The Kids Aren’t Alright: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The satire and societal criticisms found within Breakfast of Champions should feel outdated. After all, the book was written nearly 50 years ago! Surely society has changed…improved…learned from its mistakes and righted its wrongs!
But it hasn’t. Progress is slow…painfully slow. Every step forward is followed by two steps backward. This, I am certain, was the mindset of Kurt Vonnegut when he wrote Breakfast of Champions. Published in 1973, America was just beginning to pull out of the Vietnam War – a terribly divisive, costly, and long conflict. But how could we even be at war again?
Vonnegut himself had fought in World War II (he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge). Between the end of World War II and the start of the Vietnam War, yet another war had already been fought – the Korean War. Countless wars have ensued since the end of the Vietnam War, including the Gulf War, Bosnian War, Kosovo War, War in Afghanistan, and Iraq War. Didn’t we learn – somewhere along the way – that war is bad? That killing people is bad?
We’re All Robots…or Computer Simulations
The satirical premise of Breakfast of Champions is that we’re all robots. We have to be! And we’re all programmed to act a certain way. Because if we’re not robots, how else do you explain the awful nightmare it is to exist in this sad and sorrowful world?
How do you explain why someone’s wife would commit suicide by drinking Drano? The husband can: “I’ll tell you why: She was that kind of machine!” The explanation of robots programmed to kill themselves is more bearable and palatable than the truth: that his wife was unhappy, depressed, and greatly struggled with her mental health.
Vonnegut was on to something, because there is a relatively recent idea called simulation theory that suggests we are all computer simulations living in a simulated world (put forth by philosopher Nick Bostrom in his paper Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?). Recent publications have built on his original hypothesis, arguing that the chance that we live in a simulation may be 50–50.
Making sense of our world in this manner isn’t new…it’s just a regurgitated version of predestination expressed in trendy, tech-friendly wording. But 50-50? Really? How can the odds that we’re living in The Matrix be that high?!
Like a fire hose set loose, just about every aspect of society is satirized in Breakfast of Champions. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
On whitewashing American history:
“1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”
On the hypocrisy of the founding fathers:
“His high school was named after a slave owner [Thomas Jefferson] who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
On President Lincoln and the end of slavery:
“It picked him up at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, which was named in honor of a man who had had the courage and imagination to make human slavery against the law in the United States of America. This was a recent innovation.”
On wealth inequality and being born into wealth:
“Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.”
On the burden of high healthcare costs:
“This was in a country where everybody was expected to pay his own bills for everything, and one of the most expensive things a person could do was get sick.”
Tom Lehrer in Prose
Breakfast of Champions often read like a prose version of Tom Lehrer songs. If you’re not familiar with him, Tom Lehrer was an American pianist and singer-songwriter who similarly satirized all of the absurd aspects of society (during the 1950s and 1960s) with pithy and black humor.
An interviewer once asked Tom Lehrer why, as a topical satirist, a surprising amount of his material hasn’t dated and is still relevant. Tom Lehrer replied, “Always predict the worst, and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.” I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut would agree!
My favorite Tom Lehrer song is Who’s Next, which satirizes the nuclear arms race and doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Give it a listen:
If you’re a pianist and enjoy Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs, consider getting his sheet music:
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
This heading is a nod to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final book:
In this book, Dr. King lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America’s future, and does so with a universal message of hope.
I feel that it is appropriate to end with a message of hope, because after finishing Breakfast of Champions you might feel that the future is bleak. That we were born to love, but “programmed” to hate. That our prognosis is dire and it would take a miracle to save us.
Ultimately, the message that I feel Kurt Vonnegut encodes in Breakfast of Champions is that humankind needs to be “reprogrammed” to be more sensitive and empathetic. Books such as Breakfast of Champions serve as a means for us to confront our mistakes and help us perform a hard reset.
Have you read Breakfast of Champions? Were you amused, frightened, or offended by Kurt Vonnegut’s story? Let me know in the comments below!
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