The Ludicrous Notion of Patriotism or, Kurt Vonnegut Revisited

There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

It’s been brought to my attention that I should post more often on my web site. They say independent authors should use blogs to drum up business. Honestly, I thought often about pulling the plug. Yet, here I am. I won’t even guess when I last posted. There’s good reason for that. Actually, several of them. I used to tell people: everything happens for a reason.

In December 2019 I went into a hospital to have some stents put in since I had been suffering chronic chest pain. There were supposed to be three put in, but the third one didn’t go well. That’s doublespeak for my having a widow-making heart attack right on the operating table. Well, it would have been a widow maker had I not been where I was. The reason that happened was because one artery collapsed. This is doublespeak for it became so clotted it quit working. I ended up with two stents, some new medicine which makes even shaving treacherous should I happen to nick myself, and, joy of joys, one of the medications for blood pressure actually triggered a mild case of plaque psoriasis. As it was explained to me by the medical professionals involved: it’s a small price to pay for the alternative. So, if I understand them correctly, the reason I have developed plaque psoriasis for the first time in my life is because of the medicines I take to keep me alive? Everything happens for a reason.

A few months later, the Coronavirus pandemic began. Beginning in late March 2020, I joined scores of other adjunct professors who ended up teaching online. Like everyone else across the country, I learned to keep myself occupied at home when I wasn’t working or traversing the infectious perils of the local supermarket. In June of this year I started reading Kurt Vonnegut novels in the order they were published. There was a reason for this. One of the schools where I used to teach had a different opinion than mine about academic integrity. Our parting left me with more free time than I was used to having.

Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, is a sci-fi tale that concerns itself, in part, with people being replaced by machines in the workplace. It read like so many sci-fi novels of its time. It is my least favorite of Vonnegut’s novels. Technically, the novel is rendered well enough. For me, it read like a Heinlein novel with not as much sassy, sexist, smarmy dialogue.

My intention here is not to review every single Vonnegut novel. Though I will say that in no particular order, for a variety of  reasons, the author’s books that resonated most so far are Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan.

I should probably mention that my first exposure to Kurt Vonnegut’s work came when my father mentioned that I should read him. That was probably when I was in high school. I didn’t get to any of Vonnegut’s work until the mid-1980s when I stopped into an airport bookstore and purchased a paperback copy of Palm Sunday. The reason I didn’t heed my father’s suggestion was because that was what teenage boys were expected to do. Anyway, Palm Sunday served as a good introduction for me to Vonnegut’s writing. I was nineteen years old, still in my first year of a three-year enlistment in the army. It was the only one the army ever offered for that odd length of time. The reason for this, as it was explained decades later to me by my former company commander, was that the option I had chosen—a program they called COHORT which stood for Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training—turned out to be a disaster. He even directed me to a study done by the army. The study said the COHORT program was supposed to build morale since soldiers went to basic training together and served at their regular unit as one group. The study also echoed my old company commander’s assessment. The reason for this was because he pretty much memorized the study chapter and verse.

The year I had purchased that copy of Palm Sunday I was a long way off from my ETS (End of Time in Service) date, and wrestling with my father’s recent death, a budding love-hate relationship with alcohol, and an insatiable appetite for books of any sort that called into question the ludicrous notion of patriotism.

The post library at Fort Campbell was equivalent to a decent community library. There I was able to take out books like Howl from Allen Ginsberg and The Communist Manifesto. One day on a lunch break I got a dressing down from a junior officer when he saw me reading The Communist Manifesto, one of those mooks raised on fairy tales of Old Glory and Patriotism. It was also the 1980s. The Soviet Union was still very much on everyone’s mind. There was a guy in our unit who had given away all his possessions in a show of solidarity with workers of the world everywhere. The reason for this was because he was not a communist so much as he was a lunatic.

I don’t like to dwell too long on my army days, though I do sometimes write about it. The reason for not thinking about those years ad nauseum is because I had a life after uniform. Some guys I know like to live in the past, telling stories of glory days. Not me. The reason for this was because I didn’t very much like those years. Enough digression. Let’s move on.

Yesterday I started Jailbird. And when I say started I mean I’m still reading the introduction that Vonnegut penned. The day before that I finished Breakfast of Champions. I can’t say I am a fan of an author placing himself in his own novel, even if some critics call it ‘experimental.’ Nevertheless, it made an impression on me…again. The reason for this is because, as he does in so many of his other novels, Vonnegut had a lot to say about America; not much, if any of it, is favorable. There’s good reason for that. If you haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels, give them a try. If you did read them, perhaps it’s time to revisit them like I did.

