View Full Version : Kurt Vonnegut said that the worst thing about America is...

02-03-2010, 04:42 PM

Kurt Vonnegut said that the worst thing about America is the saying:

If you're so smart why aren't you rich?That phrase (which figures large in the novel PLAYER PIANO) sums up our whole neurotic Calvinist scene.

There are good people and there are bad people. It is God's will. All failures and setbacks are a judgment, and a righteous one.

To be rich is extraordinary and in most cases due to being smart enough to be born to rich parents. Yet this condition that cannot, by definition, apply to more than a sliver of the population is taken as a minimal qualification to even open your mouth.

If you're so smart why aren't you rich?In America we don't need to blame the victim. With typical Yankee efficiency the victim is conditioned to blame himself.

There is legitimate greatness in rugged American individualism. It's a real thing. It is not, however, universal or universally possible.

5,000 workers on a factory floor and every single one of them should have invented the internet browser on her lunch breaks. And if she didn't then she is stupid. But we don't really like intellect here, so actually she is lazy.

Everyone behind the counter at McDonald's is simply too lazy to create a room-temperature super-conductor.

And that is why we take it and take it and take it... we are ashamed. When we suffer set-backs we don't want the neighbors to know because those set-backs mark us as bad people... the non-elect born without hope of salvation.

Even your cool neighbors may be ready to judge your loss of the mandate of heaven. Even in an ostensibly progressive community like DU there is no shortage of "good" people ready to weigh in on the presumed personal corruption of people who buy houses poorly or incur expensive consumer debt.

That is how deep our national neurosis is. Hell, sometimes even socialists and atheists lapse into Calvinist thinking without even realizing it.

There is very little good about hard times but one of the few tiny benefits is that after some point the misery becomes so ubiquitous that it pressures our peculiar mythos of outcomes being deserved-by-definition. Eventually the economy hits the "good" people and at that point we recognize that there's a problem.

Added on Edit: I mentioned the novel PLAYER PIANO. It's an old book (circa 1960?) about declining prospects for industrial workers. The title refers to motion-capture automation. There's something in that book so prescient it deserves mention for those who haven't read it. Remember all those stories about people shipping their own job overseas... the workers whose severance package consisted of the privilege of being paid to pack up the equipment and ship it to wherever? Much of PLAYER PIANO Takes place in a working class bar that has a "If you're so smart why aren't you rich?" plaque. There is an older unemployed guy who drinks there telling anyone who will listen his one great accomplishment in life. He was so good on the assembly-line that he was picked as the guy whose movements were programmed into the machines that replaced everyone, including himself. Hence the title.

02-08-2010, 01:29 PM
Vonnegut is definitely a favorite. I was dissapointed by my last attempt at reading a novel and only got 11 chapters in before I couldn't take anymore.

Maybe I'll pick up Player Piano.

02-10-2010, 08:14 PM
Thanks for the suggestion. I'm a third of the way through it and it is very interesting in it's theme of the unemployed by technology.

I haven't seem the 'blame oneself' theme develop at all yet. So far in the novel, the unemployed seem like they blame the engineers and machines more than themselves. And I believe one of the main protagonists is a minister so I don't see the anti-calvinist angle yet.

Maybe I'm not far enough.

02-22-2010, 02:10 PM
I finished it and never once was the phrase "If you're so smart why aren't you rich?" ever uttered or read by any character, including the main protagonist Paul Proteus. To be sure that I hadn't missed it on the wall, I went back and re-read the one and a half chapters that take place in the bar (not much of the novel at all).

I think whoever wrote that review that you started this thread with must be mis-remembering the story. Again, one of the main protagonists is a minister. The semi-employed do not blame themselves, instead they unite to overthrow the industry and government (which are one in the same in this novel). Again, there is no Calvinist doctrine- people feel wholly in control of their destiny in the novel.

But I will say that it was a great read. How typical of Vonnegut to leave one feeling dazed, as many thoughts occur at once and interact. I tried to find an overarching political theme and failed; the problems of Dr. Proteus' world are not capitalism and they are not socialism. They are both. They are expressed through the motivation and rationalization of letting machines dictate our lives instead of the other way around. It's almost enough to make someone a luddite.

The book is also a good examination of corporate culture. I'd highly recommend it.