Written by Chris Floyd
Thursday, 16 August 2012 15:48
It is apparent that the nation of Ecuador will now be in the frame for what American foreign policy elites like to call, in their dainty and delicate language, "the path of action." Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange on Thursday for one reason only: the very real possibility that he would be "rendered" to the United States for condign punishment, including the possibility of execution.
None of the freedom-loving democracies involved in the negotiations over his fate -- Britain, Sweden, and the United States -- could guarantee that this would not happen … even though Assange has not been charged with any crime under U.S. law. [And even though the sexual misconduct allegations he faces in Sweden would not be crimes under U.S. or UK law.] Under these circumstances -- and after a sudden, blustering threat from Britain to violate the Ecuadorean embassy and seize Assange anyway -- the government of Ecuador felt it had no choice but to grant his asylum request.
As we all know, some of America's top political figures have openly called for Assange to be put to death for the crime of -- well, what was his crime, exactly, in American eyes? His crime is this: he published information leaked to him by a whistleblower -- exactly as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, Fox News, etc., etc., do on a regular basis. Some American leaders and media blowhards have demanded he be executed for "treason," although, as an Australian citizen, he cannot commit treason against the United States. Others say his leaking of classified documents (none of them remotely as sensitive as, say, the much-celebrated Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam Era) has put "American soldiers in danger" -- even though America's own military and intelligence officials have repeatedly stated that no one has been harmed from the publication of documents on Wikileaks.
No one has been physically harmed, that is. Of course, great harm has been done to the pride of the puffed--up poltroons who strut and preen atop the imperial battlements, thinking themselves the lords of all the earth and the apple of every little peon's eye. Their crimes and lies and third-rate minds were exposed -- in their own words -- by Wikileaks: and it is for this that Assange must pay. (And be made an example of to all those who might do likewise.) Our imperial elites (and their innumerable little yapping media sycophants on both sides of the political fence) simply cannot bear to have American power and domination resisted in any way, at any time, for any reason, anywhere, by anyone. It offends their imperial dignity. It undermines their extremely fragile, frightened, frantic egos, which can only be held together by melding themselves to an image of monstrous, implacable, unstoppable power.
It also -- and by no means incidentally -- threatens to put a slight crimp in their bottom line, for the American system is now thoroughly militarized; the elite depend, absolutely, on war, death, terror and fear to sustain their economic dominance. As the empire's chief sycophant, Thomas Friedman, once put it: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." You really can't put it any plainer than that. The only path to prosperity is through domination by armed force. Others must die, must suffer, must quake in fear, to preserve our comfort. This is Modern American Militarism in a nutshell: the ruling ideology and national religion of American society today.
Anything or anyone who threatens this dominance -- or just disagrees with it, or simply wants to be left alone by it -- is automatically judged an enemy of the imperial state. You must accept the system. You must get with the program. You cannot question it. The beliefs or religion or ideology of the resister (or perceived resister) do not matter in the slightest. Even the impact (or lack of impact) of the resistance doesn't matter. It is resistance that it is the crime. It is the refusal to acknowledge the greatness and goodness of the strutters on the battlements, and the legitimacy of their armed domination over the earth, and over you.
It is not enough that you obey; you must be seen to obey. You must obey cheerfully, without complaint -- just ask any of thousands and thousands of your fellow citizens who have been tasered or beaten or arrested for failing to show due deference to a police officer or security guard or any of the many other heavily armed figures out there who can stop us, hold us, put us away -- or put us down -- on the merest whim.
Although Britain is acting as the beard in this case, the government of the Nobel Peace Laureate is clearly driving the action. It is simply inconceivable that Washington will not find ways to punish Ecuador for this act of lèse–majesté. What form it will take remains to be seen (although it could begin with covert backing for Britain's violation of the Ecuadorean embassy in London). But the fragile, frantic strutters will not let this pass.
