The Power of Vonnegut

Today I was thinking again about Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Welcome to the Monkey House” and why it is a great work and how I might explain that to people who don’t get it.

But the more I think about it, the more I feel that we live in a world that does not allow for discussion on such controversial topics. People have become too rigid and brittle in their beliefs. Their minds cannot bend to accommodate ideas that are alien to their line of thinking. It is easy to attach a label like “cancel culture” and “snowflake” to those people who are more interested in displaying how offended they are than expanding their minds, but that would defeat the purpose. You cannot explain the virtue of accepting unconventional thinking and shut out people who disagree with you at the same time.

No doubt Vonnegut himself faced many of the outright rejections and dismissive condemnations in his own time that we see him getting today. In his youth it was still quite fringe to say that The Land of The Free was built on land forcibly stolen from Native Americans. It was taboo to mention that the nation of liberty and freedom was built on the backs of slaves. We accept those things as truths today. Not everybody goes about kicking themselves every day over it, but people no longer dispute these as matters of fact. In Vonnegut’s youth, it was heresy to even mention it.

(Let me plant a question here. Can you think of a true statement that is heresy today? Can you make a true statement that will make a roomful of people go ballistic at you in 2021 as if you said that America was built over the bodies of Native Americans and Africans in 1945? Let me call this Question X.)

America IS the Land of the Free. It is still the beacon of light to many oppressed people of the world. And that beacon is built on land stolen from Native Americans and built on the backs of slaves. The latter does not discredit the former, nor does the former justify the latter. We can only accept the contradiction and try to build a better future over the rocky past. But Americans are still having trouble balancing the bloody past and privileges of freedom they built over it. Some people have recently made “privilege” a dirty word. It used to be a word for a great power that comes with great responsibility. For most of America’s history, that was what freedom was. American thinkers are going through acrobatic contortions to iron out the kinks between the past guilt and the future ideal, the responsibilities of freedom and the merciless fight to attain it.

People are brittle because they are torn between appreciating the privileges that past brutalities have afforded them and taking accountability for the oppressions that provided them with freedoms they have every right to be proud of. And they are trying to make sense of it all with outmoded templates that pit people against each other.

Back when I was a young man, the people who had experienced the sixties as students were still in their forties. And they would not shut up about how great the sixties were. Many of my contemporaries lamented that we were born two decades too late for our temperament. We imagined ourselves fitting right in with the hairy hippies of the sixties camping out at Woodstock and listening to Jimi Hendrix. Most of those hippies are now either very old or dead. If you were twenty years old in 1969, you would be 72 years old today. If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, he would be nearly 80 years old.

In many ways, we are beneficiaries of the Hippie movement, the New Age, Aquarius, and the Sexual Revolution. At any point earlier than the 1950s, if a student tried to expose a professor who demanded sex in exchange for grades, it was more likely than not that it would be the student who would be shamed and expelled from school. And if the student was male being coerced by a male professor, the outcome could be even worse for the student. We are much more tolerant of extramarital sex today and much more tolerant of minority sexualities, and that has made it easier to blow the whistle on people who abuse power for sex. We owe that to the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s. Even if you are not into having sex with multiple casual partners, you are in debt to the sexual freedoms that allow you autonomy over your own body.

But don’t kid yourself. The Sexual Revolution came on the heels of the ’40s and ’50s. Every participant was raised in the era of institutionalized sexism. Nobody had a clear idea of what acceptable sexual behavior would be in seventy years. The phrase “sexual harassment” would not be invented until the late ’80s. Breaking open the floodgates of sexual freedom involved lots of peer pressure, emotional coercion, and sometimes even outright rape. People used to go to prison for homosexuality not long before. Just speaking of sex openly could make you lose your job or expelled from school. And suddenly, sex was allowed for everybody. In the midst of this chaos, people did not know how far they were allowed to go. Many people saw it as a free-for-all and in many cases it actually was.

If it is difficult to accept and balance the idea that The Land of the Free stands over the blood of Native Americans and Africans, how well do you think you can digest the idea that the sexual freedoms that protect you from sexual harassment today was built over countless cases of forced sex? Aquarius was built and paved over silent tears.

Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House” was published in Playboy magazine in January, 1968. In Vonnegut’s words, “a space filler between the nude photos”. Nominally a story set in a dystopian future, it was pretty clearly inspired by events current at the time. In the story, a serial rapist who calls himself Billy the Poet, with the help of his followers, goes about raping women in an effort to liberate them from artificially imposed sexual frigidity – a “corrective rape” to break free from forced morality. Billy the Poet is described as shy and gentle, and for lack of a better word, sympathetically. People find it uncomfortable to read the short story even today, especially since Vonnegut was a venerated liberal in every other way. Vonnegut even made “Welcome to the Monkey House” the title story of the collection of his short stories, so he was evidently proud of this work. And yet, this is a story that apparently celebrates the myth of corrective rape.

Some people have been very disappointed in Vonnegut for this. Others were puzzled, or tried to argue around it. But those of us old enough to have heard first person accounts of the vivid details of what the ’60s were really like know that Vonnegut was just being honest. He had a history of telling the dirty truth behind the ideals. And he has repeatedly expressed his skepticism of world changing revolutions in his works. This work is no different. (And here is the answer to Question X) The Sexual Revolution, which we all benefit from today, was a massive wave of numerous corrective rapes committed by otherwise shy and gentle boys who saw themselves as liberators. And there were lots and lots of collateral damage.

If that idea sends cold chills down your spine, it means that Vonnegut is still relevant. And that is the power of his literature.

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