NPR Warmly Recalls Gore Vidal Denouncing America As a 'Very Primitive Country' with 'Peasant Superstitions'
NPR’s Terry Gross was effusive in tribute to leftist author Gore Vidal on Friday’s Fresh Air, airing chunks of previous interviews she'd had with Vidal. She began: “In Vidal's New York Times obituary, Charles McGrath described him as, quote, 'the elegant, acerbic, all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization,' end quote.”
And: “As Reed Johnson wrote in the Washington Post, quote: ‘Vidal's revisionist outlook struck some critics as brilliant and others as almost gleefully perverse,’ unquote.” From a 1988 interview, Gross let Vidal unleash a long attack on how America is a "very primitive country" with its "peasant superstitions" of Christianity:
GROSS: In 1948, you wrote a novel called "The City and the Pillar," and it was about a gay man. Now back in the late 1940s, I think it was very brave for somebody to write a novel in which there was a leading gay character.
VIDAL: Well, actually, quote, "gay," unquote, the point to the story, which caused all the fuss, was that he wasn't. He was a perfectly normal young man who had an affair who had an affair with another normal young man, and one went off to get married and conduct an absolutely admired heterosexual life, and the other one didn't.
But what I was saying, that early on, before the word gay had really been invented, was there's no such thing. Only a country, basically as mindless about these matters - based upon our peasant superstitions, religious superstitions - would they make categories. Everybody's everything. And I was talking about the normality - this is a book called "The City and the Pillar," which opened a floodgate - the normality of this sort of relationship. You could not say that.
The New York Times refused to advertise the book. The leading reviewer said he would never read, much less review, a book of mine again. I took a lot of flak. The book was a big bestseller, and it was followed about three months later by Dr. Kinsey's report on the human male. And Dr. Kinsey said, well, 37 percent of American males have dealt in this infernal an abominable act at least once.
Gross never found the guesstimate that 37 percent of men have has same-sex relations to be bizarre, in 1988 or even worse, in 2012. She continued:
GROSS: I was wondering what your reaction was to the beginning of the gay liberation movement. And I ask this because I think it changed the rules of the game for public figures who were either gay or bisexual or who wrote about characters who had had homosexual or bisexual experiences.
VIDAL: Well, as I said earlier, yes, I'm for any minority that is getting it from the majority. So obviously I'm in favor of protecting the rights of everybody: gay, black, women, what have you, American Indians. I'm all for that. But I deny that there's such a thing as a gay person. I deny there's such a thing as a heterosexual person.
GROSS: Why, what...?
VIDAL: What's a heterosexual sensibility? What on Earth do...?
GROSS: Well, before we get into sensibility, I mean, why deny that some people are - prefer to have intimate relations with someone of the same sex, and others prefer to have intimate relations with someone of the opposite sex? I mean...
VIDAL: Well, everybody has...
GROSS: What do you find offensive about that kind of categorizing?
This is all a matter of personal taste. These are not categories. The word heterosexual is an adjective, the word homosexual is an adjective. They describe an activity. Of course there's a homosexual activity; of course there's a heterosexual activity. But there's no homosexual person. There's no heterosexual person. Everybody is everything.
It's like saying oh, I want you to meet Mildred, this is potato-eating Mildred. Oh my God, she eats - I'm sorry, but I don't want to be at the same table with a potato-eater. Sorry, Mildred, but some other time. Now that's - only a country that is based upon an extremely primitive religion, which is Christianity, I am a devoted enemy of monotheism in all of its forms, could have come with a categorizing of people as one thing or the other.
There is the good, straight team, and there is the bad, queer team. And except for the Brits, who are kind of out of their skulls, collectively speaking, not individually... (Laughter)
In Europe, these distinctions are not only not known, but we're thought to be mad. Latins just roar with laughter. In the town of Ravella, where I have a house, when the Supreme Court said that an act of sodomy, as they describe it, could not be committed between a man and his wife, the entire square burst into laughter.
And I was actually stopped all day long by Italians, these villagers, saying what kind of country is this. And I said, well, it's a very primitive country, the United States, and it's full of superstitions, which come out of a very fundamental religious bias, which is primitive Christianity. And since they have enough votes to terrify the more sophisticated people who run the country, these are some of the bones that they get thrown - like prayer in the schools and abortion and all subjects which have nothing to do with the federal government, but they see to it that it does. No, no, we're kind of a joke.
One more bizarre moment surfaced, from a 1992 interview: Vidal insisted to Gross that he was “never personal” in his attacks. Gross gently rebutted that by referring to his 1968 war of words with William F. Buckley:
GROSS: Do you think it's unusual for someone who's called patrician all the time to be as kind of vitriolic as you sometimes are, as outspoken and...?
VIDAL: When you say vitriolic, now that is a loaded word.
GROSS: How would you define vitriolic? Let's see, maybe I used it badly.
VIDAL: Vitriolic is a needless and malign attack on something, excessive attack on something. It is a rather pointless thing to do. If I were to say Barbara Bush was born with two heads, and one was removed, you know, at birth and is waiting to be restored, that would be a vitriolic, slightly off-the-wall account. I don't - I'm never personal.
GROSS: Savage, let's go with savage, OK, savage, acid. Acid?
VIDAL: I am savage about what has been done to the United States by its rulers.
GROSS: OK, so is it - is it a contradiction for someone who is patrician to be savage at the same time?
VIDAL: Patricians can be savage. I think what you're trying to say is: Why should a member of the ruling class question the ruling class?
GROSS: There you go.
VIDAL: That's it.
VIDAL: Because no reform ever came from the bottom, and it was always people who understood how the ruling class worked who turned out to be the reformers.
GROSS: This is great. So you think, like, the noblesse oblige, as it applies to you, is to kind of help stir up revolution.
VIDAL: Well, I didn't say that, you said that, but if - revolution - it's a dissolution is what's coming, and I would like to see it in an orderly way, and I'd like to restore. I'm a true reactionary. Like all patricians, I'd like to restore the original republic, which we lost 40 years ago when Harry Truman imposed the national security state on us, which has kept us at war, hot or cold, for almost half a century, and it's got us $4 trillion into debt.
Well, now to point that out is to be outrageous, vicious, vitriolic because I'm taking on the entire ruling class of the country, which is decided in the corporate boardrooms that this is the way we were going to live all those years.
GROSS: I must, for better or worse, pursue this patrician line of questioning one step further. One of your more famous television appearances was in 1968, when you and William Buckley, also a patrician...
VIDAL: Not by my measurement. (Laughter)
GROSS: OK, well, you were both on as commentators during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and you were commentators for ABC. And you called Buckley a crypto-fascist, and do you remember what he said to you?
VIDAL: No, but I remember laughing at him, and he was climbing the wall.
GROSS: OK, what Buckley said after you called him a crypto-fascist, he said: Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-fascist, or I'll sock you in the g-damned face, and you'll stay plastered. Did you and Buckley have words off the air after your go-around on the air?
VIDAL: No, I never spoke to him again.