Today is Giving Tuesday—and any gift you give will be doubled

Cold Turkey

Kurt Vonnegut

Many years ago, I was so inno­cent I still con­sid­ered it pos­si­ble that we could become the humane and rea­son­able Amer­i­ca so many mem­bers of my gen­er­a­tion used to dream of. We dreamed of such an Amer­i­ca dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, when there was no peace.

Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becom­ing humane and rea­son­able. Because pow­er cor­rupts us, and absolute pow­er cor­rupts 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 bod­ies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treat­ed, as I nev­er was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

— —  —  —  —  —  —  — -

When you get to my age, if you get to my age, which is 81, and if you have repro­duced, you will find your­self ask­ing your own chil­dren, who are them­selves mid­dle-aged, what life is all about. I have sev­en kids, four of them adopted.

Many of you read­ing this are prob­a­bly the same age as my grand­chil­dren. They, like you, are being roy­al­ly shaft­ed and lied to by our Baby Boomer cor­po­ra­tions and government.

I put my big ques­tion about life to my bio­log­i­cal son Mark. Mark is a pedi­a­tri­cian, and author of a mem­oir, The Eden Express. It is about his crack­up, straight­jack­et and padded cell stuff, from which he recov­ered suf­fi­cient­ly to grad­u­ate from Har­vard Med­ical School.

Dr. Von­negut said this to his dod­der­ing old dad: Father, we are here to help each oth­er get through this thing, what­ev­er it is.” So I pass that on to you. Write it down, and put it in your com­put­er, so you can for­get it.

I have to say that’s a pret­ty good sound bite, almost as good as, Do unto oth­ers as you would have them do unto you.” A lot of peo­ple think Jesus said that, because it is so much the sort of thing Jesus liked to say. But it was actu­al­ly said by Con­fu­cius, a Chi­nese philoso­pher, 500 years before there was that great­est and most humane of human beings, named Jesus Christ.

The Chi­nese also gave us, via Mar­co Polo, pas­ta and the for­mu­la for gun­pow­der. The Chi­nese were so dumb they only used gun­pow­der for fire­works. And every­body was so dumb back then that nobody in either hemi­sphere even knew that there was anoth­er one.

But back to peo­ple, like Con­fu­cius and Jesus and my son the doc­tor, Mark, who’ve said how we could behave more humane­ly, and maybe make the world a less painful place. One of my favorites is Eugene Debs, from Terre Haute in my native state of Indi­ana. Get a load of this:

Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran 5 times as the Social­ist Par­ty can­di­date for pres­i­dent, win­ning 900,000 votes, 6 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, in 1912, if you can imag­ine such a bal­lot. He had this to say while campaigning:

As long as there is a low­er class, I am in it.
As long as there is a crim­i­nal ele­ment, I’m of it.
As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Doesn’t any­thing social­is­tic make you want to throw up? Like great pub­lic schools or health insur­ance for all?

How about Jesus’ Ser­mon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inher­it the Earth.

Blessed are the mer­ci­ful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peace­mak­ers, for they shall be called the chil­dren of God. …

And so on.

Not exact­ly planks in a Repub­li­can plat­form. Not exact­ly Don­ald Rums­feld or Dick Cheney stuff.

For some rea­son, the most vocal Chris­tians among us nev­er men­tion the Beat­i­tudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Com­mand­ments be post­ed in pub­lic build­ings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Ser­mon on the Mount, the Beat­i­tudes, be post­ed anywhere.

Blessed are the mer­ci­ful” in a court­room? Blessed are the peace­mak­ers” in the Pen­ta­gon? Give me a break!

— —  —  —  —  —  —  — -

There is a trag­ic flaw in our pre­cious Con­sti­tu­tion, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cas­es want to be president.

But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treach­er­ous, untrust­wor­thy, lying and greedy ani­mals we are!

I was born a human being in 1922 A.D. What does A.D.” sig­ni­fy? That com­mem­o­rates an inmate of this lunatic asy­lum we call Earth who was nailed to a wood­en cross by a bunch of oth­er inmates. With him still con­scious, they ham­mered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dan­gled up there where even the short­est per­son in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that.

Can you imag­ine peo­ple doing such a thing to a person?

No prob­lem. That’s enter­tain­ment. Ask the devout Roman Catholic Mel Gib­son, who, as an act of piety, has just made a for­tune with a movie about how Jesus was tor­tured. Nev­er mind what Jesus said.

Dur­ing the reign of King Hen­ry the Eighth, founder of the Church of Eng­land, he had a coun­ter­feit­er boiled alive in pub­lic. Show biz again.

Mel Gibson’s next movie should be The Coun­ter­feit­er. Box office records will again be broken.

One of the few good things about mod­ern times: If you die hor­ri­bly on tele­vi­sion, you will not have died in vain. You will have enter­tained us.

