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Reading Vonnegut in the Trump era: How required reads can be relevant


December 6, 2017

I recently read my second ever Kurt Vonnegut book, the first being “Slaughterhouse Five,” which was a requirement when I went through high school. Vonnegut is one of those authors teachers try to push during high school, but I don’t think we are fully equipped to understand his work at that point in life.

The book of his that I recently read is one of his lesser-known works, “Mother Night,” and I think that I would not have felt the full weight of it had I read it at such an immature age as I did “Slaughterhouse Five.” I also think that it’s an incredibly important book to read, especially in light of today’s political culture and everything that has happened since the 2016 presidential elections.

The premise of “Mother Night” is that it is the memoirs of Howard W. Campbell Jr., who is a fictional character portrayed as an American who wrote Nazi propaganda during World War II. The book opens as he is writing his story and awaiting trial for his crimes from an Israeli prison. As the story progresses, we find out that he was in fact an American spy during his time writing Nazi propaganda, but that he had to become a very enthusiastic and effective Nazi so as not to get caught in the process.

As a high-schooler, I think I would have missed the point of this conflict, and decided that Campbell is either a “good” or “bad” guy. Either that, or I would have rejected any sort of moral at all and decided the material was just too weird.

Nearing the end of college, I’m now old enough to realize that Vonnegut’s point is not, “Campbell is a good guy” or “Campbell is a bad guy.” His point is that we are all humans capable of making horrific decisions given certain circumstances, and that we need to be aware of our tendency to mentally absolve ourselves of blame.

Over time, I’ve seen that we all instinctively try to make moral justifications whenever we do something wrong. I catch myself doing it from time to time, and I now actively think about it both for myself and for others–for example, Trump’s justification for his “when you’re a star, they let you do anything” comments to Billy Bush regarding his treatment of women.

The part of “Mother Night” that absolutely blew me away was very near to the end. I will attempt to summarize it here, but I strongly recommend that everyone read this book so as to fully feel the weight of this passage within the context of the story.

The piece begins with Campbell making a metaphor comparing the “classic totalitarian mind” to a “system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random.” The filed-off bits are pieces of logic (like value for human life or women’s rights) that are obvious truths to most people, but that the totalitarian mind gets rid of because they are inconvenient.

Vonnegut then writes: “The boss G-man concluded wrongly that there were no teeth in the mind of Jones. ‘You’re completely crazy,’ he said.”

Vonnegut’s point here is that the character Jones is not “completely” crazy. He’s selectively so, and chooses to omit certain truths from his mind in order to mentally justify his own thoughts and actions.

Four years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been paying enough attention to the world around me to fully understand how true this observation still is. I’ve come to realize, after watching our president justify his vulgar and unsettling belittlement of women with explanations like, “this was locker room talk,” that there are certain people even in today’s world that have ground off teeth from their mental gears. The mentality that allowed the Nazi party to slaughter millions of innocent people without moral qualm is still alive and kicking in today’s culture.

Vonnegut is a very important author to read, now more so than ever. I think high school teachers are right to expose us to his work when we’re young, just to let us know that he’s out there. At that age, we are probably put off by his weirdness, but I think that we need to take it upon ourselves to overcome that aversion as we grow older and pick up his books.

Sophia Koch is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.