George Packer has a swing at some of the US's most respected radicals, and at Gore Vidal in particular. Dissent is the leading journal of the American leftby George Packer / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
A number of qualities make the contemptuous stance appealing to a political writer. Contempt is knowing: it implies a reserve of wide and hard experience (and much better to be thought a snob than a fool). It maintains a specious sort of engagement without risk of taint. It is clear: instead of having to make new judgements every day, contempt already knows what it thinks about everything. It has ready access to various types of wit, including satire and irony in all its shades-in fact contempt comes equipped with its own prose style, a light, deft, dancing technique that manages to punch and elude in the same motion. Above all, contempt seems irrefutable, because human beings more often than not act out of selfish motives and politics is largely a record of folly and corruption.
Political snobbery-a contempt for the entire governing class that almost invariably, although not as vocally, extends to the governed who blindly give their consent-is different from the populist mockery on talk radio because its tone is amusement, not rage; it implies superiority rather than subjection to politics. Superciliousness toward one’s own age, combined with ignorance of the actual lives of ordinary people, is a stance historically identified with the privileged right. Reformers cannot afford to leave the room because what they want to reform will still be inside. Revolutionaries want to blow the room up, but you cannot go on being a revolutionary decade after decade if revolution is out of the question and no one is paying attention. Most snobs end up as reactionaries for the obvious reason that the past offers a desirable alternative to the evil present and the impossible future. Mencken was the great American example of the 20th century. But what is curious as the century ends is how political snobbery flourishes not so much on the right as among leading polemicists of the left and their journalistic imitators. Leftwing criticism ending in reaction seems like a paradox, until you consider the inhospitableness of recent times for more promising ways out.
Gore Vidal’s essays, collected a few years ago in United States, together with his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, show the corrosions of political contempt at work on an elegant and learned mind. Most of the essays that deal with literature, or with politics and politicians before 1900, are superb. The range of his interests is remarkable,…