— —  —  —  —  —  —  — -

And what did the great British his­to­ri­an Edward Gib­bon, 1737 – 1794 A.D., have to say about the human record so far? He said, His­to­ry is indeed lit­tle more than the reg­is­ter of the crimes, fol­lies and mis­for­tunes of mankind.”

The same can be said about this morning’s edi­tion of the New York Times.

The French-Alger­ian writer Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1957, wrote, There is but one tru­ly seri­ous philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem, and that is suicide.”

So there’s anoth­er bar­rel of laughs from lit­er­a­ture. Camus died in an auto­mo­bile acci­dent. His dates? 1913 – 1960 A.D.

Lis­ten. All great lit­er­a­ture is about what a bum­mer it is to be a human being: Moby Dick, Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, the Ili­ad and the Odyssey, Crime and Pun­ish­ment, the Bible and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

But I have to say this in defense of humankind: No mat­ter in what era in his­to­ry, includ­ing the Gar­den of Eden, every­body just got there. And, except for the Gar­den of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, lib­er­al­ism and con­ser­vatism, auto­mo­biles and cred­it cards, golf and girls’ basketball.

Even cra­zier than golf, though, is mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, where, thanks to TV and for the con­ve­nience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a lib­er­al or a conservative.

Actu­al­ly, this same sort of thing hap­pened to the peo­ple of Eng­land gen­er­a­tions ago, and Sir William Gilbert, of the rad­i­cal team of Gilbert and Sul­li­van, wrote these words for a song about it back then:

I often think it’s comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a lit­tle Liberal
Or else a lit­tle Conservative.

Which one are you in this coun­try? It’s prac­ti­cal­ly a law of life that you have to be one or the oth­er? If you aren’t one or the oth­er, you might as well be a doughnut.

If some of you still haven’t decid­ed, I’ll make it easy for you.

If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for mur­der­ing fetus­es, and love it when homo­sex­u­als mar­ry each oth­er, and want to give them kitchen appli­ances at their show­ers, and you’re for the poor, you’re a liberal.

If you are against those per­ver­sions and for the rich, you’re a conservative.

What could be simpler?

— —  —  —  —  —  —  — -

My government’s got a war on drugs. But get this: The two most wide­ly abused and addic­tive and destruc­tive of all sub­stances are both per­fect­ly legal.

One, of course, is eth­yl alco­hol. And Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, no less, and by his own admis­sion, was smashed or tid­dley-poo or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 41. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gar­gling nose paint.

Oth­er drunks have seen pink elephants.

And do you know why I think he is so pissed off at Arabs? They invent­ed alge­bra. Arabs also invent­ed the num­bers we use, includ­ing a sym­bol for noth­ing, which nobody else had ever had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long divi­sion with Roman numerals.

We’re spread­ing democ­ra­cy, are we? Same way Euro­pean explor­ers brought Chris­tian­i­ty to the Indi­ans, what we now call Native Americans.”

How ungrate­ful they were! How ungrate­ful are the peo­ple of Bagh­dad today.

So let’s give anoth­er big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a les­son he won’t soon for­get. Hail to the Chief.

That chief and his cohorts have as lit­tle to do with Democ­ra­cy as the Euro­peans had to do with Chris­tian­i­ty. We the peo­ple have absolute­ly no say in what­ev­er they choose to do next. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve already cleaned out the trea­sury, pass­ing it out to pals in the war and nation­al secu­ri­ty rack­ets, leav­ing your gen­er­a­tion and the next one with a per­fect­ly enor­mous debt that you’ll be asked to repay.

Nobody let out a peep when they did that to you, because they have dis­con­nect­ed every bur­glar alarm in the Con­sti­tu­tion: The House, the Sen­ate, the Supreme Court, the FBI, the free press (which, hav­ing been embed­ded, has for­sak­en the First Amend­ment) and We the People.

About my own his­to­ry of for­eign sub­stance abuse. I’ve been a cow­ard about hero­in and cocaine and LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of mar­i­jua­na one time with Jer­ry Gar­cia and the Grate­ful Dead, just to be socia­ble. It didn’t seem to do any­thing to me, one way or the oth­er, so I nev­er did it again. And by the grace of God, or what­ev­er, I am not an alco­holic, large­ly a mat­ter of genes. I take a cou­ple of drinks now and then, and will do it again tonight. But two is my lim­it. No problem.

I am of course noto­ri­ous­ly hooked on cig­a­rettes. I keep hop­ing the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.

But I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s license! Look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut.

And my car back then, a Stude­bak­er, as I recall, was pow­ered, as are almost all means of trans­porta­tion and oth­er machin­ery today, and elec­tric pow­er plants and fur­naces, by the most abused and addic­tive and destruc­tive drugs of all: fos­sil fuels.

When you got here, even when I got here, the indus­tri­al­ized world was already hope­less­ly hooked on fos­sil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any more of those. Cold turkey.

Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t like TV news, is it?

Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fos­sil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.

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.

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.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue