Kurt Vonnegut and the Saddleback Civil Forum made me think about politics

Last night, Bethany and I watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency for the first time (I’d read some of the Transcripts of the event from before). Something Barack Obama said sparked something in my head that interacted with something I read a week ago that Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel Player Piano I’m reading right now. It’s crazy how different things can come together like this.

When it comes to Vonnegut, I have to confess. I knew very little about the guy several months ago. Some of my friends mentioned their sadness at his death, but I just knew him as a novelist who wrote a book with a weird name that people liked (Slaughterhouse Five). But four weeks ago, everything changed for me; at least everything having to do with Kurt Vonnegut. Bethany and I had just finished watching the stellar movie Sicko and were mindlessly watching the credits and the final credit said: “Kurt Vonnegut: Thanks for Everything” or something like that. In that moment, something clicked, a couple synapses in my brain fired differently than before, and I committed to reading this man’s work.

So Bethany and I traipsed over to the local library a couple days later, and after a conversation with a well-Vonnegut-read librarian, I began with his novel Cat’s Cradle. Maybe I shouldn’t have started with that one, because Kurt flat-out floored me with wit, irony, and powerful points he made in very quiet ways. I’m sure I’ll talk a little about how Cat’s Cradle affected me in the future sometime, but in this post I’d like to quote the section from Player Piano that’s messing with me right now, and put it side by side with Obama’s thoughts I heard last night. These two things have affecting my wrestling with the role of government and my thoughts on wealthy and poverty for the last week or so. I’ll post my more extended reflections tomorrow, but maybe these will spark something for you the reader as well that take you in a bit different direction than me.

As with any book, this section may not make much sense to persons outside of the world Vonnegut sets up in Player Piano, but I think this one is more straight-forward, and thus more quotable. This is a conversation between Dr. Paul Proteus and his wife Anita, who are social elites in their town, as Paul is the highest-paid person in town and manager of the most prestigious firm in town (Ilium Works). To provide some wider context, the advent of machines in industrialization, (brought on by the inventiveness of the engineer class of which Paul was a part) caused many persons to lose their jobs at the Ilium Works and thus plunged them into despair. Those who weren’t considered intelligent enough to go to college to be an engineer then had to choose between enlisting in the Army or doing menial labor for the state in what was called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (or, “Reeks and Wrecks” for short). Paul just a couple hours earlier had traveled into a depressed neighborhood called “Homestead” to pick up some whiskey for his friend and those persons who lost their jobs had found out who we was. Here’s the conversation;

Anita said, “Tell me about today.”
Paul responded, “Nothing about today. One more, like all the rest.”
“You got the whiskey?”
“Yes, I had to go across the river to get it.”
“Was it such an awful ordeal?” she chided. She couldn’t understand why he hated to run errands into Homestead, and teased him about it. “Was it so awful?” she said again, bordering on baby talk, as though he were a lazy little boy coaxed into doing a small favor for his mother.
“Pretty bad.”
“Really?” She was surprised. “Nothing violent, I hope.”
“No, Everybody was very polite, in fact. One of the pensioners recognized me from the old days and threw an impromptu party for me.”
“Well, that sounds like downright fun.”
“Does, doesn’t it? His name is Rudy Hertz.” Without describing his own reactions, he told her what had happened.
(persons had stared at him with loathing) He found himself watching her closely, experimenting.
“And that upset you? She laughed. “You are a sensitive darling, aren’t you? You tell me you’ve been through a nightmare, and nothing happened at all.”
“They hate me.”
“They proved they loved and admired you. And, what’s more, they should.”
“The man with the thick glasses as much said his son’s life wasn’t worth living on account of me.”
“You said that. He didn’t. And I won’t have you saying ridiculous things. Do you get some sort of pleasure out of making things up to feel guilty about? If his son isn’t bright enough for anything but the Reeks and Wrecks or the Army, is that your fault?
“No; but if it hadn’t been for men like me, he might have a machine in the plant-”
Is he starving?”
“Of course not. Nobody starves.”
And he’s got a place to live and warm clothes. He has what he’d have if he were running a stupid machine, swearing at it, making mistakes, striking every year, fighting with the foreman, coming in with hangovers.”
“You’re right, you’re right.” He held up his hands. “Of course you’re right. It’s just a h#$ll of a time to be alive, is all- just this g#$%&*n messy business of people having to get used to new ideas. And people just don’t, that’s all. I wish this were a hundred years form now, with everybody used to the change.”

