Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The education of Gore Vidal

I am not exactly certain just why I have so enjoyed the writings of Gore Vidal over the years.  But what I do know, and a PBS special from 2002 that recently resurfaced has made so abundantly clear, is that my life and Vidal's were about as different as is humanly possible.  I watched it last night.

Examples abound.  Vidal was born to the USA's ruling class.  He was the pet grandchild of a blind Senator and so found himself reading the documents of government to him on the Senate floor.  He probably knew more about the inner workings of government by 10 than I would know in a lifetime.

Then there was the matter of Vidal being so absurdly handsome that he was probably the best looking person in the room for most of his life.  Beautiful people get away with a LOT and so comments that would have destroyed the careers of lesser folks were tolerated and even loved when written by Gore.  We can be reasonably certain that Vidal would never have been a regular on Johnny Carson if he had been an ugly man.

In the end, his great intellectual contribution to life in USA was that he understood how its Leisure Classes operated.  From the founding fathers to the wretched empire builders who hatched the invasion of Iraq, Gore wrote about them as amusingly absurd.  He had a home in Italy for much of his life where he would compare the American Empire's depravities with those of Rome's.  And so his life's work could be summed up by his strange insistence on telling the truth about some of the greatest liars and hypocrites to have ever walked the earth.  No small contribution, that.

But the USA of the builders completely escaped his notice.  He did not write about Whitney or Edison or Ford.  His father was a senior aviation bureaucrat for FDR but young Gore never became the least interested in how aerospace became one of the dominant industries in the land.  And so now, when the great existential threats to the nation and the world such as climate change are those only the builders can truly understand, his stunning insights can be reduced to yet another observation that the Leisure Classes really are as useless as they aspire to be.

As someone who has grown to detest the Leisure Classes over the years, I guess I loved reading Vidal because he provided me with so much ammunition in my understanding of just how those folks preserve their archaic traits.  And how impervious they are to the influences of science and rational thought.  We know the Enlightenment happened.  We also know that it was wasted on the current crop of scientifically illiterate politicians who can watch their country burn to a crisp and still deny climate change.  When Vidal unfavorably compared our current manifestations of the Leisure Classes to the emperors like Caligula, he gave us insights that were actually quite impossible to ignore.  Because while it is possible to dismiss the Leisure Classes as just more useless protoplasm, Vidal gave us chapter and verse for why this is probably a good idea.

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