Social Justice: The New American Dream
Best known as one of America’s most astonishing and enduring contemporary novelists, Kurt Vonnegut was also a celebrated commencement address giver. The much expanded second edition of If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? (Seven Stories Press, 2016), compiled and introduced by Dan Wakefield, includes nine of Vonnegut’s speeches, plus new graduation speeches and essays. Vonnegut delivers funny, yet serious advice and insight without being pretentious. The following speech offers a new vision for the American dream and the American people.
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The State University of New York at Albany
May 20, 1972
It is nice of you to have me here.
I have been asked to make an announcement by the management: If anyone cheated in the process of getting a degree, now is the time to confess it and leave quietly. If you don’t confess it now, you will be haunted by bogeymen for the rest of your lives—and by a very angry Santa Claus.
I never graduated from college, but I am sick about things I did in high school. I, too, was invited to confess. And did I? No. That is one of the reasons I have heebie-jeebies all the time.
Another reason I have the heebie-jeebies is that I am almost sure we have been invaded by flying saucer creatures from the planet Pluto. That will be the big news in this speech, I think—about the invasion from Pluto and what Earthlings can do about it. But I’d like to save that for a little later on.
My brother works here. He used to work in a bloomer factory. It was a very good job. He was pulling down twenty-five thousand a year.
That isn’t really true. I just like that joke so much. Actually my brother is a scientist, and always has been—and an Earthling, too, as far as I know.
He works in your department of Atmospheric Sciences. You mustn’t picket him or blow him up. Dr. Bernard Vonnegut is not in war work. He is trying to find peace-time uses for thunder and lightning. I made sure he had tenure before I agreed to speak.
Bernard and I used to work for General Electric over in Schenectady. I have worked for several large corporations in my life. This is the first time I have knowingly worked for Standard Oil.
I am an exemplar. I would not have been invited here, if I were not exemplary. I am in Who’s Who. I am costing about what a used 1968 Volkswagen would cost—with a busted tape deck and good rubber all around.
I will show you today what Diogenes had such trouble finding—an honest man. I am perhaps the second honest man ever to come to Albany. My brother was the first. He moved in from Delmar about four months ago. He can tell you the truth about the sciences, which are killing us all. I will tell you the truth about the arts, which would like to drive us crazy.
You may have been told at the great institution of higher learning that the arts are good for everybody—or at any rate have no harmful side effects. That isn’t true. One of the principal uses of the arts in this and many other modern countries is to confuse the uneducated and the powerless and the poor.
I am talking about expensive arts now, tremendously official arts—and not the little tunes and poems and pictures and stories which the downtrodden select or create for their own amusement.
I am talking about the arts which are supported by dictators and social climbers and multimillionaires.
I have heard powerful men on both sides of the Iron Curtain praising the arts. I have been in their museums and concert balls. I have seen the common people attempting to appreciate the art treasures said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or rubles or what have you. The common people always look waterlogged. They seem to have double pneumonia. They swoon with apathy.
This is what is supposed to happen.
The purpose of the museums and concert halls and theaters and public statuary and so on is to persuade the common people that they are unworthy of holding power or making big money—because their minds and spirits are inferior.
Proof of their inferiority is the fact that they are incapable of appreciating great art.
The rich and powerful are even more bored by the arts than the common people. One has only to attend the opera in any country but Italy to know this is so.
But they have to pretend to appreciate the arts in order to demonstrate their natural superiority, since they can scarcely demonstrate it in any other way. And I pity them. I am a compassionate man. How much fun can it be, really, to pretend to love Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer day in and day out, year in and year out? How much fun can it be to pretend to love the German opera—or War and Peace, which you haven’t read, even though you’re a Russian?
How much fun can it be, day in and day out, to pretend to admire the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Albany Mall?
I assume most of you are sufficiently familiar with modern art history to know what I mean by “the Albany Mall.” Then again, perhaps architecture isn’t thought of as being one of the fine arts at the State University of New York at Albany.
That would certainly be understandable. My brother has gunports instead of windows in his laboratory. He turned on his Bunsen burner, and Pepsi-Cola came out.
Be that as it may: I like the fine arts all right, but I doubt that they are any finer than a lot of other human games. And I deny most bitterly that persons claiming to love the fine arts are necessarily fine people. The emperor Nero was a patron of the arts. So was Herman Goering. So were so many of the American economic robber barons who cut the guts out of what was left of the American dream after the Civil War.
