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Vonnegut’s Blues For America


  No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.

 If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:




 Now, during our catastrophically idiotic war in Vietnam, the music kept getting better and better and better. We lost that war, by the way. Order couldn’t be restored in Indochina until the people kicked us out.

 That war only made billionaires out of millionaires. Today’s war is making trillionaires out of billionaires. Now I call that progress.

 And how come the people in countries we invade can’t fight like ladies and gentlemen, in uniform and with tanks and helicopter gunships?

 Back to music. It makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up. And I really like Strauss and Mozart and all that, but the priceless gift that African Americans gave the whole world when they were still in slavery was a gift so great that it is now almost the only reason many foreigners still like us at least a little bit. That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is a gift called the blues. All pop music today  jazz, swing, be-bop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock-and-roll, hip-hop, and on and on  is derived from the blues.

 A gift to the world? One of the best rhythm-and-blues combos I ever heard was three guys and a girl from Finland playing in a club in Krakow, Poland.

 The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country ­ an atrocity from which we can never fully recover  the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.

 Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not: They could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing and singing the Blues. He says something else which also sounds right to me. He says the blues can’t drive depression clear out of a house, but can drive it into the corners of any room where it’s being played. So please remember that.

 Foreigners love us for our jazz. And they don’t hate us for our purported liberty and justice for all. They hate us now for our arrogance.

 When I went to grade school in Indian apolis, the James Whitcomb Riley School #43, we used to draw pictures of houses of tomorrow, boats of tomorrow, airplanes of tomorrow, and there were all these dreams for the future. Of course at that time everything had come to a stop. The factories had stopped, the Great Depression was on, and the magic word was Prosperity. Sometime Prosperity will come. We were preparing for it. We were dreaming of the sorts of houses human beings should inhabit  ideal dwellings, ideal forms of transportation.

 What is radically new today is that my daughter, Lily, who has just turned 21, finds herself, as do your children, as does George W Bush, himself a kid, and Saddam Hussein and on and on, heir to a shockingly recent history of human slavery, to an Aids epidemic, and to nuclear submarines slumbering on the floors of fjords in Iceland and elsewhere, crews prepared at a moment’s notice to turn industrial quantities of men, women, and children into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads. Our children have inherited technologies whose by-products, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind.

 Anyone who has studied science and talks to scientists notices that we are in terrible danger now. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.

 The biggest truth to face now  what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life  is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.

 Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the second world war, when there was no peace.

 But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

 Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. The leading characters in our history books have been our most enthralling, and sometimes our most terrifying, guessers.

 May I name two of them? Aristotle and Hitler.

 One good guesser and one bad one.

 And the masses of humanity through the ages, feeling inadequately educated just like we do now, and rightly so, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one.

 Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.

 We must acknowledge that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have sometimes given us the courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead  the guessers often gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively. Without that illusion, we all might have surrendered long ago.

 But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.

 Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership far so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to. Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right. It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.

 Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.

 That’s correct.

 Millions spent on public health are inflationary.

 That’s correct.

 Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.

 That’s correct.

 Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.

 That’s correct.

 The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment’s notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.

 That’s correct.

 Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.

 That’s correct.

 Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.

 That’s correct.

That’s free enterprise.

 And that’s correct.

 The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.

 That’s correct.

 The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.

 That’s correct.

 The free market will do that.

 That’s correct.

 The free market is an automatic system of justice.

 That’s correct.

 I’m kidding.

 And if you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, DC. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcome in Washington, DC. Do you remember those doctors a few months back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, DC.

 Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.

 What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge  the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations.

 If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on. Please, don’t you do that. But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you  and now I have to guess  about 10 to one.

 I’m going to tell you some news.

 No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.

 Nor will I confess that I sleep with children. I will say this, though: My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.

 Here’s the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only 12 years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.

 But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.

 Our government’s got a war on drugs. That’s certainly a lot better than no drugs at all. That’s what was said about prohibition. Do you realise that from 1919 to 1933 it was absolutely against the law to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the Indiana newspaper humourist Ken Hubbard said: “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”

 But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.

 One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed, or tiddley-poo, or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 40. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.

 Other drunks have seen pink elephants.

 About my own history of foreign substance abuse, I’ve been a coward about heroin and cocaine, LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn’t seem to do anything to me one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.

 I am, of course, notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.

 But I’ll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver’s licence  look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!

 And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.

 When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialised world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won’t be any left. Cold turkey.

 Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn’t the TV news is it? Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.

 I turned 82 on November 11, 2004. What’s it like to be this old? I can’t parallel park worth a damn any more, so please don’t watch while I try to do it. And gravity has become a lot less friendly and manageable than it used to be.

When you get to my age, if you get to my age, and if you have reproduced, you will find yourself asking your own children, who are themselves middle-aged: “What is life all about?'” I have seven kids, three of them orphaned nephews.

