Kurt Vonnegut, novelist. (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images)

State of the Asylum

A conversation between the novelist Kurt Vonnegut and science fiction writer Kilgore Trout on President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address

BY Kurt Vonnegut

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Editor’s note: On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 20, 2004 In These Times received a fax:

ON ORANGE ALERT HERE. ECONOMIC TERRORIST ATTACK EXPECTED AT 8 PM EST. KV

Worried, we called Kurt Vonnegut. What did he know?! He said he would tell us when he had more complete information. The next morning we received another fax, a transcript of a conversation he had, he said, with the out-of-print science fiction writer Kilgore Trout.

TROUT Did you watch the State of the Union address?

KV Yes, and it certainly helped to remember what the late British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell called this planet.

TROUT Which was?

KV “The lunatic asylum of the Universe.” He said the inmates had taken over and were trashing the joint. And he wasn’t talking about the germs or the elephants. He meant we the people.

TROUT There was certainly nothing in our president’s behavior to match Howard Dean’s tarantella after he placed third in Iowa.

KV That was straitjacket and padded cell stuff. I’m glad he put on such a show, since it dramatized a fatal flaw in our Constitution.

TROUT Which is?

KV Only a nut would run for president. As far as that goes, only disturbed people ran for president of my class in high school. My point is that doing a Dean isn’t the only way to show how disconnected you are from what is really going on.

TROUT For example?

KV I’m in New York City, where they mainstream the clinically insane, turn ’em loose on the streets. There could be a little old lady on Times Square, crooning in subzero weather, crooning to nobody in particular about all she has done to make this a better country, safer, better educated, more prosperous and so on. She believes it with all her heart, but it isn’t true.

TROUT And?

KV I only want to say about our president, our armed forces’ Commander-in-Chief: He believes whatever he says. He might be the sincerest person in the whole wide world. He should be in a movie. Correction: He is in a movie, a made-for-TV movie, which is now our form of government.

TROUT You don’t feel that his tax cuts have staved off a depression?

KV Staved it off? Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California is ganz gebusted.

TROUTGanz gebusted?”

KV German for “broke,” unable to pay for even the most basic public services. Governor Schwarzenegger, whom I met when he was nothing but “Mr. Universe,” now thinks he can sell bonds for the next generation to pay off. Hasta la vista, Baby. And every state and municipality in America is ganz gebusted. You think Baghdad is a mess? Wait till you see Kokomo, Indiana, two years from now.

TROUT What about President Bush’s statement that he gave a tax cut to the rich because they could make wiser use of it than the government ever could?

KV

TROUT That’s all?

KV He told the truth! Even a stopped clock tells the truth once every 12 hours. Who couldn’t make better use of money? Would you just look what the federal government has done with the billions and billions of public money we used to have in our treasury? This administration has squandered it all, and then some, on Rube Goldberg devices for protecting us from—or blowing the crap out of—Arabs, most of whom could never attack us even if they wanted to. It was Saudis who knocked down the Twin Towers. Anybody notice that? And we act as though the Saudis are as pure as the Virgin Mary.

TROUT Thank you. I think that’s enough for now. You look as though you’re about to do a Dean.

KV This war is making billionaires out of millionaires, and trillionaires out of billionaires, and they own television, and they bankroll George Bush, and not because he’s against gay marriage.

TROUT Yes, well, do get some rest, or maybe take a swim, a total change of environment.

KV You want to hear about a really crazy guy?

TROUT OK.

KV Napoleon! He was so crazy he thought he was Napoleon! But what made his case so unfunny, in fact catastrophic, was that he, unlike the little old lady on Times Square, held real power! He was already, and no kidding, Emperor! So, as a consequence of his delusion, there would be absolutely genuine screams of agony and blood and guts all over the place—for years to come.

TROUT OK.

KV You don’t think this is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe?

TROUT I don’t think I expressed an opinion one way or the other.

KV We are killing this planet as a life-support system with the poisons from all the thermodynamic whoopee we’re making with atomic energy and fossil fuels, and everybody knows it, and practically nobody cares. This is how crazy we are. I think the planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us with AIDS and new strains of flu and tuberculosis, and so on, but I think it’s too late. I don’t think even it can keep George W. Bush from getting elected to a second term.

TROUT Peace.

Kurt Vonnegut, the legendary author, WWII veteran, humanist, artist and smoker, was an In These Times senior editor until his death in April 2007. His classic works include Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle, among many others. The last book by him published before his death, A Man Without a Country (2005), collects many of the articles he wrote for this magazine.

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