Saturday, April 30, 2005

Kurt Vonnegut's Neocon America: War & Socialism in Player Piano

Although released in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian Player Piano can serve as a satire of modern America. That may not be readily apparent to those who focus only on its theme of technology obsoleting workers. Seemingly influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis and foreshadowing The Twilight Zone's "The Brian Center at Whipple's," Player Piano paints a future America where a technocratic oligarchy has established a corporate command economy and cradle-to-grave socialism. The leaders think they've created a utopia but the proles disagree.

One big problem is that advancing technology makes more people useless every day. Retraining is no answer; even engineers are being replaced by computers. Society has become a player piano, creating flawless music without aid of human hands. However, this Darwinism is not untempered. The useless do not go homeless and hungry. On the contrary, everyone's basic needs are met: pre-fabricated homes, washers, TV, even national health care. And twelve years of free education, which is pretty pointless, as most people graduate to idleness.

Well, not quite idleness. Those with top test scores enjoy free college, then join the ever-diminishing ranks of engineers and managers. The less-brainy majority must choose between the Army or the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (aka, the Reeks & Wrecks), and begin a life of menial make-work rather than real jobs. Yes, that includes the Army. Wars are primarily fought with machines, so millions of soldiers remain idle in the US, training with wooden guns. Only those stationed safely abroad are trusted with real guns.

The less-gifted wealthy can go to private college, though I'm not sure what they'd become in this meritocratic society. Perhaps politicians. Player Piano's America enjoys complete separation of politics and power. Elections are free, but elected officials are impotent PR shills. The President is a goofy dunderhead whose main job is telling everyone how great things are, while publicly "ooooing" and "aaaahing" over the engineers' latest computer.

Despite their safety net, men feel useless and miserable because they're paid for make-work. Women feel useless because of all those kitchen appliances, and miserable because they're married to losers. (Yeah I know, but it's a 1950s book.) With few exceptions (entertainer, athlete, politician), it's mostly engineers and managers who enjoy meaningful work and its concomitant prestige. They also make more money, but that's not the main gripe of the useless majority. Player Piano has an anti-materialist theme. Despite calling himself a socialist, Vonnegut has written a novel in which national health care doesn't bring happiness.

So how does Player Piano parallel modern America? There is the loss of good jobs; in the book through technology, in modern America through outsourcing. Both Americas relegate ever more people to menial, government-subsidized work (Wal-Mart reputedly advises employees how to obtain food stamps to supplement their paychecks). Both Americas employ rising police surveillance to fight terrorism, and feel rising suspicion toward dissenters. In Player Piano, terrorists are also called "saboteurs," the ugliest of obscenities. Alleged saboteurs cannot appeal to a judge. Judges have been replaced by computers that analyze precedents and spit out verdicts.

Most importantly, in Player Piano the centralization of corporate/government power over the economy and security forces is a legacy of the last war, which was largely responsible for putting engineers and managers in charge of a command economy. It was a big war, fought overseas with drones and nukes and Gamma rays. A real turkey shoot, except for the soldiers attending the high-tech weapons during a return fire.

Vonnegut's book was doubtless inspired by America's command economy during World War Two, but libertarians have long noted that "War is the health of the state." Some conservatives may not like to hear it, but even "good wars" invariably expand government and diminish liberties. Just ask Louis XVI what the American Revolution did for his treasury. Thus, true conservatives, like all true patriots, are always sceptical of war, and suspicious of those who say we must not question or doubt our elected leaders in times of war.

Player Piano's neocons imagine that they've ended history. The last war is referred to as the Last War. America's high-tech weapons and economy dominate the globe. Yet freedom does not abound, not even in the US. "Anti-machine" books are banned for encouraging terrorism, the authors risking jail. Indeed, a visiting autocrat, hosted by the State Department, mistakes average Americans for slaves.

Vonnegut regards himself as a man of the left, but I've met many libertarians, conservatives, and objectivists who admire Vonnegut's work. Libertarians admire him because he's antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists mostly enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. And conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America in some of his work. While I think that's especially true of his short stories, I've met one conservative who was taken with Vonnegut's midwestern family history in Palm Sunday. Ralph Nader has praised such "true conservatism," distinguishing it from corporatism or empire building.

With a little updating, Player Piano would make for a fine film satire of modern America. Vonnegut's never been adapted effectively, though he was reportedly pleased with Slaughterhouse-Five. The problem is that his greatest strength is not his plots or characters, but his unique authorial voice. Mother Night was adapted with unusual faithfulness to the plot, yet the film was dreary and grim, unlike the often hilarious book.

