28 Aug Kurt Vonnegut: Political but not Partisan- An Interview with Philip D. Bunn
Kurt Vonnegut: Political but not Partisan- An Interview with Philip D. Bunn
From his first published story (“Report on the Barnhouse Effect”) in which the narrator addresses an unnamed committee to the scathing indictments of the Bush Administration in A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut consistently engaged with the important issues of his time. Through his novels, essays, and speeches, a vision for a more peaceful and just world emerges, one in which the basic human need for care and community is honored instead of commodified.
In his essay “Communities Are All That’s Substantial: Kurt Vonnegut’s Post-liberal Political Thought,” published in 2019 in the journal American Political Thought, Philip D. Bunn explores how Vonnegut infused his novels and speeches with a consistent political message. Bunn shared his thoughts in a recent interview with The Daily Vonnegut.
DV: Let’s begin with a definition of terms. What do you mean by “post-liberal” thought?
Philip Bunn: I take post-liberalism to be a broad scope of ideas that could include those who (1) reject certain assumptions that are characteristic of liberalism, but (2) also embrace ideas that we might think of or call pre-liberal, particularly a strong emphasis on community as a primary unit rather than the individual and (3) a tendency to affirm that backwards-looking goals or movements can only get us so far. We need some new sets of practices that account for all the ways that liberalism may have failed. In hindsight, the title of the article may be a bit unfortunate because the term has taken on some additional baggage since I wrote it.
When I was working on the article it was in the wake of Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed. It was a book that had some cross-political appeal and popped up on Obama’s reading list for the year. Deneen basically argues that liberalism, which he takes to be the set of ideas that prioritizes the autonomy of rights-bearing individuals and creates political structures primarily to protect individuals and their liberty, has failed in achieving its own goals. As it has become more itself, things have gotten worse for us, basically, and he lays out why he thinks that is. That argument has purchase, I think, for people on all sides of the political spectrum.
When I approached Vonnegut, I saw someone who fit in that, I don’t want to call it a middle ground because Vonnegut can be quite extreme, but as someone who didn’t fit neatly in a package. Those who see liberalism at fault for things like rising crises of loneliness or despair, or market liberalism as the source of ills like corporate consolidation at the expense of the working class, they might seek other ideas that can fix those things. They aren’t necessarily illiberal, that sounds authoritarian, and it affirms that going back isn’t precisely possible. What we need to do, in the way that Vonnegut’s professor, Robert Redfield, put it, is to take the blessings that we’ve gotten from this thing we call liberalism and use them in ways that can fix the bad things as we look towards the future.
DV: The issue of war and the use of weaponry features prominently in Vonnegut’s writing. What are his main concerns and how does he approach that topic?
Philip Bunn: The most important thing is that Vonnegut is a pacifist, a pretty radical one, and that seems strongly due to his experience in war, surviving the firebombing of Dresden. It’s how we get this fun quote in several of his writings and essays about his objection to reframing Armistice Day as Veteran’s Day. He says Armistice Day was a holy day and Veteran’s Day is not. What Vonnegut gets about war is its dehumanizing nature, which tends to make both the people involved in it and the people observing it at a distance think in terms of abstraction instead of particulars, such as that one person whose life you’re extinguishing.
Thinking would probably be crippling if you consider the people who were firebombing Dresden, for example. If each of those pilots fully internalized what they were doing to each of the people that he was killing, it would be, I think, relatively impossible to conceive of that person making that choice.
Where Vonnegut is strongly valuable, still today, is this humanization of war. In the article I reference a book by Robert J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell called Hiroshima in America. They talk about Vonnegut being the only major American writer to survive an apocalypse the way that he did. That gives him this interesting perspective on war from a ground level.
DV: Switching to Player Piano, Vonnegut provides a self-proclaimed Luddite critique of machines and the mindset that puts those machines to use. How does Player Piano speak to where we are now?
Philip Bunn: I think Player Piano has jumped from highly recommended to essential reading, particularly since the advent of ChatGPT and these generative AI tools. Because for a long time, we worked under this assumption or a fear, I guess, that machines were going to replace human beings in mechanical labor, and that displaced humans might find refuge in creative pursuits.
