In an essay in 2004, Kurt Vonnegut, doing one of the things he did best, distilled in a single phrase what television (and, we would add, cable TV in particular) had done to our species: “Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.”
Is there anyone better at proving this sad truism, day after spleen-bursting day, than the creators of FOX News?
Just look at what the channel did with Vonnegut’s obituary, delivered in a three-minute segment yesterday by James Rosen. Challenging as it may have been for Rosen to present an appropriately complex picture of a man and an artist who happened, yes, to be a diehard liberal, it probably shouldn’t have rendered the portrait of failure and imbecility that Rosen delivered.
The segment opens with Vonnegut setting the tone himself: “I didn’t think I’d amount to a hill of beans…” And then we cut to Rosen’s backhanded opener: “Kurt Vonnegut probably wouldn’t have wanted a classically structured obituary. His life’s work - fourteen novels, short stories, plays, essays, left-wing screeds and random musings - was much too quirky, too filled with scatological humor, cosmic coincidences and self-admitted sci-fi mumbo-jumbo for him to have enjoyed induction into the great pantheon of American writers, so here’s the CliffsNotes version…”
Rosen’s idea of the “CliffsNotes version” included the following: a selective rendering of Vonnegut’s life (“by the late seventies, Vonnegut was rich and irrelevant, the subject of other people’s books, a sacred cow of the New York literary scene”); a focus on his politics, bound to rouse the base, and none on his philosophy or art (“Vonnegut thought Richard Nixon was not evil, just mean, and that Ronald Reagan was old-fashioned, ignorant, provincial and dangerous”); and only one other voice besides Rosen’s own disparaging one, that of the great literary critic, John Podhoretz (yes, J-Pod), whose assessment of Vonnegut amounts to this: “He drew explicit parallels between his experience in WWII witnessing the German city of Dresden bombed by allied forced and the American involvement in Vietnam. It’s one of the reasons it was so popular and it’s also the reason why it was a very, very radical book in its time.”
Do Vonnegut’s astute observations about our national life make it through, even just a single sound bite? Well, there is this piece of his, in Rosen’s words, “despondent leftism,” clipped from a speech presumably around the time of the Republican National convention in New York: “The bad news is that the Martians have landed in New York City and have checked in at the Waldorf. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women and children of all colors. And they pee gasoline.”
To put a nail in the coffin of this smear, Rosen, in full gravitas, tops himself and leaves no doubt about how he feels: “Vonnegut, who failed at suicide twenty-three years ago, said thirty-four years ago that he hoped his children wouldn’t say of him, when he was gone, that he made wonderful jokes but he was such an unhappy man. So I’ll say it for them.”
Since Vonnegut’s not around to provide his own assessment of Rosen, I’ll happily do it for him: *.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
(For the uninitiated, see Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.”)