UPDATE: Just to make it clear, sexual assault is a very serious matter. To say that the accusations now being made against Assange would not constitute a crime under U.S. or UK law is not to diminish the right of all women to be free from sexual assault in any form.
But these concerns have nothing to do with what is being played out in London right now. Assange has not actually been criminally charged with sexual assault, although this claim is repeated unceasingly in stories about the situation. [Including my post above, when I carelessly wrote "charges" in place of "allegations"; now corrected.] He is wanted for questioning in a case involving such allegations; a case which was at first dismissed by a prosecutor then reopened later by a different prosecutor. This prosecutor did not charge Assange with a crime, but wanted to question him further in the process of re-examining whether formal charges are warranted.
Now here is one of the many bizarre turns in this story. Assange was in the UK after the case was re-opened. If the prosecutors wanted to question him, they could have done so at any time, either by coming to London or interviewing him via video hookup. There are ample precedents in European and Swedish law for either course. They refused to do so. (They have also refused Ecuador's offer to have Assange interrogated in their London embassy.) Assange has also said he would return to Sweden for questioning if the government there would guarantee he would not be extradited to the United States. This was also refused.
Given the fact that Swedish prosecutors have repeatedly turned down opportunities to question Assange about the case -- even though they say this is their sole aim -- it is not entirely unreasonable to assume, as Assange has done, that there is some other intention behind the process that has led to the standoff we see today. If the primary concern was justice for the two women involved in the allegations, who have had the case hanging over their heads for almost two years, Assange could have been questioned by Swedish authorities at any time during that period, and the process of resolving the case, one way or another, could have moved forward. But this has not been done.
As Assange's lawyer, Per Samuelson, notes:
In August 2010, Assange was interviewed by the police for the first time, then released. A month later, the prosecutor requested an additional police interrogation be held, insisting this time that it be done with Assange behind bars. She called for Assange's arrest, issued a European arrest warrant and ordered that he be deported from the UK. Stockholm district court and the Svea court of appeal upheld her request and arrested Assange in absentia.
Neither Assange nor I can understand the motivation. Why couldn't the second police interview be conducted with Assange at liberty? Assange is not a Swedish citizen. He does not reside in Sweden. His work has worldwide impact and he must be able to travel freely to accomplish this. He would happily have presented himself for interrogation and, had the case gone to trial, willingly returned to Sweden to face charges. All this could have been done while he remained at liberty. Had Sweden handled the case in this way, the issue would have been resolved a long time ago.
Instead, Sweden insists on Assange's forcible removal to Sweden. Once there, he will immediately be seized by police and put in jail. He will be taken to the detention hearing in handcuffs, and will almost certainly be detained. He will remain in custody for the duration of the proceedings. This is unnecessary. The prosecutor is at liberty to withdraw the arrest warrant and lift the detention order, and a hearing in Sweden could be arranged very quickly. The prosecutor could also arrange a hearing in the UK or at the Swedish embassy in London.
Again, it seems evident that the Swedish authorities did not want to pursue any of these options, but have instead sought relentlessly to put Assange in a Swedish jail and keep him there. Whatever their motives for this heavy-handed course of action, concern for victims of sexual assault does not seem to be among them.
Written by Chris Floyd
Friday, 03 August 2012 12:52
A passage from my piece on Gore Vidal yesterday ("As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility") brought this response from a reader:
The comparison with Tolstoy fails completely, to the detriment of Gore Vidal. In his thought Tolstoy was a religious crank who thought in crude black and white. None of the genius he brought to his fiction carried across to his later religious and moralistic writings.
The plain fact is, having read both some of Gore Vidal's fiction and heard him speak on video etc, he is more consistent than Tolstoy and thus immeasurably superior.