There is some small chance, I suppose, that some works of art are closer to God or Truth or what have you than some other things which men have made. I am a Unitarian, so I wouldn’t know. I have no handles on God or Truth.
I do know something about the American dream, since that is what brought my ancestors from Germany to Indiana so long ago. And I can name things men and women have done which are closer to the American dream than any book or statue or painting or building or song. These are the acts of social justice.
We have plenty of art, and important art, too. I will guess that one American in twenty has a love for the arts which is joyful and natural and genuine. I am one of those persons, and had to get out of Indianapolis on that account.
And that tiny part of our population which appreciates the arts is well taken care of, is often appalled by how much good stuff there is to read and see and listen to. We have plenty of art in America.
It is social justice which is in gruesomely short supply.
Can the arts distract some people from social justice? Yes—they can. Consider the case of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, the author of our Declaration of Independence. He died on the Fourth of July, by the way. Nobody ever wrote more eloquently about freedom and fair play and the natural rights of every human being than Jefferson.
He was also fond of architecture and the pleasant things which can happen in well-designed dwellings when labor is cheap and tractable. So he kept human slaves until he was an old man. He let them go at last, but he was old by then.
Let us forgive Thomas Jefferson. He had a weakness for the finer things in life. A lot of us do. What’s wrong with a little slavery?
Dear friends—I have told you that the arts often play an insidious part in class warfare.
And you have said to yourselves perhaps, “Well—this is fairly interesting, maybe, but it’s irrelevant. Our present king doesn’t even pretend to be interested in the arts. Neither do his buddies Bebe Rebosa and John Mitchell and Billy Graham and so on.”
The point is well taken. You may have noticed that more and more people are rising to the top of our society who are not only indifferent to the arts, but to jokes and cheerful sex, and to all sorts of human playfulness. I have noticed this, too. And this is what has led me to believe that flying saucer creatures from Pluto have invaded us.
Pluto is a suspicious and prideful and secretive and warlike planet, with a technology far in advance of our own. My guess is that Plutonians began to arrive and reproduce and hold jobs in our government just as the Second World War was ending. Our last three presidents may have been Plutonians. Most of them, however, are in the Pentagon.
We would perhaps welcome them, if it weren’t for their humorlessness and pitilessness, and their blather about national honor—and for their love of war.
Also they are not respectful of the Constitution of the United States of America, the most exuberant work of art in the history of this planet. So let us ask ourselves today, at this long-overdue puberty ceremony: “What can Earthlings do?”
He can’t beat the Plutonians militarily. They have all the weapons. A Plutonian, almost by definition, is a person with a weapon. Governor Wallace was shot by a Plutonian.
We could try to beat them politically. But Plutonians engage in power politics and nothing but power politics from junior high school on. What Earthling could do that? Let us face it: an Earthling’s sense of humor and fascination with sex makes it impossible for him or her to concentrate seriously on anything, even his or her survival, for more than an hour at a time.
Our best hope, it seems to me, lies in our banding together in order to be proud of being Earthlings. The Plutonians, like all invaders, want the natives to be ashamed of their own ideals and dreams. We might choose as our motto: “Earthlings are beautiful.”
Or we might start more modestly with: “Americans are beautiful.” We could go planetary later on. Americans aren’t beautiful now, of course, because of the Plutonians among us. But there is a chance that we can change that now.
I propose a great adventure to you. That is something every good graduation speaker is expected to do. When I graduated from high school, the speaker told us about the great adventures we could have in science—especially in plastics and polarized light. I wound up in the infantry instead. Almost everybody did.
I propose a better adventure than polarized light or the infantry or plastics or the arts or the exploration of outer space or the conquest of cancer or athlete’s foot. I think you should devote your lives to creating something which this planet has never had. The planet will die, if it doesn’t get it now.
You must create an American people. There never has been one. You must create one now. We must create one now. This is a matter of life or death.
When I spoke of the Plutonians and the Earthlings, I was of course alluding to the murderous half and the healing half of every American I have ever known. If I don’t mention the good and evil in foreigners, that is because I don’t know doodley-poop about foreigners. I’ve seldom been far from home. Get a world traveler next time.
