Kurt Vonnegut on America

In this section (Classics on America) I continue my quest to describe the United States of America with words of great writers, that is, as seen through the eyes of classics of literature (hence the name).

Now it’s Kurt Vonnegut’s turn. Below is a passage by same taken from his book Slaughterhouse Five. I read the book with some interest many years ago, and now remember almost nothing about it (the plot, the characters, etc.), except that it definitely read like a Kurt Vonnegut book and was centered around the infamous Dresden firebombing crime of the century. However, even then I noted this interesting and revealing passage about America which rang very true. I have been thinking about using it on my blog which is dedicated to the exploration of the darker side/s of America, and I have been thinking about sharing it with others, and I have just re-found it. Here is the passage in question and I quote:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.”

And it continues…

“Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue… Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for an American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

Now, there may be some argument as to whether Mr. Vonnegut really meant what he wrote. Because in the context of the book this passage is supposed to be a part of a lecture on America delivered to a groups of American POWs in German captivity by a turncoat American who is working for the Nazis. I understand the same character, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., makes an appearance in one other Vonnegut’s novel almost in the same but yet more pro-American role — in that novel he is supposed to be an American spy working amidst the Nazis. Reach your own conclusions but, while accepting that nothing is straightforward where Vonnegut is concerned, I think the words are his own and are a faithful and true-to-life reflection on America.

And I think it is generally true. America is a nation of the poor but for and by the rich.

True, within the past few decades, the United States may have gone a bit away from its destiny of abject poverty for most and some wealth for the very few. A number of technological advances helped as did certain political and economic concepts (such as Globalization, world trade, etc.) which enabled America to displace its poverty to the rest of the world while making it easier for America to hoover in some wealth.

However I fear (if fear is the word) this purple patch may have come to an end now — there are no major new technological advances in the pipeline and the political and economic opportunities have been exhausted. Hence America is likely now to be returned to its cradle of poverty. The same fate is probably awaiting America’s backstabbing ally, Britain.

Welcome back, America, to your old, dirt-poor self.

thought-for-food

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