From A Man Without a Country (2005)
Our daily news sources, newspapers and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books do we learn what’s really going on.
People are so afraid. Take the man, with no address, who wrote me:
If you knew that a man posed a danger to you—maybe he had a gun in his pocket, and you felt that he would not hesitate one moment to use it on you—what would you do? We know Iraq poses a threat to us, to the rest of the world. Why do we sit here and pretend we are protected? That is exactly what happened with al-Queda and 9/11. With Iraq, though, the threat is on a much larger scale. Should we sit back, be little children that sit in fear and just wait?
I wrote back:
Please, for the sake of us all, get a shotgun, preferably a 12-guage double-barrel, and right there in your own neighborhood blow off the heads of people, cops excepted, who may be armed.
“Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity.” Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.
Adolf Hitler, incidentally, was a two-fer. He named his party the National Socialists, the Nazis. Hitler’s swastika wasn’t a pagan symbol, as so many people believe. It was a working person’s Christian cross, made of axes, of tools.
About Stalin’s shuttered churches, and those in China today: Such suppression of religion was supposedly justified by Karl Marx’s statement that “religion is the opium of the people.” Marx said that back in 1844, when opium and opium derivatives were the only effective painkillers anyone could take. Marx himself had taken them. He was grateful for the temporary relief they had given him. He was simply noticing, and surely not condemning, the fact that religion could also be comforting to those in economic or social distress. It was a casual truism, not a dictum.
When Marx wrote those words, by the way, we hadn’t even freed our slaves yet. Who do you imagine was more pleasing in the eyes of a merciful God back then, Karl Marx or the United States of America?
Stalin was happy to take Marx’s truism as a decree, and Chinese tyrants as well, since it seemingly empowered them to put preachers out of business who might speak ill of them or their goals.
The statement has also entitled many in this country to say that socialists are anti-religion, are anti-God, and therefore absolutely loathsome.
I never met [socialists] Carl Sandburg or Eugene Victor Debs, and I wish I had. I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such national treasures.
I did get to know one socialist of their generation—Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Hapgood, like Debs, was a middle-class person who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. He wanted a better country, that’s all.
After graduating from Harvard, he went to work as a coal miner, urging his working-class brothers to organize in order to get better pay and safer working conditions. He also led protesters at the execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts in 1927.
Hapgood’s family owned a successful cannery in Indianapolis, and when Powers Hapgood inherited it, he turned it over to the employees, who ruined it.
We met in Indianapolis after the end of the Second World War. He had become an official in the CIO. There had been some sort of dust-up on a picket line, and he was testifying about it in court, and the judge stops everything and asks him, “Mr.Hapgood, here you are, you’re a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Hapgood answered the judge: “Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”
Hooray for our team.
Do you know what a humanist is?
My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, “Isaac is up in heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.
How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?”
But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.
(His memorial drawing by his own hand on his website)