Comparing the work of Gore Vidal--22 novels, five plays, numerous screenplays and hundreds of essays--with, say, the highly publicized grumblings of Cornel West over whether Harvard or Princeton was a more congenial academic environment for an African American professor, one is reminded of what it means to be a truly vital and consequential public intellectual.
Vidal, 76, takes special gusto in discharging that function: For decades he has been ready to scold any of the powerful who might deign to sit across the table from him. And if not, he's just as happy to stay at his preferred home in Italy and lob his polemical grenades across the seas.
From the early 1960s through the late 1980s (until age slowed him), Vidal spent much time on the David Susskind show and later touring American college campuses, offering lacerating "alternative" State of the Union addresses. In his wickedly sardonic trademark style, Vidal would always narrow down to the same two complementary points: The U.S. should cease meddling in the business of other nations and in the private lives of its citizens.
Cadging a phrase from historian Charles A. Beard for its title, Vidal's latest book, "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," argues that our nation's interventionist impulse answers the prevalent post-Sept. 11 question: Why do "they" hate us so much? This unevenly stitched together collection of essays (some previously published in the Nation and Vanity Fair with a centerpiece rejected by the Nation) posits that we have no right to scratch our heads over what motivated the perpetrators of the two biggest terrorist attacks in our history, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and last September's twin tower and Pentagon holocaust.
Vidal writes: "It is a law of physics (still on the books when last I looked) that in nature there is no action without reaction. The same appears to be true in human nature--that is, history." The "action" that Vidal refers to is the hubris of an American empire abroad (illustrated by a 19-page chart of 200 U.S. overseas military adventures since the end of World War II) and a budding police state at home. The inevitable "reaction," says Vidal, is nothing less than the bloody handiwork of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. "Each was enraged," he says, "by our government's reckless assaults upon other societies" and was "provoked" into answering with horrendous violence.
In Bin Laden's case, the terrorist attack was a response to a U.S. policy that one-sidedly backed Israel, satanized Saddam Hussein, defiled the Saudi holy land with American troops and demonstrated an "imperial disdain" for the Muslim world. As to McVeigh, the detonator, Vidal argues, was an increasingly arrogant and militarized collection of federal law enforcement agencies--from the IRS to the FBI to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--which jack-booted it from Ruby Ridge to Waco.
Is Vidal clucking that the chickens have come home to roost, that thousands of innocent American civilians deserved to be indiscriminately targeted in Oklahoma and New York and then murdered for the sins of their government? Vidal certainly cracks open the door to that interpretation, and no doubt a lot of readers will waltz right through.
Even the Nation magazine, to which Vidal is a contributing editor (as am I), rejected his essay on Sept. 11 that then became the book's opener, probably because it skated too close to gloating over the pain inflicted on the U.S. But that's far too simplistic a reading of Vidal, who, for all his fulminating against "our ruling junta," is, at bottom, quite a patriot. He writes not from hatred but from a profound love betrayed and defiled, proudly casting himself as a noble defender of "the American Republic against the American Global Empire."
And whatever one concludes about the real or imagined motivations of Bin Laden and McVeigh, Vidal's greater points about the erosion of the Jeffersonian vision of the American nation should be well taken--especially in these grim times.
If we reap anything of collective value from the horrors of Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, it ought to be more than self-reassuring nostrums that Bin Laden is simply evil and McVeigh's just a lone wacko. In what he calls these "United States of Amnesia," Vidal argues that the darker side of our official histories is ritualistically bowdlerized by a timid media. And the rightful shock and trauma experienced by the American people on Sept. 11, he says, must be viewed and experienced in the broader context of what our nation's behavior has been toward the rest of the world. When President Bush, masterfully demeaned by Vidal as a "sill-billy," proclaims you are either with us or against us, Vidal responds: "That's known as asking for it."
Mostly, Vidal frets over how the attacks--both in Oklahoma City and on Sept. 11--have been politically exploited to roll back civil liberties and amplify the power of an already overly intrusive federal government. Before the rubble could be cleared around the Murrah Federal Building, the Clinton administration rushed to enact, under the banner of fighting terrorism, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Though it, rather obviously, did little to deter terrorism, the measure shredded long-standing rights to appeal capital sentences. Then comes near-unanimous Senate passage (99-1) of the onerous USA Patriot Act just weeks after Sept. 11, ensuring an assault on basic rights of due process and privacy. "The awesome physical damage Osama and company did us is as nothing compared to the knock-out blow to our vanishing liberties," Vidal writes. "Once alienated, an 'unalienable right' is apt to be forever lost."
Vidal's suggestion that American liberty will turn out to be the greatest victim of Sept. 11 may or may not be hyperbole. And yes, while I share his repugnance at state-sponsored executions, Vidal waxes far too sympathetic about McVeigh, whom he describes as an idealist whose "excessive sense of justice" detoured into mayhem after the outrageous barbecuing of more than 80 people in the 1993 federal siege at Waco, Texas. Rather than libertarian opponents to a militarized federal state, McVeigh and his militia cohorts are much more the gun-worshiping children of military culture. McVeigh and friends would not oppose military dictatorship, so long as they directed it.
Nor do I find very convincing Vidal's prescription for what the proper response to the perpetrators of Sept. 11 should have been. He suggests sending U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to negotiate a grand detente between the fundamentalists and us, the infidels. I found the work of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan to be more appropriate and effective. But so what? Vidal pretends to be neither a policy wonk nor a military strategist, and he spends little more than a few paragraphs in arguing for what should be done to Bin Laden. Instead, he's a powerful, urgently needed and near lone voice of national conscience.
The suffocating and self-indulgent consensus in which most of America has swaddled itself since Sept. 11, reinforced by cable-babble framed in patriotic bunting and unquestioned by "opposition" Democrats who purr like a collection of domestic pets on Dubya's Crawford, Texas, ranch, could use a bit of shouting down by the likes of Vidal. And if someone wants to shout back half as eloquently as Vidal, then please hop to it. That way we'd have at least the semblance of a grand national debate.