I wrote a letter to the editor of The New Yorker a long time ago on this. They ran a piece called “Dark Factory”. The idea was that in the future factories won’t need to turn the lights on because there won’t be any humans, it will be robots doing everything. Someone they interviewed in the article was quite happy about this. He said, “We’re getting rid of waste and inefficiency in the system.” And I wrote, “Well, that’s great and all, but the waste and inefficiency you’re talking about is human beings. So that needs to be brought into perspective.”
Player Piano does that. I think it also would be interesting discussion material because ironically, it seems like humans are going to be useful in factories for a long time, but now, with publishers using generative AI to make illustrations for material that they’re selling, they’re displacing the contracted artists who might be up and coming, needing work to build a portfolio.
The world of Player Piano is not far from where we’re at today. It makes us wrestle with questions of who we are, how we define ourselves by our work, and what we do when that work is taken from us. It’s also interesting, because Vonnegut, in one of his essay collections, said that his failure in writing Player Piano was as a futurist. He didn’t realize that computers would be as small and as powerful as they’ve become. He was thinking of vacuum tubes and not transistors, and now we have microchips and microprocessors.
DV: Your essay explores the concept of moral imagination and compares Vonnegut’s thoughts with those of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. What did you find?
Philip Bunn: Kirk is an interesting figure, and many people aren’t familiar with him, though he tends to have two different audiences. One comes from his prominence in the American Conservative movement. In the ’50s he wrote The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot and laid out what he took to be the principles of conservatism. He was friendly with William F. Buckley and other prominent people in the conservative movement.
So there are people who know him from that, but Kirk was also a novelist and a story writer. Around the same time that Vonnegut is writing short stories and making a living from it, Kirk is publishing in the same magazines as Vonnegut. I have yet to find one in which they’re published together, but they definitely published in the same magazines.
There are a lot of Kirk fans that like him for his gothic fiction, his horror stories, but the idea of the moral imagination is prominent in all his works. He argues that the moral imagination is the special faculty that we have to perceive truths that are higher than the ones that we see just with our eyes. According to Kirk, the moral imagination is what lets us acknowledge other humans as deserving dignity and respect. People have hopes, dreams, aspirations, and we can find value in each other because of that.
I don’t think that Vonnegut would necessarily align with Kirk on many things. I’m still trying to prove that he knew of Kirk. I expect that he did because he knew of Buckley. Vonnegut was on Buckley’s Firing Line a few times and didn’t have nice things to say about Buckley, that’s for sure.
In Timequake, you have the story of the Booboolings, these human analogs. The Boobooling parents teach the children to practice their imaginations. For Vonnegut, the imagination is not just daydreaming. It’s parents going through a process of moral formation in their children. They are taking them to museums and asking them, “So how do you think that lady in that picture is feeling? Why do you think she feels that way?” That faculty allows them to be decent to each other. But then one of the three sisters in the story invents televisions, which ruin everybody’s imaginations and it makes all the Booboolings cruel and evil and do bad things to each other and invent bombs.
I find the overlap there because Vonnegut is clearly thinking of the imagination as a kind of moral faculty. There is a rich tradition that he slots into nicely and casts it in ways that add to what I see going on in Burke and Kirk.
DV: Vonnegut readers know that his most consistent message concerns a need for community. Why does he put so much emphasis on this issue?
Philip Bunn: For several reasons. One is directly causal. He says in Fates Worse Than Death that to the extent that he has clearly defined politics, they come from Robert Redfield, his anthropology professor at the University of Chicago. I’ve found Redfield to be a fascinating figure as well.
He co-founded a department in Chicago called The Committee on Social Thought, which is this interdisciplinary institute where people from across the social sciences and humanities get together and do rigorous research. Some very famous people through the years like Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Hayek and others have taught there, and Redfield’s motive for helping found it seems to be this idea that there are rich things to be gained when we introduce humanities into the social sciences, when we learn deep things about what human beings need from studying them in various forms at various times.
He thinks there are common things that all humans need, and Vonnegut seems to internalize that. One of those things is a place where we belong, a community that builds us up and supports us. So we have what Kirk and Burke call spiritual needs, and what Vonnegut may have called psychological needs, that seem to be best fulfilled in these smaller, local communities.
DV: Do you think that this need for community could be a driver of what some might call a social sickness that we’re experiencing in the United States? How do you think Vonnegut might have reacted to this moment?
