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Shop Talk -
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Halls of Fame -
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This is Not a Novel -
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My Name is Red -
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The Corrections -
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Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
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Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace:
How We Got To Be So Hated
by Gore Vidal (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books)

Does anybody remember the rules of cause and effect? Stated simply, it's the principle that every action has a reaction. Pretty basic stuff, really, and empirically verifiable in any number of ways, but what may seem elementary to some may seem like one of those off the wall "round earth" theories to others. So, in the spirit of the advancement of science and in keeping with the general rules of fair play, it appears that it may just be time to send our national press corps for a little refresher course on this subject, as they don't quite seem to grasp the concept.

Also Reviewed This Month:

Tishomongo Blues -
Elmore Leonard

The War Against Cliche -
by Martin Amis
Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson
The trouble, fellow citizens, is that it is beginning to appear increasingly certain that the mainstream media seem only able to understand the effect part of the equation, which means that the causes apparently are left to float in some sort of a-historical ether. Much like the coverage of the anti-globalization protests of the past few years, the media has generally only seen fit to deal with the after effects of the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center attacks, while ignoring the underlying causes for why the attacks occurred in the first place. Whereas Tim McVeigh (like Lee Harvey Oswald before him) has been portrayed as a lone maniac bent on evil, Al Queda is written off as the creation of an "axis of evil."

They hate and fear our freedoms, we're told. They hate our way of life, they hate our institutions, they hate our economic system, so they seek to destroy it. What are we to do but fight back? Sounds simple enough, and a pretty easy battle cry to rally around, as it couched in a "clash of civilizations" like rhetoric. But doesn't it stand to reason that all of this hatred and fear has some sort of underlying cause? Where did it come from? Fear not, trusting citizen! Don't concern yourself with the why's of McVeigh or the anti-globalization protests or a massive terrorist network bent on visiting death and destruction on our civilian populace—we're the good guys here. We're the ones who perfected democracy and seek (under the unfurled banners of democracy) free markets and tax shelters to export that which would help raise humanity out of the Hobbesian state of nature, where life can only be "nasty, brutish and short." The problem is that not everyone agrees with our methods in going about our self-appointed globalized neighborhood watch and beautification project. Just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, so to one government's foreign policy is another people's attack on their way of life.

It's a given that the people in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the WTC didn't deserve their fates. But neither did the 3,900 Afghan civilians killed by our recent bombing or the thousands killed and tortured by U.S. supported dictatorships in Latin America, Asia and the Middle east since the end of the Second World War. That's the problem of being a hegemonic power, in order to maintain a sphere of control, you must use unsavory methods to maintain the status quo—but it appears that our own methods are finally being used against us. "If I can understand why the managers of the state monopoly regard the privatization of terror as unwarranted poaching of their market," Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham says in a recent article, "as a prospective consumer presented with variant packagings of the product I find the same instruction on the labels." (Harper's Vol. 304, No.1822, March 2002, p.9)

Lapham's point is one we should all have begun to understand all too well. But that begs the question as to how are we to understand why certain people have felt the need to blow up a federal building full of civilians or crash two jet planes into commercial skyscrapers? The first step is to treat what many major media outlets tell you as lazy accounts of the facts.

Gore Vidal, one of the elder statesmen of a small handful of public intellectuals whose dissent has actually been given voice in the mainstream media, has never been lazy with the facts, though he does use them to advance his own cause. The latest imbroglio Vidal has found himself in comes at a time when many of our media outlets are performing an odd dance with the public while trying to redefine their own responsibilities as journalists operating under the muzzle tactics of the Bush administration. A perfect example of the media's new love it or leave it attitude is a piece (subtly titled "Un-American Ways") by Jeanette Walls of MSNBC.com, in which she claims in reference to Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace, "Gore Vidal can't get his latest book published here" because it is, as she says: "an Anti-American rant."

Having read this, one might be led to believe that Vidal has penned a new screed that is so controversial as to make it virtually unpublishable. As usual, however, the truth is a bit less interesting than it may at first appear. First published in November 2001 in Italy under the title "The End of Liberty—Toward a New Totalitarianism", the book was soon translated into 12 different languages and became a European bestseller all before an American publisher would 'dare' take it. If the American public in general were in the least interested in stories like this, this would be seen as a colossal turtleing maneuver by our media establishment. But, as we know, the polity at large couldn't care less about such matters, c-cause there's a WAR on, dont'cha know! While Vidal barks as loudly as ever, the bite will most likely prove negligible, as he'll just be preaching to the converted, anyway.

