As if to sweep Alexander Cockburn’s cantankerous spirit along, Gore Vidal, one of the last known individuals of a functionally extinct species — the patrician man of letters — has died at 86.
As with Cockburn, Vidal was a bracing stylist whose worldview drew from crusty precincts of the Left and Right. And as with Cockburn, Vidal nonetheless was revered as a progressive lodestar. This is especially peculiar in Vidal’s case, as he was clearly an American nativist. It’s easy to perceive a xenophobic overlap of far Right and Left in relation to Israel, but Vidal nursed a quaint obsession with the Yellow Peril. In 1986 in The Nation of all places, he volleyed abuse at Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter which began with the following “conclusion”:… for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers–or, worse, mere entertainment–for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.
This isn’t a literary curio. Vidal, the Left-intellectual author of a humane bildungsroman about male homosexuality (The City and the Pillar) and the Democratic Party mandarin who grappled with the likes of William F. Buckley, was a devout isolationist. Attending Phillips Exeter Academy in 1940, Vidal organized its chapter of the America First Committee. Later he described Charles Lindbergh as “the true white knight through and through” who was “the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American-style.” In late life Vidal was also, of course, a conspiracy theorist about the 9/11 attacks.
So it is not surprising that like Alexander Cockburn, and Pat Buchanan and contemporary epigones like Glenn Greenwald, Gore Vidal was ardently phobic of Israel. As Christopher Hitchens observed:… I always knew, as one had to know – and it was in his writing too — that [Vidal] had this mean streak in him, of a kind of paranoia — a conspiracy-based paranoid view of the world, and particularly of American history, which leads to isolationism and what I call Lindberg-ism, because he was a great admirer of [Charles] Lindberg, because this stuff is indissoluble from a very tiny stain of Judaeo-phobia which he could never dispel. He had it in under control – but it’s quite hard to keep it under control.
Vidal was less controlled than Cockburn. He contributed a Foreword to Israel Shahak’s notorious “Jewish History, Jewish Religion”, in which he claimed of the Jews that “no other minority in American history has ever hijacked so much money from the American taxpayers in order to invest in a ‘homeland’”. Beloved by hardcore anti-Semites, Shahak’s book sources Israel’s political pathology in a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.
And Vidal wrote the following Nation essay, which contains his quote about “Asiatics” and demonstrates that for him, there wasn’t a clear distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I’ve added highlighting in red, in case you wish to skip to the really piquant parts.The Empire Lovers Strike Back
March 22, 1986
Gore Vidal lives in Los Angeles and Rome. His coruscating essays on the U. S. giobal role always inflame as well as enlighten. Vidal has taken this occasion lo respond to two of his critics, but he uses the sparks of this clash to illuminate his larger preoccupation: the changing image and reality of
the American Empire.
Recently, Norman Mailer and I chatted together at the Royale Theatre in New York, under the auspices of PEN American Center. Part of what I said was reprinted in these pages on January 11, under the title, not mine, “Requiem for the American Empire.” I gave a bit of a history lesson about our empire’s genesis, and I brooded on its terminus last fall, when Tokyo took over from New York as the world’s economic center.
My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is a minority race with many well deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers–or, worse, mere entertainment–for the more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics. In principle, Mailer agreed.
As expected, that wonderful, wacky couple, Norman (Poddy) Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, checked in. The Lunts of the right wing (Israeli Fifth Column Division), they are now, in their old age, more and more like refugees from a Woody Allen film: The Purple Prose of West End Avenue.
Poddy was the first to respond. He is the editor of Commentary (circulation 55,000, and allegedly falling; paid for by the American Jewish Committee). He is best known–and by me loved–for his autobiographical “novel,” Making It, in which he tells us that he has made it because he has become editor of Commentary and might one day be a guest at the White House, as he has already been a guest of Huntington Hartford in Nassau.
Over the years, Poddy has, like his employers, the A.J.C., moved from those liberal positions traditionally occupied by American Jews (and me) to the far right of American politics. The reason for that is simple. In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $5 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.
To make sure that nearly a third of the Federal budget goes to the Pentagon and Israel, it is necessary for the pro-Israel lobbyists to make common cause with our lunatic right. Hence, the virulent propaganda.
Poddy denounced Mailer and me in the pages of the New York Post. According to him, we belong to that mindless majority of pinko intellectuals who actually think that the nation spends too much on the Pentagon and not enough on, say, education. Since sustained argument is not really his bag, he must fall back on the ad hominem attack, a right-wing specialty–and, of course, on our flag, which he wears like a designer kaftan because “the blessings of freedom and prosperity are greater and more widely shared [here] than in any country known to human history.” Poddy should visit those Western European countries whose per capita income is higher than ours. All in all, Poddy is a silly billy.