To which, this brief reply:
Opinions on these matters are all subjective, of course; one man's "crank" (an epithet applied not infrequently to Vidal himself by those eager to dismiss his discomforting views) is another man's exemplar. But, with respect, I must say I find it hard to believe that you have actually read any of Tolstoy's non-fiction writings on politics and power and war (as opposed to any of the "religious crankery" you might have run across.) And I seriously doubt that Vidal would have shared your opinion of these anti-war, anti-elite, anti-establishment pieces. (Such as those collected in Letters From Tula, for example.)
Certainly Vidal would have found much of Tolstoy's religious writings to be risible -- though I doubt he would have found them 'crude,' as he would have recognized the complex learning that lay behind them, and their logical, iconoclastic rigour (while, again, rejecting their religious premises). But beyond Tolstoy's typically 19th century hang-ups about sex, his "religious crankery" focused mainly on ending war, ending coercion and corruption by powerful elites and institutions (including all religions), and establishing social, political and economic justice. There's very little there that Vidal would have found entirely uncongenial, I think.
He might also have delighted in the fact that Tolstoy's religious beliefs shook one of the world's most powerful and repressive religious institutions -- the Russian Orthodox Church -- to its foundations, and led multitudes of people out of its stultifying grip. At the core of Tolstoy's beliefs was a fierce commitment to intellectual liberty, to freedom of thought and conscience, even for those who disagreed with whatever particular notion he happened to hold at any particular time.
And I imagine Vidal might well have enjoyed Tolstoy's "inconsistency" -- especially the randy Russian's inability to quell his rampant sexuality. After all, 'consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,' and Vidal probably would have admired the restlessness of Tolstoy's rather large mind, as it groped through the darkness that surrounds us all, chasing flickers of light here and there, never quite satisfied with any final conclusion, but pushed always by doubt, by inner turmoil, and by the desire to know more.
No one would argue that Tolstoy's non-fiction has the power and genius of his greatest novels and stories. That was my point: that the true greatness of both writers lay in their artistic achievement, which lent greater depth and credibility to their non-fiction -- whether or not one agrees with every single judgment or opinion they rendered.
Written by Chris Floyd
Tuesday, 07 August 2012 01:38
Over the decades, Robert Parry has done yeoman service in exposing the vast criminality of the American state. From the foul bloodwork of American power in Central America to the treasonous machinations of the Iran-Contra scheme to the long, corrupt, murderous history of the Bush crime family, Parry has broken many important stories and brought much "lost history" -- the title of his best book -- to light. I have drawn on his work frequently, and learned a great deal from it.
Therefore it is extremely dispiriting to read his recent bitter blasts (here and here) at any and all of those "on the left" who might even contemplate refusing to support Barack Obama for re-election. Such people, he tells us, are vain, preening perfectionists who care more for their own self-righteousness than the fate of the world. Indeed, "leftists" who have refused to support the Democratic candidate -- no matter who he is, no matter what he has done -- are complicit, we’re told, in all the atrocities perpetrated by Republican presidents since 1968.
(Apparently, no Democratic president has ever perpetrated any atrocities; they are just "imperfect" politicians who might sometimes "do some rotten things" but always "fewer rotten things than the other guy.")
Parry believes he is preaching a tough, gritty doctrine of "moral ambiguity." What he is in fact advocating is the bleakest moral nihilism. To Parry, the structure of American power -- the corrupt, corporatized, militarized system built and sustained by both major parties -- cannot be challenged. Not even passively, not even internally, for Parry scorns those who simply refuse to vote almost as harshly as those who commit the unpardonable sin: voting for a third party. No, if you do not take an active role in supporting this brutal engine of war and injustice by voting for a Democrat, then it is you who are immoral.
