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, and so is his knack for creating vivid little narratives that go to the heart of the moral and psychological condition of historical figures. But Vidal’s imaginative vision, capable of great subtlety and precision when focused on 1776 or 1886, grows increasingly blurred and unable to make distinctions the nearer it comes to the present. At the height of Watergate he wrote in the New Statesman, “I do not think that the American system in its present state of decadence is worth preserving,” which was exactly the wrong conclusion to have drawn from Nixon’s crimes. By his actions Nixon showed that in a sense he shared Vidal’s view, for if as vague a phrase as “the American system” means anything, it means the legislative and judicial and civic forces that exposed Watergate and brought Nixon down. “In its present state of decadence” is permanently irrefutable. Who would deny it, especially today, given soft money and Dick Morris? What the sentence offers us is a satisfying feeling compounded of disgust, superiority and assent. But analytically it is worthless.
Vidal grew up in Washington, DC, and spent the first half of his life (the period covered by Palimpsest) close to politics and political figures: first his grandfather-Senator Thomas P Gore of Oklahoma-later the Kennedys. “I had missed all the wars of ideology that for 20 years had convulsed New York intellectuals. Debates at school and around the family dinner table concerned ‘real,’ not theoretic, politics: Do we go to war or not?” In Palimpsest he portrays his role at Camelot as that of an unwilling but coveted dinner guest who speaks witticism to power and then leaves. “I have never liked parties of any kind, and the grander they are, the less I like them. Also, a court affair-if one is not a courtier-has a certain nightmarish quality as everyone tries to get the attention of the sovereign.” This is having it both ways on a grand and nasty scale: namedropping Jack and Jackie as intimates while seeing straight through the Kennedy mystique.
After losing a race for Congress and falling out with the Kennedys, Vidal returned to novel writing and left the country. By 1972 he had installed himself in a villa on the southern Italian coast; and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was at this time that his political thought emerged, in an essay called “Homage to Daniel Shays,” under the influence of the sociologist G William Domhoff, with the idea that there is only one party in American politics, the Property party, controlled by a plutocratic elite, which beguiles the public every four years by inventing issues to distract it from the robbery taking place. From non-courtier-at-court to Tom-Paine-on-the-Tyrrhenian took Vidal about a decade. In a sense he did not have far to go. Between Camelot and Weltschmerz there is a straight line of privilege. Vidal’s political style depends on there being nothing at stake. You can dine with the Kennedys at Hyannisport, you can write about their bathtub sex, you can condemn to oblivion the system that you have been dining on, you can dream that America’s last hope is Jerry Brown. None of it really matters among the chestnut trees at Ravello, where “the reflection of the intense gold light through the green leaves is dazzling. I ponder the eventual scorching of these woods, to be followed by the creeping flow of sterile ice. World disaster is always comforting to contemplate if not to undergo… I do not want anything. I am past all serious desire for anything-at the moment, anyway.”