Gore Vidal once tried to get me to print an alleged secret-a very big secret-about Richard Nixon’s penis. About what has come to be called, in post-Clintonian euphemistic legalese, its “distinguishing characteristic.”
I thought about this episode when I was reading what might be called “The Protocols of an Elder Called Gore,” Mr. Vidal’s attempt to prove-well, insinuate in a Nixonian way-that a secret cabal (the Bush/oil “junta”) instigated the 9/11 mass murders in order to increase their profit margins.
The Vidal screed, a 7,000-word mega-ultra-totalizing post-9/11 conspiracy theory, appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of the London Observer under the headline “THE ENEMY WITHIN.” The Observer précis is telling:
“Gore Vidal is America’s most controversial writer and a ferocious, often isolated, critic of the Bush administration. Here, against a backdrop of spreading unease about America’s response to the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath, we publish Vidal’s remarkable personal polemic urging a shocking new interpretation of who was to blame.”
One senses in the Observer ‘s précis an attempt to do a little sanitizing, a little distancing from this “remarkable personal polemic” with its “shocking” contents.
Well, in that they’re correct: It is shocking, disillusioning, particularly to someone like myself who has been a longtime admirer of Mr. Vidal’s essays, their intelligence, wit and precision, their erudition, elegance and fluidity. I can’t take his novels as seriously as he does (which is very seriously), but even when I disagreed with the politics, his pieces in The New York Review of Books have been illuminating landmarks of the essay form.
Which is why Mr. Vidal’s Observer piece is so shocking. What you hope for from Mr. Vidal is a serious political critique. What you have here is a disjointed conspiracy theory.
Which is why it reminded me of Ophelia’s dismay at the derangement of Hamlet: “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” Which recalls the fact that Hamlet’s madness is- he says-feigned. That he is “but mad north-northwest.” Has Mr. Vidal’s intellect gone south, so to speak, or is his 9/11 conspiracy theory some Vidalian north-by-northwest jest?
Which brings us back to the episode involving Richard Nixon’s penis.
This was back when I was a young reporter for The Village Voice and Mr. Vidal had something to promote, and a press agent arranged an interview, and Mr. Vidal seemed fixated on getting into print a story he claimed to have heard “from a nurse,” I think, about Richard Nixon’s penis. This was around the time Watergate was developing, and I recall him saying, ” The Voice will love this.” And I felt a kind of a hint of condescension, as in: ” The Voice will print anything as long as it’s about the Great Satan Nixon.” I had the feeling Mr. Vidal was trying to put one over on me, the paper and its readers-an elaborate jest I was supposed to play along with because he was the great Gore and the Left was inherently gullible.
But there’s nothing very funny about the Vidal piece in the London Observer . And it’s more than merely sad-about Vidal, about the gullibility of the Left. There’s something genuinely ugly about it. Something that partakes of the slippery ugliness of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion . You’re familiar, I assume, with The Protocols , a czarist secret-police forgery that purports to be the minutes of the meeting of the secret Jewish cabal which is ruling the world and manipulating history from behind the scenes. Henry Ford promoted a version called The International Jew . Hitler was deeply influenced by it. And now an Egyptian TV station is making a 41-part series based on it. This is not at all to say that Mr. Vidal’s 9/11 thesis is anti-Semitic. He doesn’t buy into the Mossad-did-it line; he believes we did it. What his thesis shares with The Protocols is the fantasy of an all-powerful secret cabal manipulating history: the Bush/oil “junta,” which he calls “Hitlerian.”
Mr. Vidal’s secret cabal is more sinister than the F.D.R.–Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory (which he also buys into): the belief that F.D.R. knew about the coming Japanese attack but did nothing to stop it, because he wanted Americans killed to get us into the war.
In that theory, at least, F.D.R. was a passive-aggressive mastermind. He let something he knew was coming happen after, in effect, “asking for it” by provoking the Japanese.
But he didn’t order it himself.
But that , in weasel words and passive-aggressive locutions, is what Mr. Vidal is implying George W. Bush and his “junta” did.
There are those (like Andrew Sullivan, for instance) who have taken note of the Vidal Observer piece and suggest that it’s best to ignore it, and him. And maybe Mr. Sullivan’s right. But I have a feeling that with something like this, if its ludicrous logical and evidentiary flaws are not exposed, there are those who will take it seriously. Worse things are flying around the Web, and this has the imprimatur of a famous American writer.
And the Left is always ready to swallow Richard Nixon penis stories, you might say.
It was a mistake not to take the malign potential of the original Protocols seriously. And if a famous American writer is entering a late-onset Ezra Pound period, so to speak, that too is worth noting-and lamenting.
