Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Vonnegut's Jaundiced Eye

This Vonnegut column is terribly old by now, but given where it's found, perhaps I'm not the only one wholly to have missed it lo these eight or nine months.

It comes to my attention via Brian, who picked it up from another source. Brian and the original source focus on one small part of Vonnegut's column, concerning the oddity of the fact that, while conservatives campaign for the right to display the Ten Commandments on public property, none seem to urge the display of the Beatitudes, the teachings of a Christian's Lord Jesus Christ. Specifically, Vonnegut says:

Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was only 4, ran 5 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?

How about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. ...

And so on.

Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney stuff.

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!

But Brian and Richard Mouw do a fine job of addressing this sub-point in Vonnegut's much longer essay. I choose to focus on something else: specifically, his tone, which is characteristically acerbic, but comes off as way more jaundiced than I'm used to from him. I'd even go so far as to call the column nihilistic. I mean to the extent that I'm sitting here sort of depressed after reading it.

It makes one wonder how anyone ever came to believe the myth that this supposed MIT commencement speech actually was one Vonnegut had composed and delivered.

If I were to start quoting sections of Vonnegut's alternet essay to illustrate its really borderline unpleasant tone, I might not stop, since the whole thing illustrates my point, and it is characteristically well-written in his distinctive voice, objections to the sentiment notwithstanding.

This will have to suffice:

There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.

But, when you stop to think about it, only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice. Such treacherous, untrustworthy, lying and greedy animals we are!

I was born a human being in 1922 A.D. What does "A.D." signify? That commemorates an inmate of this lunatic asylum we call Earth who was nailed to a wooden cross by a bunch of other inmates. With him still conscious, they hammered spikes through his wrists and insteps, and into the wood. Then they set the cross upright, so he dangled up there where even the shortest person in the crowd could see him writhing this way and that.

Can you imagine people doing such a thing to a person?

No problem. That's entertainment. Ask the devout Roman Catholic Mel Gibson, who, as an act of piety, has just made a fortune with a movie about how Jesus was tortured. Never mind what Jesus said.

During the reign of King Henry the Eighth, founder of the Church of England, he had a counterfeiter boiled alive in public. Show biz again.

Mel Gibson's next movie should be The Counterfeiter. Box office records will again be broken.

One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.

I recommend the whole thing. I said I disliked its tone; that doesn't mean I think it's lacking in the wisdom of age. Sadly, I think Vonnegut's right about a lot of what he says here.


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