TCS Daily

Vidal Baboon

By Scott Galupo - March 18, 2002 12:00 AM

ALEXANDRIA, VA - Gore Vidal is a weird hybrid, an intellectual schizophrenic with equal affection for radical leftists like Noam Chomsky and America Firsters like Charles Lindbergh. In a 1992 lecture at Harvard University, Vidal described the radical half of his brain this way: "I am a radical reformer. The word 'radical' derives from the Latin word for root. Therefore, if you want to get to the root of anything you must be radical. It is no accident that the word has now been totally demonized by our masters, and no one in politics dares even to use the word favorably, much less track any problem to its root." Dropping the America First, paleo-isolationist shoe, Vidal said: "In the late '30s and early '40s, many Americans - and I was one - were isolationist. We thought that, as we had gained nothing from the First World War - except an erosion of our civil liberties and the prohibition of alcohol - why should we again help England and France against Germany?"

The common thread that runs throughout Vidal's books is his quixotic attachment to pure republicanism. Exactly when America became an imperial power is a question as watery as when the country lost its "innocence." Did it start with the mid-19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which heralded the young nation's ever-westward expansion? Or was it the Spanish-American War that whetted America's expansionist palate? In Burr, Vidal seems to suggest that America's Roman adventures began with Jefferson and the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase; in the more recent The Golden Age, he traces the roots of American imperialism to the years between the New Deal and the McCarthy era. Whatever the case, it is this sort of empire-mindedness that underpins Vidal's twisted sympathy for Timothy McVeigh and, of late, his predictable opposition to the American war against terrorism.

You'd think that after suffering the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history - the worst attack of any kind since Pearl Harbor - that Vidal might see the virtue of fighting a defensive war against religious extremists bent on ending civilization as we know it. You might think, whatever our faults, America didn't deserve September 11. But you'd be wrong: The ongoing war is, Vidal says, just another chapter in America's sordid history of corporation-backed imperialism. Vidal, who has lived lavishly as an expatriate on Italy's Amalfi coast, gives the lie to the claim that the Left poses no serious opposition to the war. In December, he told London's Guardian newspaper:

The United States does not have an interest in Afghanistan. The Bush family does. Oil. As does Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. We have a bunch of oilmen running the country. It will be like Vietnam in the sense that it is unwinnable. I suppose we could put in a government in Kabul, but as the guerilla warfare continues and we have no national interest, we'll drift away; though Bush can keep the war going until 2004, so he can be elected president.

As always, the outmoded emphasis on moneyed interests and Cold War-era calculation - as though there's nothing unique about this war or Islamo-fascism. Vidal favors the unimaginative "blowback" explanation of why we were attacked: "You keep attacking people for such a long time, one of them is going to get you back," he said.

Vidal has written similar musings in a collection of essays called The End of Liberty: Toward A New Totalitarianism, but can't find a U.S. publisher to put it out. More evidence of overweening corporations, Vidal says. The more likely explanation is that the book is a confection of paranoid fantasy. Flash back to last summer, when Vidal explained his affection for a homegrown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh. In retrospect, the episode revealed a lot about what makes the anti-American heart tick.

In the September 2001 issue of Vanity Fair, Vidal contributed a bizarre, sprawling, incoherent, and - by his standards - badly written article in which he charged that the F.B.I. concealed evidence of three possible accomplices in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; moreover, he suggested that the agency was involved in the bombing itself - all in an effort to create sufficient panic to ensure the enactment of a statist anti-terrorism bill eventually signed into law by then President Clinton. For good measure, Vidal let fly another possibility ("the grandest conspiracy of all"): McVeigh "neither made nor set off the bomb outside the Murrah building: it was only later, when facing either death or life imprisonment, that he saw to it that he would be given sole credit [for the bombing]."