So let’s look more closely at his argument. Let’s perform what the Web-bloggers have taken to calling a “fisking” or a “misting.” Are you familiar with those terms? I’m particularly fond of “fisking” and “misting,” because I believe they represent a revival on the Web of the kind of attentive close reading (albeit with plenty of attitude) that has disappeared from the jargon-clogged analysis of literature in the academy.
“Fisking” is derived from the devastating online critiques by “warbloggers” of the dispatches of Robert Fisk, the British foreign correspondent, who achieved a kind of perverse fame when he was beaten up by angry Afghans, blamed it on America (how were they to know he was one of the Good White Guys) and exclaimed that, in effect, if he were they, he’d beat himself up too.*
“Misting” is a term I favor because it has less of a built-in ideological agenda, and because it derives from that genius product of self-subverting American pop culture, Mystery Science Theater 3000 , whose fans are known as “Misties.” MST3K , as it’s known, made brilliant literate comedy out of the informal American practice of talking back to bad movies, to bad pop culture in general, showing and simultaneously ridiculing some of the schlockiest examples of world cinema. And insinuating into the Tapestry of Badness its own subtextual weave of pop referentiality-hypertexting hilariously on the run.
So let’s try a combination of fisking and misting on Mr. Vidal’s Protocols.
Let’s begin with the key disingenuous yet self-subverting rhetorical trick Mr. Vidal employs: the attempt to ride two horses at once.
Horse No. 1, as he puts it in paragraph two of his screed: “One year after 9/11 we still don’t know by whom we were struck that infamous Tuesday …. ” (Italics mine.)
Horse No. 2: Oh, but we really do know-it was Osama bin Laden. But if you have the historical/political penetration of Mr. Vidal, you can see that Osama was acting at the instigation of the George Bush “junta.”
Horse No. 1 breaks early from the starting gate (Osama may have nothing to do with it; “we still don’t know”), but by paragraphs four and five, Horse No. 2 is catching up.
Because, in these paragraphs, we learn that despite the fact that “we still don’t know” who did it, Mr. Bush knew ahead of time that Osama was going to do it: “From a briefing prepared for Bush at the beginning of July 2001: ‘We believe that OBL [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks …. ‘”
So although we really don’t know who did it, Mr. Bush is culpable for knowing who did it ahead of time. His failure to heed the warning about the man who did it is evidence that Mr. Bush was either hoping for it to happen, or behind it himself.
Now the fun begins, as Mr. Vidal again seeks to ride two different horses: prove both the former (Bush let it happen) and the latter (Bush, or the Bush “junta,” ordered it to happen).
Having established that Mr. Bush knew, or he should have known, or he ordered it so he had to know, with flawless logical precision, our essayist then proceeds to develop his fearless prediction that Mr. Bush may eventually be impeached for knowing about or ordering the 9/11 attacks, an assertion he makes largely on the basis of a thesis by one Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. Mr. Vidal tries to preclude any idea that Mr. Ahmed is anything less than an objective historian by making a smarmy forestalling remark, “Yes, yes, I know he is one of Them.” A weak rhetorical ploy to brand any inquiry into Mr. Ahmed’s objectivity as prejudiced in advance.
And certainly no one could accuse Mr. Ahmed of being anything less than objective, because he is on record as believing that “the U.S. and Western media most often systematically toe the Zionist line … motivated by economic interests … linked directly to the U.S. desire to consolidate its global hegemonic power …. ” And that the Israeli government is guilty of “genocide against the Palestinian people.”
And we know Mr. Vidal’s source is incapable of conspiracy theory from the way he tells us that the Hamas suicide attacks have been “intentionally provoked by Israel to justify war plans.” At least we know he’s consistent, because in Mr. Vidal’s Protocols, he is used to support the theory that the U.S. government also “intentionally” had its own citizens murdered for its “war plans.”
The reason Mr. Bush will probably be impeached, our seer Mr. Vidal tells us, is that he “allowed the American people to go unwarned about an imminent attack upon two of our cities as preemption of a planned military strike by the US against the Taliban.” (Italics mine.) So the 9/11 attacks were justified self-defense. (I think David Corn has already disposed of the factual basis of this pre-emption theory in the March 1, 2002, issue of The Nation .)
But for Mr. Vidal, even though “we still don’t know” who did it, our seer can read their minds (whoever they are) and tell us that the 9/11 attacks were their “preemption” of our planned attack on them, whoever they were. Are you with me? I know it’s hard to follow; illogic always is.
Or is it illogic north by northwest? Could this be Mr. Vidal’s parody of dumb Left conspiracy theory? Certainly the topic is ripe for parody, now that (according to Page Six) Barbra Streisand has joined those who believe that Paul Wellstone’s plane crash was “no accident” in what The Times ‘ Nicholas Kristof has called the Left’s “cesspool of outraged incoherence.”
