Gore Vidal, American
Gore Vidal has committed an unspeakable act — he has dared to compare mass murder committed by an individual to mass murder committed by the state, and what is more he has found the latter to be even worse. Now the usual character assassins are out in force, with Ronald Radosh of FrontPage magazine leading the way, tarring Vidal as "anti-American" and "anti-Semitic." In fact Gore Vidal is neither of those things, but from the perspective of our neoconservative friends he is something much worse: anti-statist.
To be sure he is a quirky one; he supports nationalized healthcare, after all. But fundamentally he is more devoted to the principles of the old federal republic than 99% of today's "conservatives." Clear evidence for this is readily available in the form of his most recent book, The Golden Age.
The work is an historical novel set in Washington, DC between 1933 and 1950. As a novel it is enjoyable, if slight. As a meditation on the decay of American republican institutions however, it is a masterpiece. Consider this passage, in which ex-president Herbert Hoover anticipates World War II and its consequences:
"I am anti-war as you may have guessed but not because, as some deep thinkers believe, I am a Quaker born and bred. I'm perfectly willing for us to fight if we have to. But I see something worse than war on the horizon. I am certain that the next war will absolutely transform us. I see more power to the great corporations. More power to the government. Less power to the people. That's what I fear. Because once this starts, it is irreversible. You see, I want to live in a community that governs itself. Well, you can't extend the mastery of the government over the daily life of a people without making government the master of those people's souls and thoughts, the way the fascists and the Bolsheviks have done."
The sentiment is clearly Vidal's own, though it is not only his. It is the same sentiment upon which the United States were founded, not so much by those who drafted the constitution but by those who settled the land and fought to be free from the yoke of the British Empire. They too wanted to live in a community that governed itself. But Ronald Radosh, who knows better, finds Vidal to be "anti-American." Apparently bombing Kosovo and spying on China is now thought to be more characteristically American than self-governance. Sadly, the way things are going Radosh may be right.
Vidal himself explains why in The Golden Age. You cannot have an imperial foreign policy without also sacrificing civil liberties and self-rule at home. One of Vidal's characters, the Communist-turned-neoconservative Billy Wilder, explains the process to the novel's protagonist, Peter Sanford:
Billy put out his cigar. "Not only is industry going to be supported by the federal government but the universities too."
"Huge federal grants to higher learning to find new scientific ways of defending freedom. Also, new ways to silence the so-called humanities. We're even planning to set up independent journalists and newspapers all around the world to counteract reactionary, un-American papers like yours. Our periodicals will be known as ‘liberal,' of course.... At last true benign socialism."
Note the underlying logic. Most conservatives and libertarian minarchists grant that one of the few legitimate functions of the state is national defense. But it is precisely national defense that serves as the rationale for state intervention in business and education in this example. The welfare state and the warfare state are finally the same thing. No wonder the Republicans and Democrats and beltway libertarians have so much in common.
Note also Wilder's use of the neoconservatives' second- and third-favorite smears, "un-American" (or "anti-American") and "reactionary." This is accurate characterization. Vidal could have added the neocons' absolute favorite curse, "anti-Semitic," too, but that would have been overkill.
There is much in The Golden Age that statists will find virulently anti-American, such as the notion that Franklin Delano Roosevelt played a very active role in getting us into World War II. Vidal employs in his novel some of the evidence found in Robert Stinnett's history, Day of Deceit. To his credit however Vidal is ultimately concerned not just with the state itself but also with statism's effect on citizens and the American character. It is for this reason that when Vidal suggests a remedy for the republic's ills he does not turn to the political process, but rather to culture and art. Here again Vidal speaks through the character of Herbert Hoover:
"When the Depression was at its worst, everyone wanted to know what we should do. General Electric even offered to take over the government and run it for me like — well, like General Electric, I suppose. Oh, I was given a great deal of advice. Finally, I was inspired to say, what this country really needs is a great poem. Something to lift people out of fear and selfishness."
"Do you still think so?"
"You should have written it, sir."
"I am no poet. And there is still no poem by anyone — yet."
Gore Vidal may not be that poet either, but he comes very close. He certainly understands far better than his critics do just what is really American.
May 10, 2001
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.