You must support this system. It is the only moral choice. What’s more, to be truly moral, to acquit yourself of the charge of vanity and frivolity, to escape complicity in government crimes, you must support the Democrat. If the Democratic president orders the "extrajudicial" murder of American citizens, you must support him. If he chairs death squad meetings in the White House every week, checking off names of men to be murdered without charge or trial, you must support him. If he commits mass murder with robot drones on defenseless villages around the world, you must support him. If he imprisons and prosecutes whistleblowers and investigative journalists more than any other president in history, you must support him. If he cages and abuses and tortures a young soldier who sought only to stop atrocities and save the nation’s honor, you must support him. If he "surges" a pointless war of aggression and occupation in a ravaged land and expands that war into the territory of a supposed ally, you must support him. If he sends troops and special ops and drones and assassins into country after country, fomenting wars, bankrolling militias, and engineering coups, you must support him. If he throws open the nation's coastal waters to rampant drilling by the profiteers who are devouring and despoiling the earth, you must support him. If he declares his eagerness to do what no Republican president has ever dared to do -- slash Social Security and Medicare -- you must support him.
For Robert Parry, blinded by the red mist of partisanship, there is literally nothing -- nothing -- that a Democratic candidate can do to forfeit the support of "the left." He can even kill a 16-year-old American boy -- kill him, rip him to shreds with a missile fired by a coddled coward thousands of miles away -- and you must support him. And, again, if you do not support him, if you do not support all this, then you are the problem. You are enabling evil.
Given this wildly askew moral compass, what would Parry make of that great American refusenik, Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a deadly militarist adventure in Mexico and the government-sanctioned system of slavery, and whose thoughts on civil disobedience and disengagement with evil inspired Tolstoy and Gandhi? Thoreau said: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
What would Parry say to that? “Enough of your vain moral posturing, Thoreau. Forget the Mexican War; get out there and support James K. Polk. He’s a Democrat, for god’s sake! Do you want someone worse to get in there? It’s a disgrace not to associate yourself with this government!”
Parry’s “logic” is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly faulty. Perhaps that’s not surprising; after all, partisanship is the sworn enemy of logic, of objective reasoning, of clear thinking. But what is surprising, given Parry’s decades of deep-delving in the mines of politics and history, is how wrong he is on the “savvy” realpolitik he espouses, and his wanton misreading of history.
Parry rails against the “left” for not giving enough support to the Democrats in elections of 1968, 1980 and 2000. If these fastidious perfectionists hadn’t tried to “punish” the “imperfect” Democratic candidates in the those crucial years, the nation and the world would have been spared much suffering, we are told.
Well, maybe so, maybe not. This kind of ahistorical speculation is pointless in the extreme. If Hitler had been run over by a Vienna streetcar in 1919, then perhaps the world would have been a better place; or perhaps someone even worse would have come along. You can’t unring the bell of historical events – or tell what other tunes might have chimed in their place.
But even on a surface level, Parry’s analysis fails. He seems to think that the “left’s” desertion of the Democrats in 1968 gave the presidency to Richard Nixon and prolonged the Vietnam War. It was not the “left” that abandoned the Democrats that year; it was the millions of ordinary Americans who had only four years before given Lyndon Johnson the biggest electoral mandate in history up to that time. If every leftist in the country had stayed home (and of course the overwhelming majority of them did not, and almost all of them voted for Hubert H. Humphrey), the Democrats still would have lost. Parry, astonishingly, forgets the presence of George Wallace in the race (and race is the operative word here). Wallace’s pro-segregation campaign took five states from the Democrats’ formerly “solid South” and won 10 million votes, almost all of them from Democratic constituencies. Even if every “leftist” had been burning with fervor for HHH, no Democrat could have survived such a blow to the party’s base.
What’s more, the real abandonment of the party that year came not from disaffected leftists, but from the Democrat’s own leader: LBJ, who simply dumped the party, and the presidency, out of hurt feelings at being challenged in the primaries. He didn’t stand up and fight for his social programs and Civil Rights measures, he didn’t end the war (which Parry tells us he was “seriously” contemplating – and which he could have done with a snap of his fingers). Nor did he give more than the most tepid support to Humphrey until the very end of the campaign, when he knew it was too late. He just quit and walked away, with the nation reeling in turmoil from the war he had escalated, and from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. If any one person could be said to have given us Richard Nixon, it was LBJ.