Rhapsodically, Vidal explained what he and McVeigh shared in common: a hatred of what the U.S. federal government has become: a bloated, lawless, unaccountable, murderous, secretive Leviathan - an evil empire. McVeigh was a standard-issue, black-helicopter, Turner Diaries kind of antigovernment extremist; Vidal's is a more leftish paranoia, expressed in a different vocabulary of unnamed enemies. The bogeymen for militia types like McVeigh are the Illuminati, Jews, and the United Nations; for Vidal they're the anonymous villains of the national security state, the military-industrial complex (yes, I know that was Eisenhower's coinage), and of course, corporations. Where McVeigh's and Vidal's paranoia met - and what became the basis for their epistolary kinship - is the F.B.I.'s homicidal assaults at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas.

The piece also included Vidal's predictable rabid atheism: "Lately, in atonement for his wooing during the election of the fundamentalist Protestants at Bob Jones University, Bush has been 'reaching out' to the Roman Catholic far right. He is already solid with fundamentalist Protestants. In fact, his attorney general, J.D. Ashcroft, is a Pentecostal Christian who starts each day at eight with a prayer meeting attended by Justice Department employees eager to be drenched in the blood of the lamb." Having lampooned the Protestants, Vidal, an equal-opportunity anti-theist, then took a swipe at the Catholics, in particular those affiliated with Opus Dei - "a secretive international Roman Catholic order dedicated to getting its membership into high political, corporate, and religious offices (and perhaps into Heaven too) in various lands to various ends."

One might wonder why Vidal saw fit to bring up religion at all. That he can't resist it is as good a guess as I can come up with. Aside from pointing out that former F.B.I. head Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia are members of Opus Dei, Vidal made no effort at connecting the sect to the F.B.I. conspiracy; the entire religion theme is left dangling. He did make the sweeping and cryptic claim that "The Opus Dei conspiracy is - was? - central to the Justice Department." But beyond that there was no exegesis. Vidal never returned to the subject again.

After his ravings about the "sky-godders" (his term of scorn for all theists), Vidal trained his guns on the Media - the capitalized proper noun employed to suggest a monolithic, single-minded entity. The idea that the media, or Media, because right-wing corporations own it, is some kind of conspiratorial syndicate is a classic myth among radicals. These days especially, they employ the myth to explain why dissent over the war in Afghanistan is being suppressed.

Lord knows conservatives wish the media were plastic to their touch. But, as David Horowitz noted in Jewish World Review, corporations are no friend of the right and, in some cases, are downright hostile to it. "The institutional and financial support for the left - through its dominance in the universities, the book publishing industry, the press, television news and the arts - is so overwhelming it is hardly contested," Horowitz writes. Vidal, though, is intoxicated by the fiction that the media and the government march in lockstep with one another. "Our government's secret police, with its allies," he wrote in Vanity Fair, "put a heavy fist upon the scales. There was to be only one story: one man of incredible innate evil wanted to destroy innocent lives for no reason other than a spontaneous joy in evildoing."

If he weren't a grandee of American letters, no one would pay attention to such nonsense. Vanity Fair would rightly have thrown the manuscript in the garbage. For when you strip away all the frothy conspiracy theory and the atheistic cant, the whole edifice of Vidal's loony case comes crashing down. This question seems never to have occurred to him: What purpose would it serve the federal government - if its aim was to create anti-terrorism hysteria - to suppress evidence of a wider conspiracy? Was it not counterproductive to limit the Oklahoma City bombing to just one fringe lunatic?

It is instructive to note how those on the left lionize killers like Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh: Because their ideology was defensible, their actions were understandable (if not excusable). This helps explain why the Left so naively - cynically? - ignored the murder, torture, and oppression perpetrated by some of the 20th century's worst totalitarian regimes. It also helps explain why many won't support the war against terrorism. America can never be in the right; and it can never atone for its past. Vidal and the anti-American Left may not support Osama bin Laden; they may not sympathize with him as they did Kaczynski. But they rationalize his motives. And they betray an absolute intellectual bankruptcy and, worse, moral idiocy.

Scott Galupo is a writer living in Virginia.

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