17 August 2015

Buckley, Mailer, Vidal ...

After thinking it over a while I've put these names in alphabetical order. I'd thought of putting them in some sort of ideological order, with Buckley on the right (of course), but what to do with the other two? Neither Normal Mailer nor Gore Vidal could be called a centrist, but you could argue for putting either man in the center of this trio, depending on whether Mailer or Vidal was further left. But that depends on how you define left, and that's part of the point of this exercise. In a way, however, Buckley is the center figure of this triptych. He co-stars with Vidal in a documentary currently playing the big cities that covers a feud that climaxed during the 1968 Democratic convention, and he co-stars with Mailer in Kevin M. Schultz's new book. I suspect that Schultz's book got subtitled by some publishing house PR person rather than by the author himself, for while that subtitle describes a "difficult friendship that shaped the Sixties," the book itself refutes that premise.

According to Schultz himself, Buckley and Mailer tried to shape the decade but were overwhelmed by events. Schultz convinced me that a great movie could me made with Buckley, Mailer and Vidal as protagonists and antagonists, with Vidal representing the other two's failure to shape the Sixties. Both Buckley and Mailer had explosive TV encounters with Vidal, and the great inexplicable omission of Schultz's book is his failure to describe the Mailer-Vidal debate on the Dick Cavett show after going into great detail on the Buckley-Vidal battle overlooking the Chicago police riot. Vidal was a nemesis for both men in instructive ways, and he wasn't the only one. Buckley and Mailer themselves were opposed nearly diametrically over ideology but had -- at least so Mailer perceived -- a common enemy in the "liberalism" that prevailed during the 1950s. We don't think of any sort of liberalism prevailing then, but as far as Buckley was concerned the failure of the first Republican President since FDR to reverse the New Deal meant liberalism still prevailed, while Mailer identified "liberalism" exactly with the repressive, conformist tendencies we usually identify with that decade. Buckley helped shape the second half of the twentieth century by using his National Review magazine to redefine conservatism in terms of resistance to encroaching statism and the dependence it inflicted on Americans. What Buckley didn't realize, or so Mailer thought, was that the bourgeois capitalism Buckley idealized in contrast to statism and socialism was complicit in what Mailer saw as a paradoxical liberal totalitarianism. In Mailer's view, public and private sectors alike ruled by fear -- specifically by creating and spreading fears to be alleviated by the national-security state and by consumer goods. Mailer preferred to be thought of as a radical than as a liberal -- and concocted labels for himself such as "libertarian socialist" and "left conservative" -- and hated it when he was said to represent liberalism in his various debates with Buckley. It's not clear how much of Mailer's argument Buckley comprehended, but he did appreciate that Mailer idealized some sort of self-reliance, in his eccentric way, that conservatives could admire.

Both men hoped to continue their debate across the years and in that way shape the debate they felt the nation should have, but the moral of Schultz's story is that, however expansive their interests and their egos, these two Ivy League intellectuals could not encompass the nation and its more self-consciously diverse populace. Vidal embodies this to an extent as a homosexual, though the man himself, open enough about his preferences, was oldschool enough that he disdained labeling himself with a capital H for political purposes. He also arguably represents a shallower leftism that defined itself nearly as much against what self-styled Radicals like Mailer stood for as against the obvious offenses of Buckley. Mailer was hit on a lot of fronts during the Sixties and Seventies, and Schultz offers us James Baldwin, gay like Vidal but also black, as a more intellectually serious nemesis for his protagonists who called Mailer out on his, euphemistically speaking, fetishized notions of black masculinity and cleaned Buckley's clock, metaphorically speaking, in an Oxford debate on American race relations. For other critics, including Vidal and increasingly assertive feminists, Mailer's perceived male chauvinism belied his radicalism. In broader terms, Mailer's sensuality was overtaken by a hedonism he (and, more obviously, Buckley) distrusted. The difference is importance. Mailer was often denounced as a degenerate because of some of the sex scenes he wrote, not to mention nearly murdering one of his wives. Buckley's first impression of the man was that Mailer wanted to reduce civilization to an orgy. But while Mailer's sensuality valued sensation as an end unto itself, the liberalism he despised and the counterculture that eventually repulsed him seemed more interested in avoiding pain or the risk of it -- for the counterculture this meant dropping out -- than in taking a chance in pursuit of unprecedented sensation. Mailer's sensuality was heroic in what could be caricatured as a Captain Kirk way, rejecting peace as an end unto itself and finding necessary stimulation in constant challenge. Vidal took an extreme position, perhaps only for the sake of provocation, in saying there was little difference between Mailer's attitude and that of Charles Manson, but many others found Mailer too turbulent, bombastic and domineering for their own utopia of tolerance and equal respect for all.

By comparison, Buckley seemed more vindicated by posterity as the conservatism he fostered came into power, but Schultz suggests that Buckley grew increasingly uncomfortable with an irrepressibly anti-intellectual element of the movement as people turned conservative (or at least Republican) not because of a philosophical conversion but because they hated certain groups of people. The Chicago convention is Schultz's climax, with both Buckley and Mailer horrified by what they see, Buckley by what he privately called "fascist" police excesses, Mailer by a rebellion that looked self-indulgent and ultimately aimless. In my theoretical movie the true climax would be the moment when Buckley, goaded by Vidal, threatens to turn into Mailer, threatening to "sock you in the goddam face" over the "crypto-Nazi" jibe, while Mailer, who has detached himself from the protests, watches the carnage in the streets from his hotel room. It's the moment when their quest to shape the Sixties ended once and for all. Buckley reportedly was deeply embarrassed by his own outburst, though he never forgave Vidal for provoking it, and for all his approval of future Republican victories he may have seen too much of his own anger in those victories. For what it's worth all three men opposed the occupation of Iraq, converging on that point if on nothing else. If all three men seem to be in fresh vogue, it may be because however much their arguments grew thuggish, they still seem like intellectual giants, on the strength of their published work, not to mention charismatic superstars compared to what passes for public intellectuals or political opinionators today. None of them, not even Vidal, would be politically correct today, but while they were as unapologetic as some of today's blowhards, history may argue that they had less to apologize for.


Anonymous said...

"... it may be because however much their arguments grew thuggish,"

And that, I fear, will always be the case with humans. In any disagreement of masses, there will always be some element in at least one group that is willing to turn to violence when they can't persuade through argument. This will force any opponent to turn to violence in defense or submit to the other side, "vindicating" that side's argument.

Samuel Wilson said...

That may also be because, in disagreements over values, there is no "right" answer of which people can rightly be expected to be persuaded through reason. Since there must, presumably, be some consensus on values in any polity, some degree of coercion and resistance probably are inevitable.

Anonymous said...

One of my co-workers is an older person who spends a few weeks in a house in Florida. The house is part of a home-owners organization and has meetings wherein people voice their concerns, etc. He tells me of a meeting in which one person got pissed off because they couldn't get the other home owners to acquiesce to his desire. He threatened to "go home and get my gun." The meeting was cancelled on the spot. Frankly, I would have dared the moron to make good on his threat and the moment he left, called the police and let them deal with the psycho.

Another co-worker is a martial art student, who lives in a bad neighborhood in Schenectady and owns a gun for "home defense". The fact that this guy feels the need to learn self-defense AND own a gun tells me he spends far too much of his life in fear. It seems to me it makes more sense to eliminate the cause of fear, rather than to constantly live in a state of fear and keep ramping up your "defenses".