One thing I have noticed, though, staying close to home, is that those who rule us, nearly two-hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, do not want an American people to be born. To them, our hatred for one another, our unwillingness to touch one another, have been votes in the ballot box and money in the bank.
I will tell you an embarrassing story about myself, about my own one-hundred-per-cent-American unwillingness to touch another human being, even a close relative. I adopted a boy when he was fourteen. He was my nephew. When he was twenty-one, I congratulated him on being a man, and he said to me, “Do you know you have never hugged me?”
What a hell of a thing to say.
I didn’t want him to think I was a homosexual.
At the very core of my American education was a dread of any gesture which might be interpreted by the football coach as being even vaguely homosexual. The safest thing to do was to never touch anybody—not even Mom. Or maybe especially not Mom.
I was also taught that American men seldom cry, except when the flag goes by. I couldn’t even cry when that boy told me I had never hugged him. I was also taught to fear words. Some words, I was taught, could never be spoken at an assembly like this without making us all feel ashamed and diseased. They had to do with sex and excretion. I was taught the American fear of germs, which is more frantic than the worst nightmare Louis Pasteur ever had. But the fear of germs was extended to strangers, too. My parents and my hygiene teacher told me, in effect, “Beware of strangers or anything touched by strangers. Or you’re liable to get syphilis or leprosy or the bubonic plague.”
I look back on all the taboos that I was taught, that everybody was taught, and I see now that they were parts of a great swindle. Their purpose was to make Americans afraid to get close to one another—to organize.
It was even taboo to discuss the American economic system and its bizarre methods of disturbing wealth. I learned that at my mother’s knee. God rest her soul. God rest her knee. She taught me never to say anything impolite about the neighborhood millionaire. She didn’t even want me to wonder out loud how the hell he ever got to control that much wealth.
We must learn to deal with one another more frankly and openly, even humorously. But, more important than that, we must learn to touch. If we are to become a strong and decent people, we must become cousins now—eccentric cousins maybe, but cousins all the same. Blood is thicker than water. Let us learn from the Mafia. It is time, incidentally, that the white people in this country acknowledged that the so-called black people are actually blood relatives of theirs. This is easily proved.
But this is no time to marvel and cackle over family trees. This is a time for us to become excited about being members of the family of man.
Does anyone have nerve enough to touch a stranger near him or her now? Even an old person? Ambulances are waiting outside. First aid stations have been set up in white nylon tents, in case you need oxygen or want to want to wash your hands in Lysol.
If an American people is to be born during the tragedy of the war in Vietnam, it is going to have to be a personal, visceral adventure.
I do not apologize for making this suggestion.
We must become a family in order to take care of one another the way families do. Now, nearly two hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, written by a man who owned human slaves, I think we understand that our politicians and millionaires can do very little for us, except to take our money. There are sound reasons for this, I’m sure. I mean to study economics some day.
Meanwhile, we must love one another and care for one another as best we can, and we must organize. You, our new generation of adults, must organize us.
And if our government persists in being as wrong-headed as it is today, you must threaten it with the only effective weapon the Earthlings have against the Plutonians, which is a general strike.
I have tried to preach pacifism today. If I were the White House preacher, I would try to make a Quaker out of Richard M. Nixon. That is how crazy I am.
Our history teaches us that we need not fear pacifism. It will not leave our nation defenseless. I was raised to be a pacifist, and so were most people my age. In the public schools of Indianapolis and in the public schools of all over the land, people my age were instructed when young to jeer at the nations of Europe for maintaining enormous standing armies, for wasting their substance on weapons and allowing generals and admirals to help decide what the nations would do next, where the energy and the money and people would go.
I learned my contempt for the military at the same place I learned to fear germ-laden strangers and symptoms of homosexuality and so on—in the public schools. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” as they say.
Well—all those yellow-bellied pacifists produced by the American public school system in the nineteen-thirties became a harrowingly effective army in the early forties, when we got into a war which seemed just.
As for preparing this country against an attack from anti-missile anti-missile anti-missiles. By developing an anti-missile anti-missile anti-missile anti-missile, I may be in the minority, but I think the American people should spend the money on hospitals and housing and schools and Ferris wheels instead.
Thank you, and good luck.
More from If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: The Graduation Speeches and Other Words to Live By by Kurt Vonnegut and published by Seven Stories Press, 2016.
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