Kurt Vonnegut was the celebrated author of novels like Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five. This article was adapted from a speech he made in Indianapolis to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana) on September 16, 2000. It appears in the collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young, edited by Dan Wakefield, to be published by Seven Stories Press on April 8.
There is something you are entitled to know about me—something I’m not proud to confess. This is it: I was born into a society as segregated as Biloxi, Mississippi, except for the drinking fountains and the buses. And I am the product of a lily-white public high school in Indianapolis. Shortridge had a faculty worthy of a university. Our teachers there, again lily-white, weren’t just teachers. They were their subjects. Our chemistry teachers were first and foremost chemists. Our physics teachers were first and foremost physicists. Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at the Battle of Thermopylae. Our English teachers were very commonly serious writers. One of mine, the late Marguerite Young, went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene Victor Debs, the middle-class labor leader and socialist candidate for president of the United States, who died in 1926, when I was 4. Millions voted for Debs when he ran for president.
I never met Debs, but I was old enough after World War II to have lunch in this city with another middle-class Indiana labor leader. He was Powers Hapgood. Although he was a Harvard graduate and from a well-to-do family of businesspeople, Powers Hapgood worked as a coal miner to get close, both spiritually and physically, to those he wished to help to help themselves. He then became an officer in the CIO here in Indianapolis.
Not long after our lunch, there was some kind of dust-up on a picket line, and he landed in court as a witness. The judge—Judge Claycomb, in fact the father of my Shortridge classmate Moon Claycomb—knew of Hapgood’s history, and interrupted the proceedings to ask why such a privileged person would spend his life as he had. And Powers Hapgood replied: “Why, the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” And if I am asked why anybody should support their local and national Civil Liberties Unions, I will say that it takes a powerful private organization to compel those who govern us to not violate the crystal-clear laws in the Bill of Rights, just as we would not want them to drive when drunk or park by a fireplug. Given the humane and fair and merciful intent of the Bill of Rights, what I would actually be saying, though subliminally, is: “The Sermon on the Mount, sir or madam.”
If you don’t know what the Sermon on the Mount is, ask your kid’s computer. If you don’t know what the laws in the Bill of Rights are, look ‘em up, look ‘em up. And yes, I know about the Second Amendment, and I’m for it. It doesn’t say people who disagree with a president should shoot him, which is what John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald did. It says in effect that civilians interested in playing with man-killing devices and live ammunition can best serve the rest of us in the National Guard, as long as they don’t shoot unarmed college students. Four unarmed students at Kent State University were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, while protesting against the invasion of Cambodia.