Gore Vidal: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Gore Vidal: John Lennon was a born enemy of those who control the United States, which I always say was admirable. Lennon came to represent life, while Mr. Nixon… and Mr. Bush… represent death.
The first quote by Vidal is one of the most famous by a person who was still living this week. It’s just fame derives from its pithy characterization of how deviously politicians, preachers and other influence-peddlers can rhetorically wrap themselves up in the Stars & Stripes, and become Teflon disparagers and demonizers of anyone who expresses political dissent, especially regarding the policies and institutions of United States.
I have a great love of America in the great, broad sense of the name, which implicitly includes the whole New World — North, Central and South America. I have a far more uneasy emotional and intellectual relationship with the United States, per se. I understand and love America especially for its indigenous culture and the way that culture has inherently informed and shaped our society and our democratic politics, although this is a still-underexplored relationship, which I have attempted to deal with in my hopefully forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.
But today I commemorate Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, August 2, 2012, and who may have been the greatest living essayist in America, as his definitive collection United States: Essays 1952 to 1992 will demonstrate to anyone who dips into it. This monumental anthology ought to be instructive to anyone today who strives to communicate articulately through writing, especially in the no-holds-barred electronic media. So yes, I’m talking about bloggers, like myself. Vidal’s writing helps to give me pause, to reflect how much craft went into his essay writing. Whereas one must wonder how much care, deliberation and craft goes into blogging these days, when the pressure is always to churn out something new and maybe flashy, provocative or trendy that Internet browsers might just latch onto.
That’s not all bad, of course. Vidal was a brilliant provocateur. Note that Vidal’s comments about John Lennon suggest that the most outspoken of the Beatles implicitly criticized the United States for using its then-supreme post-Cold War political and military power as a warring empire. Lennon, by contrast came to represent life, as epitomized in this great song of societal idealism “Imagine.”
So I choose to commemorate Vidal for the critical thinking that permeates the magnificent volume of essays. Thus, he titled it United States rather than America — had it been titled the latter, I suspect it would’ve been a more celebratory collection.
Rather in the volume’s “State of the Union” section, various essays critique the political nation-state that elided or institutionalized oppression at home and whose main international presence has been its military muscle — and the emotional and quasi-intellectual trait that most often buttresses and informs it: patriotism.
Accordingly, I quote from his essay “Patriotism,” written originally for The Nation July 15 – 22, 1991.
Vidal — though he could sometimes adopt a patrician tone of superiority — began in self-deprecating style, recounting when he attended a Gore family reunion in Mississippi, as former Vice President Al Gore is a cousin of his:
“I knew no one at the gathering but I was at home. Who would not be when confronted with 200 variations of one’s own nose and elephantine ears? These clan reunions that are taking place all over the country are not a WASP phenomenon. Blacks have been searching out their roots for some time, while the original “Americans” never ceased to honor their tribal ghosts, just about all that we have left of them. Hispanics now live in blithe unassimilated enclaves in what Mexicans still refer to as the occupied lands seized by us from Mexico. Meanwhile, American Jews gaze raptly upon the recently exhumed ‘homeland’ half a world away from North America, and though most of them sensibly refused to go there to live, they allow the rest of us to finance (officially at a cost thus far of over $50 billion [as of 1991]) this land other Jews have occupied.
“Is it any wonder that, in the absence of an agreed-upon nation, our many tribes are unfurling their standards and casting even wider the webs of kinship for mutual support and defense against the state that no one loves? If the Vice President and Secretary of Defense chose not to fight for their country in Vietnam,* why should anyone fight for their country?
“Suddenly all our turkeys are coming home to roost; and the skies are dark with their unlovely wings while the noise of their gobbling makes hideous Sunday television… We can do nothing at all. Jefferson foresaw the eventual degradation or her system and he suggested that we hold a constitutional convention once a generation. But neither our rulers nor their hapless critics will allow such a thing (“You see, they will take away the Bill of Rights”); plainly it is more seemly to allow the Supreme Court to take it away…
“In due course, the idea of the nation-state may become as obsolete as the nation-state, in fact, already is…In any case, it will be the collapse of the world’s already skewed economy that will make for great change, not the firing of a patriot’s gun at some national security fort.”2
You begin to see how uncannily prescient Vidal was — commenting on the transformational disaster of the world economy collapse, 17 years after he predicted it. And he certainly is provocative in questioning why anyone should fight for their country. This would seem to devalue the heroic efforts of veterans, but they, as individual soldiers, should be valorized and supported, even if most of America’s 20 and 21st century military exploits for which they were used (save World War II) remain eminently worthy of criticism. That is Vidal’s point, how the nation-state asserts its will and righteousness militarily, and now preemptively — often in the name of democracy.
