Norman Mailer is once again going mano a mano with Gore Vidal — this time for the title of Most Deluded Ageing Novelist with Wacky Conspiracy Theories about U.S. Power. Vidal had got the jump on Mailer with his new book, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. This followed on from last year’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, in which Vidal accused President Bush of complicity in the terror attacks of September 11, saying he needed them as the pretext for a long-projected invasion of Afghanistan and a crackdown on civil liberties at home.
Vidal had clearly lapped his former rival round the loony-lefty course, though there was a certain familiarity, even predictability about his line of attack. He believes, for instance, that not only did Bush know about 9/11 in advance, he was only following in the footsteps of FDR, who knew about Pearl Harbor in advance. Bush’s pretext for his imperial adventure in Afghanistan was thus virtually plagiarized from FDR’s for his own plan to expand the American empire in Europe and Asia. Like the aesthete he is, Vidal must have been even more incensed at the president’s lack of originality than at his wanton destruction of American life.
But who’s counting? In the same way, the accusation brought against not one but two respected presidents of plotting to start a war, though it might seem damning enough in itself, fades away in the shadow of the even more damning accusation of having, in effect, arranged the deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens in order to get the war that they wanted. Nor are Bush and Roosevelt the only criminals among America’s leaders, according to Vidal. He may let Jimmy Carter off the hook, but he has made similarly serious charges against pretty much every other American president between the two. And all on the same grounds, which are pretty much just the suspicions of one G. Vidal. If wars are fought and people are killed in them, it follows in his mind that somebody on our side must have wanted them to be fought. It is but a short step from there to pointing the finger of suspicion at the top man.
If Vidal is a straightforward conspiracist, Mailer is a man fatally enamored of the explanatory powers of his own hybrid brand of Freudian psychology — or, more precisely, psychobabble. Writing in the Times of London — perhaps he was bashful about sharing these thoughts with his fellow Americans — he made a late and spectacular entry into the race with the following explanation of recent events in Iraq:
We went to war, I could say, because we very much needed a war. The US economy was sinking, the market was gloomy and down, and some classic bastions of the erstwhile American faith (corporate integrity, the FBI, and the Catholic Church, to cite but three) had each suffered a separate and grievous loss of face. Since our Administration was probably not ready to solve any one of the serious problems before it, it was natural to feel the impulse to move into larger ventures, thrusts into the empyrean-war!
Oh yes, and also the administration know of the excellent quality of our armed forces, including a “general staff who were intelligent, articulate, and considerably less corrupt than any other power group in America. In such a pass,” concludes Mailer, “how could the White House not use them?”
Well, Norman, even Gore must admit that that one runs him pretty close for sheer looniness. Not only is the possession of a competent army a reason for going to war, it is in and of itself a compelling reason. But wait! There’s more! With the sloppiness of style that has become his characteristic, Mailer goes on to write that it is a compelling reason because, white males are depressed about being outclassed by blacks and Hispanics in basketball, football, boxing, and even baseball. What else did they have left but the armed forces?
If blacks and Hispanics were numerous there, still they were not a majority, and the officer corps, (if the TV was a reliable witness), suggested that the percentage of white men increased as one rose in rank to the higher officers. Moreover, we had knockout tank echelons, Super-Marines, and — one magical ace in the hole — the best air force that ever existed. If we cannot find our machismo anywhere else, we can certainly settle in on the interface between combat and technology. Let me then advance the offensive suggestion that this may have been one of the cardinal reasons we went looking for war.
Offensive, Norman? Perish the thought. Though it is presumably the offensiveness, rather than any conceivable truth-value it may have, which recommends the thought to him. Even he can hardly suppose that this kind of twaddle counts as serious geopolitical analysis, as he goes on to what he appears to believe is a humorous impersonation of Uncle Sam in a belligerent frame of mind: “Syria, we might declare in our best John Wayne voice: You can run, but you can’t hide. Saudi Arabia, you overrated tank of blubber, are you out of gas? And Iran, watch it, we have eyes for you. You could be our next real meal. Because when we are feeling this good, we are ready to go, and go again. We must. We have had a real taste. Why, there’s a basket-full of billions to be made in the Middle East just so long as we stay ahead of the trillions of debt that are coming after us.”
Which is it, Norman, the billions of profit or the trillions of debt? Doubtless to him there is no contradiction. Having assumed that the Bush administration is both sly and moronic, both cynical and naively idealistic, both wimpish and full of masculine swagger, he is obviously untroubled about applying its capitalist cupidity to its fiscal irresponsibility and getting yet another ill-sorted complex of censurable stuff. The point is that for him and Vidal alike, there is nothing too bad to accuse their own government of, so it scarcely matters if the various outlandish accusations sort ill with one another.
Yet those who don’t share their hatred, or the assumption that those who hold different views about the world from their own are all corrupt, might be tempted to observe that Bush and co. — or the Cheney-Bush junta as Vidal puts it — can’t really be so bad as all that. Indeed, we may go further. Mailer and Vidal themselves can’t believe that they are so bad as all that. Awful and corrupt as they no doubt are, they must have something going for them to have advanced as far as they have along the road towards their no doubt discreditable destination. But with these literary intellectuals, the habit of mistrust has become so unbreakable that, as with clinically qualified paranoiacs — which I don’t mean to suggest they are — , it becomes its own justification. Long ago — long, long ago — they both made the assumption that anything stated officially by those in power must be false, a mere cover for some discreditable truth. Ever since, life has been for them one long love affair with that discreditable truth.
Why? Because it is their truth. The rest of us don’t know it. We’re just dummies who believe what the government tells us. We need them, clever Norman and cleverer Gore and perhaps a few others of similarly qualified exegetes, to dig beneath the surface of lies and unearth the truth for us. So completely and unquestioningly do they believe this — which is only to say that they believe in themselves, and their intellectual mission in life — that they have also come to believe that the more bizarre their theories the more likely they are to be true. Or at least, the more likely they are to be their own, which comes to the same thing. Both Vidal and Mailer sound like lunatics to the unprejudiced, but they don’t sound like each other. Perhaps we could say that all lunacy derives from some such passionate individuality, a similar love affair with the self. At any rate, few are likely anymore to confuse it with genuine political analysis.
— James Bowman is Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and American editor of London’s Times Literary Supplement.