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Vonnegut still writing fiction

JUST WHEN YOU start getting disgusted with the right (and there are good reasons to be, from the fanning of dubious Vietnam-era charges against John Kerry to the fawning over Michelle Malkin's apologia for World War II-era Japanese internment), along comes a startling example of the left at its worst. The Aug. 30 issue of In These Times, a respectable left-of-center publication, features a short piece by novelist Kurt Vonnegut titled "I Love You, Madam Librarian." This incoherent diatribe actually has very little to do with librarians, except to congratulate them because they have "staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles."

Where? When? I assume Vonnegut is referring to claims that under the Patriot Act, John Ashcroft's goons have been terrorizing libraries and monitoring Americans' reading habits. In fact, law enforcement agencies have always had the power to request library records as part of a criminal investigation; a provision of the Patriot Act gave them the power to do so in counterterrorism investigations without notifying the suspect. (Remember, we're talking about materials related to terrorist acts and not, say, the wit and wisdom of Michael Moore.) Whether or not such powers are appropriate, in the two years after the passage of the Patriot Act this provision was used exactly . . . zero times.

Vonnegut then deplores "a shamelessly rigged election in Florida, in which thousands of African-Americans were arbitrarily disenfranchised." Rigged by whom? By the Palm Beach County Democratic officials who designed a ballot form that confused a lot of voters into voting for the wrong guy or for more than one candidate, thus invalidating their ballots? Disenfranchised by whom? Some Florida residents were misidentified as convicted felons and wrongly taken off the voting rolls, but the conspiracy theories haven't panned out.

According to Vonnegut, as a result of this election debacle, "we are now almost as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis were." And then comes the kicker: "With good reason."

So we are now Nazi Germany redux? According to Vonnegut, we apparently are: "In case you haven't noticed, our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race. We wound and kill `em and torture `em and imprison `em all we want. Piece of cake."

Here, I assume that Vonnegut is referring to Muslims and Arabs, whom he suggests we are now treating the way the Nazis treated the Jews. Never mind that the two regimes toppled by US military intervention, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq, tortured and murdered Muslims by the thousands. Never mind that our military made every effort humanly possible to avoid civilian casualties. Never mind that right now, we risked higher US casualties for weeks in order to avoid destroying a site sacred to Muslims which Iraqi insurgents were using for cover.

Never mind that the American soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners in their custody have been disgraced and are now being prosecuted.

How many German soldiers did the Nazis prosecute for torturing and killing Jews? The question is so ludicrous it's obscene -- just like Vonnegut's next barb: "Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler."

Besides its venom and extremism, Vonnegut's rant is notable for its utter lack of recognition of any evil except America. In his world, there seems to be no terrorism, no Islamo-fascism, no regimes that brutalize their own people and pose a threat to others.

For me, a longtime admirer of Vonnegut's novels such as "Cat's Cradle," the article was a painful read. But in addition to Vonnegut's state of mind, it also tells us something about the state of the left in America. In These Times, after all, isn't exactly some lunatic-fringe website. It's a magazine that supports mainstream Democratic candidates. Its masthead includes the notable commentator and New York Times guest columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, and its pages feature such authors as writer Garrison Keillor and former Clinton chief speechwriter Davis Kusnet.

Vonnegut concludes with the rhetorical inquiry: "What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without a sense of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it all their own?"

What can be said? Maybe that "psychopathic personalities" have also taken over dissent in this country and made it all their own.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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