In any case, much subsequent Vidal verbiage follows designed to prove the Sherlockian discovery that this is all “The Case of the Afghan Pipeline,” that the “Bush junta” countenanced or caused the murder of thousands of Americans in the hopes of provoking a war to expedite an oil pipeline that might increase the profit margins of their oil companies. Standard boilerplate Left conspiracy theory.
But then our essayist assumes a disingenuous passive voice and takes one passive-aggressive step beyond all that, into Protocols territory. That step can be found in this sentence: “Osama was chosen on aesthetic grounds to be the frightening logo for our long-contemplated invasion and conquest of Afghanistan …. ”
It’s really the first three words that give the game away: “Osama was chosen …. ” Poor Osama isn’t even given any credit for “agency,” as the postmodernists say. Couldn’t think it up by himself . He “was chosen”-implicitly by his white masters in the West, the “Bush junta”-to commit the mass murder of Americans (although remember: “we still don’t know” who did it).
Osama was chosen . Not a word about fundamentalist Islam’s hatred of America, of Jews, of the West. No, it was the West- we did it to ourselves. Well, the Bush cabal did it in our name. Is comparing Mr. Vidal’s screed to The Protocols extreme? Not as extreme as Vidal comparing George W. Bush to Hitler.
Don’t you also like the echt Vidal touch: “Osama was chosen on aesthetic grounds …. ” The wily conspirators can’t escape from the even wilier Gore, who knows how their minds work. Osama had no ideological or theological motives of his own; he just had, you know, that Bad Guy Look (the “aesthetic grounds”). He was a hired actor, and whoever he was beneath the skin was irrelevant to that division of the American Cabal which was assigned to run the Bad Guy Star Search for a front man for their scheme to murder thousands of Americans.
At this point, the Vidal Protocols shift into a discussion of the mechanics of the plan. In the section labeled “Bush and the dog that did not bark,” we begin to learn the magnitude of the plot to kill our own citizens by “the junta”-how many were directly involved, how many Americans knew but kept silent.
Here, speaking of business types, Mr. Vidal brings in rhetoric that could have come directly from The Protocols : “One fears that greater transparency will only reveal armies of maggots at work beneath the skin of [our] culture …. ” Maggots are a favorite metaphor in this sort of literature. Guess whom the “maggots” usually turn out to be?
Again, Mr. Vidal is weaselly about what he seeks to assert and prove. “Complicity” is the one-word sentence that opens the second paragraph of this section, as if he will follow it with proof of George W. Bush’s complicity in the plot to murder his fellow citizens to increase the profit margins of some oil companies. But then he hedges it by saying, “The behaviour of President George W. Bush on 11 September certainly gives rise to all sorts of not unnatural suspicions.”
So now we’ve edged back from promising proof of “complicity” to “all sorts of … suspicions.” Nice rhetorical trick by the master. For proof of complicity, or the suspicion of complicity, he dips into an article called “The So-Called Evidence Is a Farce.” The passages in which Mr. Vidal quotes the author, Stan Goff, who identifies himself as a former Special Forces operative in Latin America, include locutions like this:
“By around 8:15 AM [on the day of the attacks], it should be very apparent that something is terribly wrong.” (Italics mine.) “Should” plays an important role in conspiracy-theory thinking. There follows more “should have” this, “would have” that, the implication being that higher-ups in the U.S. military knew the planes were heading for D.C. and the W.T.C. but issued “‘stand down’ orders” to interceptor jets to allow the attacks to succeed. Mr. Vidal gives us a terrific insight into the mind-set involved here, in this line from Mr. Goff: “Now, the real kicker: A pilot they want us to believe was trained at a Florida puddle-jumper school for Piper Cubs and Cessnas, conducts a well-controlled downward spiral, descending the last 7,000 feet in two-and-a-half minutes, and flies it with pinpoint accuracy into the side of this building …. ” (Italics mine.)
Here, what we’re really seeing is Gore Vidal-once so clear-sighted a skeptic-executing a “well-controlled downward spiral” into Internet conspiracy theory’s grassy knoll. It’s the old J.F.K. conspiracy argument that Oswald wasn’t a good enough marksman to hit J.F.K. (Except he did.) The hijacker wasn’t a good enough pilot to hit the W.T.C. (Except he did.) Or is it meant to imply that the person identified as the pilot really wasn’t the pilot, or that he was trained by the Bush cabal? Don’t laugh: If you go on the Net, you can find pages and pages of “proof” that the plane was “remote controlled,” that the plane was piloted by the Bush cabal but didn’t crash into the W.T.C. at all , it just launched a missile into it (like another plane supposedly did at the Pentagon), or launched a missile at the W.T.C., which triggered explosives already planted by the cabal at the base of the W.T.C., or alternately that the W.T.C. was deliberately ” re-engineered ” by the cabal in the mid-90’s so that it would collapse on command (the way the cabal “re-engineered” J.F.K.’s head wounds to pin the crime on the “patsy,” Oswald, in some conspiracy theories).
