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Reflections on the legacy of Gore Vidal

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By Patrice Greanville

Born in 1925 into a socially prominent family, and with more than half a century of prolific work (which continues well into the 21st century), Gore Vidal has become justifiably synonymous with scores of brilliantly iconoclastic novels, movie scripts, essays, and plays, not to mention a rich trajectory as a political gadfly and resident prophet of the many vices besieging the New Rome. Throughout this entire period, perhaps inevitably given his taste for intellectual combat, he has also stood out as the pre-eminent enfant terrible of American letters (not an easy thing for a contemporary of Normal Mailer), an unapologetic radical—as in "going to the root of the problems"—in political predilection, and a unique and unexpected tribune of the people, a role he relishes and discharges to this day with characteristic flair.

Body blows

Vidal's output is impressive by any measure, but it's probably his "fictional meditations on the history of the United States"—Burr, 1876, Empire, and Lincoln—brimming with more mordant lucidity and accuracy in their pages than anything found in the volumes produced by most professional historians—that have simultaneously put him in the intellectual pantheon of American letters and stirred up the most hostility among the devious custodians of the established order. In Vidal's own words:

"For forty years The New York Times has, from time to time, put its collective "mind" to work in trying to find ways of coping with my disturbing presence on the American scene. When my novel Lincoln was recently turned into a miniseries by NBC, I wondered what the fun paper would do to try to kill the project. Richard Nixon's "the easy way" would be to allow the neoconservative reviewer John Corry to give it a bad review; after all, he has even attacked me for my appearance as a guest on the Today show. But wouldn't that be too little, too late? Why not assign a journalist to make a preemptive strike a week before the television program in order to assure the potential audience that Lincoln was a false portrayal based on a book that had been "faulted by historians," to put it in Timesese. This is what happened in the Sunday New York Times of March 20..."

Not that such treatment was only confined to the Times and a handful of other papers. In a society where a central conceit is that censorship doesn't really exist, subtle forms of torpedoing unwelcome opinion have been devised, and they normally prove effective, except when applied to the likes of Vidal, who's much too nimble to be easily cornered.

Still, as could be expected, the attempts to snare Vidal, even to slow him down, have never stopped, and something resembling a well-rehearsed minuet eventually developed between the system's apologists and the target of their exertions. It could hardly be otherwise. Because from their own sordid perspective Vidal's critics and detractors were right. The man had to be "neutralized" in some "acceptable way", silenced, rendered irrelevant, for he was a smouldering threat to the propaganda managers, the carefully nurtured myths on which so much of the system's legitimacy depends. Of course, given his prominence and still powerful social connections, not to mention his formidable acumen, that was no easy task, especially when some of the recipes usually employed to attain such ignoble ends in connection with "lesser" rebels—the messy fusillade, the treacherous bloodletting in the streets or in their own bedroom under some phony pretext, as Cointelpro so eloquently illustrated—could hardly be applied.

In any case, as we all know, the attacks missed the mark by a wide margin, and Vidal sailed on, merrily accumulating a legacy that's likely to stand as his best gift to the nation, a highly articulate, impossible to refute, indictment of the perennial "malefactors of great wealth," "the constant unelected government" incarnated so well in Ronald Reagan's regime and in all American administrations (which are nothing but a coordinating committee for the ruling class) ever since, a process that has finally delivered us to the second Bush regime, without a doubt the most recklessly criminal, dishonest, and disastrous American government in memory—the ultimate avatar of crony imperialism.

The above should not be misconstrued as implying that we had a glowing democracy before Ronnie Reagan and his cavalcade of criminals and intellectual mountebanks rode into town. Corruption and fraudulence existed long before that unsavory crowd took the formal reins of power in 1980. But—note well—the records that Reagan set and that George W. Bush has now broken and surpassed are the standards of democratic betrayal. Indeed, many people, including this writer, would have thought it impossible that anyone could exceed the Reagan regime's accomplishments in the realms of venality, cowardly bullying (he unleashed the Pentagon on puny Grenada, for Chrissakes!) and malignant hypocrisy. George W. Bush and his team have proven us all terribly wrong. But then again what else could we expect from a plutocracy that has become so incredibly adept at invoking democracy's ideals to pursue its deeply undemocratic goals? In the age of hypermedia, with a triumphant business civilization that has succeeded in literally suffusing the national psyche with the mendacious calculus of self-preoccupation at all times, government by p.r., by manipulated consent, has really acquired a new, darker dimension.

But is the process reversible? As a genuine insider and erudite observer, and given what he knows about the system, Vidal has few illusions about the willingness of the American power elite to rectify the current drift toward an out-of-control executive with near or de facto dictatorial powers. Cosmetic fixes will be applied, of course, brave speeches made, especially by the default cosmeticians of the empire, the Democratic Party apparatchicks, but democracy at home—even the badly deformed democracy we have under capitalism—is ultimately incompatible with the requirements of empire abroad: The latter inevitably corrupts and poisons the former, in the eternal ying and yang of class-spawned politics. This is hardly an original observation as history is unambiguous in its verdict, and a number of capable observers have already written conclusively on the subject.

