Gore Vidal took great delight in demolishing the fragile confections of mainstream politics. While corporate journalists typically portray US Presidents as benign demigods, Vidal described George W. Bush as “the stupidest man in the United States”. In 2008, Vidal said of the 2003 war on Iraq:
You can see little Bush all along was just dreaming of war, and also Cheney dreaming about oil wells and how you knock apart a country like Iraq and of course their oil will pay for the damage you do. For that alone, he should have been put in front of a firing squad… They – Cheney, Bush – they wanted the war. They’re oilmen. They want a war to get more oil. They’re also extraordinarily stupid. These people don’t know anything about anything.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Vidal replied: “I don’t give a goddamn.”
Just as well. As the above comments make clear, not only did Vidal’s analysis lack any semblance of what corporate journalists call “nuance”, he poured scorn on their entire profession:
I tried to explain to the press club what it is they do that they don’t know they do. I quote David Hume: “The Few are able to control the Many only through Opinion.” In the eighteenth century, Opinion was dispensed from pulpit and schoolroom. Now the media are in place to give us Opinion that has been manufactured in the boardrooms of those corporations – once national, now international – that control our lives. (Vidal, Virgin Islands – Essays 1992-1997, Andre Deutsch, 1997, p.188)
This, of course, is the same ‘press club’ that has been reviewing Vidal’s life and work since his death on July 31.
Sex, Flag, Foetus
A celebrated novelist, essayist and screenwriter, Vidal’s primary focus in the last two decades of his life was overwhelmingly on radical political analysis. He wrote books with titles likes Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace’(2002), Dreaming War – Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (2003), and Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004). Vidal argued that corporate power had overthrown democracy in the United States and was waging a permanent war for profit around the planet.
So how much attention would we expect the corporate media to afford Vidal’s political dissent in accurately and honestly reviewing his oeuvre? This comment from 1998 indicates his own expectation:
When a ruling establishment will not let daylight in on their workings because they own the media as well as the permanent rental of most of Congress, judiciary and executive, that doesn’t leave much to talk about at election time except sex, the flag, the foetus and, in the good old days, Communism. So the fact that Clinton’s sex life is now central to our political discourse is par for the current course. (Vidal, “New World Ordure”, The Observer, January 25, 1998)
And indeed reviews of Vidal’s own life have mostly focused on ‘sex, the flag, the foetus’, as it were, with literary editors leading the way. In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin opened with:
One evening, when I dined with Gore Vidal, he told me all about the time he outpolled his good friend Jack Kennedy. There: does that capture the late Master’s sleek tone of name-dropping omniscience?
Gaby Wood, Head of Books at the Telegraph, wrote:
There was a time when a visit to Gore Vidal at his villa in Ravello was the literary equivalent of Lourdes… He was related to Jackie Kennedy, he campaigned (unsuccessfully) with Eleanor Roosevelt. He would shake his head over stars of Hollywood’s golden age as if he were their maiden aunt mourning an unfortunate choice of boyfriend (“Well, Rita [Hayworth] never had any luck”)…
And so on…
Thus is the life of an important political dissident boiled down and strained through the ‘culture’ pages of the one per cent press, leaving a glutinous residue of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’. Wood added:
It does not, perhaps, fall to strangers to wonder whether the great literary socialite was bitter because he was lonely. But eventually, his famous bon mots became so outlandish that they rattled many of his sometime admirers. Was it the drink, the passing of time, or a consistent commitment to the holding of unpredictable opinions? Some rolled their eyes, others laughed, and one or two, at least, took it upon themselves to hold him to account.
In the Telegraph, Philip Hensher noted that Vidal was “the man who knew everyone”. But there was a dark side: “an immense series of perverse, but massively well-informed, anti-readings of American history” and “even more perverse essays on public and literary matters”.
This recalled Steve Crawshaw’s comment in the Independent on how “Chomsky knows so much… but seems impervious to any idea of nuance.” (Crawshaw, ‘Furious ideas with no room for nuance,’ The Independent, February 21, 2001)
Hensher had nothing serious to say about why Vidal’s reading of American history should be considered ‘perverse’. In the Independent, Christopher Hawtree described how Vidal would often look at the country of his birth “askance”. Again, readers had to work out for themselves what that might mean, with Vidal’s “opposition to the Israeli lobby within America” offered as a throwaway clue.
