With the April 11 death of Senior Editor Kurt Vonnegut, In These Times lost a dear friend. And the world lost a man who kept his moral compass always pointed in the right – excuse me, left – direction.
Kurt never ceased to be outraged by man’s inhumanity to man. And while he could always find a corner of joy in the world – the fate of which he often despaired – he was ever ready with a droll, one-line quip that would eviscerate the pretensions of the powerful.
I first met Kurt over the phone, when I interviewed him early in 2003 during those dark weeks leading up the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. During our talk he railed against the “PPs” or psychopathic personalities who had taken over the government “by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable.” He was speaking, of course, of Bush and Co. “Those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C students,” he said. “Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!”
That was Kurt’s strength as a political essayist: an ability to give voice to commonsense decency – accompanying it with a left hook that would leave the reader cheering.
Was he over the top? Perhaps. But also remarkably sane during those dark months early in 2003 when millions of citizens massed in the streets, and media mandarins and Democratic poobahs ignored them, nodding their assent as Bush marched the nation off a cliff to war.
There were two folks Kurt was wont to quote: Jesus and Eugene V. Debs.
In the May 10, 2004 issue, in an article titled “Cold Turkey” – the most popular of his essays that we published – he wrote, “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!”
In that essay he also invoked Debs, who like him was both a socialist and a Hoosier: “Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran five 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?”
Skeptical of the promises of technical salvation, Kurt was a self-proclaimed Luddite. Though he used a fax machine, he heartily scorned computers: “Bill Gates says, ‘Wait till you can see what your computer can become.’ But it’s you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer. What you can become is the miracle you were born to be through the work that you do.”
It was In These Times’ pleasure and privilege to publish the work of Kurt Vonnegut. We applauded his humanist ethics, his one-off sense of humor and his in-your-face contempt for Beltway venality. We felt In These Times and he were a perfect fit, and he seemed to agree. One of the nicest faxes we received from Kurt read, “If it weren’t for In These Times, I’d be a man without a country.”
We have lost a citizen who spoke for us all. So it goes.
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.