Thursday, August 2, 2012

My first encounter with Gore Vidal was in 1988, when he spoke to the annual convention of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. The topic was the American national security state...At the time I wasn’t particularly taken by what he said.

Still, Vidal’s death on Tuesday at the age of 86 reminded me of the permutations in my own modest thinking on American power, and how influential the author was later on in shaping these views.

In retrospect, Vidal was ultimately correct about the perverse nature of American power. It could lead to laudable actions, such as the removal from office of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, in the face of protests from an international community that never worked up nearly the same outrage when the Iraqi leader slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people. However, more troubling is how the blunt instruments of the American state, as well as of myriad American private institutions, have acquired tremendous authority over the individual, both at home and abroad, repeatedly violating America’s constitutional principles such as due process, the right to privacy, and countless other freedoms.

Vidal often liked to say that he had not a sentimental bone in his body. “There is no warm, loving person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Many of his essays belie that view, and one could not possibly understand his articles and novels on the United States without first acknowledging his longing for the ideals of the early American republic.

These were, as Vidal saw them, anti-imperialism, a respect for liberty, a reluctance to be drawn into the complications of the world, above all through the use of military power...

Vidal had a quality, humor, sorely missing these days among American public intellectuals, for whom earnestness and lawyerly caution has become the norm.

Vidal loved a certain idea of America, not that of noisy patriotism and suffocating surveillance, but of the sovereign individual, free and left to his own business. Whether one agreed with him or not, there is no doubt that the country Vidal knew so well is drifting away from where history should have taken it.

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