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Now seems like a fine time to listen to Kurt Vonnegut’s sermon on nuclear annihilation

Photo: Time & Life Pictures / Getty
Photo: Time & Life Pictures / Getty

Tonight, Donald Trump is heading to Congress to explain his proposed budget, which includes a $54 billion increase in military spending at the expense of such trivial expenditures as “the environment.” That he is intending to build up our military is clear, and has been since he was merely a candidate. He is obsessed with nuclear power, and he yearns for a new arms race.

And so, apropos of this, let us listen to the sage words of Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1982 was called on by the Catholic church to deliver a sermon on the nuclear threat. At the time, the Cold War was in full swing, and a then-recent three-part article by Jonathan Schell had appeared in The New Yorker raising fears of a hydrogen bomb being detonated in America. Vonnegut’s was part of a series of sermons from people in different fields calling for nuclear disarmament. The entire text of Vonnegut’s speech has been available for years, but WNYC has uploaded the audio of him actually reading it that Sunday morning. It’s always worth listening to a great writer read their own words—there’s an interesting juxtaposition between Vonnegut’s spoken comic timing and his written comic timing—but in this case it’s Vonnegut’s typically long view of things that is worth indulging.

The speech is uniquely aware of its Christian context, perhaps surprising given that Vonnegut was a life-long atheist. Much of it concerns the specific brutality of crucifixion, which he describes and investigates in detail, partially as a means of juxtaposing the faster and larger-scale terrors of a hydrogen bomb going off. Using those two possible forms of death as extremes, he meditates on the human fear of dying, before finally offering some hope that technology can help avert a nuclear holocaust. Vonnegut saw a possible antidote for nuclear annihilation in the humanizing powers of television, which made the horrors of war much more palpable for viewers.

Listening to his speech today, it calls to mind another recent, massive article in The New Yorker, this time called, “Trump, Putin, And The New Cold War.” The piece is no less alarming than the one that precipitated Vonnegut’s speech, but shows how much the world has changed since Vonnegut delivered his sermon. The new article details how television and its woeful offspring, the internet, were themselves used as weapons against the American people, so as to deliver a president that would more readily kowtow to Russian supremacy. And, even while technology is itself the threat that has supplanted nuclear power, it may yet lead to that nuclear annihilation Vonnegut spoke of. As The New Yorker article concludes:

Strobe Talbott, the former Clinton adviser, said, “There is a very real danger not only that we are going to lose a second Cold War—or have a redo and lose—but that the loss will be largely because of a perverse pal-ship, the almost unfathomable respect that Trump has for Putin.” Talbott believes that Trump, by showing so little regard for the institutions established by the political West in the past seventy years, is putting the world in danger. Asked what the consequences of “losing” such a conflict would be, Talbott said, “The not quite apocalyptic answer is that it is going to take years and years and years to get back to where we—we the United States and we the champions of the liberal world order—were as recently as five years ago.” An even graver scenario, Talbott said, would be an “unravelling,” in which we revert to “a dog-eat-dog world with constant instability and conflict even if it doesn’t go nuclear. But, with the proliferation of nuclear powers, it is easy to see it going that way, too.”

If you’re hungry for some more of Vonnegut’s unique brand of comfort—which amounts, here, to, “at least it’s not crucifixion”—read our list of 15 things he said better than anyone else ever has or will.

[via Open Culture]

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