Kurt Vonnegut, Newt Gingrich, and the End of the World

Here’s a weak attempt at a political rant.  Enjoy!

Kurt Vonnegut, Newt Gingrich, and the End of the World


Hell in a handbasket.  Up shit creek without a paddle. Clusterfucked and FUBARed.

So it goes.

I can’t imagine that Newt Gingrich ever met Kurt Vonnegut.  If they did, I’m not sure what they’d talk about.  But curiously enough, I think both of them would agree on the above statements to describe the world in 2012, even if their reasons for thinking so differed.  Gingrich has said, about Democrats as a species, “These people are sick. They are so consumed by their own power, by a Mussolini-like ego, that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.”  Vonnegut once mused that he knew we were in for a rough go of it at the turn of the millennium when he turned around and noticed that our country was run by “a Dick, a Bush, and a Colin.”

Funny stuff.  But I bring Vonnegut to the conversation to try and understand the rhetoric employed by the candidates in the Republican primaries as well as those covering the proceedings, right and left.

In 1961, Vonnegut published Mother Night, which may be his masterpiece but has been eclipsed by Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and his free-floating, still-healthy media reputation as a sage and clown.  Mother Night concerns a radio personality, Howard W. Campbell, who is enlisted by the Nazi’s to broadcast war propaganda during World War II.  Unbeknownst to the Nazis, however, he has also been recruited by the U.S. War Department to insert different pauses, grunts and coughs in the propaganda transmissions as code to the allies for their military campaigns.  Campbell has no idea what the codes signify, which may or may not lead to an ironic tragedy later in the book.  The joke is, he doesn’t really care about what the copes signify, any more than he cares about the hate-filled vitriol he’s spilling for the Nazi Propaganda machine.  He’s essentially apolitical, though perhaps ethically apathetic would be a better term.

The book is about more than this central conceit, and flips back in forth in time, employs a frame device that’s pretty clever in and of itself, and manages to exist in a number of locales—Berlin, New York City, Israel—all at the same time.  It’s frankly a bitch to summarize, and I don’t really feel like trying.  The point is that Campbell is a public voice who doesn’t care what comes out of his mouth as long as people are listening.

I think that is a pretty apt description of the rhetoric of this year’s presidential primary, as well as dominate political mode of discourse for the past few years.

It’s been particularly nasty the last couple of years, however.  Now, it’s entirely possible that I, as a well-meaning but hopelessly shortsighted liberal, was privy to but willfully ignorant of the same kind of alarmist platitudes hurled at George W. Bush and John McCain in 2008 (and before—alarmist sentiment knows no political agenda).  However, the fact is that most of what we hear coming from those running for Republican Nominee and covering the primaries is drenched in this hateful, thoughtless Armageddon-laden sentiments.

We are all, in fact, doomed.  America is dying and the end of the world is near.

Here is Rick Santorum, opining about what will happen to America if we were to allow homosexuals to marry:

“If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. … That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing.”

To let two people of the same sex marry each other would “undermine the fabric of our society.”

Here’s Ann Coulter with a pithy opinion about liberals: “You will find liberals always rooting for savages against civilization.”

A liberal government will lead to the end of civilization.

Here’s Michelle Bachmann about the Obama Administration, from 2011, the height of memes like “death panels” and “Birther”: “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

So, national and world catastrophes are in fact God’s warning signals to us that if we don’t start being more financially conservative, he will kill innocent Americans, as if the citizens of the United States are all on the top floor of Nakatomi Plaza and God is Alan Rickman from Die Hard.

OK, I’m going to back off for a minute.  First, it’s obvious that I’m cherry-picking, and locating the most insane quotes from people I find morally repugnant, taking them out of context, and throwing them back at them is not only too easy, but ultimately dishonest and of a piece with what I most revile in them.

But here’s the problem, and it exists regardless of one’s emotional, moral, or political beliefs: the people saying all of this stuff, the people overtly or insinuatingly stating that our country is on the brink of not only financial but physical and social collapse, whether they are politicians, lobbyists, religious demagogues, or the press looking for a juicy sound bite in our if-it-bleeds-it-leads media culture, don’t really believe it.

Not a word.  I’m convinced.

Maybe Ron Paul.

Now, if they did believe it, that would be one thing, and probably worse, but my question is, what’s the difference?

Because the people listening, a lot of them anyway, believe it, and repeat it, and live their lives based on these words, said so cavalierly and said almost always for simple, emotional effect or as an attack against an opponent they see as simply an obstacle to overcome by any means necessary.

This is an old and obvious point.  The corruption of language has existed since there was language, and ambition has been around before the first human spoke the first words.  It’s been attacked by people as ancient as Plato and as contemporary as Ezra Klein and Christopher Hitchens, and yet it’s effective still.

And I imagine that most people view it as simply part of the game.  But when and where does the game end?  When does the Armageddon-laced vitriol become real society, and the general opinion of the masses?  When did the only way to make a point about our country and the world, to rally support for a cause, become casting the opponents’ ideas as demonic, end-of-the-world scenarios?

When you jack up the stakes of EVERYTHING to a fire-and-brimstone, Jonathan-Edwards-style, fist-pumping, chest-thumping squeal of discordant, inhuman wrath, it eventually becomes the norm and good sense and logical discussion are seen as foolish, and worse, boring and ineffective.

It’s insulting, but it’s happened.  We nudge each other at Rome’s rabble and their gullible blood thirst in films like Gladiator, but you need to look no further than the last Republican Primary Debate to realize that the same values of both cultures hold true.  Which means, of course, that like Rome, we are on the brink of collapse.


I don’t believe that.  I’m relatively sure that regardless of who is elected or what bill is passed life will continue as it has for the last, long while.  A little different, but not much.  Minute-to-minute, day-to-day, we will live in roughly the same situation in which we’ve always lived.


OK, I get it.  Maybe I’m too lax, too comfortable.  Maybe I need a little fire.  I just can’t see how looking at this world, this country, as a partisan-locked battleground gets us anywhere.  We have such an opportunity to look at what works, and the problems we face could be such an opportunity for growth.

Obama’s health plan could, conceivably, give everyone in our country a fair shot at health care.  The jobs bill could, conceivably, not only put people to work but create altogether new industries for a new century.  Equal marriage rights could lead to more stability in the work force and at home.

And so it goes.

Because we’re back to Vonnegut, the old misanthrope.  Because he knew that would never happen.  He believed that we were doomed.  The difference was that he believed the doom would come not from “them” but from us.  From inside.  As a human species, we are selfish and hateful and thoughtless about the suffering of others, and that will destroy us.

Which leads back to Mother Night, and the crux of the matter.  Howard Campbell destroyed lives with his broadcasts.  With the codes he embedded in them, he gave out coordinates for bombs to be dropped upon and civilians to be incinerated.   His words killed untold thousands with the Nazi hate he spewed.  But he thought about none of this because he was just an entertainer and as long as he got what he wanted, it was OK.  Which leads to the moral of the book: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Something to think about.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

And another moral: more people need to read.



Filed under Books, Essays, Politics

2 responses to “Kurt Vonnegut, Newt Gingrich, and the End of the World

  1. Weslyn MIller

    One of your best!

  2. Reblogged this on joelmarino and commented:
    So it goes.

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