On being an outsider

Aug
3
2012
by
Lynne McTaggart
/
0
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Gore Vidal, who died this week, is an unlikely hero of mine.  For all his deliberate offensiveness and wilful antagonism, for all his apparent contradiction, he was one of the most clear-eyed critics America has ever had.

His collection of essays:  United States:  Essays 1952-1992, which won an honorary National Book Award, are unsurpassed in their summing up of America’s shortcomings.  All of Vidal’s ascerbic wit derived from a sense that America had passed its best and that we’d somehow lost the plot in the last half of the last century, ‘the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.’

Gore Vidal, who died this week, is an unlikely hero of mine.  For all his deliberate offensiveness and wilful antagonism, for all his apparent contradiction, he was one of the most clear-eyed critics America has ever had.

His collection of essays:  United States:  Essays 1952-1992, which won an honorary National Book Award, are unsurpassed in their summing up of America’s shortcomings.  All of Vidal’s ascerbic wit derived from a sense that America had passed its best and that we’d somehow lost the plot in the last half of the last century, ‘the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.’

Speaking up
Gore was, at heart, a literary activist, who refused to buy uncritically into the American dream. Nothing was off-limits; he was savage about the US’s unjustified military decisions, its crazy veering to the extreme religious right, its jackboot approach to ‘America-first’ foreign policy. Upon receiving the same prize at the same time,  Dave Eggers (another literary activist),  said of Vidal: ‘His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can’t articulate it.’

What most people don’t realize is that Gore was a patriot with a broken heart.  And that largely came from his position as an outsider .

Vidal chose to live for many decades with his partner in Italy, was flagrantly gay at a time when it was still criminal in America to be so, and even wrote about gay sexual relationships in a 1948 novel.  He regularly had punch ups with the literary establishment, once maintaining that the saddest words in the English language were ‘Joyce Carol Oates.’  

While living abroad probably had an adverse effect upon his literary reputation in the States, it afforded him a clear-eyed view of America’s good and bad decisions, a vantage point with which to judge how far the country had fallen. Unlike much of the media, which pulled its punches after 9/11, Vidal was unabashedly savage about America’s shredding of its own bill of rights in the wake of the terrorist attacks. He was vocal in his belief that the Bush administration probably had advance knowledge of  9/11.  

I understand Vidal’s frustrations entirely because I shared his position as an outsider, looking back in anger. Although I have lived in Britain for 30 years, I remain a rabid American; I’ve been married for most of my time here, but I continue to use my American passport. Until five years ago, I maintained a residence in the US – just in case I decided to go back.  I ensure that my children remain aware of their American heritage, and I urge my eldest to vote in US elections.

Nevertheless, every day my country’s priorities, its politics, its leaders, its decisions, its unwillingness to care for those down on their luck strike me as increasingly, well. . . foreign.  I’ve just returned from a prolonged visit through the West of America and what kept reframing itself inside my head, while I made note – of the airports that look like those of a banana republic, the crazed shooting in Colorado while I was there, the unworkable roads, the numbers of those sleeping in their cars and vans –  is that we have ceased to be a society in any sense of the term.

As Vidal once quipped, ‘The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country – and we haven’t seen them since.’  What he was saying was that it was a brilliant experiment now going horribly wrong.

That’s why I’m handing round my Bond Handbook.  There’s only one place to start rebuilding the US – from the ground (and the Constitution) on up.

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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