Parry also seems to think that if Jimmy Carter had not been “abandoned” by “leftists" in 1980, in his second term he would have not kept supporting the Afghan religious extremists he himself had loosed on the Soviets (to the world’s everlasting betterment, as we see each day around us). Or that Carter would not have continued supporting murderous Latin American dictatorships and surrogate wars in Africa as he had done throughout his term. Or that he wouldn’t have continued the massive arms build-up he had launched, or continued saber-rattling at the Soviets, or proclaiming the American right to launch pre-emptive war if anyone threatened the vicious tyrants in the Middle East who supplied us with oil. And so on and on. (For more, see here.)
But neither was Carter abandoned by ‘leftists’ to any significant degree. He too lost the votes of millions of ordinary Americans who had supported him four years previously. The third-party “spoiler,” Republican-turned-Independent John Anderson, ended up with less than 7 percent of the vote, with polls showing his meager numbers of supporters split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Carter lost primarily because of a poor economy (not helped by his avowedly conservative economic policies), his own tepid ineptitude, and because of the Iran hostage crisis -- which occurred after his boneheaded mismanagement of the American reaction to the Iranian revolution, including his decision to allow the ousted Shah into the United States, and other measures which aided the revolution’s most radical elements and undercut the secular moderates at every turn. (A practice that has been faithfully followed by every American president since.)
As for 2000, Gore actually won that election, of course, which moots Parry’s point about leftist lethargy robbing worthy Dems of the big brass ring. Of course, the corrupt system that Parry urges us to preserve by continuing to legitimize its perpetrators with our votes did take the presidency away from Gore – or rather, Gore meekly allowed them to take it without pursuing the constitutional challenge he could have made in Congress. And even though my family’s tenuous connection to Gore goes back a long way – I first met him when my father introduced the young Congressional candidate around our town during his first run for elective office, and my cousin once worked as his press aide – I have to say that Gore, as Bill Clinton’s very active vice president, had his hand in a number of activities that might conceivably make even the most acquiescent “leftist” hesitate just a teeny bit. But let’s let his distant cousin, Gore Vidal, tell it (from The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2001):
“In order to be re-elected in 1996, the Clinton-Gore administration adopted a series of right-wing Republican, even protofascist, programs, with lots more prisons, death penalties, harassment of the poor, cries of terrorism, and implicitly, control by government over the citizenry.”
Gore’s tenure at the top also saw the stripping of the financial controls on high finance – a surrender of Democratic (not to mention democratic) principles that ushered in the casino royale that led to the current – and increasingly permanent – economic crisis. And there was also the little matter of the deaths of at least 500,000 children from the US-UK sanctions on Iraq. (And half a million – a vast mountain of child corpses – is just what the Clinton-Gore administration were happy to admit to on national television, to show how tough and savvy they were. The real figure is certainly much higher.)
Would Gore, who didn’t flinch at amassing that mountain of corpses, have launched a war against Iraq, as Bush – who, again, was given the presidency not by “leftists” but by a corrupt Supreme Court rife with partisan (and financial) conflicts of interest – did? Who knows? But we do know that it was the Clinton-Gore administration that signed bills formally committing the United States to “regime change” in Iraq. And Gore did pick the fanatical neo-con warmonger Joe Lieberman as his VP nominee. Gore had always aligned himself with the “Scoop Jackson” militarist wing of the party, unlike this father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., who sacrificed his political career by publicly opposing the Vietnam War. Vidal again:
Alone, I believe, among the usually war-minded Southern legislators, Albert Sr. spoke out against the long idiocy of the Vietnam War. Essentially, populists don’t like foreign wars, particularly in lands that they know nothing of and for no demonstrable goals. For exercising good judgment, Albert Sr. was defeated in 1970 by an opponent who used the familiar line that he was ‘out of touch with the voters of Tennessee. If this was true, the voters, supremely misled by three administrations, were seriously out of touch with reality. ….
