entire parking lot was filled with pickup trucks. Now I’m sure that some of these people used these trucks for legitimate reasons.  There are people that haul and transport stuff on a regular basis.  But there was clearly something else going on.  These people were clearly on some kind of tribal or clannish trip.  I also remember being in Miami and seeing so many flashy sports cars driving around.  In this country I wish we could get over the idea that you are what you own.  You are not what you own!  You want to be free or you want to be an individual?  You are neither free or an individual if you let some lifestyle marketing tell you what you should drive.  

Anyway, there is so much more that could be said on this topic.  I have been sick with a fever the last few days, which has limited my blogging and possibly made this blog somewhat rambling.  I happened to be at a doctors appointment during rush hour and it took me almost an hour to get home on almost that exact same 12 mile stretch of road I used to travel when I worked.  That is the rat race and there should be so many more people in this country that want to put an end to it. 

 

If any of you know where to find it, Kurt Vonnegut once had a superb bit in one of his books where he told a short science fiction story about automobiles.  He sets it up so that you don’t know that he is talking about automobiles until the very end.  However, he points out how absurd our fascination with this form of transportation is.  If any of you know where to find this story in full, please let me know as I would like to post it.  I have read most of his books and I can’t remember which one it is in.  

The Myth of Rock N Roll and Icarus

I’m diving back into Marah’s catalogue after getting their excellent Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album.  I found a gloriously fun song by Dave and Serge Bielanko, the two brothers that fronted Marah, at least until Serge went on hiatus to raise his daughter.  The song is called Livin’ On the Road.  It’s from a compilation called Camp Black Dog Presents: Rock & Roll Summer Camp ’98

The song is a ridiculous rock n roll tale driven by banjo.  It sounds like it came from somewhere between Ireland and the Louisiana bayou, but its spirit is completely rock n roll.  It features lines such as, “I was a cocaine addict, I did the cocaine a thousand times.”  Another choice line is, “I was a hooker’s lover, an undercover friend of whores.”  In lesser hands, my mind drifts to all the red dirt bands singing about whiskey, these lines might come across as fake rebellion.  But Dave and Serge have such great trashy rock n roll singing voices, and the song is played with such enthusiasm, that one can’t help but feel like defying the laws of decency and nature while listening to it. 

I think most rock n roll myths are pure bullshit.  However, when delivered in the right hands they do serve a purpose.  Most people, at least at one time or another, live lives dealing with some kind oppression.  The defiant rock n roller is like Icarus.  They are flying higher and closer to the sun than should be allowed, defying the gods.  You know that eventually their wings might melt, but they have made it further than most. 

We live in an absurd universe.  I don’t have to tell you that.  Just watch the news, or TV commercials, or politicians, or so many other things.  It’s often easy to feel like there is no sense to things and that the Creator went on vacation somewhere along the line.  Many people are forced to work jobs that they have no passion for, while others have to deal with sicknesses that aren’t their fault.  Fate can be cruel.  However, the rock n roller is like some weird mutant that can fly onward and upward, at least for a little while, in spite of such things.  I think that’s why so many want to believe in the myth of rock n roll, even if much of it is a myth.  To paraphrase the last line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:  They are lying on their backs, thumbing their nose at You Know Who.