The Dawn of Idiocracy

My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all…

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

~George Carlin

This week I read about the 900+ writers who signed a letter to Amazon asking the company to stop selective retaliation of authors published by Hachette who are in a dispute with Amazon over e-book pricing. You can read about the letter here. And for simple explanation of the dispute, you can view this LA Times article. In all of this a current runs much deeper than it appears on the surface, one aimed not at sticking it to writers who worked hard to be where they are now but at control.

What bothers me about Amazon and the alleged bullying is not that I feel sorry for successful authors in the thick of this debate. Ok, actually I do. I know a little about what it takes to start writing a novel and finishing it. The success part? I am still waiting, but that’s a separate issue. What bothers me is that Amazon has gone from selling books to everything under the sun. Need a lawn mower? Check out Amazon prices. Need body wax? Look no further than Amazon. Can’t find that doo-hickey that does the thinga-mah-bob? My guess is Amazon has it.

Amazon has obliterated brick and mortar bookstores, both chain stores and independent operators, and with no other competition around it is attempting to fix prices namely because there’s no other game in town. In other words, control is the law of the land.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an Amazon Prime member. I also have a couple of books for sale on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion here. And over the years I have purchased plenty of items from Amazon; mostly books, but a few videos and perhaps a video game or two for my son.

So, O’Brien, why are you so hung up on the control issue? For the last thirty years or so there has been a systematic drive to create less critical thinkers in our society. A good many corporations, Amazon, while relatively new, can be counted among them, contribute to this drive by steering attention away from books and learning. In Amazon’s case, at least in my humble opinion, by offering all kinds of crap readers do not need. If you don’t believe me, go over to the Amazon web site. If you’re already signed in, then sign out. And then look at the home page. Right now, as I write this, there are ads for men’s fashion, solid state drives (not that I would know what a solid state drive is if you dropped one on my head), videos, and digital cameras. Did I leave out the Bluetooth Audio Receiver? How about the ad from Xfinity Triple Play? Never mind. Moving on.

Call me crazy. Laugh if you want. Go ahead. I’m thick-skinned that way so I don’t mind. Then ask yourself this: how does critical thinking help me get what I want? In the question I pose there are two operative words that sum up our culture: get and want.

Someone smarter than me once wrote that Americans, despite whatever label they self-apply—mother, father, CEO, postal employee, teacher, factory worker, carpenter, philosopher, are first and foremost consumers. This word ‘consumer’ need not be applied to those of us who feel compelled to buy things. A consumer can also be someone like me consuming electricity to write these words. As such, we are more concerned with wanting and getting than we are with thinking.

But O’Brien, you say, I’m finished college. Why do I need to think critically now? Or to put it more bluntly, in the words of one of my former professors, the late great John C. Berkey: “Oh fuck that, man.” Why? Because I am a member of the society in which you live. Because year in and year out many of us accumulate worthless crap that we just don’t need. Because no matter what side of the political fence you fall on we all vote for the same people who, when you get right down to it, don’t give a rat’s ass about their constituency. Sure you can vote for the person whom you think will end the deficit, eradicate war, bolster big business, lower taxes, etc.; but ultimately we do not matter to them.

The eradication of critical thinkers in any society is bad. We weep for other countries or at least feel uneasy when we see in the news that teachers, humanitarian aid workers, religious figures, or what have you are rounded up and summarily executed in the name of a system ‘wanting’ to gain power. Ironically, we cruise through our own lives in what David Foster Wallace referred to as the ‘default setting,’ not questioning things, not caring about anyone else but ourselves (and what we want to get), and generally not interested in bettering ourselves. We eschew radical thinking, but we will not think twice about gaining benefit from such radical thinking if it somehow becomes mainstream (penicillin, electricity, the telephone, equal rights, the list goes on and on). And we appear, as Americans, to be quite comfortable with the continued dumbing down of our population.

Case in point: my son’s high school summer reading list. It is peppered with books on a middle school reading level. Dumbing down gone wild. Was it a dream? Or do I remember when teachers attempted to challenge students with reading assignments? For my son, and his contemporaries, it’s a brave new world; one in which corporations have the last say in education (or what they loosely define as education).

It is the dawning of the age of idiocracy. My son’s generation is poised to become perhaps the first that questions nothing at all, that knows not how to offer resistance to detrimental conditions, that will not understand what all the fuss was about in the Sixties with Vietnam protests or even the Eighties with protests against nuclear proliferation, that closer to home none in his generation will stand up against police brutality, genetically modified foods, etc. Worse, my son’s generation will no longer understand why it is important to nurture their own ideas with the ideas of those who came before them. In short, they will lack critical thinking. As a parent, a writer, an educator, and a human being, I find that troubling.