Quoting Vidal in the Sunday Times, Andrew Sullivan provided a rare mainstream glimpse of what Hensher and Hawtree surely had in mind:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats… But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.’ (Andrew Sullivan, “The twin sources of Vidal’s vitriol; The death of a young love and despair for his country gave the writer his voice”, Sunday Times, August 5, 2012)
Clearly, then, Sullivan observed, when it came to covering 20th century America, Vidal’s “anger, bile and resentment got the better of him”.
Alas, the same weakness afflicted the late Harold Pinter. In The New York Times, James Traub found the playwright’s politics “so extreme… it is hard to think of anyone save Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal who would not choke on Pinter’s bile.” (Traub, ‘Their Highbrow Hatred of Us”, New York Times, October 30, 2005)
The sage minds of the corporate media occasionally puzzled over Pinter’s malfunctioning moral gallbladder. In the Independent, the precocious Johann Hari wrote:
Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he has been relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day.
Pinter was just a classic left loon, then, the target of his ire incidental.
Sullivan at least found a little more method in Vidal’s madness:
Why such anger? That’s the question of his life.
His soul mate died in warfare at the age of 19… Vidal carried this wound for a lifetime – building an armoury of wit, bile and erudition to protect himself from another. But another was coming. For Vidal, his other great love, the American republic, died of warfare in 1941. So much of his writing after that is rooted in anger.
To this psycho-political babble, Sullivan added the standard smear:
Vidal ruined his case by exaggeration, of course, and absurd moral equivalence. There were times when he blithely dismissed the horrors committed by America’s enemies – such as the Vietcong or Al-Qaeda – while never failing to note America’s own hypocrisy and paranoia and occasional clumsy cruelty abroad.
It is tempting to psychoanalyse Sullivan’s own view of America’s cruelty as “occasional”, “clumsy” and “abroad”. He concluded of Vidal:
His [gay] sexual orientation was surely central to this: it fuelled a grief that he could never be the statesman he once yearned to be, in a country he subsequently loved to hate.
There is an alternative explanation: Vidal had a functioning brain and heart, and a sufficiently independent mind to perceive the mass killing of innocents in pursuit of maximised US profit.
David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times:
Bit by bit Vidal transformed himself from thinker to polemicist. His political essays, much loved in the anti-American press over here, began to take on a mildly unhinged quality. (Aaronovitch, “Praise to the man who beat about Mr Bush; Gore Vidal dazzled in his early novels and essays, but gradually turned into a mildly unhinged isolationist”, The Times, August 2, 2012)
Readers will struggle to find a better example of what psychologists call ‘projection’.
Echoing the standard obsession, a Guardian article was entitled: “Adam Mars-Jones my lunch at the Dorchester with Gore Vidal”. Mars-Jones commented: “Few writers have shown so much flair in using television to maintain their public image.”
In fact, as Vidal made clear, his political analysis had long been banished from our screens:
The press won’t report me, television is shut to me, I’ve been erased. Noam Chomsky never had a chance, he never had a great public; but I had one through my books and movies and plays and of course essay writing. Now I am no longer a guest on anything where I might cause trouble, where I might say something that they would find embarrassing, which would be practically anything I would say about how the country is run. So I am the perfect example of censorship in the United States. (“I am the perfect example of censorship in the United States”, Gore Vidal talks to Michael March about history, the cold war and who really runs America, the Guardian, March 29, 2001)
Consider, as discussed, that Vidal was a rare honest and articulate opponent of the Iraq war. In October 2002, we checked the Guardian/Observer website and found that it had mentioned Iraq in some 2,381 articles in that crucial year of propaganda hype before the war was launched in March 2003. By October 19, the words ‘Bush’ and ‘Iraq’ had been mentioned in 1,263 of these articles. The words ‘Gore Vidal’ and ‘Iraq’ had been mentioned in seven articles.
Precisely because Vidal’s dissent was excluded by the media, the Telegraph obituary was able to get away with this dumbed down version:
By the 1980s, Vidal observed, politics had become trivialised by television, its substance and debate replaced by flickering images, its figures transmuted into talking heads allowed only seconds to make arguments about the future of the nation and the world.
He detected a failure of education, manners on the decline, and political leaders cynical, ignorant and blinded to the realities of the outside world.
The analysis was itself a good example of the kind of trivialisation it was describing. Quite simply, since Vidal’s death the corporate media have had nothing serious to say about his political dissent warning against the dominance of corporate power.
Vidal’s summing up certainly generalises to UK politics and media:
The bullshit just flows and flows and flows, and the American media is so corrupt and so tied into it that it never questions it.