But Vonnegut’s writing also reflected his connection to some of the most terrible public tragedies of the 20th century. Like the characters in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut survived the firebombing of the German city of Dresden during the Second World War. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he and a group of fellow prisoners were put to work there, shortly before British and US warplanes dropped wave after wave of incendiary bombs on a city with no military targets. More than 130,000 people were burned alive or asphyxiated in the inferno that Dresden became, but the story of this war crime remained mostly untold until Vonnegut wrote about it.
Dresden left Vonnegut with a hatred of war — up to and including the latest US interventions in the Middle East, which he opposed with his typical rage, despite failing health. The world of Vonnegut’s novels can be grim — full of world-ending catastrophes like the frozen doom of Cat’s Cradle. His most sympathetic characters are often traumatised by the world’s cruelties and stricken by a sense of powerlessness — something encapsulated in the famous phrase “So it goes” from Slaughterhouse Five, a gesture of resignation that follows every mention of a death. But as despairing as his vision of the world was, Vonnegut was also bitterly opposed to the class of people who benefited from society’s disasters — who justified and even welcomed them.
His novels Breakfast of Champions and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater expose the absurdity of the idea that those who enjoy wealth and power have any special talents. And woven into the plots of these and other books are retellings of US history that puncture the myths about the US taught in school and reinforced by the media. Near the start of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut writes: “[T]eachers of children in the United States of America wrote this date on blackboards again and again, and asked the children to memorize it with pride and joy: 1492.
The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492.
That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them. “Here was another piece of evil nonsense which children were taught: that the sea pirates eventually created a government which became a beacon of freedom to human beings everywhere else … “Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.”
Like his hero Mark Twain, Vonnegut was hilarious in his writing and speaking — but absolutely merciless in showing up the greedy, narrow-minded and ignorant. His disgust with the rich and powerful extended to the US political system. As much as he despised Republican maniacs from Richard Nixon to George Bush Jr., Vonnegut was no less contemptuous of two-faced Democrats. Imagining himself a “visitor from another planet” in one of several books of essays, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Vonnegut wrote, “The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead. Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners. When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain: Winners will win.” By contrast, Vonnegut’s sympathies — and what hopes he allowed himself — were with working people and their capacity to do the right thing in a world that constantly does the wrong one. This led Vonnegut to celebrate the socialist tradition in the US.
As Joel Bleifuss, editor of In These Times — the left magazine that Vonnegut kept up a correspondence with in recent years — pointed out, the two people Vonnegut was most likely to quote were Jesus and US socialist pioneer Eugene V. Debs. The world got less interesting, as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart put it, with Kurt Vonnegut’s death. But his voice remains, calling out for sanity and decency in an insane and obscene world that needs to be changed.
Reprinted from Socialist Worker United States
From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #707 25 April 2007.