Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gore Vidal and the Jewish Question


“In a letter to a friend”, Gore Vidal stated in the opening of his notorious 1981 essay, “Some Jews and the Gays”, “George Orwell wrote, ‘It is impossible to mention Jews in print without getting into trouble’. But there are times”, Vidal continued, “when trouble had better be got into before mere trouble turns into catastrophe”.

Contrary to his protestations, Vidal seems to have had little difficulty in raising the subject of Jews and Judaism in, as Christopher Hitchens put it in Vanity Fair last year, “contexts where it didn’t quite belong”. “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” presented Vidal with the opportunity to tear limb from limb an especially bigoted and homophobic essay from Midge Decter in Commentary, which Vidal concluded had “managed not only to come up with every known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also to make up some brand-new ones”.

His riposte, however, is littered with inappropriate and wince-inducing references to the Jewish question. Decter’s article is described as having outdone “its implicit model, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and of having spoken of homosexuals in a way reminiscent of “Hitler’s original line about the Jews”.

His slurs range from the bizarre – “Decter now gives us not a final solution so much as a final conclusion” – to the downright nasty, arguing that since Jews were “going to be in the same gas chambers as the blacks and the faggots”, that some sort of alliance against Ronald Reagan and the forces of Christendom might be in order.

It is not as if this was the only occasion when Vidal chose to go slumming, either. In a 1979 essay for Playboy, ostensibly on the relationship between sex and politics, Vidal dropped such clangers as, “Many Christers and some Jews don’t like poor white people very much”, and, “The hatred and fear of women that runs through the Old Testament (not to mention in the pages of our justly admired Jewish novelists)…”.

In “Some Jews and the Gays” in particular, Vidal seems irked by the very notion of a conservatively-minded Jewish sensibility, or commentators who might advocate for interests not of immediate importance to isolationists like himself. Indeed, Vidal has long argued retrospectively against American involvement in the Second World War, in Europe or otherwise, and in the lead-up to the conflict was a supporter of Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee.

It was Lindbergh, it ought to be remembered, who stated rather chillingly at a rally in 1941, even after the launch of Operation Barbarossa all that came with it that, “Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences”. Vidal also wrote the foreword to the work of another America Firster and apologist for anti-Semitism, Bill Kauffman, and yet as Allen Barra notes in Salon mysteriously he “kept his credentials as an intellectual”.

Vidal was never a Cold War warrior – he thus stood heterodox with those at Commentary he so despised. Rather, in an ill-timed essay published in 1986 of all years, he called for making common cause with the Soviet Union against a Sino-Japanese axis. His justification for such a demand, as outlined in an attack in The Nation against Decter and her husband, Norman Podhoretz, was that since “the white race is a minority race with many well-deserved enemies, we are going to end up as farmers for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics”. Here, another component of Vidal’s darker side is revealed, related to his isolationism; namely that outsiders are viewed “with an aristocratic contempt”, as Adam Kirsch reveals, which includes “Jews as arrivistes”.

In said essay, of Podhoretz, Vidal wrote that following an exchange when the former labelled the Civil War “as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses”, he then realised that Podhoretz “was not planning to become an ‘assimilated American’; his first loyalty would always be to Israel”. He later refers to Podhoretz and Decter as “Israeli fifth columnists”, and of Israel as ‘their country’. Supposedly, when Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn challenged then-Nation editor Victor Navasky on the not-so-finer points of Vidal’s diatribe, he replied, “Well, Gore is Gore”.

How is it, it must therefore be asked, that a writer who could pen such masterful novels as Julian, Lincoln and Myra Breckinridge, could at once in the same mind possess a fascination with the Jewish question that is typically the signifier of a failed mind? This query is a microcosm of the larger conundrum which all who appreciate Vidal must grapple with.

Perhaps the answer is that Vidal is merely of two minds, as it were. On the one hand, there exists Gore Vidal the novelist, who had the ability to summon Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln back from the past and into his prose with apparent ease, and who crafted the most commanding and affecting monologues on power and faith for the apostate Caesar Julian.

Then there’s Gore Vidal the political commentator, or more accurately the conspiracy theorist. Much of Vidal’s output has been wasted warning the world of the American national security state, and the concept of perpetual war for perpetual peace. “The Republic ended in 1950,” Vidal said of the Korean War. “Since then we have had an imperial system”.

Signs of decay were noticeable during the 1990s when he briefly flirted with the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, but it was September 11, 2001 that totally blew the hinges right off. It was argued that the “oil and gas Bush-Cheney junta” used the murder of 3,000 Americans for which Osama bin Laden was not necessarily responsible as a veil for an invasion of Afghanistan in order to extract energy from Central Asia.

Hitchens was correct to observe that a once agile mind had “descended straight to the cheap and even to the counterfeit”, and Vidal’s ruminations on the Jewish question very much come from the failed half of his divided conscious, the part addled with crackpot theories on race, power, and politics.

The most telling passages in “Some Jews and the Gays” are those which refer to ‘New York Jewish publicists’ as “new-class persons” who find it hard to realise that “Manhattan is not the world”. “No matter how crowded and noisy a room,” Vidal notes at one stage, “one can always detect the new-class person’s nasal whine”. Good grief.

Correction: This article originally stated that Vidal’s 1981 essay was entitled “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star”. While the essay was retitled as such in Vidal’s 1983 essay collection of the same name, as originally published in The Nation the piece was called “Some Jews and the Gays”.


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