A Man without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut

A Man Without A Country (MWAC) was published in 2006, the last of 25 books by Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), a widely heralded satirist, humorist and devout humanist, who is best known for his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. At first glance, this diminutive book, MWAC, is an easy evening’s read and, from its cover to its last word, it appears whimsical, even mockingly frivolous, with its cartoons and written in breezy, stream-of-consciousness, colloquial English, but it is much more than that.

Its title, of course, calls to mind, Man Without A Country, the classic, eternal plea for patriotism by Edward Everett Hale, written in the 1860’s, aimed at the Civil War, which depicts an American pacifist who refuses to fight and renounces his citizenship and spends his life on a boat, never able to dock, as he belonged nowhere, and “sentenced” to receive no news of his homeland for the rest of his life; ultimately, this expatriate regrets his decision, and all men are forever admonished not to expatriate from their respective homelands.

Vonnegut, also a pacifist like Hale, puts a reverse spin on this theme: He is disgusted by the world’s indifference to all of life’s forms, including human, which mankind demonstrates by its determination to extinguish itself with fossil fuels and nuclear-power-waste (that must escape in some eventual, natural disaster) and by America’s (and other nations) repeated elections of morons (“psychopathic personalities”) to lead us over the precipice, and to “save” foreigners by killing them and to force American ideologies down the throats of others (in Iraq and all over the planet, making America “as feared and hated as the Nazis once were”); Vonnegut excoriates America for its attack on the freedoms of its citizens, as it taps phones, violates the Constitution (search and seizure, habeas corpus, privacy, double taxation, theft of property without due process, etc.) in the name of “protecting the people”, and, most evil of all, although KV fails to mention it, to steal the wealth of the people through criminal debauchment of the currency (printing endless quantities of increasingly worthless paper money), while outlawing the creation of any competitive monetary instruments, etc., which would swiftly drive government-originate currencies off the market. Much of these Machiavellian actions are taken under the aegis of pseudo-Christianity, but, quoting Shakespeare, he adds, “The devil can cite Scripture for his [any] purpose,” be it an “eye for an eye” or “turn the other cheek”.

Due to such ongoing government crimes against its citizens, the beloved author, humorist and humanist, Vonnegut, with his customary irony and wry smile, declares that he is “a man without a country”. His purpose, no doubt, is to remind us (as Ronald Reagan so eloquently said in his Second Inaugural Address),

“The government isn’t the solution to the problem; the government IS the problem.”

Vonnegut’s book, however, gives us much more than his meritorious objections to the foregoing ills.

His pearls of wisdom come fast and with such self-effacing flippancy that they are easy to miss. For a humorous twist, “ Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse… If you read the morning paper, you’ll see that Satan, not God, created our planet [quoting Mark Twain]… We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is…Freud said that he didn’t know what women want; I know. They want a whole lot of people to talk to…And men want pals, and not to be criticized so much…The last thing that I wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the planet were named Bush, Dick and Colon [sic Colin].” Or in a more serious vein: “Art is a very human way to make life more bearable…a way to make your soul grow…Shakespeare wrote masterpieces, because he told the truth…Our media is so craven today that it routinely conceals or distorts the truth, and only in books can we learn what’s going on…If we didn’t have the Sermon on the Mount [and the Ten Commandments, music, poetry and art], I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake…”

This reader would pick two bones with KV. A chemist by training, he has no understanding of economics, especially Austrian economics. He needed massive doses of Greenspan, Friedman, Ayn Rand, Adam Smith and John Locke. Also, guns are not the problem; criminals will always get guns; the Constitution is right: people need the right to bear arms to protect themselves from criminals and from their government, On balance, Vonnegut was entertaining, profound and a most humane soul, and most of what he says is as good and a delight to read.