The classic Gores are against foreign military adventures. It was here that Al Jr. broke with tradition when he was one of only ten Democratic senators to support George [H.W.] Bush’s Persian Gulf caper [in 1991]; before that, he had approved Reagan’s Grenada invasion and Libyan strikes.
Gore also went to the Vietnam War his father had opposed – albeit just for a short resume-building, non-combat tour as a military journalist.
None of this is to exonerate the Republicans of the monstrous crimes they have most assuredly committed –and/or continued – during their turns at the top of the bipartisan helter-skelter. It is simply to note what the historical record clearly shows: first, that lack of ‘leftist’ support did not cost the Democrats the presidency in any of these years. And second, that the Democrats’ own crimes and atrocities and follies are part and parcel of a system of corporatist/militarist rule that has become so abominable that no one can without disgrace be associated with it. To see this clearly and say it plainly is not “vanity” or “perfectionism.” It is reality. And to deny this, distort it, and denounce those who no longer wish to legitimize it with their votes is not a courageous grappling with “moral ambiguity;” it is a self-infliction of moral blindness.
And I think this is Parry’s main problem: he still doesn’t see – or can’t quite believe – what is going on right in front of his eyes. He thinks we have some kind of normal politics in some kind of normal nation. He can’t seem to grasp that a bipartisan system that has wrought the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and a million more Iraqis in a war of aggression; that has killed countless thousands of Afghans in a pointless, atrocity-ridden, deeply corrupt occupation; that operates a global death squad – out of the White House, directed by the president himself; that kidnaps and tortures innocent people and then protects the torturers; that prosecutes truth-tellers and investigative reporters – like Robert Parry – who expose state crimes; that gorges its wealthy, greedy, above-the-law elites with tax cuts and bailouts and war profits and privileges without end while sharpening its bipartisan knives to gut the last, frayed remnants of the social safety net, is a system that has gone far beyond “moral ambiguity” and “imperfection” and “lesser evilism.” It is itself a product and producer of evil.
Parry says there are no viable alternative parties to this double-headed beast. And he is right. He says there are no popular movements out there right now “that can significantly alter government policies strictly through civil disobedience or via protests in the streets.” And he is right. Therefore what is left to us, at the present moment, in this election, but the power of refusal? (Whether this is exercised by “throwing your vote away” on a third party or absenting yourself entirely from the legitimization and normalization of imperial monstrosity.) Where is the dishonor, the vanity in such a stance, in refusing to accept and affirm mass murder, repression, corruption and injustice in an implacable system that offers no other choices?
Would Parry have told Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak or Josef Brodsky or other Soviet dissidents that they should not have disassociated themselves from the implacable system they confronted? “You should join the Party, Aleksandr, you must work within the system. That’s the only way we’ll see real change.” Perhaps Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst of the White Rose should have stifled their concerns about the “imperfections” of the German government and sought the path of “lesser evilism” instead, working to advance, say, Albert Speer or Herman Goring or some other figure who might have “done some rotten things” but “fewer rotten things than the other guy.”
Yes, I know the United States in 2012 is not the USSR or Hitler’s Germany. And Parry would doubtless say, “Of course they were right to disassociate themselves from such monstrous systems.” But where do you draw the line? How much evil is acceptable? Is there a certain number of victims that a system must reach before one is allowed to disengage from it honorably and morally? To murder six million in death camps or millions in purges is obviously unacceptable; but to kill 500,000 children – is that OK? A million innocent people in a war of aggression – is that beyond the pale? Or can you work with that, can you accommodate that, should you swallow these mountains of dead, washing them down with a big swig of moral ambiguity?
Romney might well prove to be a “worse” president than Obama. (Although Parry does not address the realpolitik argument that a Romney victory would likely wake the ‘left’ from its slumber and cause it to oppose heinous crimes and vicious policies – aggressive war, murder programs, safety net slashing – that it is now happily supporting because a Democrat is doing them.) But that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not one gives legitimacy and justification to a brutal and unjust system by actively supporting and empowering it – and thus perpetuating its bipartisan evils far into the future.
