Octogenarian Philosophy: Looking for the America They Once Knew
S. Ramos O’Briant
At first glance, Kurt Vonnegut, author, pessimist and humorist might not seem to have much in common with Jimmy Carter, author, optimist and former President of the United States. But these two members of the so-called Greatest Generation are worried about America, and both have recently published books on the subject.
A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories Press, 2005) is a slender book of Vonnegut’s musings, opinions and insights about the state of humanity, specifically American humanity. It starts out grumpy — which brings my mother to mind, only eighty to Vonnegut’s eighty-three and Carter’s eighty-two. Like her, it focuses on all the bad news in the world: greed, religion, politics, and the curious admixture of religion with politics. He ventures into the last subject via an obscure reference to the Great Lakes people, apparently extinct except for Vonnegut, but allowing him to mention Socialist Party candidate Eugene Victor Debs which naturally segues into Stalin, Christianity, the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler and, ta ta ta ta, Karl Marx. Notice a trend here, and I don’t mean the K’s in Kurt and Karl? No? As with all Vonnegut books, a pattern will emerge. Or not.
His point is that this is not the first time in history that politics and religion have intermixed to frightening results. I almost used the phrase “catastrophic results,” but that would have been too Vonnegut. He’s at his best when he veers off the pessimist’s track and tells a story, like the one about Powers Hapgood. I love that name. If I was still egglicious, and wasn’t so jaded with joy over my empty nest, I’d think about that name for a kid. Or consider Vonnegut’s story about his joy when standing in line to purchase the envelope and stamp to mail a chapter to his typist. Only a writer who has worked long hours alone and with little human contact, can appreciate the active use of one’s senses — being outside, walking, talking, and smelling in real time, rather than in imagination.
Vonnegut describes himself and the rest of humanity as hopeless “addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial,” and he goes on to say that “our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on,” and in the process making “trillionaires out of billionaires.” Like Carter, he talks about America’s standing in the world community “ . . . they don’t hate us for our purported liberty and justice . . . they hate us now for our arrogance.” While he doesn’t mention fundamentalists, he does describe the people who are running our government as “Christians,” who are “smart, personable people who have no consciences.”
Vonnegut’s book is peppered with side journeys into his extended family history. He makes his case for being “without a country” by convincing us that it’s understandable why he personally believes it’s coming to the end of all things. I think he is speaking in mythical, rather than metaphorical terms. He is most dismayed because he thinks we don’t really care what happens in the future. Vonnegut compares himself to Einstein and Mark Twain, who he says, “gave up on the human race at the end of their lives.”
“This is not the country that I once knew,” Jimmy Carter lamented in a recent L.A. Times editorial. Carter is also a humanist and a Christian in the old-time definition, as in actively helping the poor and doing as Jesus said to do in the Sermon on the Mount (also mentioned in Vonnegut’s book). In Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crises (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Carter cites current government policies threatening American civil liberties, and environmental protections. He emphasizes the widening divide between the rich and the poor, and a growing disregard of human rights. He pays particular attention to the marriage of religion and politics. He’s worried, saddened, and possibly even outraged, albeit in a gentlemanly, ex-President sort of way.
Yet, he doesn’t mince words, and he names names. He points out that the Bush Administration has justified actions “similar to those of abusive regimes that we have historically condemned.” Carter ticks off a list of prime-time issues in our current government: prescriptive war, fundamentalism, women’s rights, terrorism, civil liberties, gay rights, abortion, the death penalty, science and religion, nuclear build-up, America’s standing in the world, and the unsettling mix of religion and politics.
Back to the old R & P. Carter builds his case for why fundamentalism is ruining America with stark, simple and earnest prose. He defines fundamentalists as those who “have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historical debate into black-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree.” Unlike Vonnegut, Carter makes no use of humor to soften his view that the fundamentalist philosophy of our current government threatens American representative democracy.
He also focuses on money and taxes stating that “ . . . billions in tax breaks (have gone) to the wealthiest” but Congress has refused to increase the minimum wage. “This administration has committed itself to extol the advantages of the rich,” he says.
Much of what appears in both the Vonnegut and the Carter book has appeared elsewhere, in both speeches and articles the two have written. As early as 1995, Vonnegut spoke about the “computer age minimum-wage conspiracy,”* his extended family, humanists, and Iraq. Likewise, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Oslo in 2002, Carter stated that “we have not yet made the commitment to share with others an appreciable part of our excessive wealth.” To Vonnegut’s credit, by the end of A Man Without a Country he admits that he might be a tad on the crotchety side, but more specifically, and in true secular humanist mode, he says, “There have never been any ‘good old days,’ there have just been days.” This admission, stated in the form of an apology (something I’ll never hear from my mother), doesn’t appear until almost the last of the essays. Carter tells us that our bond of common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices: “God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make changes - and we must.”
On a personal note, although I read and enjoyed Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, it is my sons who truly embraced his writing and went on to read the majority of his novels. My eldest put A Man Without a Country on his Amazon wish list, and its arrival after the holidays led to my reading it. Also home over the holidays, my younger, channel-surfing son landed on a cable channel hosting an all nuns, all the time hootenanny of Hail Marys, and insisted on watching it. He found my increasingly obstreperous objections amusing. Easy for him. He’s never been to Catholic school, been to confession, or had the women in his family gerrymandered by authoritarian priests and their habited handmaidens.
His teasing and my rebuttals opened a lively family discussion on tolerance and religion, and more importantly, on values and ethics. This led to Carter’s book, which my husband had already read, and my post-holiday digestion of octogenarian philosophy. My son took a devil’s advocate position, and I have no problem with that. It’s fine to look at an issue from as many different angles as possible, but eventually you have to take a stand. Which is what Vonnegut and Carter have done. Both authors, in very different ways, incite their readers to think hard on the subject of values, and take action. Read them together or back-to-back. They make a nice desk set.
note on this week's guest La Bloga bloguera:
Ms. O’Briant is the daughter of a Spanish Catholic and a Texan Baptist, and was introduced to both the self-flagellating Penitentes of New Mexico and the tent show holy-rollers of East Texas. In addition, her hometown of Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith, is host to state politics and the attendant corruption, artists and their hangers-on, and a thriving homosexual community.
All of this went into her first book, The Secret of Old Blood: The Sandoval Sisters. Set in the 19th and early decades of the 20th century, the issues confronted by three sisters are contemporary: racism, sexual and religious intolerance, the power of superstition, incest, reproductive freedom. Finally, it is a story of what constitutes a family, and the myths associated with the blood and bounds of loyalty.
For published credits, please visit her website, linked above in title.
La Bloga Blogmeister's note: La Bloga regulars happily welcome Ms. O'Briant back as our guest for her second visit. We welcome others with an eye and ear for literature to join us as our guest. We would love to share the pleasure of your company at La Bloga!