Friday, August 27, 2004

Visit to a Sorry Planet 

Gore Vidal reminisces in The Nation about the State of the Union routine he used to do once a year on the David Susskind show: "I would follow whoever happened to be President, and I'd correct his 'real' state of the union with one of my own, improvising from questions that David would prepare." In 1972 he took his act on the road, delivering his own SOTU in venues from West Virginia to Washington state, always taking questions from the audience afterward. The spectrum of acceptable topics, he recalls, was rather broader than custom today permits:
I should note that in the thirty-two years since this particular state of the union, our political vocabulary has been turned upside down. Although the secret core to each presidential election is who can express his hatred of African-Americans most subtly (to which today can be added Latinos and "elite liberals," a fantasy category associated with working film actors who have won Academy Awards), and, of course, this season it's the marriage-minded so-called gays. So-called because there is no such human or mammal category (sex is a continuum) except in the great hollow pumpkin head of that gambling dude who has anointed himself the nation's moralist-in-chief, William "Bell Fruit" Bennett.

Back to the time machine. In some ways, looking at past states of the union, it is remarkable how things tend to stay the same. Race-gender wars are always on our overcrowded back burners. There is also--always--a horrendous foreign enemy at hand ready to blow us up in the night out of hatred for our Goodness and rosy plumpness. In 1972, when I started my tour at the Yale Political Union, the audience was packed with hot-eyed neocons-to-be, though the phrase was not yet in use, as the inventors of neoconnery were still Trotskyists to a man or woman or even "Bell Fruit," trying to make it in New York publishing.

What should be done about drug addiction? As of 1970, England was the model for us to emulate. With a population of 55 million people, they had only 1,800 heroin addicts. With our 200 million people we had nearly a half-million addicts. What were they doing right? For one thing, they turned the problem over to the doctors. Instead of treating the addict as a criminal, they required him to register with a physician, who then gives him, at controlled intervals, a prescription so that he can obtain his drug. Needless to say, our society, based as it is on a passion to punish others, could not bear so sensible a solution. We promptly leaned, as they say, on the British to criminalize the sale and consumption of drugs, and now the beautiful city of Edinburgh is one of the most drug-infested places in Europe. Another triumph for the American way.

I start to expand. "From the Drug Enforcement Administration to the FBI, we are afflicted with all sorts of secret police, busily spying on us. The FBI, since its founding, has generally steered clear of major crime like the Mafia. In fact, much of its time and energies have been devoted to spying on those Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated commies, blacks and women in, more or less, that order. But then the FBI has always been a collaborating tool of reactionary politicians. The bureau also has had a nasty talent for amusing Presidents with lurid dossiers on their political enemies." Now in the year 2004, when we have ceased to be a nation under law but instead a homeland where the withered Bill of Rights, like a dead trumpet vine, clings to our pseudo-Roman columns, Homeland Security appears to be uniting our secret police into a single sort of Gestapo with dossiers on everyone to prevent us, somehow or other, from being terrorized by various implacable Second and Third World enemies. Where there is no known Al Qaeda sort of threat, we create one, as in Iraq, whose leader, Saddam Hussein, had no connection with 9/11 or any other proven terrorism against the United States, making it necessary for a President to invent the lawless as well as evil (to use his Bible-based language) doctrine of pre-emptive war based on a sort of hunch that maybe one day some country might attack us, so, meanwhile, as he and his business associates covet their oil, we go to war, leveling their cities to be rebuilt by other business associates. Thus was our perpetual cold war turned hot.

I must say, I am troubled by the way I responded to the audience's general hatred of government. I say we are the government. But I was being sophistical when I responded to their claims that our government is our enemy with that other cliché, you are the government. Unconsciously, I seem to have been avoiding the message that I got from one end of the country to the other: We hate this system that we are trapped in, but we don't know who has trapped us or how. We don't even know what our cage looks like because we have never seen it from the outside. Now, thirty-two years later, audiences still want to know who will let them out of the Enron-Pentagon prison with its socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. So...welcome to Imperial America.

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