Robert Parry says we should do this. He says: if you don’t support one murderer, the other murderer (or rather, would-be murderer, since Obama has actually directed death squads and drone attacks that have killed hundreds of innocent people, including American children, while Romney is still just hoping to do so) might be worse. To choose one murderer over another murderer is the only moral choice open to us, Parry says. To refuse to cooperate with evil – as Tolstoy did, as Solzhenitsyn did, as Sophie Scholl, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King did – is pointless, perfectionist, vain. That’s what Robert Parry evidently believes.
But with all due respect to Parry and his valuable body of work, I disagree. On this, I will take my stand with Thoreau. I refuse to give this evil my assent.
Written by Chris Floyd
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 23:37
If the Republic still existed, if it was even a shadow of what it was meant to be (and never was), then bells would tolling across the land and flags would be flying at half-mast, in sorrowful honor for one of its true sons. Gore Vidal is dead.
The loss is great. His was a unique sensibility: artistic, caustic, unsentimental, casting a Yeatsian cold eye on the human comedy, and in this way -- with no false pieties, no dogma, no ideological crutches -- revealing, with inescapable clarity, the rank injustices and murderous hypocrisies of power, and the ludicrous pretenses of power's sycophants.
It was the artist in Vidal -- largely overlooked, especially now, in death, as pages and pixels fill up with quick ricochets of his Wildean bon mots and Twitter-ready soundbites -- that gave his work a special force. As with Tolstoy, Vidal's fiction -- the insight that it showed into the complexities of human nature and human society, and the accomplishment and subtlety with which this was put across -- deepened and enriched his political and literary essays, gave them more credibility. And as with Tolstoy, you might not agree with every conclusion (although in matters of politics, society and culture, I very rarely disagreed with Vidal), but the art showed a mind, a spirit, that deserved to be taken seriously.
Vidal obviously relished his outsized, gadfly role in American politics and media: his self-appointed (and entirely credible) persona as the Alternative President to whatever poltroon happened to be occupying the White House at any given moment -- even down to the issuing of his own "State of the Union" essays from time to time, always devastating in their corrosive wit and blistering truths about American society. The vast body of his non-fiction is captured best in the massive 1992 compendium, United States: 1,271 pages long -- and not a boring passage in the entire book. (This is in itself a near-miraculous achievement of the art of prose; even Montaigne nods, but not Vidal.) Its three sections -- State of the Art, State of the Union, and State of Being -- comprise a kind of marvelous postgraduate education in life and learning -- worth more, and far more useful, than a PhD from Harvard or an Oxford PPE.
It is here we see not only Vidal the thinker and media figure, but Vidal the man: steeped in history -- like few others of his time and almost no one of our day -- yet also riding on the sharp, cool edge of modernity as it sliced its way through the 20th century. He seemed to radiate a sense of liberation, in many forms: political, sexual, cultural. He was also a consummate detector of bullshit, and a ruthless dismantler of its celebrated dispensers. (His evisceration of John Updike -- "Rabbit's Own Burrow" -- is a splenetic wonder, on a par with Mark Twain's takedown of Fennimore Cooper or Robert Graves' demolition of Ezra Pound, leaving the reader incapable of taking the victim seriously again.)
But again, I come back to the fiction. I think this is where Vidal's true greatness lies. Perhaps so much in the "experimental" novels, the surreal affairs like Myra Breckenridge, Duluth, and Live From Golgotha. As enjoyable and insightful as these are, they seem to me more like extensions of his political writings: send-ups, or mash-ups, of American society, in broad strokes, a species of commentary. Of course, this might just be a matter of personal taste. But for me, his accomplishment reaches its height in several of his other novels, most of them in historical settings, which are brought to uncanny life through the sharply-realized consciousness of individual human beings. Though the novels are set in the past, these characters are always in their present, in the eternal now where we all live, making our way through the chaos of the moment to the forever-unknowable future.