Significantly, the one Yiddish word that has gained universal acceptance in this country is chutzpah. Example: In 1960, Mr. and Mrs. Podhoretz were in upstate New York where I used to live. I was trying out a play at the Hyde Park Playhouse; the play was set during the Civil War. “Why,” asked Poddy, “are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” I explained to him that my mother’s family had fought for the Confederacy and my father’s for the Union, and that the Civil War was–and is–to the United States what the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic.
“Well, to me,” said Poddy, “the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” I realized then that he was not planning to become an “assimilated American,” to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel. Yet he and Midge stay on among us, in order to make propaganda and raise money for Israel–a country they don’t seem eager to live in. Jewish joke, circa 1900: A Zionist is someone who wants to ship other people off to Palestine.
Midge was next to strike. But before she launched her attack, in something called she put on her thinking cap and actually read what I wrote. I give her high marks for that. Unfortunately, she found my history lesson hard going. But then, like most of our Israeli fifth columnists, Midge isn’t much interested in what the goyim were up to before Ellis Island. She also likes the ad hominem attack. When I noted that our writers seldom speak out on matters of war and peace because so many of them are paid for by universities that receive money from the garrison state, Midge tartly retorted, “He, after all, is not paid by a university but by those great centers of independence, the film companies.” Since my last Hollywood film, The Best Man, was made in 1964, I have been “paid” by that American public that buys my books about the American past, a subject of no demonstrable interest to Midge and Poddy and their friends.
Midge was amazed by my description of how we seized territories from Mexico, including California; annexed Hawaii and Puerto Rico and, of course, the Philippines, where we slaughtered between 100,000 and 200,000 of the inhabitants. Interesting note: American imperialists froth if the figures for those murdered are ever in excess of 60,000 men, women and children, the acceptable statistical minimum for genocide. Then Midge, with that magisterial gooniness that marks her polemical style, told us, “that three of these conquered territories are now states of the United States, and a fourth an independent republic, is evidently beside the point–as, we cannot resist remarking…”
Oh, Midge, resist. Resist! Don’t you get the point? We stole other people’s land. We murdered many of the inhabitants. We imposed our religion–and rule–on the survivors. General Grant was ashamed of what we did to Mexico, and so am I. Mark Twain was ashamed of what we did in the Philippines, and so am I. Midge is not because in the Middle East another predatory people is busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy. She is a propagandist for these predators (paid for?), and that is what all this nonsense is about.
Since spades may not be called spades in freedom’s land, let me spell it all out. In order to get military and economic support for Israel, a small number of American Jews, who should know better, have made common cause with every sort of reactionary and anti-Semitic group in the United States, from the corridors of the Pentagon to the TV studios of the evangelical Jesus-Christers. To show that their hearts are in the far-right place, they call themselves neoconservatives, and attack the likes of Mailer and me, all in the interest of supporting the likes of Sharon and Israel as opposed to the Peace Now Israelis whom they disdain. There is real madness here; mischief too.
“Well, one thing is clear in all this muddle,’’ writes Midge, adrift in her tautological sea, “Mr. Vidal does not like his country.” Poor Midge. Of course I like my country. After all, I’m its current biographer. But now that we’re really leveling with each other, I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.
Although there is nothing wrong with being a lobbyist for a foreign power, one is supposed to register with the Justice Department. Also, I should think that tact would require a certain forbearance when it comes to the politics of the host country. But tact is unknown to the Podhoretzes. Joyously they revel in the politics of hate, with plangent attacks on blacks and/or fags and/or liberals, trying, always, to outdo those moral majoritarians who will, as Armageddon draws near, either convert all the Jews, just as the Good Book says, or kill them.
All in all, the latest Podhoretz diatribes have finally convinced me that the time has come for the United States to stop all aid not only to Israel but to Jordan, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. The Middle Easterners would then be obliged to make peace, or blow one another up, or whatever. In any case, we would be well out of it. After all, the theological and territorial quarrels of Israel and Islam are as remote to 200 million Americans as–what else?–the War of the Roses.
It should be noted that a “kaftan” is a garment symbolic of the Middle East. I think this is what The Nation meant when it referred to Vidal’s “coruscating essays”.
Postscript: Today, The Nation commemorates Vidal, offering this comment on “The Empire Lovers Strike Back”:The Asiatics didn’t complain, but two months later, some Jews did, after Gore wrote that Norman Podhoretz’s “first loyalty would always be to Israel,” and that he and his wife Midge Decter therefore constituted “an Israeli Fifth Column Division” inside the United States.
Many of us took that as another satiric barb, but Podhoretz had his associate editor at Commentary write to thirty people on the Nation masthead who had Jewish-sounding names asking whether they had protested the magazine’s publication of “the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst in an American periodical since the Second World War.” (Nobody on the masthead resigned.) Arthur Carter, the Wall Street figure who had recently become publisher of the magazine, told Victor that the head of the Anti-Defamation League had complained to him about Gore’s piece. Carter replied, “What do you think we are? It’s The Nation, not the Jewish Federation Newsletter.” Victor called that “passing the Gore test.”