Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Learning from annoying people

Over the years I have accumulated a disconcertingly large menagerie of betes noires. One must try, somehow, to put limits on this common temptation. Accordingly, I will discuss only two such individuals here: Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky.

A half century ago Vidal had the courage to publish a pioneering novel about homosexuality, The City and the Pillar. In subsequent years, however, he has not been candid about his own sexuality. As far as the available evidence goes, he would appear to be a Kinsy 6 or 5--that is, one whose sexual experience is exclusively or almost wholly with his own gender. Yet Vidal has mocked those of us who are working for gay rights as "homosexualists."

His numerous gaffes serve the useful function of lancing Vidal's otherwise insuffereable arrogance. These pratfalls range from his harmless, but ridiculous belief that the word macho is pronounced "makko" (in defiance of the rules of Hispanic orthography) to his pathetic dalliance with the convicted terrorist Timothy McVey.

In my experience Vidal's historical novels are unreadable, the product of many tedious hours of self-imposed forced labor. This is, strictly speaking, hack work, as he produces these clinkers to support himself in the lifestyle he feels he deserves.

Then there are his political views, which lean to poorly-sourced conspiracy views.

In recent years Vidal has taken to pronouncing the expression "American Empire" (or simply "the Empire") compulsively. At first, like many others, I resisted this label. Yet I have come to see that it is just. What else can one say of a country that has troops stationed in some thirty foreign countries--a nation that asserts, though its commander-in-chief, the right to interfere in other nations when and wherever it pleases. The views of foreigners about this manhandling are by definition of no account.

The MIT professor Noam Chomsky is another veteran writer--though in an entirely different field. His early interventions in the realm of linguistics effectively ended the tyranny of behaviorism in the social sciences. Over the years though his own contributions to his field have dwindled, while at the same time his theories have come to seem increasingly problematic, and indeed irrelevant.

But no matter. Decades ago, during the Vietnam War, Chomsky hugely turned himself to the analysis of current affairs. In his view, his incomparable logical powers raise him far above the modest level of pundit to a throne of Pontifical Absolutism.

When all is said and done, Chomsky's views verge on kneejerk anti-Americanism. In common with much Third World opinion, he holds that the United States is responsible for most of the evils in the world. This prejudice is repellent not just to American patriots, but to anyone who cares for a nuanced view of world politics.

Still, I believe that there is a kernel of truth in what Chomsky is saying. For a long time, our leaders were restrained by the Vietnam Syndrome, together with the counterweight represented by the Soviet Union. Now American power is untrammeled, or so it still appears from vantage point of the Pentagon.

Is this such a bad thing, though? After all, despite its egregious faults the United States is vastly better than any Third World dictatorship. Yes, but that fact doesn't give us the right to march in and devastate their political and economic structures. This is especially true when we have noting better to put in their place, as in Iraq.

There is another problem, for we are not masters in our own house. Despite much denial, the power of the pro-Israel Lobby is real. It is aided not just by naive Christian Fundamentists, but also from the commanding heights of American public opinion, powerful individuals who are prepared to sanction any who stray from the path. Just look at what is happening to President Carter. As General Clark has pointed out, the "big money people in New York City" have decreed to the Democrats that they may not end the Iraq War after all, even though that is what they were put in office to accomplish. Now the Senate, under Democratic control, cannot even agree to debate a toothless resolution. The only way to end the war is to end the funding.

I see no hope of dislodging the constellation of exogenic forces that has taken control of our foreign policy. Ideally, that dislodgement would be desirable, for we should cease to be the enforcer of the interests of a country not our own. Yet there is no realistic chance of this happening. The dominant forces are too entrenched. The only remedy is a lasting setback for American adventurism abroad. If we cannot get control of our foreign policy, one can only hope that its malignancy will be disabled by force majeure.

Should I not be more supportive of my country? Indeed, but is it still my country?


Blogger anticant said...

Like so many Europeans, I am NOT "anti-American" but regard the neoCon/PNAC/Bush crowd as a global disaster. The sooner they are bundled off the stage of history the better. But I don't agree that it can only happen through a US military defeat, which will only make matters worse. It is the primary responsibility of the US electorate, and Congress, to do the job. Impeachment, for a start!

3:46 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

From two heavy hitters in the annoying department, I cannot resist a slip into bathos. I am referring to that pathetic little twit Adam Gopnik, the object of much misplaced admiration for his onanistic dispatches from Paris in the New Yorker. Here is the beginning of a piece on him by James Wolcott from the New Republic:

"I wonder if Adam Gopnik was put on this earth to annoy. If so, mission accomplished. Mind you, he finds himself in fine company in my illustrious literary perp walk. Francine Prose, with her pinched perceptions and humorless hauteur -- every time she brings out a new book (she is depressingly diligent), I find myself grumbling, "Her again?" I've never gotten the point of Paul Auster and his swami mystique and probably never shall, unless I move to Brooklyn and achieve phosphorescence. Walter Kirn, what a hustler. But no tactician of letters has shown a greater knack for worming his way into our hearts whether we want him there or not than Adam Gopnik, the art-world observer, former Paris correspondent for the New Yorker (out of whose dispatches was spun the bestselling Paris to the Moon), and the magazine's resident tone-poet of post-9/11 Manhattan, drizzling pixie dust across a cityscape that no longer bears the hearty flavor of "smoked mozzarella," as he notoriously described the downtown death smell. It isn't that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.

A careerist with delicate antennae, he wants to be encouraged, petted, praised, promoted, and congratulated. (In Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, Renata Adler memorably encapsulated his modus operandi: "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do.") He is forever soliciting the reader's approval with an array of cloying ploys that become gimmicky and self-conscious. If he can be considered guilty of "meaching" (Adler's picturesque word), it must be conceded that he has meached his way to the journalistic top, and an air of attainment cups his latest themed collection, Through the Children's Gate. Gopnik's Manhattan in these pages recalls Woody Allen's playground circa 1986 (the year of Hannah and Her Sisters, the year Gopnik began writing for the New Yorker), an Upper East Side version of pastoral set to the cabaret tinkle of a piano playing in the next room and the cricket chirps of names and cultural signifiers being dropped. But where there were few children noisily underfoot in Woody Allen's cinematic parlor, entering Through the Children's Gate is like visiting Munchkin Land, with Gopnik as Munchkin mayor.

After extracting as much good copy as contemporary Paris had to offer, Gopnik and family -- wife Martha, son Luke, and daughter Olivia -- returned to New York in 2000 to "make a home here for good," free of French exactitude. The Children's Gate was their port of entry. "The Children's Gate exists, and you really can go through it. It's the name for the entrance to Central Park at Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue....Now my family had, in a way, decided to pass through as children, too." In the family unit's absence from New York, the patter of little feet had become thundering hooves. "[By] the time we came home, the city had been repopulated -- some would say overrun -- with children. It was now the drug addicts and transvestites and artists who were left muttering about the undesirable, short element taking over the neighborhood. New York had become, almost comically, a children's city again, with kiddie-coiffure joints where sex shops had once stood and bare, ruined singles bars turned into play-and-party centers." Convoys of baby strollers cruised sidewalks once crunchy with crack vials, and the Times Square where Travis Bickle hunched his shoulders in the steam-risen satanic night was now a diorama of Disney favorites."

8:00 AM  

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