Friday, April 13, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, celebrated writer and bipedally-locomotive carbon-based terrestrial life form, fell recently and suffered brain injuries at his home in Manhattan. He died. He was 84. The moral and spiritual impoverishment of our times has increased exponentially. So it goes.

An author whose vision of our world and its people was by turns profoundly pessimistic and profoundly upbeat, Vonnegut brought us a mordant wit wrapped around an irrepressible moral vision. His fascination with science fiction underscored what seemed to be a deeply-held desire for escape from this earthly plane, flight from the charnel house of modern times -- a wish, couched in dark humor, one-liners and philosophical asides, to be anywhere else ... anywhere but here and now.

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Some of his novels, "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" in particular, were personal points of reference for college students in the 1960's and 1970's. For years you were guaranteed to find copies of those works and others at college bookstores and on plywood-and-cinderblock shelves in university dorm rooms across the country — a kind of red badge of undergraduate rebellion.

Vonnegut became something of a literary icon, one adored by students and the left. His very appearance -- bushy hair, tweed jacket, the obligatory Pall Mall cigarettes he favored -- suggesting a renegade college professor straight out of central casting.

Vonnegut came by his pessimism honestly. What may have been the definitive experience of his life was a defining moment for humanity as well. The firebombing of Dresden, Germany by British and American forces in 1945, an event he witnessed firsthand as a prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids, many of them burned alive or asphyxiated by the firestorm that consumed the oxygen in the air.

"The firebombing of Dresden was a work of art … a tower of smoke and flame to commemorate the rage and heartbreak of so many who had had their lives warped or ruined by the indescribable greed and vanity and cruelty of Germany," he wrote in "Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage."

"The corpses, most of them in ordinary cellars, were so numerous and represented such a health hazard that they were cremated on huge funeral pyres, or by flamethrowers whose nozzles were thrust into the cellars, without being counted or identified."

That experience formed the backdrop of "Slaughterhouse-Five,"published in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War, another indifferent conflagration.

In “Kurt Vonnegut’s Fantastic Faces,” a 1999 essay reprinted on the apparently official Vonnegut Web site, Peter Reed explains the way Vonnegut used sci-fi as a way into our rather more pedestrian world:

“Vonnegut has typically used science fiction to characterize the world and the nature of existence as he experiences them. His chaotic fictional universe abounds in wonder, coincidence, randomness and irrationality. Science fiction helps lend form to the presentation of this world view without imposing a falsifying causality upon it. In his vision, the fantastic offers perception into the quotidian, rather than escape from it."

Tom, a reviewer for Amazon.com, writing from Palatine, Ill., observed that "Vonnegut has a way of combining Orwell's eye with Updike's wit, and the sum is greater still, than the parts."

One of his oft-used visual symbols, what appears to be an asterisk, has done double-duty for years: It could be an anal sphincter. It could be a star in a distant galaxy. In the hands of Vonnegut the graphic artist, it could go either way, a symbol of our highest cosmic aspirations or a symbol of humanity at its most banal.

Despite writing celebrated novels that dwelt on the earthiest aspects of humanity, Vonnegut looked up in the night sky of his life and saw more than pinpricks of light. In a brief appearance in a 2002 film, for example, he said that "music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference."

That was Vonnegut, all right: the spiritual mixed in with the humorist with a fatalist streak. "I've had a hell of a good time," Vonnegut once wrote. "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."

In his 1965 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," Vonnegut offered a philosophy strong enough to have been his valedictory if he’d stopped writing then. Written in the language of a greeting to newborns, it’s a philosophy that we, today, in a world more fractious and divisive and threatened than ever before, would do well to tell our children, our neighbors, ourselves, from now until the end of time:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "
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Image credits: Vonnegut: ©2004 Mike Sands. Cat’s Cradle cover: © 1963 Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Imus in the mourning

Rage is a strange and powerful thing. It leads men to temptation, it makes allowances for trespass and brooks no forgiveness for those who trespass against us. It leads us to turbulent waters, clouds the judgment and the heart, and makes people see things that aren't really there. Rage reveals both folly and tragedy in pretty much equal measure; it's fundamental to the national conversation, and if you choose to ignore it, you do so at your own peril.

In the stark Fitzgerald's 3 a.m. of his soul, if he were honest about it, George Bush would tell you this.

So would John Donald Imus.

Imus, the 67-year-old legendary radio personality, noisy scold, tireless social commentator and iconoclastic firebrand, has made a career of outrage and impatience and a certain willingness to take shots at people whether they deserve it or not.