Player Piano shouldn't have this problem. It was Vonnegut's first novel, his voice still undeveloped and not yet evident, so the book's merits are not based on something unfilmable.

Unfortunately, a critique is not a solution. I don't know what can be done about the outsourcing of jobs. Socialism breeds poverty, corruption, nepotism, and ethnic clashes. Protectionism leads to trade wars, and then, say some, to shooting wars. What we have today -- a sort of statist crony corporatism? -- produces government favoritism and contracts for politically-connected insiders. But even an authentic free market would drain good jobs to the lowest foreign bidder. Good for foreign workers and consumers, bad for domestic workers.

Like many satirists, Vonnegut is better at identifying and ridiculing a problem than in offering a solution. Player Piano ends on a pessimistic note. That may be because some problems have no solution.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Pointless Saudi Bashing from the Left

Today on Air America Radio, Randi Rhodes made the "point" that the 19 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudis. Michael Moore has made the same "point" in his film. My question is ... so what?

The implication seems to be that Bush should have attacked Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq.

First off, I don't think the Left really believes this. Had Bush attacked Saudi Arabia, the Left would be bashing Bush for that. There are many (many, many) good reasons to bash Bush. But the Left does so largely irrespective of any good reasons. They attack Bush largely because he is a Republican. Clinton's wars drew little outrage from the Left.

(Yes, Clinton had more allies in the Balkans, but so did Bush I in the Gulf War; yet the latter was not spared from Leftist criticism).

But more importantly, the hijackers' nationalities are irrelevent because (1) individuals often act independently, and (2) governments often hire foreigners to do their dirty work. Thus, the hijackers may have been acting alone, or on the behest of ... [fill in the government of your choice].

A criminal's nationality is irrelevent to anything. So why do some on the Left keep harping on the hijackers being Saudi? I think because they (rightly) oppose Bush's Iraq War, yet they still feel the need to offer Americans a foreign target, in order to prove that they're pro-national security. Which is silly, but I suppose that's considered politically prudent in a nation gripped with war fever.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Bush's Orwellian Doublespeak on Iran

Heard on the radio news that Iran is angry that the Bush administration is talking about "regime change." Iran points to a treaty signed with the US after the 1979-81 hostage crisis, in which the US promised not to "interfere" in Iran's internal affairs.

The Bush administration responded that it was not "interferring" because its attempts to promote democracy were "nonpartisan" (i.e., not favoring any one party within Iran).

Excuse me? Are the Bush people really that ignorant, or are they merely dishonest? Attempting to force a system of government (even a democracy) onto another country IS interference. By definition.

As Rush used to say, "words have meaning." But almost never for today's "conservatives," it seems.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Who Will Be The Next Pope?

Today, a lot of attention is fixed on The Vatican. It seems that the Papacy of John Paul II is in its final hours.

I had hoped to present, sometime in the next few months, a program at the Karl Hess Club entitled: "Who Will be the Next Pope? Geopolitical Considerations." That idea as originally conceived is out the window now as the questions will have been rendered moot by the time we could make such a presentation at the club.

The plan was to have someone who could speak with authority on the topic of who the next Holy Father likely would be, what challenges and opportunities would confront him, and possible world political consequences.

The talk was to explore the influence of the Papacy and what policies, foreign and otherwise, might emanate from the Holy See (We could still do a review of current events and their consequnces sometime in the indefinite future).

The next best thing, I thought, and what might be useful right now and in the next few weeks before the conclusion of a Papal Conclave, is a discussion on the above points while they are still in play. You should have about a month to make some educated guesses before the white smoke rises.

So I invite you, with the kind permission of our Blogmeister Tom, to contribute your informed and supported commentary and reasoned analyses in a discussion on the following query: "Who Will be the Next Pope and What are the Likely Geopolitical Consequences?"

You might include a review of the "front runners" among the 117 Cardinals who will decide among them who will succeed JPII in Peter's Seat. Also take a look at the "dark horses" such as Cardinal Ratzinger or a candidate who hails from The New World or The Third World. Consider what would the likely ramifications of a Third World Pope (Eg. from Africa) and what political course Rome might take in the case of each prospect.

Here's a link you might review to get you started:,9171,1101050110-1013211,00.html?promoid=rss_top

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