Lincoln is generally considered the best of the novels, with good reason. It is a remarkably effective -- and remarkably subtle -- example of the "polyphonic novel," as pioneered by Dostoevsky and championed by Bakhtin. Through a kaleidoscope of consciousnesses, Vidal reanimates the crucible of the American experience -- the Civil War -- and the man whom Vidal called our "most mysterious of presidents." Lincoln was part of what Vidal came to see as a series of related novels, a family chronicle -- and a national epic of America's peculiar history: "Narratives of a Golden Age," beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and ending at the dawn of the 1960s (with an epilogue in the new millennium). While Lincoln may hold pride of place in the Narratives, several others in the series are also outstanding works, particularly Burr, 1876 and Empire. The Narratives caught a perfect pitch of the faint but persistent idealism -- the humanism -- wafting through the always-overpowering, and always-triumphant, corruptions of power in the miasmic swamps of Washington and beyond, as the Republic slouched bloodily toward its current monstrosity of empire.
But Vidal, of all people, was no American Exceptionalist, and neither was his best work confined to America's mores and madness. In fact, I believe that his finest novel, his finest work of art, was Julian: an astonishing recreation of the life and mind of the Classical world during its final, fatal flowering during the short reign of "Julian the Apostate," the Roman emperor who tried to reverse the Empire's conversion to Christianity, initiated a half-century earlier by Constantine I. The book is steeped in a rigorous historical learning that is worn so slightly, is so thoroughly worked into the very human story of a very human man, that it is scarcely noticeable at all. Julian's world simply lives, and the reader lives in it -- yet at the end, emerges with a new understanding of this absolutely crucial period of history.
In the same vein is Creation, which once again immerses us in the human realities of a crucial era in the life of humanity: the "Axial Age," which saw the rise and development of new religions and new thinking across the world, an era when Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, early Greek philosophers like Heraclitus and other pivotal figures were walking the earth and revolutionizing ancient structures of thought and belief. But again, the learning is carried lightly, in the ironic person of Cyrus Spitama, a witty, aging Persian diplomat in Athens whose main claim to fame is that he is Zoroaster's grandson. He narrates the tale of his long life -- his youth in the Persian court of Darius and Xerxes, his sojourns in India and China, and the machinations and corruptions of the rising Greek city-states.
This is not the time or place for an exhaustive look at Vidal's literary achievements. (For more on this theme, see Critical Malfunction: Misreading Gore Vidal.) But in the media onslaught of obituaries and appraisals, most of which seem, perhaps understandably, to focus on the gadfly persona noted above, I thought it was important to recall this vital element of Vidal's legacy: his fiction, which at its best has richly enhanced our awareness of what it is to be a living human being -- mortal, troubled, confused, alone -- caught up in the maelstrom of historical forces we can scarcely understand and cannot control.
It is no small thing to have left such a mark. It is a legacy well worth celebrating, and one that will outlast even the wittiest and most telling of his aperçus.
On a personal note, it would be hard for me to overestimate Vidal's influence on how I see the world, in so many different areas. His death is like losing a spiritual father. (If I can be forgiven for using such an outrageous term for a man so entirely worldly! ) His work schooled me and sharpened me and, in the words of Henry Miller (another writer he once wittily skewered, albeit with more affection than bile), "inoculated me with disillusionment" -- a task which Miller called the highest purpose of an artist. Vidal made me see the world -- and myself -- with new eyes, and taught me how to keep on seeing in this way: relentlessly, fearlessly, unsentimentally casting "a cold eye, on life, on death." I've fallen short of this teaching -- woefully, continually -- at nearly every turn, but it is still there, a lodestar in a night sky that is now a bit more lonely, more harrowing than it was.