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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Gore Vidal's "State of The Union"

Gore Vidal is clearly a controversial figure. I first heard of him in connection with his correspondence with the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Vidal has also written about McVeigh.

This Nation article presents what Mr Vidal envisions as his alternative "State of The Union, 2004". In spite of somewhat extremist rhetoric of the article, I think Mr Vidal is indeed raising some important concerns and making some important points.

In the article, Mr Vidal quotes extensively from his 1972 "State of The Union". At times, it is difficult to tell whether a particular passage is contemporary or a 32-year old quote. That confusion appears to be part of the author's intent.
I speak of legalizing gambling. Bingo players nod. Then: "All drugs should be legalized and sold at cost to anyone with a doctor's prescription." Most questions, later, are about this horrific proposal. Brainwashing on the subject begins early, insuring that a large crop of the coming generation will become drug addicts. Prohibition always has that effect, as we should have learned when we prohibited alcohol from 1919 to 1933; but, happily for the busy lunatics who rule over us, we are permanently the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing. The period of Prohibition called the "Noble Experiment" brought on the greatest breakdown of law and order that we have ever endured--until today, of course. Lesson? Do not regulate the private lives of people, because if you do they will become angry and antisocial, and they will get what they want from criminals, who work in perfect freedom because they know how to pay off the police.

What should be done about drug addiction? As of 1970, England was the model for us to emulate. With a population of 55 million people, they had only 1,800 heroin addicts. With our 200 million people we had nearly a half-million addicts. What were they doing right? For one thing, they turned the problem over to the doctors. Instead of treating the addict as a criminal, they required him to register with a physician, who then gives him, at controlled intervals, a prescription so that he can obtain his drug. Needless to say, our society, based as it is on a passion to punish others, could not bear so sensible a solution. We promptly leaned, as they say, on the British to criminalize the sale and consumption of drugs, and now the beautiful city of Edinburgh is one of the most drug-infested places in Europe. Another triumph for the American way.

This goes pretty much along the same lines as my view on the "war on drugs". In the same article, Gore Vidal says,

In 1972, "roughly 80 percent of police work in the United States has to do with the regulation of our private morals. By that I mean controlling what we smoke, eat, put in our veins--not to mention trying to regulate with whom and how we have sex, with whom and how we gamble. As a result our police are among the most corrupt in the Western world."
I am not sure his measure of the police corruption in the US is accurate,- either referring to the situation today, or that of 1972. But he is certainly right in saying that police tasked with prosecuting victimless crimes, be that drug consumption of consensual sexual practices by adults are prone to corruption; such a police force is also likely to become political and unprofessional, and thus less effective in addressing the issue of real crime.

The article is not devoid of incoherence and inconsistencies,- I would say, neither are most of Mr Vidal's writings, at least those I had a chance to read. Mr Vidal acknowledges as much:
I must say, I am troubled by the way I responded to the audience's general hatred of government. I say we are the government. But I was being sophistical when I responded to their claims that our government is our enemy with that other cliché, you are the government. Unconsciously, I seem to have been avoiding the message that I got from one end of the country to the other: We hate this system that we are trapped in, but we don't know who has trapped us or how. We don't even know what our cage looks like because we have never seen it from the outside. Now, thirty-two years later, audiences still want to know who will let them out of the Enron-Pentagon prison with its socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. So...welcome to Imperial America.
It is not exactly clear why he calls America an imperial power, I would say. However, I think this article is stimulating overall, and Mr Vidal is doing a good job of making his readers think of things accepted as "common knowledge",- things that may turn out to be anything but a sure thing.

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