The Ghost Of Gore Vidal

His ideas are everywhere today

By the end of his life Gore Vidal had made many enemies. Christopher Hitchens accused him of having lost his mind and his talent and peddling “crank-revisionist and denialist history” in an “awful, spiteful, miserable” manner. Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times wrote after his death, “Vidal was an arrogant conspiracy-theorist, trading off a reputation he made with novels written decades ago.” And of course William F Buckley most famously called him a “queer” among other things on live television while worked up into a fit of rage.

And yet, I doubt many can look back at Christopher Hitchens today and think his campaigns in writing at that time have aged well. The already dying religion he protested against has been replaced in the west by a secular progressive clergy, mass hysteria with no concept of mercy and society appears to be falling apart. Many of the wars he propagandized for now appear senseless or something much worse. As for Buckley, who today thinks of his Cold War conservatism as wise or enduring? As America withdraws from twenty years in Afghanistan and the president indicates an isolationist turn in foreign policy and has announced the declassification of the investigation into 9/11, Vidal’s analysis, then considered a sign of sad crankish mental decline, suddenly seems aligned with the spirit of the age.

He saw both parties as serving the economic interests of the same illegitimate ruling class and the whole system as “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich.” His anti-war position ran in the family. Unable to get along with his mother, he was raised by his grandfather, Thomas Gore, of an Anglo-Irish family, who was an anti-war activist and member of the Populist Party.

One of his major themes was the loss of the republic and its replacement with the empire, the “last self-styled global power, loaded down with nukes, bases, debts.” The welfare of the citizens at home was to be sacrificed to military power abroad. NATO, he argued, “was created so that the United States could dominate Western Europe militarily, politically, and economically.” You can hear a lot of his thinking here channeled today:

It should be noted—but seldom is— that the Depression did not end with the New Deal of 1933-40. In fact, it flared up again, worse than ever, in 1939 and 1940. Then, when F.D.R. spent some $20 billion on defense (1941), the Depression was over and Lord Keynes was a hero. This relatively small injection of public money into the system reduced unemployment to 8 percent and, not unnaturally, impressed the country's postwar managers: if you want to avoid depression, spend money on war. No one told them that the same money spent on the country's infrastructure would have saved us debt, grief, blood.

Ever since 1941, when Roosevelt got us out of the Depression by pumping federal money into re-arming, war or the threat of war has been the principal engine to our society.

Writing in the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11 about the absence of an external enemy that had justified the military empire for decades he suggested “in the absence who knows, if sufficiently goaded, Russia might again be persuaded to play Great Satan in our somewhat dusty chamber of horrors … it will take at least a decade for us to reinvent China as a new evil empire.”

He didn’t think a return to the old republic or to nationalism after the empire was on the cards exactly and instead considered more likely the possibility of ethnic regions and city states: “the United States, which might prosper once the empire's put out of its misery, in smaller units on the Swiss cantonal model: Spanish-speaking Catholic regions, Asian Confucian regions, consensually united mixed regions with, here and there, city-states like New York-Boston or Silicon Valley.”

The final willfully self-inflicted blow to his respectability came after 9/11 when he wrote a heavily criticized piece titled The Enemy Within. He quoted from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives and suggested natural resources and global power ambitions were behind the already planned interventions in Afghanistan and elsewhere and that the 9/11 attacks were a convenient if nonsensical public excuse to wage war. He went on to suggest the possibility that some within the government may have allowed it to happen. It is a sign of how much things have changed that in our moment of disillusionment Vidal’s claim will probably seem more plausible to many than Christopher Hitchens’ belief in the innocent mission of spreading freedom, secularism and human rights. Of course plenty will still criticize Vidal’s suggestions as laughable or disgraceful but I wonder how many of them are privately certain the declassified investigation will find nothing out of order. We are all conspiracy theorists now.

In a 2010 interview he said the empire will collapse militarily in Afghanistan and then be surpassed on the world stage by China. A 2013 documentary about him The United States Of Amnesia ends with the question “What do you think your legacy will be?” He replies very slowly with a mischievous smile “I couldn’t… care… less.”