Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Man Without a Country

I attended Northwest High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, also known as Naptown, the biggest small town in the world. A couple of decades earlier, as it happens, Kurt Vonnegut went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.

Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and numerous other works, once promised not to write another book. Fortunately, he went back on his word and wrote A Man Without a Country, a splendid little volume (143 pages) filled with more wisdom than most books manage at twice the length.

A Man Without a Country isn’t about any one subject. But if it was, that subject would be the qualities of men from what Vonnegut calls the freshwater states, gathered around the Great Lakes as a defense against the coastal conceits of New York and California. Self-taught men like Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, and a locomotive fireman from Terre Haute, Indiana, named Eugene Victor Debs.

And then there was Powers Hapgood, also from Indianapolis. Hapgood graduated from Harvard and became a coal miner, urging the men to organize. He was testifying in court on a labor dispute one day when the judge asked him:

“Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you’re a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Hapgood answered the judge: “Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

On Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, Vonnegut has this to say:

Want a taste of that great book? He says, and he said it 169 years ago, that in no country other than ours has love of money taken a stronger hold on the affections of men. Okay?

According to Vonnegut, Christianity and socialism “prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”

About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that “religion is the opium of the people.” Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.

When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?

Vonnegut fought in World War II against that shining example of Christianity, Adolph Hitler. Vonnegut was captured, imprisoned near Dresden, and somehow survived the fire-bombing which killed 135,000 people. Indeed, he was forced to help bury the dead.

Looking at life today, he sees that we are hated and feared around the globe. We dehumanize our own soldiers, not because of race or religion, but because of their social class. He sees a society run by well-heeled C-students who don’t know history and can only guess what science is about. He sees the O’Reilly Factor and The New York Times declaiming on the weapons of mass destruction we were certain to uncover in Iraq. “So I am a man without a country,” he writes, “except for the librarians and a Chicago paper called In These Times.”

I, too, am a man without a country, except for librarians and progressives and freshwater men like Lincoln and Debs and Kurt Vonnegut.


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