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U.S. of Amnesia 

Gore Vidal looks past the election

Thursday, Nov 4 2004
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GORE VIDAL THOUGHT IT WAS a challenging exercise. How do you give an interview about this week’s election five days before it happens, knowing it will appear a day after? Kerry would certainly be better than Bush, he argued. But the systemic problems confronted by modern America require attention far beyond what either candidate was offering. MARC COOPER caught up with Vidal last Friday to talk to him about his new book, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.

MARC COOPER: What would a truly courageous American president do after being inaugurated in January 2005?

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GORE VIDAL: The first thing you do is bring the troops home. And you don’t listen to anyone who says: "We can’t do that now. We knocked their countries down and now must put them back up again. We knocked them down with our tax dollars, and with our tax dollars we must rebuild them — our sort of urban renewal."

None of that! We go. They want us out of there — the longer we stay, the more they’re going to kill us, and the more they will be killed. And the more outrages they will perpetrate on us here at home. Get out. No more adventures. Forget about our friends in the Middle East who want us to attack Iran and Syria. Forget them. Tell them to get lost. Cut the Pentagon budget by 50 percent. That’ll give you enough money to properly educate the people so they will know their own history, and when a bunch of thugs come along proposing to fleece the taxpayer — they will recognize them, because they will know about them from past history.

Does the subtitle of your book, Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, imply that as a people we have lost our collective historic memory?

I think that’s true. There are good and bad reasons for that. The good reasons are that we’ve always had kind of an urgent, hot present — which also meant a hopeful future. We were not grimly tied into imperial adventures, into crazy pre-emptive wars. So why think of the future if our present looks so good?

But our future doesn’t look so good thanks to the pre-emptive wars that have been attempted — unsuccessfully, I would say. In Afghanistan and Iraq. And now Iran is up for our possible attempt.

Meanwhile our institutions don’t work so well.

You’ve lived a good part of your life in Europe. Do you think, by contrast, that this collective amnesia is something particular to Americans?

I think it’s more deeply American. You know, we were once the country of unlimited opportunity. A lot of people didn’t share in it. But they shared in the idea. The American idea. No matter what your salary was, you were going to do four times better than your father. But we ceased to be socially mobile a long time ago.

Another reason we have no past is the fault of the educational system. And then if you have media, to put it politely, that is totally corrupt, easily bought, and if you have a president who tells lies or a whole society who tells lies about itself, then you have a basic unreality. People don’t know where to turn to. You talk to them about the electoral college, and they say, ‘What’s that?’ Oh, you didn’t learn about it in school? No. No, you didn’t? And when you ask the teacher about it, half the time he says, "Oh, it’s too complicated. Forget about it."

There is no great curiosity. There’s a certain edginess about why things go wrong. And they have to blame people. So there’s gay marriage over here. Black people over there. Or whether it is French people who eat garlic. There’s nothing but demonizing going on. We demonize entire groups of people. We demonize the entire Muslim world because it suits certain kinds of people to hate them.

There’s no reason to hate them. September 11 had nothing to do with the Muslim world except for a few people. Nor did any country have anything to do with it.

Why in your new book do you compare the war on terrorism with what you call "the war on dandruff"?

You cannot have a war against an abstract noun — which is what terrorism is. I hate to be a grammarian here. But it’s perfect nonsense. When the Soviet Union folded and we stopped the war on communism, we pretended we had won it. We didn’t. We lost it. And the Russians lost it too. We were both broke, and we both gave up. But, we had to have a replacement for it to keep up this great military budget which started with Reagan and is now just out of control.

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