Kurt Vonnegut In Honor of Labor Day

05-Kurt-Vonnegut-on-Rules

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.  

In the Shade of Those Trees

If I want to possibly catch a glimpse of God
I’ll go out into Hill Country
Where the majestic oaks are more beautiful
Than any art made by man
How many people died raising the pyramids?
How many died building the cathedrals in Europe?
Not one died creating those trees
I’ll tell you where I won’t go
To church on Sunday
Where a person the same as me
No matter what kind of funny outfit they have on
Claims that they have some kind of
Supernatural information
Even though it was probably
Passed down to them
By some ancestor
That slew another
In the shade of those trees

Austin 7/28/14

The Quare Fellow

1223748

I am reading Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow.  It takes place in the Irish Prison Mountjoy.  This play is where one of my favorite songs of all time originated, The Auld Triangle.  In the following excerpt a young prisoner makes a disparaging remark about the Bible and the older prisoners comment upon it:

Other Fellow:  And talking so disrespectfully about the Bible.

Neighbour:  Belied and they needn’t; many’s the time the Bible was a consolation to a fellow all alone in the old cell.  The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress coir in it, if you could get a match or a bit of tinder or any class of light, was as good a smoke as ever I tasted.  Am I right, Dunlavin?

Dunlavin:  Damn the lie, Neighbour.  The first twelve months I done, I smoked my way half-way through the book of Genesis and three inches of my mattress.  When the Free State came in we were afraid of our life they were going to change the mattresses for feather beds.  And you couldn’t smoke feathers, no, be God, if they were rolled in the Song of Solomon itself.  But sure, thanks to God, the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badge of the warders’ cap.  

The Billboard

GOD IS NOT DEAD!
Read the billboard
If He is not dead
I would hope The Supreme Being
Is above cheap advertising
If He is dead
Then the billboard is a lie
And if He never existed at all
Then the billboard might as well have read:
PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON IS NOT DEAD!
Anyway you cut it
Whoever put that billboard up
Was wasting their fucking time

South Dakota 7/14/14

Brendan Behan on Religion

This passage was written by Irish writer Brendan Behan and it is from the book Borstal Boy.   A borstal is a reform school for underage prisoners as an alternative to prison.  Walton is a jail in Liverpool that Behan was in before being moved to his reform school.  He was imprisoned for being caught in Liverpool with bombs as an I.R.A. member.  Because he would not renounce the I.R.A. he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  However, while at reform school he was allowed to serve Mass because he could read Latin, despite not being able to receive the Sacraments.   This passage is his reflection on religion right before he is about to serve Mass:

But I wasn’t bitter.  When I am in good humor, I could not be bitter about anything.  It was different in Liverpool, where the priest was an active enemy.  Here the priest had nothing to do with me, and I nearly lost interest in Sacraments,  and whether I was deprived of them or not.  Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it.  My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back.  If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen, or sneaking through a back – lane in Dublin, and giving the password,  to hear Mass in a slum public house, when a priest’s head was worth five pounds and an Irish Catholic had no existence in law. 

There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love. 

English Catholics had no time for the Irish, except when they were begging from them.  They had no use for Paddy the navvy and Biddy the scivvy,  beyond taking their money when a new church was being built.  The aristocratic old English Catholics had some kind of double dealt immunity from the penal laws, and the conversions only started when the Irish got the Emancipation and it became legal and safe to be a Catholic,  and a lot of English shopkeepers’ sons gave up Methodist and became Catholics because the more romantic minded of them thought it brought them into contact with the great world of Italy and France, which was atheist or Catholic, but always lively. 

One of the fascinating things about Behan, from reading this book, is how open minded he is.  Even at a young age he is able to see the difference between the British Empire as a system and the English people, as many of his friends in prison and reform school are English.  He was able to have a disdain for religion but feel for a priest with a forlorn job.  He could be against a system, but treat people within that system as individuals.  He had a great mind.  I now understand why so many writers and songwriters remember him fondly. 

Dirty Old Right Wing Sods!

Just got to Chicago,  scene of the first gig of the Shinyribs tour.  You can check out dates at http://www.shinyribs.org.  ; In the meantime I thought I would share this article from Salon.

We are a corporate theocracy now: The Christian right seeks cultural and political domination http://www.salon.com/2014/07/03/we_are_a_corporate_theocracy_now_the_christian_right_seeks_cultural_and_political_domination/ via @Salon

The Comedy of Religion

When I opened the New York Times this morning I saw the completely insane picture of Shiite men marching in Iraq wearing matching camo pants, black t-shirts, ski masks, all with bombs strapped to their chest which at least resembles bundles of TNT.  I’m sure if you were to stumble upon this on the street it would be completely horrifying.  Viewed from the safety of the morning paper there was something strangely comical about it.  I always think the Greeks got an aspect of the gods right.  I imagine superior beings atop Mount Olympus laughing at the folly of man.  These men are coordinating, even down to the color, outfits of death all in the name of an invisible figure that they cannot see.  Life when viewed up close is often a tragedy.  When it is viewed with a certain degree of remove it is almost always a comedy. 

One of my recent entertainment pleasures has been the discovery of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant produced TV series An Idiot Abroad.  In this show the two creators of The Office send their friend, and idiot of the title, Karl Pilkington to various foreign countries.  Pilkington is the friend that we all have that never wishes to leave their hometown and can’t help but literally say what is on his\her mind because there simply doesn’t exist the guile to do otherwise.  The comedy from the show often comes from someone being confronted with the wonder of the world at large and simply being indifferent to it, or quite often being annoyed by it.  They do sometimes send him to certain places to purposely torture him, however even in places like The Great Wall of China Pilkington seems unimpressed to comical effect. 

However, sometimes Pilkington stumbles onto strange truths without even realizing it.  When he is in Jerusalem he finds it extremely bizarre that around every corner some different religion is approaching with a different bizarre outfit on.  He compares Jerusalem to Pac-Man as to him it reminds him of a place where, much like the ghosts in Pac-Man, something is popping out at you from around every corner.  Somehow this “idiot” has stumbled upon the absurdity of religious believers in this area.  They are all from the same region, they all wear ridiculous clothing, the all believe they have a lock on the truth, and all while having absolutely no proof to support their claims.  It is like a Monty Python skit come to life. 

This Sunday morning I will leave you with quotes from the great George Carlin:

What is this religious fascination with head gear?  Every religion’s got a different fucking hat.  Did you ever notice that?  The Hindus have a turban, the sheiks have a tall white turban, the Jews have a yarmulke, Muslims have the keffiyah, the Bishop has a pointy hat one day and a round hat on another day, Cardinal has a red hate, Pope has a white hat, everybody’s got a fucking hat!  One group takes them off, another group puts them on.  Personally I would not want to be a member of any group where you either have to wear a hat or you can’t wear a hat.  I think all religions should have one rule, and one rule only: hat’s optional!

You ever notice that?  Any time you see two groups of people who really hate each other chances are good they’re wearing different kinds of hats.  Keep an eye on that, it might be important.