Thursday, October 1, 2009

Staying Sane

I was puzzled some time ago by a comment Jon Stewart made to Kurt Vonnegut when he interviewed him on his show: "Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut, for helping me to stay sane." He, Jon, meant of course when he was growing up. But now I understand that comment because when there is madness all around, the only way to stay sane, which means lighthearted, not "serious," is to go to those who are labeled "insane" or "crazy" by those who propagate the "conventional wisdom" of the day or year or century. You know, conventional wisdom like the idea that the United States' government is a "democracy!" Or that politicians are powerless to resist the wishes of "special interests." Here is one example from the newspapers recently: A former Nixon aide, a particularly inept Nixon aide, named Bud McFarland, was being paid a whole lot of money by a foreign government, Sudan, I think, to lobby the Obama administration and this had some people worried that this would adversely effect Obama's intense commitment to improve things in that country. Now, I ask you, if the Obama administration wanted to ignore McFarland, what would prevent them from doing so? It is mind boggling what passes for "analysis" and what are considered problems in the United States. Which brings me back to Vonnegut.

I have to love a guy who wrote: "We are here on earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you any different." Or: "I don't know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves 'Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment.'" Or: "We are about to be attacked by Al Qaeada. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away." This reminds me of the something my son said to me after 9/11, something like this as I did not write it down when he said it: "Maybe all those people waving flags should read some history books." And I don't think he meant the kind of history books written for those in our high schools! You know the kind: Those that fail to mention, for example, that Woodrow Wilson was (a) a racist and (b) dragged the nation into WWI against the wishes of the people or the best interests of the nation because he wanted to "make the world safe for democracy." Ah, we are taught: Wilson, one of our "great" presidents!!

Now, quickly, about the farting around. My students are always amazed not only that I say this but even defend it. I ask them: Who does more damage to the planet and to humans, those who fart around or those who are serious about "saving" us, those who are trying to "democratize" the world, those who are trying stop people from using drugs? Most years, I try to get my students to read a book, The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, which has two protagonists, Thomas Fowler, a Brit, who likes to observe life in Viet Nam and smoke opium, and Alden Pyle, an American, who wants to "save" Viet Nam and the Vietnamese by Americanizing them. Guess who does the most damage? You got it. So, I ask my students: Which is more destructive, doing drugs or "saving" the world? Needless to say, they have not heard this question before! I think it is the arrogance of the serious types that makes them so dangerous. George Carlin liked to point out the arrogance of those who were going to save the planet: "The planet isn't going anywhere. We are! The planet was here millions, even billions of years before we were and it will be here long after we are gone. All of us!" For Real!


  1. It's evident that "saving the world" requires far more effort than most are willing to give. For me it was a "moral" thing, though I think one can really rationalize anything as moral. That is, saving the world, or at least saving the republic, will take guns, which most of us are not willing to use. Even if we did, it would take time that most of us do not have. Maybe it's better to have radical individualism when the public sphere is so broken and without sane remedies.
    In our frustrations we will turn to Jack Daniels and computers or "friends with benefits" to ease the frustration. Or we might simply make baseball our God and the AL East our government hierarchy in the first place. Apathy just might be a sane way to insulate ourselves from the unavoidable heartache of caring.
    Vonnegut made it clear about wars and oligarchies: you might as well try to stop glaciers (if i remember correctly). While I'm not sure that farting around really is the answer, pragmatism and realism seem to be the only way to stay sane. If we put our heads on our pillows with some semblance of "ideal" still floating around, our dreams will be nightmares reminding us of how far we've fallen as a civilization.

  2. Thanks for the response. I like it. But you seem to think that we all will be frustrated if we "fart around." I fart around all the time and am anything but frustrated. Usually I am having fun. But you have ignored the question: Who does more damage in the world, the serious types who are trying to save it, even "pragmatically" as you put it, or those who are farting around? To me the answer is as clear as The Quiet American. No war was more "pragmatic" than Viet Nam and it cost us and the Vietnamese dearly. And now we are buying Nikes made in Viet Nam! Now that was worth 58,000+ Americans and millions of Vietnamese deaths, wasn't it?