“It is almost always a mistake to mention Abraham Lincoln,” Kurt Vonnegut once said, by way of marveling at the poetic eloquence with which the sixteenth president expressed himself. “He always steals the show.”
The same must be said of Vonnegut, who besides being one of the most uniquely gifted and unflinchingly insightful writers of the 20th century was also the funniest “serious” author since Mark Twain. Like Twain, Vonnegut usually conveyed humor in terms that were almost childishly simple, and yet cut like a rapier to the heart of larger matters.
At its root, all of Vonnegut’s work — novels, essays, speeches, interviews, over the course of nearly 60 years of public life — was informed by his experience as a 22-year-old prisoner of war during the last months of World War II. In February 1945, he and his fellow prisoners were being held in Dresden, Germany, when Allied firebombing killed as many as 25,000 people and reduced most of one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cities to rubble. Surviving “friendly fire” of such magnitude instilled in Vonnegut a bent toward satire and a sense of humor that was deceptively gentle, laced as it was with both affection for the human race and despair at its self-destructive brutality and general — no other word for it — stupidity.
He was wise and he was sad and, brother, was he was funny.
“If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal injection facility,” Vonnegut ventured in the last speech he ever wrote (but died before he could deliver), “here is what your last words should be: ‘This will certainly teach me a lesson.’”
“I have a message for future generations,” he said in a 2006 interview. “That is, ‘Please accept our apologies. We were roaring drunk on petroleum.’”
Not long before that, Vonnegut wrote an essay in which he announced his intention to “sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks!” Having chained-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls “starting when I was only twelve years old,” Vonnegut explained, he was suing the tobacco company for failing to fulfill its promise, written “right on the package,” to kill him.
“I am now eighty-two,” Vonnegut deadpanned. “Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”
Now, I could fill the rest of this column with Kurt Vonnegut being funny — a prospect, I have to admit, in which both the reader and I might feel we have come out ahead. You, because you get one of America’s greatest writers instead of me; I, because I can pull together several more Vonnegut quotes in no-time flat and then be free to play my guitar, take a nap, go for a walk with my kids, patronize a local business, or any of the several other things that many writers and journalists like to do when they’re not hunched over their keyboards in the active fabrication of scandal and calamity. In the vernacular, it could be a real win-win.
Be that as it may, this column is not actually about Vonnegut — though at this point, he seems to have made off with the proceedings in truly Lincolnesque fashion. By way of taking it back from him, however, I need to share with you an instance of Vonnegut not being funny. It’s a passage I marked in A Man Without a Country, a collection published in 2005. I ran across it again while thumbing through the book last weekend, and it chilled me to the bone:
…Our children have inherited technologies whose byproducts, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind.
Anyone who has studied science and talks to scientists notices that we are in terrible danger now. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.
The biggest truth to face now — what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life — is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.
Which brings me to the actual point of this roundabout exercise. Not the late Mr. Vonnegut, but the present and future city of Birmingham, and the critical importance of the decade between today and 2025 — a time that, as we embark upon it, is rife with both opportunity and peril.
I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, 10 years from today, Birmingham will have arrived at one of two states of being: Either it will be a shining example of how cities can work in the 21st century, or it will be — or, perhaps more correctly, will remain — a cautionary tale of what happens when human and economic potential is subverted systematically by public corruption, social and economic division, and an ingrained aversion to radical changes in the equilibrium of relations between government, business, local institutions, neighborhoods and individual citizens.
Part of the problem, of course, is that in all of its history, Birmingham has had only fleeting glimpses of what good government and strong civic leadership and a progressive-minded private sector and citizens engaged on a mass basis even look like, let alone how these elements can and should function together on a daily basis, in innovative ways that benefit the community as a whole. Birmingham had bad for so long that mediocre still looks pretty good to us; in the post-Langford years, in particular, the standard seems to be that as long as the mayor isn’t in jail, he or she is doing alright.
That’s what we have to overcome if we want Birmingham to be a great city. We have to work for change, demand accountability and stop accepting mediocrity. And we have to do it quickly.
Why? Why is the next decade so critical? For one thing, the changes still being wrought by the Great Recession — structural changes in the nature of employment, transportation, housing, education, healthcare delivery — present opportunities for those cities that move effectively to take advantage of them. The cities that will emerge as truly “great” cities over the next 10 years will be those most adept at building locally-based economies, at generating economic growth at all levels, and at leveraging public and private resources in ways that build community and support the fulfillment of human potential.
For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Vonnegut that the global outlook is bleak. And Lord knows that our political system at the national and state levels is bloated by money and broken beyond any immediate remedy. But I believe that we in Birmingham can save ourselves and our city, can carve for all of our people an oasis of opportunity. I believe that Birmingham can be a place worth leaving to my grandchildren. I believe that Birmingham can be great.
Which, of course, is different from saying that I believe it will be great. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know where Birmingham will be in 10 years, have no idea how this great civic drama is going to turn out. The answer to that one, as a fellow from Minnesota once said, is blowing in the wind. All I know is what I’m willing to work for, the kind of city in which I want to live.
With that in mind, I would suggest strongly that, to a far greater extent than perhaps we yet recognize, the answer is reliant on us, the citizens of Birmingham. It is reliant upon what we do today, and tomorrow, and next week, and over the ceaseless course of time to organize and communicate and work together. It is reliant upon our ability to actualize an organic vision for unifying what forevermore has been a fractured and fractious community, and for forging a collective path to prosperity that reaches Birmingham’s every corner.
And then we can relax for a day or two. But even in the meantime, let us not lose sight of the wonderful place that our city is already, nor hesitate to bask in the glow of our citizenship. Let’s appreciate each other and these moments we share. And let’s never forget to have fun along the way, heeding one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most sagacious observations.
How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.