Gore Vidal, 86, has died. He was an author, playwright, satirist, thinker and writer. Most importantly, he was one of the fiercest critics of United States empire and he possessed an acerbic wit that accentuated his ability to make astute and incisive observations.
My first exposure to Vidal came when I read the collection of essays he published in 2002 called Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. He understood immediately after the September 11th attacks that the attacks would be used by the powerful to take away civil liberties and the country would turn into a “seedy imperial state.” A shortened version of a remarkable essay, which he wrote in the aftermath, was published by The Guardian. It boldly considered how Osama bin Laden had presented himself as a “liberator” to the Muslim world and how post-9/11 the powers that be were further transforming the US into a police state.
…the physical damage Bin Laden and friends can do us – terrible as it has been thus far – is as nothing compared to what he is doing to our liberties. Once alienated, an “inalienable right” is apt to be lost forever, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of Earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by Swat teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.
Since VJ Day 1945 (“Victory over Japan” and the end of the second world war), we have been engaged in what the great historian Charles Beard called “perpetual war for perpetual peace”. I have occasionally referred to our “enemy of the month club”: each month a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us. I have been accused of exaggeration, but the scoreboard – a list compiled by the Federation of American Scientists of conflicts from Kosovo (1999) to the Berlin airlift (1948-49) – comprises several hundred wars against communism, terrorism, drugs or sometimes nothing much, in which we always struck the first blow. [emphasis added]
He was someone who lamented the erosion of due process rights under the Bush Administration:
…When habeas corpus was removed—I think they attribute it to various desires of the USA PATRIOT Act—When they got rid of that, they got rid of Magna Carta. When you get rid of that, you get rid of our liberties. This is the only thing they ever left us was Magna Carta. Magna Carta guarantees due process of law. You cannot have your life removed. You cannot have your money removed, your freedom removed except by a trial by jury of your peers and you can be represented by a legal. That’s been eliminated. Sixth Amendment is gone…
He had a bit he liked to share in interviews on how Bush & Company liked to tell the world the terrorists hated America for our freedom. Here’s one version:
…That’s the new lie that they like to tell. Well, that’s Bush all the time. ‘They just hate us’ Why? Nobody ever asks him why. He doesn’t know why. ‘Well, they envy us, our form of government.’ Who envies us? That can of worms that we got in Washington. And it’s been many years in the United States since I have seen a Norwegian coming to get a green card.
Vidal had no admiration whatsoever for the elite in society and once said, ”I’ve been around the ruling class all my life and I’ve been quite aware of their total contempt for the people of the country.” He also once said, “We’re an oligarchy of the well-to-do. We were in the very beginning when the Constitution was made and we are even more so now.” But that does not necessarily mean he was fond of the 99%. Overall, his commentary often was evidence that he harbored nothing but unremitting disappointment for the population.
In 2009, on “The Joy Behar Show,” he stated, “We have the worst educated population of any First World country.” Then, to the American people, he added, “I hope you’re listening and I hope you know that your lack of education is the joke of the world and it’s not a very nice joke.” He also went on to say that a key reason people had a problem with President Barack Obama was because he was a person who spoke like a well-educated man, unlike the previous president.
Vidal understood this was not solely the fault of the population. The country’s media helped to ensure the population was mostly dumb. In 2008 and in a Real News video, he said:
…What our fictional news does now—And this is all it is, fiction, whether it’s CNN, CBS or NBC. It’s all fiction. People making this junk know that. The viewers suspect it. But where are they going to turn to? Where are they going to find out? They can’t all go out and get a subscription to The Nation, which would help straighten them out at least in print.
On “Tavis Smiley,” he did his impression of Bush and described how the media had convinced Americans to switch off so Afghanistan and Iraq could be invaded:
…We assaulted Afghanistan and Iraq, two small weak countries that had done nothing to us ever; did not have the capacity to harm us or the will. But, because of our crazy little president—”I’m a wartime president. I’m a wartime president.” Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack. I mean, this is a loon and anybody can see that he is looney. But the American people just switched off. I think he switched them off, his advisors did. The media has never been more poisonous or helpless. They won’t tell us the truth about anything even if they knew it, which I don’t think they do…
He also said in another interview, “You cannot get through the density of the propaganda with which the American people through the dreaded media have been filled and the horrible public educational system we have for the average person is just grotesque.”
His criticism was bolstered by the fact that he did not take himself too seriously and was not too concerned at all with what others thought of him and definitely had no problem with telling people he did not like them. And, as a satirist, he did not fear digging in to any sordid or vile subject to make comedy.
In his appearance on “Joy Behar,” Behar asked:
BEHAR: You said that comedy is cruel. Now, that would make Dick Cheney funny and he’s not.
VIDAL: C’mon! Vice President of the United States, a working sadist, who is trying to get more prisons to lock up people to give them the water treatment. I mean, c’mon! I can’t think of any higher comedy that we’ve had.
Asked what his greatest achievement was, the answer he gave in the final decade of his life was that he had not killed anyone.
The obituaries in the media will remember him for his book, The City and the Pillar, which was one of the first mainstream novels to frankly touch upon homosexuality. They will remember him for the feuds he got into with William F. Buckley, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Those will undoubtedly forever be memorable. However, given that he died while the 2012 London Olympic games were still being played—games whose broadcasts have featured announcers offering commentary that has been an example of smug American elitism—perhaps, it is better to emphasize another aspect of him.
Vidal liked to savage the imperial culture and spirit of America with his wit. This is why I will always have a deep appreciation for his work, and so, to conclude, here’s a comment he made on “Democracy Now!” in 2008 when asked why Americans are hated:
…[T]here are many odious traits that Americans have that the rest of the world doesn’t like. Constant boasting with not much to boast about, that gets on other people’s nerves. The idea that, somehow or other, the whole world belongs to us and everybody should do what we tell them to do, they don’t really like that. Weird, but they don’t. There has never been a people less suited for world dominion than the Americans of the twentieth century and twenty-first century.
Henry James was very good on that subject. The time of the Spanish-American War, he was violently against that war and saw it as the beginning of imperialism, and he was not an imperialist. And he said, “You know, where empire civilized the British, empire will corrupt us even more, and we will extend the reign of Tammany Hall to every island country on earth.”