 I put my big question about life to my son the pediatrician. Dr Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

 Extracted from A Man Without A Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America, (Bloomsbury). 





What a Libertarian Is – and Is Not by Sam Wells


A libertarian is a person – any person – who consistently advocates individual freedom and consistently opposes the initiation of the use of coercion by anyone upon the person or property of anyone else for any reason.  (Coercion is here defined as any action taken by a human being against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to his or her body or property.  This includes murder, rape, kidnaping, assault, trespassing, burglary, robbery, arson and fraud.)  Some libertarians (such as the late Robert LeFevre) not only oppose all forms of initiatory coercion, but also the use of retaliatory coercion (revenge or criminal justice).  The vast majority of libertarians, however, maintain that physical force used in self-defense or defense of one’s family or property is fully justifiable.

But, all libertarians, by definition, at least oppose the initiatory use of coercion.  They support the rational principle of the individual human rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.  This means that each individual has the right to keep what he earns for himself and his family, and this includes the right to use, trade, sell, give away, or dispose of his property as he sees fit.  A person who violates the rights of others by initiating coercion, violence, or fraud against them forfeits his right to be left alone by government and may be arrested, charged, tried, and imprisoned, deported or executed if convicted (depending on the nature of his or her crimes).   The basic, proper function of lawful government is therefore limited to protecting these rights of the peaceful individual from criminals and foreign aggression, and in not violating these rights itself, for if government is allowed to go beyond this legitimate function and itself initiates force in violation of the rights of peaceful citizens, it necessarily contradicts the only rational justification for its own existence by acting criminally itself.

Real libertarians take individual rights seriously – seriously enough to consistently uphold them against the initiation of the use of force by anyone (including government) for any reason.  This means that government must be bound by the policy of “laissez faire” – which means that government has no business coercively interfering with the lives of peaceful (non-coercive) citizens in their private affairs and voluntary (market) relationships.

Libertarians may or may not approve of some of the things that some people may do in private or in voluntary relations, but whatever their own code of personal moral conduct is, they do not seek to ban any private or voluntary activities by the use of force, including the force of government action.  To do so would be to violate the very principle of individual rights of person and property, and thereby undercut any rational argument in favor of freedom or defense of the free-market system.  Those exception makers and outright coercive busy-bodies in our midst (referred to as “interventionists” or “statists” by libertarians) who do want to abandon government by principle and instead put Whim in charge of the use of legal coercion are the people who help set the stage for arbitrary and capricious governmental tyranny – leading in the direction of totalitarian dictatorship. 

Libertarians Are Not Conservatives

Libertarians are not “conservatives”; libertarians are radicals (principled advocates) for individual freedom and responsibility – and the pure free-market private-enterprise economic system which would result from a consistent application of that principle.  A “conservative” on the other hand is one who wishes to preserve the status quo.  The status quo in America today is the semi-socialist, semi-fascist mixed-economy welfare-state – a system inimical to personal freedom and responsibility.  Libertarians do not support such a system, and oppose any and all measures to expand it while favoring the total repeal of interventionist laws and regulatory agencies.

Conservatives of the William F. Buckley or William Bennett variety are generally more concerned with imposing “order” than with allowing freedom.  Although they often (and rightly) complain that government has got “too big” and too meddlesome in our lives, on some specific issues they themselves favor using the political power of government to legislate and enforce their view of morality upon the populace in “the national interest” or for the “social good.”   William Bennett, for example, opposes the legalization and/or decriminalization of the sale and use of heroin and cocaine, and he continues to support the no-win “War on Drugs” which is causing violence to escalate in our society.  Libertarians, on the other hand, realize that “enforced morality” (in such personal matters) is a contradiction in terms; without freedom of choice there can be no moral responsibility and personal growth.

Libertarians also perceive that freedom brings about a more complex, dynamic and harmonious order in society (co-ordinated by the market price mechanism) than any static view of order imposed by central political planning and regulations of our non-coercive behaviors.

Libertarians are for individual freedom – and this includes the freedom of people to do some things that we and other people may disapprove of.  A person should be free (from coercive interference) to do what he pleases with his own life and property, as long as he does not violate (through coercive interference) the same right of other peaceful persons to do what they want with their lives and properties.  (The second clause is logically implied in the first.)  Libertarians do not oppose non-coercive persuasion, educational efforts, private advertising campaigns, organized boycotts, or even social ostracism as means of trying to effect changes in the private behavior of others.  (Many people have stopped smoking tobacco in recent years partly as a result of education and persuasion by friends and family members.)  What libertarians do oppose is the attempt by anyone (individuals or government officials) to impose their own views of “fairness” or personal morality on others through the initiation of the use of coercion, by either personal violence or political legislation and governmental action.  This principled position sets libertarians apart from conservatives as well as other non-libertarians. 