Welcome to Mr. Vidal’s world, where, let’s see, dozens if not scores of personnel in the military would be cognizant-complicit-in the cabal’s plot, because they allowed the attacks they knew were coming to proceed untroubled to their targets. “Finally, this one is the dog that did not bark,” Mr. Vidal, in his Sherlockian mode, tells us. “I don’t think Goff is being unduly picky when he wonders who and what kept the Air Force from following its normal procedures … until the damage was done.” (Italics mine.)
I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the Air Force screwed up (although a number of the timeline details on which Mr. Vidal and his source base their conspiracy allegations are contradicted by The New York Times ‘ September 2002 book on the attacks, Out of the Blue ). And I believe that the Bush administration and the Clinton intelligence agencies who preceded them failed miserably, inexcusably, and that many more should be fired for their failure and incompetence. But to Mr. Vidal, “incompetence” is the cabal’s red herring. What Mr. Vidal is implying, insinuating in a particularly repellent Nixonian way, is that someone ” kept ” the Air Force from preventing mass murder. Were there “‘stand down’ orders?” he asks, quoting from a “Canadian media analyst” who believes there were. On the other hand, maybe the Pakistanis were behind it all, Mr. Vidal says, throwing a last-minute late entry into the multi-horse race.
But all of this previous silliness doesn’t rise to the stupendous heights Mr. Vidal reserves for his final few thousand words. A finale that begins when he invokes Hitler: “Many commentators of a certain age have noted how Hitlerian our junta sounds as it threatens first one country for harbouring terrorists and then another.”
Our sage finds some merit in this wisdom: “It is true that Hitler liked to pretend to be the injured-or threatened-party before he struck.” He seems to be saying that somehow the W.T.C. mass murder was an example of the U.S. “pretending” to be injured. This will be somewhat hard to sell to the survivors of the W.T.C. attacks, who, I guess, are “pretending” to have lost their children, fathers and mothers.
Clearly our sage has lost track, in his frenzy, of one slight difference between the U.S. and Hitler’s Reich: Hitler did pretend injury; he dressed up prisoners in Polish uniforms to stage an attack on a German radio station in order to provide a fig leaf for his 1939 attack on Poland, for instance. But we didn’t pretend to be attacked by others on 9/11, although implicitly, metaphorically, sleazily, that is what our sage implies with his Hitler analogy.
But it turns out we’re actually a little worse than Hitler: ” … something new has been added since the classic Roman Hitlerian mantra, ‘they are threatening us, we must attack first.'” The new addition that makes us worse than Hitler: We are more open about it than Hitler-at least to the penetrating gaze of our seer-thus a little worse , in our shamelessness,
What’s fascinating is this patrician faux-populist’s contempt for the American people. Those stupid Americans, not realizing they actually attacked themselves on 9/11, are now getting all cowardly and acting threatened. How foolish and fearful we must seem from the perspective of the sage, secure in his villa in Ravello.
Remind us again, oh sage, of the hard evidence that our “Hitlerian” junta was behind 9/11. But wait, more kitchen-sink allegations posing as having been proved: “The 342 pages of the USA Patriot Act were plainly prepared before 9/11.” Note that “plainly” tucked in there. In other words, he has no evidence; it’s supposed to be self-evident-all the people who drafted the act were in on the plot, too.
For his final flourish, our sage demonstrates that he still has an eye for detail. He notices that “[w]hen Mohamed Atta’s plane struck the World Trade Centre’s North Tower, George W. Bush and the child at the Florida elementary school were discussing her goat.”
No, despite the childish reasoning that has led up to this finale, Mr. Vidal does not attempt to implicate the goat in the Hitlerian plot, nor the child. He gives us a little lesson in classics for those not as erudite as our sage:
“By coincidence, our word for ‘tragedy’ comes from the Greek: for ‘goat’ tragos plus oide for ‘song’. ‘Goat-song’. It is highly suitable that this lament, sung in ancient satyr plays, should have been heard again at the exact moment when we were struck by fire from heaven, and a tragedy whose end is nowhere in sight began for us.”
Whoa, Gore, dude -lighten up on the kitsch: ” … we were struck by fire from heaven … ” And remember, we weren’t really “struck”: You’ve “proven” we struck ourselves . The real tragedy, the real goat-song here is, as Ophelia said, the spectacle of “a noble mind o’erthrown.”
But there’s an upside to it all: the Egyptian TV station that’s making that 41-part version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion . Forty-one parts! A (lying) historical epic! They’re going to keep plenty of screenwriters busy. I’m sure they’ll need the script-doctoring services of an Old Pro, Gore. I think you’ve just passed your audition.