Venerated American novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote extensively on anti-authoritarianism for nearly six decades and for several years for In These Times. In this 2005 piece, which was reprinted in his book A Man Without a Country, he warns us against the capriciousness of those in power.
Today, inflation is at its highest since 1990, nearly 2 million people sit in prison and $778 billion was spent on the military this year, compared with $235 billion on education. With his trademark precision, Vonnegut underlines the hypocrisy of our deceptive information revolution — but not without hope.
In 2005, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inadequately educated. That is an ordinary feeling for a member of our species. One of the most brilliant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th birthday or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I turned 83 a couple weeks ago, and I must say I agree.
Shaw, if he were alive today, would envy us the solid information that we have or can get about the nature of the universe, about time and space and matter, about our own bodies and brains, about the resources and vulnerabilities of our planet, about how all sorts of human beings actually talk and feel and live.
This is the information revolution. We have taken it very badly so far. Information seems to be getting in the way all the time. Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.
The masses of humanity, having no solid information to tell them otherwise, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one. Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.
We must acknowledge, though, that persuasive guessers – even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in Russia – have given us courage to endure extraordinary ordeals that we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, wars, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead – the guessers gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively.
Without that illusion, we would all have surrendered long ago. But in fact, the guessers knew no more than the common people and sometimes less. The important thing was that they gave us the illusion that we’re in control of our destinies.
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long – for all of human experience so far – that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess and be listened to.
Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting.
They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they want standards, and it isn’t the gold standard. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.
Loaded pistols are good for people unless they’re in prisons or lunatic asylums.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition and raid the Treasury in case they go broke.
That’s free enterprise.
And that’s correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its people.
The free market will do that.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
And so on.
If you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D.C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcomed in Washington, D.C.
Do you remember those doctors a few years back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, D.C.
Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.
What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge – the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations, to become guessers. If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on.
Please, don’t you do that. But let me warn you, if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you – and now I have to guess – about ten to one.
This essay was adapted from Senior Editor Kurt Vonnegut’s new bestseller, A Man Without a Country.
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