In all, the rather slim book consists of five essays captured under two main sections: "How I Became Interested in Tim McVeigh and Vice Versa" which features two previously published articles from Vanity Fair concerning the McVeigh case and Vidal's startling, if anyone out there is listening, uncovering of the FBI's refusal to follow many leads which point in the direction of a large group of co-conspirators; and "Fallout" containing another Vanity Fair article and a piece from The Nation addressed as an open letter to the next President (published just before the Florida recounts ended and the Supreme Court declared Bush our beloved "President-Without-Mandate"). Both of these sections are updated from their original text and contain brief introductions as to why they are relevant in light of recent events.

The point of the book is captured in the first and only new essay - "September 11, 2001 (A Tuesday)", and it is this essay that, presumably, kept the book from being published in this country until now. Has anyone noticed how quiet Vidal has been since 9/11? Well, it wasn't by choice. Just after the 9-11 attacks on the United States, Vidal's initial comments appeared in Portuguese when he shared his views with a Brazilian publication. Those comments were then translated into Spanish and published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Vidal later revised and expanded these early remarks for a piece intended for Vanity Fair. The magazine—among others, including The Nation, where Vidal is a longtime contributing editor—passed on the piece as a result of its "anti-American sentiments", thereby keeping our leading publishers and primary voices of dissent in lockstep with the rest of the mainstream media's newfound desire to censor itself for the supposed good of the country. Even in those heady days immediately following the attacks, and given the "unified front" rhetoric that has enveloped the country since (a united front that has since made shopping, and consumption in general, as the way to return to those happy-go-lucky days of last summer), it seems astounding that a major American literary figure and cultural critic would have a hard time placing one of his works concerning the most significant domestic event since W.W.II.

With a little digging, you could have found Vidal's original article translated (rather poorly) into English on various web sites over the past few months. Significant revisions have been made since, but the overall tenor of the piece remains the same. In truth, Vidal says little in the new piece that he hasn't said elsewhere dozens of times, the only difference being the timing. The chapter and the short introductory pieces that open the two sections of the book are rife with that old Vidalian fire and brimstone, but there is one slight difference that separates this text from others. The old man seems to be getting a bit desperate to get his message across. Perhaps the impending reality of his own mortality (Vidal is in his 70's, and by some accounts in frail health), but there seems to be something of an exasperated, pleading quality to the new material here that to some degree replaces the bemused disgust that has heretofore been his signature. "I've listed in this little book about four hundred strikes that the government has made on other countries.' Vidal told Reuters in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. 'War, undeclared. Generally with the excuse that they were harboring communists. You keep attacking people for such a long time, one of them is going to get you back,'' Vidal has been humming the same tune for the better part of the 20th century. He hums it well, to be sure, but the melody seldom changes.

So, why has it taken the book so long to see publication here? As Vidal told The Guardian in December, 2001: "What I say the advertisers don't like and the publishers don't like." True enough, and for once, perhaps an understatement on Vidal's part. Due to Bush's USA Patriot Act and the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act that Bill Clinton signed into law, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Vidal could be brought up on charges for being so critical of the US government and its illegal storming of the Weaver home at Ruby Ridge (in clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the governments use of military force against its citizens), and the murder of the Brach Davidians (including dozens of children) at Waco just weeks later. Oh yeah, anyone remember those hundreds of Middle Eastern men being held without bail and without charges filed against them currently sitting in American jails?

Clinton's Ant-Terrorism Act defines as illegal and worthy of punishment any acts which "appear to be intended toward violence or activities which could intimidate or coerce a civilian population; or to influence the policy of a government." The vague wording leaves any person or group of persons who demonstrate or speak out against the government open to police harassment or arrest.

"Bin Laden," Vidal told Reuters in a November, 2001 interview "strikes at America at the moment we are entering a world depression...it is the most fragile moment in the West. For someone who does not wish us well that was brilliantly timed."

Considering that the strike was planned well in advance, it's doubtful that the economic health of the country had any factor in the attacks of September 11, but what is well timed is the long-overdue publication of Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace from the leading dissenting voice of our times. It's a shame that the fact that the book is being published at all is a story in itself, but the way in which Vidal traces the slow erosion of our constitutional rights and its acceleration over the past few years in the name of combating terrorism does offer a wake-up call to those of us paying attention.

Will be published on March 10, 2002


-- Paul McLeary


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mail@freewilliamsburg.com | March 2002 | Issue 24
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