Philip Bunn: We could probably attribute a lot of problems to the absence of community that Vonnegut picks up on. Or at least, the forms of community that we find might be lacking some essential components of what we might want from our communities. So again, in A Man Without a Country, there’s an essay that starts with his claim: “I’ve been called a Luddite and I welcome it because I hate newfangled contraptions.” He ends it by reflecting on online communities. People have clearly been telling him about them. “Oh, no, I’m finding community in these online spaces where I find people who are quite similar to me with shared interests. And we form friendships online.”
Vonnegut says they don’t count, basically. He says they build nothing, and they do nothing. I don’t know how true that is and it might be contestable. Different people have different experiences with online communities. But it might be the case that online communities tend to push us in these tribal extremes rather than building up the healthy things that Vonnegut wanted.
So when he talks about a folk-society deficiency where we lack that community that builds us up, he says that people will look for a substitute folk society because that’s what they need. Some of these substitutes can be innocuous like being a Hoosier, some form of granfalloon. Some of them can be bad. In Fates Worse Than Death he says some of these bad substitute folk societies are the KKK and the Republican party.
There are obviously bad forms of community that Vonnegut seems to think push us in unhealthy directions. Maybe that’s exacerbated online. Vonnegut died the year before the iPhone was released. It would have been fascinating to hear Vonnegut talk about Twitter. How would he respond to the present moment? With healthy mockery and biting criticisms, like he always did.
DV: He raises the problem of the need for community. What answers does he propose in his writing?
Philip Bunn: In his commencement addresses, he says, “I’m going to moralize at you. I try not to do this in my novels but I’m going to tell you what you need to do right now.” And he gives this list that I bring up in the article. He says, “We need puberty ceremonies again. We need extended families again,” things that can sound, in some ways, weirdly conservative for Vonnegut.
But he builds on Redfield quite a lot. Redfield gave an address on this topic in which he says, “I look around at the modern university and I see a bunch of students who are like driftless plankton. They’re just floating in social currents, and they have no direction.” What Redfield says is, “Well, first we have to convince people that community matters. Second, we must convince them to do something about it, and third, we’ve got to give them a direction so that they can go about using their freedom to make their own plan for living that is healthy rather than unhealthy.”
So fixing these broad ranging social and political issues doesn’t happen overnight. If I, for example, want my community to have a thriving art scene, a vibrant farmer’s market, and a network of community aid, I can’t just say, “Well I want that to exist,” and it exists. It takes some intentional and painful effort, and sometimes requires an element of self-denial. So that’s what Vonnegut talks about in his Luddite essay where he says, “I’ve done things that make my life intentionally inconvenient so that I can go out in my day-to-day life and have chance interactions with strangers. Because that’s what it means to live in a place.” So I think some of that intentional effort might be lacking.
DV: Vonnegut is often described as being on the left. Do you think that’s accurate?
Philip Bunn: Yeah, I think so. He quite obviously has more in common with the American left than the American right, both the form it took when he was alive and the form it’s taking now. But as you’ve brought out in these questions and I try to bring out in the article, I think that Vonnegut appeals to those who are disillusioned with both major American political parties. Because his politics seem to flow not from loyalty to a side or to a party platform but from those key assumptions about what human beings are and what they need that aren’t political in the partisan way.
One area where you see a lot of overlap between people who might be called left or right are localists movements pushing for things like locally grown food and vibrant communities. That’s something that I think a lot of people across the board can unite on. So I’d say yes, he’s obviously more on the American left in so far as he hated Republicans and called himself a socialist, but he still has appeal outside of that.
DV: Your essay doesn’t address Vonnegut’s thoughts on capitalism and socialism. How did he write about the economics of American life?
Philip Bunn: He absolutely calls himself a socialist and he has this strong affinity for what I think of as a classic American socialism. We had a period in America where major figures were running for office under Socialist parties and you had a labor movement that actually got things done. That’s the kind of socialism that he seems to latch onto. He really loves Eugene Debs. It comes out in Hocus Pocus, for example, and (in Jailbird) when he writes about the workers rioting and striking. So he’s a socialist of a kind. He might not make some more revolutionary socialists happy, I suppose, but he puts himself in the camp of Eugene Debs; he fights for the rights of workers.
There is a recent book on John Stuart Mill called John Stuart Mill, Socialist, by Helen McCabe. John Stuart Mill, favored by classical liberals for his defense of liberty and freedom, called himself a socialist. But he was a socialist of a weird type. He favored reform laws in England that would have allowed workers to combine and own their factories more easily. McCabe develops this framework of the different types of socialists that Mill was arguing with at the time. There were revolutionary socialists and Mill didn’t like them too much. McCabe calls him a liberal socialist.