It's all made for a rabidly loyal following of fans -- listeners to his radio shows on WNYC and, more recently, WFAN Radio; public figures at every level, including politicians, authors and musicians; and most recently viewers of "Imus in the Morning," a cable TV-simulcast version of his WFAN radio show broadcast by MSNBC from their studios in Secaucus, N.J.

In a sports segment on April 4, at 6:14 a.m. local time, talk between Imus and his broadcast partners turned to the NCAA women's basketball game between Rutgers University and Tennessee.

"That's some rough girls from Rutgers," Imus cracked. "Man, they've got tattoos and ... " At that point Bernie McGuirk, Imus's longtime friend and producer, jumped in. "Some hard-core hos," he said. Imus, laughing, pressed further. "That's some nappy-headed hos there, I'm going to tell you that now," he said. Belly laughs all around. After a few more ugly jibes, they were on to the next thing.

Unspoken, for the most part, was the fact that April 4 was the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

The shitstorm of protest started early and seriously. The Imus exchange was noted by a sharp researcher at Media Matters for America, the Washington-based media watchdog group. Then the head of the National Association of Black Journalists called for his ouster. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton weighed in (a little automatically but necessarily, too).

And just that fast, the bigger shoes dropped. By April 6, the advertisers began to bail from both CBS Radio and MSNBC. Sprint Nextel, Staples, Ditech, GlaxoSmithKline, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and other deep-pocketed heavy hitters threatened to jump ship; in the minds of many, that prospective desertion by advertisers sounded the death knell for the Imus program as much as any lapse of ethics or social judgment.

In an attempt at damage control, on April 9: Imus said "Want to take a moment to apologize for an insensitive and ill-conceived remark we made the other morning regarding the Rutgers women's basketball team.

It was completely inappropriate, and we can understand why people were offended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we are sorry."

Note the liberal exercise of the Royal 'We," a transparent attempt, some said, at deflecting the criticism beyond the person responsible: Imus himself.

Then came other damage control: MSNBC released a statement the same day: "While simulcast by MSNBC, 'Imus in the Morning' is not a production of the cable network and is produced by WFAN Radio. As Imus makes clear every day, his views are not those of MSNBC. We regret that his remarks were aired on MSNBC and apologize for these offensive comments."

But it was so much weak tea, preceded as it was by previous promises by Imus not to resort to such broad and ruthless castigations. David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, wrote that Imus' remark was "the kind of unalloyed racial insult that might not have passed muster on a low-watt AM station in the Jim Crow South."

Imus was put on a two-week suspension by both WFAN/CBS and MSNBC. That might have been enough if not for something unexpected of Imus' usual targets. The Rutgers team decided to fight back.

The team's coach, Vivian Stringer, spoke eloquently about the impact of Imus' words on the team, and the wider signal it sent about America. Her comments -- long-winded but surely heartfelt -- had the devastating impact of a watershed event. In their own way, Stringer's respone and that of the black members of the team were the same kind of cri du coeur as those made by Joseph Welch to Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the House Un-American Activities committee hearings in 1953. "At long last, Mr. Imus," Stringer seemed to say, "have you no sense of decency?"

Imus was fired by MSNBC on April 11. CBS Radio cashiered him yesterday.

Popular culture, being the debris-strewn superhighway that it sometimes is, will grow around this little episode. Imus will no doubt turn up somewhere else in the information ether, hopefully a little wiser and circumspect about what he says, more learned in doing one of pop-culture's more enduring dance steps: the Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Kum Ba Yah.

But his comments had an impact beyond the words containing the comments, and an object lesson for anyone who works with words for a living.

For many people, maybe the most galling thing about the Imus comments weren't specific to the comments themselves. Imus’ commentary proved, absolutely and undeniably, just how low the behavioral baseline for public discourse has fallen in recent years. With his acutely ridiculous statement, it was no longer enough to be a card-carrying rap artist with gold chains, gold teeth, a gold Glock, ready cash and an appetite for the trademark excesses of the thug life (all of that mental construction as much a fabrication, an imitation of life, as anything remotely resembling reality).

Don Imus reset the mark: Now, and especially if you were African American and young, you were a target if you were ordinary people, hard-working, hard-studying exemplars of middle-class values, people putting one foot in front of the other, trying to survive. Imus’ remarks wounded precisely because of the pointless randomness of their intended targets. Everyone, no matter who you are, how undeserving of ridicule, everyone can be a target of the angry cosmology of John Donald Imus.

Words can hurt, words can damage. Anyone who truly respects the power of words understands that. Ten or twenty years later than he should have, Don Imus is learning that now.
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Image credit: Time magazine
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