In any case, Vidal has seen enough; he knows quite well what's in store for the United States—and the hapless world this superpower is by now in the habit of pushing around—unless strong measures are taken at once to stop the democratic unravelling and the contempt for law exhibited by the Bush administration in every arena of government. That's why Gore Vidal is today unequivocally in favor of impeaching George W. Bush.

But while removing Bush from office is surely a cathartic, even a redeeming act for the American republic, offering a respite from the slide to the edge of the abyss, the problem faced by true democrats here and abroad is likely to continue, for the illness afflicting American democracy runs far deeper than the arrival of George Bush or Ronald Reagan on the scene, and, being profoundly systemic, will likely recur in any and all administrations elected according to the existing rules of the game. Fact is, systemic change—the real deal—is necessary, actually indispensable at this point, and the only question facing us now is how such change is to be effected.

But before anything else, cherchez the media...

At least in the United States, the struggle for systemic change cannot succeed without dealing first with the problem presented by the mainstream media. For if the reigning plutocracy, or what some appropriately call "the New Corporate Royalty", along with its malodorous deeds and crimes, is to be unmasked and replaced by genuine democratic instruments, the main guarantor and shield for its legitimacy in the eyes of the masses, the commercial media, must be unmasked first.

The modern history of this nation, with numerous examples of "too little too late" in stopping the wholesale murders perpetrated by its ruling elite in the name of what most Americans hold sacred, is eloquent in that regard. And even today, well into the first decade of the 21st century, social activists in America still find themselves easily outmaneuvered by the empire's ability to seize the initiative and hold the attention of the masses with its siren song. But the worst part is that the problem will continue undiminished unless progressives find a way to resolve a question that should have been resolved decades ago: the creation of an alternate, well organized, system of mass communications capable of influencing the national debate, a communications network fully capable of neutralizing and bypassing the toxic fumes emanating from the mainstream whorehouses at CBS, NBC, CNN, the leading print media, the talk-radio cesspool, and of course the oxymoronic FOX News Channel. (If I'm forgetting any of the other major indictable "media baronies " please forgive me, I meant to include them all. As prominent enablers of an immoral system, they ALL have blood in their hands.)

A matter of urgency

Vidal, who has yet to be proven wrong in any of his political assessments, and whose prescience in such matters is simply legendary, is also quite clear in this regard: The corporate media must be dealt with, or the tattered remnants of this democracy will soon go the way of the Pygmy Mammoth and other notable defuncts. Here's what he had to say on this topic, in the course of a no-holds-barred interview with The Nation's Marc Cooper in late 2005 (italics mine):

MC: Are you predicting a coming military dictatorship? And that the American people would stand for that?

GV: They'll stand for anything. And they will stand for nothing. I deal with a lot of European journalists who are very well versed in American politics. But they will ask me silly questions like, "So, Kerry didn't turn out very well. So who's the next leader of the opposition who can become President?" I answer, Well, first the New York Times won't interview him. He won't get on prime-time television if he looks like a winner. That's out. Or he will be made a fool of, like they did with Howard Dean when they amplified his famous cry. That was all done at CBS to make him look like a maniac. They are very resourceful! So if you have a media that is completely controlled by corporate America--or whatever phrase you want to use to describe our rulers--no information is getting through that is useful to the public. No White Knight is going to be acknowledged in the press or seen on television. He would have no way of connecting with the people. And this a permanent fact in our situation.... If there could be a viable opposition to the oil and gas junta that has seized power--all three branches of government, I think--it will have to be at the grassroots. Then you will have to find a way of publicizing through the Internet the White Knight--or the Black Knight, whoever comes along to save us. (Bold ours)

There you have it. Vidal could not be more unequivocal in his diagnosis: "No White Knight is going to be acknowledged in the press or seen on television. He would have no way of connecting with the people. And this a permanent fact in our situation..." A permanent and disastrous fact indeed. But a fact that also, in passing, reminds us how critical it is to exert vigilance over the freedom of the Internet, the neutrality that fuels the online medium's precious ability to give oppositional voices a chance to be heard.

My colleague Bob McChesney, who in terms of media activism is all by himself, metaphorically at least, worth several tank divisions, titled his recent book on this issue THE PROBLEM OF THE MEDIA. I think in a future edition he might consider picking an even more accurate title: the danger of the media. For it is the corporate media that stand first and foremost in the way of badly needed change in America (and the world), and whose insalubrious ministrations and squandering of a vital social resource (as the obscene allocation of 185,000 TV segments, and still counting, to the Anna Nicole Smith pseudo-story attest), contribute so powerfully to the weakening of democracy. Left to their own devices, they will certainly play a treacherous and utterly nefarious role in the difficult struggles that await us all.

At this juncture in our common history we should all recognize this elementary truth: The effort to build honest, dependable media can never be separated from the effort to construct a genuine democracy. Neither can really exist without the other, even if their false, holographic twins thrive in their unreality. That's why the battle of communications must be waged in earnest and won. I'm sure that Gore Vidal would agree.

Patrice Greanville is Cyrano's Journal Online's [ http://www.bestcyrano.org ] founding editor.
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Patrice Greanville is founding editor and publisher of The Greanville Post (www.greanvillepost.com).

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