Celebrated American writer and critic Gore Vidal was interviewed by former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr on Sunday at Glamour Bar before a full audience as the opening speaker for the 2007 Shanghai International Literary Festival. Over his career which spans more than 60 years, Vidal has produced novels, plays, screenplays, and numerous essays and pamphlets, and most recently, he published his memoirs, Point-to-Point Navigation.
Carr opened Sunday’s discussion by describing Vidal as an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, and aggrieved patriot, which sounded a political tone for the rest of the hour. Long a lucid, acerbic, and comical observer of the American political scene, at 81 Vidal remains sharp, funny, eloquent, and capable of producing convincing impressions of Reagan, Churchill, and George W. Bush. Vidal himself descends from an impeccable political lineage, and he has had intimate contact with American politics since childhood. Growing-up in Washington, DC, he was close to his maternal grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas P. Gore, he is a cousin of former President Jimmy Carter, his family is connected to Jacqueline Onassis, and he claims to be distantly related to Al Gore. As for Vidal himself, he has run for political office twice and finished-well but lost both times.
Ideologically, Vidal considers himself to be akin to the founders of the United States, a Jeffersonian, and holds, that as George Washington warned, the United States should avoid foreign entanglements. Thus, his particular political orientation has led him to profound disappointment with the United States for decades, and between 2002 and 2004 he penned three booklets, each fiercely critical of US foreign policy and the “little monkey posing as the president,” as Vidal calls George W. Bush. Of Dubya, Vidal unequivocally says that the American President is “wandering in a daze … a sleep walker” and “I want to kill him.”
While Vidal is inevitably steeped in Americana, Shanghai and China could not be ignored, and he described his thoughts on China as he admiringly overlooked the city.
I was on top of the Westin Hotel being shown the sites of the city, and I had a sudden crisis as I looked out at the extraordinary skyscrapers the architecture and the art deco. I thought to myself, well, the mandate of heaven has passed from us and come home. And I did write that once, in the world as it was shaped after the war, it’s quite clear that Japan [was]… only standing in for China.
Ever dramatic, Vidal not only oozed sinophillic flattery, but he even couched it with a romantic Confucian allusion that the most savvy CCTV propagandist could only admire. However, saving Vidal’s professed admiration for Confucius, China was spared through most of the dialog until the question and answer session, when one audience member sheepishly asked Vidal a question addressing freedom of speech, a freedom which Vidal has enjoyed to its fullest.
Audience Member: Mr. Vidal I have a question as an expatriate American in a room with many other expatriate Americans who share your critique of this administration and disapproval of the war in Iraq. It seems to me that we experience tremendous freedom and the ability to criticize our own government, and you are leveling this critique in a country where I don’t think that is something that is generally shared in the populace of China. And I guess I am wondering about what your thoughts are about the relative status of the ability to be critical of one’s government in the United States as compared to China. Your thoughts on that please.
Vidal: Well, I only deal with the US. China is a little large for me. I know the US; I don’t know China. They’ll work it out, as they intend to do, somehow. And after the Cultural Revolution there’s been a huge burst of energy, which is quite visible just looking at the city here. Looking at the new buildings down there, you feel volatile, you feel life. That really is the human inclination: it’s focused towards ‘more light, more light.’ It’s no different here from anywhere.
Of course, from it’s clear from the way that the questioner tip-toed around the issue, how delicate a topic it is and by Vidal’s response, we can be fairly certain that he is either being polite, afraid, or is just ignorant. Certainly, we don’t expect Vidal to export his brand of dissidence to China, and the fact that Vidal has freedoms that he may take for granted in no way discredits his other arguments. However, it is always interesting to hear the tone of westerners — particularly liberal intellectuals — change when they find themselves in a context where they perceive that they have no legal protection.
For his next novel, Vidal intends to cover what he considers a gap in his historical writing, the Mexican-American War, upon which he quoted Ulysses S. Grant as he reflected ominously: “I believe that nations like individuals must pay for their misdeeds. And I have always felt that the war with Mexico is a war of aggression by one powerful country on a weak one is not only the worst thing that has befallen the United States but I’ve also felt that the Civil War was fate’s revenge on us for what we did.” And based upon his earlier statements, one assumes Gore Vidal sees a modern-day parallel.
Click play below to listen to Vidal’s appearance in Shanghai:
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