And as a gay man, he surely spoke from first-hand experience as a member of an oppressed minority group driven to self-protective identity tribalism. He helped open the door to mainstream discourse for other gays — a testament to his creative powers, shrewdness and rhetorical skills — and perhaps his privileged background. But Vidal is not all gloom and doom. He ends the essay hopefully and yet with a characteristic provocation that shows you could never pin him down politically:
“From the one many. That could be our happy fate in a single, interdependent world, with no flags to burn, no guns to be shot in anger, no—dare I propose so dangerous proposition? — Taxation without representation? In short a new world disorder. Freedom, justice for all. CNN too. In hoc signo… (“in this sign you will conquer”.)
I would not have been so struck by Vidal’s early ’90s insights and critical acumen if I had not just read an essay by Nathaniel Berman in the Summer 2012 issue of Tikkun, the excellent and courageous magazine of “politics spirituality and culture.”
Berman’s article is Statism and Anti-statism: Reflections on Israel’s Legitimacy Crisis. And it delineates the complicated array of small groups, movements and sentiments that question the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which has increasingly used its U.S. – supported nation-states militia power in an oppressive and belligerent manner. Berman quotes provocatively lines “certain to shock American Zionists in the year 2012 “: ‘…For we preach anarchism. That is, we do not want a state, but rather a free society… We as Jews know enough of the dreadful idolatry of the state.. To pray to it and to offer our children as a willing sacrifice to its unquenchable greed and lust for power. We Jews are not Staatsvolk.’” The quote is from the young Gershom Scholem in 1915, a passionate Zionist who Berman asserts “would become (though without retaining his youthful political radicalism) arguably the most important Jewish scholar past hundred years.”
Like the elder Scholem, I hardly see myself as a radical, but these ideas — commingling among Vidal, Berman and Scholem — make eminent sense in the chaotic world we live in today. The way we learn to co-exist in ”a single interdependent world, with no flags to burn, no guns to be shot in anger,” as Vidal put it, may be key to avoiding Armageddon, or the survival of the planet, if it does not fall to uninhabitable ruin from environmental abuse.
I would hardly advocate dismantling of our government — especially for all the domestic social good for the sick and needy, and the business empowerment it historically has provided. But perhaps a constitutional convention, as Vidal and Jefferson suggested, would help us remove such archaic albatrosses as the Electoral College, for example. (Talk about disproportionate taxation without representation!).
And note that Vidal also predicted in 1991 how the Supreme Court has become a political entity far more than a true judiciary one. One could argue our Bill of Rights has been undermined by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In deeming that a corporation is an individual with the right to spend unlimited money on political influence, the court fabricated, out of sheer judicial hubris, a gargantuan mock American citizen. What corporation has ever, or will ever cast a vote in an election? How many persons of a corporation truly represent “citizens united,” apart from the one CEOs and shareholders at the top one per cent? And yet, with that Supreme ruling, we now watch many millions of dollars influence a presidential election (and in my own state of Wisconsin, a gubernatorial recall election) far, far more than any individual citizen’s vote ever will. So our right to cast a vote as a citizen has been profoundly undermined.
So I do begin to see why a Vidal was worthy of the National Book Award for his collection of astonishingly trenchant critical writing about literature, culture and The United States. The deeply erudite Vidal was also a penetrating historical novelist, as he proved in such books as Burr and Lincoln (virtually definitive on their subjects) among others, and a brilliant social satirist, as in Myra Breckenridge.
Gore Vidal was not a patriot in the conventional sense because, as he notes in the beginning of the essay, that term is etymologically patriarchal and contributed to devaluing the role of women in shaping America, and thus devaluing their power and rights. Yet, Vidal was a great American in the best sense, capable of insightful dissent and constructive and, against bleak odds, hopeful criticism, inspired by all that he understood America has become and might still be.
May his writing, and the high standard it forged, live on for all who strive to essay in any medium.
*Vidal was referring — to under George HW Bush — Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney, who despite getting five draft deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, became perhaps the most war-mongering administration member in modern American history, both as Secretary of Defense and then as Vice President under George W. Bush. As Melville wrote:
youth must its ignorant impulse lend —
Age finds place in the rear.
all wars are boyish, and are fought by boys
the champions and enthusiasts of the state.
— from “The March to Virginia” in Battle Pieces
2 Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952 – 1992 Broadway Books 1993, p. 1046-47
First Photo of Gore Vidal, courtesy of Two Roads Diverged: Gay Men and Women Who’ve Made a Difference. http://www.tworoadsdiverged.com/Famous_Gays.html
Second Vidal photo courtesy of blog at http://www.beppegrillo.it/