Libertarians Are Not Welfare-State “Liberals”

Libertarians are not to be confused with the so-called “civil libertarians” which typify the membership and leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union.  It is true that the ACLU has come to the defense of freedom of speech for certain minorities (e.g., nazis, communists, and anarchists) and this is commendable – but the podium has often been at taxpayers’ expense, which is a “no-no” from the real libertarian perspective.  Many “civil libertarians” believe that some people have a “right” to violate the rights of others; they claim there is a “right to a job” or a “right” to welfare payments or a “right” to “free education” or a “right” to free child care – all at the expense of the people (usually the taxpayers) who are forced to pay for these so-called “rights.”   Real libertarians are for true freedom, not “freedom” at the forced expense of others.  The only obligation that true rights impose on persons is of a negative kind:  not to interfere with the rights of other people – i.e., to refrain from the initiation of the use of coercion. This is the core principle of libertarianism and is sometimes called the ‘Non-Aggression Axiom’.

Welfare-state “liberals” and “civil libertarians” speak of “rights” of people as members of specially privileged groups, such as “women’s rights” or “gay rights” or “rights of the handicapped” or even so-called “animal rights”!  Real libertarians know that there are only individual rights, not group rights.  There is no such thing as “gay rights” or “black rights” or “white rights” or left-handed Martian rights.  Government must not be used to dish out special privileges to any group for any reason, since government cannot give anyone anything unless it takes it away from others by force, thereby violating their rights.  There can be no such thing as a “right” to violate the rights of others.

No doubt there are some well-intentioned ACLU members who do promote true civil liberties and uphold human rights; however, the ACLU has not come to the defense of the rights of school children whose freedom is being violated daily by compulsory attendance laws and the tyranny of Federally-ordered forced busing.  Nor do I know of any case in which the ACLU has defended the constitutional rights of businessmen who are being harassed by OSHA agents and other bureaucrats, or hounded by such arbitrary and subjective laws as the antitrust acts.  Indeed, many “civil libertarians” seem callously insensitive to the victims of crime and legal plunder – while they defend known criminals from justice.

Because of their consistent adherence to the principle of individual rights, libertarians are the only true defenders of liberty — civil or otherwise.  Real libertarians understand that freedom of speech and other civil liberties depend on the sanctity of private property – not its violation by anti-discrimination laws and other forms of government intervention. 

Libertarians Are Not for Unlimited Majority Rule

Libertarians are not democrats.  While majority rule may or may not be as good as any other mechanism for selecting the men and women who administer the offices of government, libertarians deny that anyone or any group has a right to rule over other peaceful (non-coercive) citizens – whether they are in the majority or minority at any given time.  If stealing is wrong for an individual to do, it is still wrong when conducted by a large group or by a majority vote.  The number of people involved in an act does not change the rightness or wrongness of the act.  There is no magic number that turns an individual wrong into a collective right.   In a libertarian republic, the basic policy of government (i.e., laissez faire) is set by reference to fundamental principle — the principle of individual rights — and not determined by a show of hands. Libertarians uphold the right of the peaceful individual to self-ownership and private property against any who would violate this right – even a majority. 

Libertarians Are Not Anarchists

Libertarians are not anarchists.  While it is true that some individuals favor a political system of competing vigilante committees, and refer to this position as “anarcho-capitalism” (a view formerly held by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard), this is a confusing misnomer based on an apparent failure to clearly distinguish between the nature of market institutions (which do not involve the use of coercion at all, either initiatory or retaliatory) and the nature of coercive entities (criminal or legal).  Actually, libertarianism rests on the concepts of individualism, self-ownership, private property, & voluntary (market) exchange.  Classical anarchism not only opposed the political state, but also some voluntary organizations of which it disapproved.  Most importantly, true anarchists opposed private property – without which no voluntary relationships are possible.  Today’s libertarians are in the classical liberal tradition of Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Edmund Burke, Herbert Spencer, and Frederic Bastiat – not the anarchist tradition of Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bakunin. 

Libertarians Are Not Pragmatists

Libertarians do not advocate freedom or the free-market economy merely because “it works” (which it does better than any other system); they support it as the only non-coercive and just system – the system in which people are free to deal with one another on a voluntary basis as traders (exchangers of goods and services) instead of as masters and slaves – or as privileged class and exploited host.  Others advocate government by whim.  Libertarians adhere to certainprinciples, and without the guidance of principles and standards, all that is left is pragmatic expediency and the tyranny of government by whim. One might say that libertarians are “idealists” in the popular sense of that word; after all, libertarians stand for certain ideals – goals to strive for (e.g., less government intervention, more individual freedom and moral responsibility, free markets, etc.).  Because libertarianism is based on man’s nature and the nature of reality, it is the most practicable social system.  Libertarians are practical idealists.


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