Now, as you reflect on the conversation, I’d encourage you to consider that Paul and Anita are approaching the issue from the perspective of having all their needs and wants taken care of. They live on the other side of town from these persons they’re speaking of, and to even be around them made Paul very uncomfortable. Does our position in life affect the way we think about what is right in the world? Put another way, recognizing our limited experience, shouldn’t we have the courage to put ourselves in the uncomfortable places of our world? Those places where we can’t stand back and sling around stereotypes and labels?

And on another topic, is progress measured by how much persons aren’t familiar with the past, where everybody is “used to the change” and doesn’t ask questions?

Now here’s the clip of the Barack interaction with Rick Warren:

Warren: What’s the most significant position you held ten years ago that you no longer hold today, that you flipped on, you changed on because you actually see it differently?

Obama: I think a good example would be the issue of welfare reform where I always believed welfare had to be changed. I was much more concerned ten years ago when President Clinton initially signed the bill that this could have disastrous results. I worked in the Illinois legislature to make sure we were providing child care and health care and other support services for the women who were going to be kicked off the rolls after a certain time. It worked better than I think a lot of people anticipated and you know one of the things that I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy.

Warren: Ok.

Obama: Not only because — not only because ultimately people who work are going to get more income, but the intrinsic dignity of work, the sense of purpose.

Warren: We were made for work.

Obama: We were made for work, and the sense that you are part of a community, because you’re making a contribution, no matter how small to the well-being of the country as a whole. I think that is something that Democrats generally, I think, have made a significant shift on.

And later in the interview, Obama comes back to something that Vonnegut touches on:

Warren: In a minute, in one minute because I know you could take the entire hour on this, tell me in a minute why you want to be president?

Obama: You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and said the one time that she’d get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody or unfair to somebody. She said, “Imagine standing in their shoes, imagine looking through their eyes,” that basic idea of empathy. And that I think is what’s made America special, is that notion that everybody’s got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college…that we care for them too.

Is there a way that our political thinking can have a strong current of empathy?
Are we willing to do our very best to get outside our own experience and consider how government can bring fairness, work to give folks an equal shot?
Can government be more than it is, and can wealthy people get outside of their posh status and disconnection from other social classes that leads to labeling all poor people as lazy, dumb, and therefore undeserving of having their situation elevated?
Can government, in its best sense, draw us out of our selfishness to consider a larger common good together?
Will the rich and the poor sacrifice for that?
Are these questions not as moral as questions of abortion and human sexuality?

These are burning questions I live with. There is no easy answer, but I just don’t think government at its heart is either as big and bad as people think it is or as inept as people think it is. When public perception leans in that way for many years, perception becomes reality and governments become what people expect, I think.

And this post is what happens when different voices all smash together in an ugly collision that I must pay attention to unless I want to be a spineless, cowardly, lazy ninny of a human being. I am committed to reading for change, watching television and movies for change, listening for change, and speaking for change. Nothing or no one I come into contact with lacks the ability to change my perspectives on life. This makes for a tiring, frustrating, complex existence, but the more I embrace that complexity rather than taking the lazy/easier-way-out of a world of me or a chorus of voices that always agree with me, the more my brain gets the exercise it needs to be stronger, wiser, more humble, more receptive, today than yesterday. I feel pretty good about that today. Just don’t ask me tomorrow.


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