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Norman Mailer and the War By: George Shadroui
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 12, 2003


Though he might well share the honor with William F. Buckley Jr. or Gore Vidal, there is no doubt that Norman Mailer - pugnacious provocateur, party man, icon of the radically chic, genius and relentless critic of his own country - is one of the godfathers of modern literary intellectual life as we know it. Now a venerable 80 years old, it is no surprise that Mailer is being trotted out to oppose the Bush Administration's Iraqi policy. Mailer, after all, became a cultural icon precisely because of his anti-war activities during the 1960s. And now he is back, enjoying something of a revival.

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Mailer was granted both the lead article and a prominent review of The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, his most recent contribution to letters. He was interviewed in October at length by the American Conservative, Pat Buchanan's magazine which is on record against the war. Interestingly, the ideas shared in that interview constitute the substance of the NYRB article. Mailer also appeared on C-Span and could not resist throwing a jab or two at Bush. Watching it all, an observation on Mailer made by Buckley almost 40 years ago warrants revisiting: "If there is an intellectual in the United States who talks more predictable nonsense on the subject of foreign policy, I will pay a week's wages not to have to hear him."

Mailer's career underscores an often forgotten truism: genius in one arena does not necessarily translate into wisdom in others. So it is that we pause, only for a moment, to acknowledge Mailer's known skills as a writer. The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, launched Mailer instantly into literary stardom and is still rated as one of the most significant American novels of the 20th century. Several books followed, none of them greeted with quite the fanfare of the first. Then in the late 1950s, Mailer began to insert into his writing the topic he most loved: himself. Suddenly, he was cranking out work almost as fast as marriages. From 1963 to 1973, he wrote a dozen books, many of them focused on the contemporary political scene, with special emphasis on the counterculture movements: the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement, anti-establishment violence (lampooned so brilliantly by Tom Wolfe), and anti-Americanism of the sort Hollywood and New York elites have raised to an art form. He co-founded The Village Voice, paved the way for "new journalism," and debated on hundreds of college campuses.

During his political heyday, he suggested that America was headed toward totalitarianism. He testified glowingly at the Chicago Seven trial on behalf of Jerry Rubin and the anti-war protesters. In 1975, he participated in a group forum on Vietnam featured in the New York Review of Books. Perhaps his most telling comment was this: "The effect of the war on American life and on the US position in the world has obviously been next to wholly negative. With one remarkable exception. The resistance of the left in America broke the will of the establishment to wage a serious war."

This, of course, brings us to Iraq, and the increasingly energized fringe left, many of them holdovers from the Vietnam era. They are coming out of the woodwork again, no doubt thrilled to be taking another ride on the anti-American train. There is Vidal in USA Today and on C-Span, spouting his conspiracy theories about US hegemony; there is Noam Chomsky, cranking out more turgid tomes of half truths and outright lies; there is Susan Sontag, blaming America again; and there is Mailer, the most entertaining of them all.

Let us briefly consider his essay in NYRB. The man who once claimed the United States was on the verge of totalitarianism now writes that we are instead becoming a Banana Republic. President Bush is not really legitimate, Mailer informs us, because he won Florida through legal duplicity, not democratic process. The fact that Bush won the election and the recounts - four times - is apparently immaterial to Mailer, who clearly lacks intimate familiarity with the U.S. Constitution.

Mailer is imaginative enough to concede that Saddam is evil and might, just might, find a way to share weapons of mass destruction with some of our enemies. Mailer observes correctly that Saddam, the greatest Muslim killer in history, and Bin Laden would be natural enemies but for their shared hatred of the United States, but it is an irrelevant observation within the current context. Does anyone doubt both would do the utmost harm to this country if given the chance?

Mailer, no doubt from long practice, finds a way to make all of this the fault of the United States. "How did we allow (emphasis added) such choices in the first place - these hellish Hobson choices?" We allowed it, in case Mailer has forgotten, by respecting the wishes of the very international community Mailer loves to cite, which prohibited U.S.-led troops from toppling the dictator in Baghdad back in 1991.

Then Mailer takes us on a fantasy trip that incorporates virtually every leftist cliché ever directed at the United States. I paraphrase: America has allowed big corporations to rob its soul, and destroy the environment. Bush is obsessed with building an American empire, thus the rush to war. Bush's embrace of empire as a way of life is rooted in his near messianic obsessions about good versus evil, a dangerous road that could literally embroil us endlessly in conflicts around the world. Not to mention his desire to control Iraqi oil and make the world safe for corporations everywhere. This is all  somehow connected to the scandals about Catholic priests, the fall in the stock market, bad architecture and technological excess.

Mailer offers this profound insight: "So one perk for the White House, should America become an international military machine huge enough to conquer all adversaries, is that American sexual freedom, all that gay, feminist, lesbian, transvestite hullabaloo, will be seen as too much of a luxury and will be put back into the closet again."

What is increasingly apparent is that Norman Mailer has not had a new political idea in almost 40 years. He remains deeply pessimistic about the country in which he won fame and fortune. Unable to escape the Mailer persona that made him a celebrity in the 1960s, Mailer continues to see all issues in shades of the 1960s. The communists of yesteryear are the Saddam's of today, and not a threat worthy of action. Nixon then is Bush now. The Chicago Seven then must be the folks out on the streets in Europe and America today (alas, on that score, he might be right).

Mailer is a grand old man of American letters and some of his concerns about American culture are worth discussing. What cannot pass without comment, however, for all of Mailer's idiosyncratic charm, is his blatant misrepresentation of the situation in Iraq and the Middle East. We do not need to encourage people to hate our country on the basis of hallucinations of empire conjured up by the likes of Mailer, Vidal and Chomsky. The dead of 9/11 were not hallucinations; the destruction near our capital was no fantasy; nor have we exorcised the devils who wage war on the innocent with sniper fire and mail laced with anthrax.

President Bush, if anything, has shown restraint and resisted the idea of pax Americana. He spoke out openly during the campaign against nation-building and a presumptuous foreign policy. There is no hidden international agenda, just a national security concern brought on, how strange, by the most horrendous foreign attack to ever occur on American soil.

The charge that the Bush administration wants to corner the market on foreign oil is predictable nonsense, the sort of thing for conspiracy-minded people who live in a world invented by Oliver Stone. I almost hesitate to point out the obvious - Saddam Hussein would walk down the aisle of a country church to be born again if the United States would okay lifting the sanctions and start buying Iraqi oil. The cynics, where oil is concerned, live in France, not on Pennsylvania Avenue.

All thoughtful Americans are concerned about the pending war. We are concerned about innocent lives in Iraq being lost, about our soldiers being killed, about the possibility of instability. These issues deserve serious discussion by people who are not leaning, endlessly, on the cliches of the 1960s left. The challenges we face, however, are not an argument for allowing Saddam Hussein to store weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the terms of peace he himself agreed to, without which agreement, by the way, he would be dead or in prison today. He is clearly in material breach and his track record suggests there is a reason he is determined to thwart the collective will of the international community - he is up to no good.  

In any case, President Bush is not willing to gamble the security of this nation on the hope that Saddam will have a sudden revelation and reform his tyrannical ways. Though Mailer has experience being conned by murderers, it seems he has not learned from it. And not even Mailer's brilliant skills can turn his recent diatribe in the NYRB into a believable yarn: it is pure fiction, and not very good fiction at that.




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