21 December 2007

Witty, bitchy, and impassioned, Vidal is on target critiquing unchecked state power

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated
Gore Vidal
Nation Books, 2002

Gore Vidal is not my favorite writer, political or otherwise, because his tendencies to name drop and to remind the reader of his patrician heritage grate on my nerves. That said, this slender volume of collected essays is required reading for anyone, liberal or conservative, who thinks that the train of the United States has jumped its Constitutional tracks and is headed for catastrophe, both domestically and internationally. It is also nice to hear someone so eloquently remind Americans that our Constitutional heritage is primarily one of mistrust of government, our own first and foremost, and to challenge the received opinion that this mistrust is now tantamount to treason.

Not only is this sense of distrust our obligation as American citizens, but it is also healthy, Vidal argues. He supports this argument by discussing the violent and murderous contempt our government has had for those in the world, both abroad and at home, who would challenge its claims to ideological and actual dominance. The first essay in this collection endeavors to explain why those abroad hate the American government by making reference to the hundreds of military ventures our nation has engaged in (with almost absolute impunity it must be noted) over the last half-century. Democratically elect a leader whose policies don't completely gibe with American national (read "commercial") interests? Then Uncle Sam will help depose him. Since the end of WWII, the US has intervened in so many other nations' internal affairs, often with disastrous consequences for the everyday people in those nations, that the mind reels. The question becomes not "why do they hate us" but "why have they waited so long to show it?"

The essays which follow the introduction deal with issues of domestic un-tranquility and, in particular, the violent response of one Timothy McVeigh to a federal government that rages unchecked. If that last phrase seems extreme, imagine seeing your wife get shot through the head (as she clutched an infant) hours after watching your 14-year old son shot in the back by the same "law officers," all because you were entrapped into committing the "crime" of sawing off two shotguns. That's what happened to Randy Weaver at his Ruby Ridge, ID, home. He, and not the murdering authorities, was the one accused of crimes in that situation, and the media, complicit with the federal authorities, did its best to cover-up the true criminals. Later, a group of non-traditional religious folks were murdered, with their 27 children, by the same lawless authorities, and again, the media and government manipulated the story so that it was the citizen, and not the government, who was to blame. These incidents, argues Vidal, are indicative of a rogue American government, one that blames its victims and exonerates itself at every opportunity. Vidal also inveighs against the puritanical, prudish prurience of those Americans who so desperately want to see their neighbors controlled that they'll excuse their government of any crimes committed to that end, no matter how heinous. As he notes when discussing Timothy McVeigh's murder of innocents in the Murrah building in OKC, "every pancake has two sides." Ignoring the larger side of that pancake, an unchecked government run rampant against the freedoms of "we the people" and our fellow human beings in other nations, is to our detriment.

One minor drawback to this book is that Vidal rarely provides a citation to back him up in his diatribe, but this is easily rectified by seeking out denser corroborative works on the various subjects Vidal discusses (the writings of Noam Chomsky come to mind, for example). Please don't let that complaint keep you from reading this book; its witty, bitchy, and impassioned defense of the US Constitution and of the Republic it supports is much needed in these dark days of omnipresent surveillance and endless wars on inchoate terror.

(This review was originally written on November 6, 2006.)

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