Something like this is useful when categorizing Vonnegut. He obviously had a deep critique of a system that valued profits over lives. This is another area where I see him having some cross-party appeal.
DV: There’s an enormous body of literature about Vonnegut, but not much of it addresses him as a political thinker. Why do you think he’s been neglected in that area?
Philip Bunn: I think part of it is what he suggests in the quote that I chose for the epigraph of the paper, that people relegate him to a drawer labeled science fiction that often gets mistaken by critics for a urinal. People may decide that science fiction isn’t worthwhile. When I was doing the initial research that led to this paper, I convinced one of my professors to read Cat’s Cradle and he told me that he had mentally slotted Vonnegut into this category of mid-twentieth century, grumpy old white dudes who mostly whine about how everything sucks. So he avoided him because of that. I think that might be a common misconception, or else people assume that Vonnegut appeals to teenage angst. He can be coded as juvenile. We sometimes assign Vonnegut in high school, and he uses childish or crass humor at times. I think an uncareful reader could interpret that as someone who isn’t particularly serious. Vonnegut could joke about his wartime experiences and PTSD, but he mostly jokes about very serious topics to get people thinking about them.
DV: The opening pages of Breakfast of Champions are a searing critique mixed with crude illustrations. People don’t want their political thinking mixed with a drawing of a pair of underpants.
If you were going to put a reading list together for a class on Vonnegut’s political thought, which of his works would you include and why?
Philip Bunn: I’ve taught Vonnegut before as part of a broader politics and literature course, and I taught Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. But if I was going to do a course on Vonnegut, I’d probably split it up into the topics of war and technology, and money and community.
For war I’d include Slaughterhouse-Five and maybe some accompanying essays. For technology, I would choose both Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano. The best novel about money is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which is just so much fun. For community, I’d pick a novel that Vonnegut himself ranked low, but I think is good, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More. I’d also use some of the essays in Palm Sunday along with the texts of his lectures.
DV: When did you first become interested in Vonnegut?
Philip Bunn: I came to Vonnegut late compared to some people. I think it was my junior year as an undergrad. I was working my way through a pile of books I’d picked up at the thrift store. I had heard about Vonnegut; I’d heard a little bit about Cat’s Cradle and had it on my shelf, and when I read it, the humor and the satire blew me away. It has some provocative questions about technology and religion and apocalypse. It’s another novel that needs a resurrection today because Oppenheimer pops up in it a couple of times. So after that, every time I found a Vonnegut book I didn’t own yet, I bought it and read it.
I think my favorite is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater is such an interesting character. He is this naively self-sacrificial man of privilege, and he does his best to help people around him, even if it’s not always super effective. That also might be a fun book to read again. We’ve got all these conversations now about effective altruism. I wonder if Eliot Rosewater could be a provocative case study in well-meaning but ineffective altruism.
Vonnegut opens that book by saying that the main character is money. It’s his most extended treatment of these topics relating to socialism and capitalism and the incentives of money. I love the scene where Eliot barges into the sci-fi convention and says, “You’re the only ones who are thinking seriously about the future and what all these things are doing to us.” That’s still true today.
DV: Tell us about your Substack and how people can find your work.
Philip Bunn: I titled the Substack, Everything Was Beautiful, after the lovely, morbidly hopeful tombstone drawing in Slaughterhouse Five, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” I mostly write a variety of essays that are based on the books that I’m reading. I do this reading recap series where I just check off what I’ve been reading. I started doing it mostly because as I watch my reading list grow, I want to keep myself in check and think, “I’d like to be able to have an intelligent conversation about any of these books six months from now.” Writing about them will help with that rather than my finishing a book and moving on. It’s a side project that’s just inspired me to write more than I had been.
But otherwise, I also have a personal website that’s more for the academic work I do, a landing page where I collect the scholarship that I’m working on and also my occasional writing. It’s PhilipDBunn.com.
Philip D. Bunn is a Lyceum Visiting Scholar with the Lyceum Program in the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University. He specializes in Political Theory and American Politics, with a focus on normative questions relating to new technology and liberty. His book project, The Heart of a Machine, examines threats to liberty identified by thinkers within the liberal tradition and expands their insights into the technological present. His research has been published in Political Research Quarterly, American Political Thought, Political Science Reviewer, and Perspectives on Political Science. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2023.