“At least when the Emperor Justinian, a sky-god man, decided to outlaw sodomy, he had to come up with a good practical reason, which he did. It is well known, Justinian declared, that buggery is a principal cause of earthquakes, and so must be prohibited. But our sky-godders, always eager to hate, still quote Leviticus, as if that looney text had anything useful to say about anything except, perhaps, the inadvisability of eating shellfish in the Jerusalem area.” – Gore Vidal
It was probably a good thing Gore Vidal finally up and died. The man must’ve been pining for the good old days when he could call Bill Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi” on national television and have the blue blood freak out and threaten to punch his “goddamn queer” face in. That never would’ve happened in today’s world of 7-second delays and carefully scripted mock debate and they sure as hell wouldn’t have continued debating in a relatively civil manner for the remainder of the show if it happened yesterday. When asked about his feelings regarding Buckley’s death in 2008, Vidal replied that he, “thought hell was bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.” Not much of that type of Olympic-level verbal jousting goes on these day. Now its all just a bunch of bush league nonsense about taking people’s quotes out of context and giving them a punch in the kidneys when they turn towards the door. It’s a sad state of affairs that the last truly knock-down drag-out on-air ass-whupping I can recall is when comedian Jon Stewart singlehandedly eviscerated Tucker Carlson’s career on CNN’s Crossfire. Occasionally I’ll watch the whole segment to reinvigorate my trust in the 4th estate, but then I realize that—as Stewart says—“the show that leads into [The Daily Show] is puppets making prank phone calls” and I start praying for the resurrection of Hunter S. Thompson.
Invariably, the obituaries for Vidal that littered the media yesterday framed him as representing the last of a generation. He was the quintessential man of letters. Vidal wrote over 50 novels, essay collections and pieces of non-fiction in addition to over a dozen plays and screenplays. He was an incisive political and social commentator who never shied from controversy in his literary and public life. What does it mean for us—the Boomers and Gen Xers and Millenials—if the man who the Italian paper Corriere della Sera described as, “the enfant terrible of American Culture” has no heirs. Forget lamenting the passing of your Edward R. Murrows and Walter Cronkites; a well-trained orangutang in a charcoal suit and some gravitas can read the evening news (see: Gibson, Charles). What we need are some of them natural born world-shakers George Kennedy kept on rambling on about in Cool Hand Luke. Give me someone with the stones/ovaries to kick the crap out of the scurvy spiders that people the top tiers of business and politics in this country.
Case in point is CNN anchor and professional eunuch John King. As you may recall, he hosted one of the seemingly interminable series of Republican Presidential Debates this year, right at the time when the details of Newt Gingrich’s soap opera villian-esque love life were coming to the fore. In opening the debate, King asked Gingrich if he would address comments made by one of his ex-wives that he had come to her asking for an open relationship while still married to her and after he had begun ploughing his current wife, then mistress. This is a perfectly reasonable question for any Presidential candidate, much less one who banks a good deal of his support from the ideals of “the sanctity of marriage” and “good Christian values.” Yet, at this question, Gingrich acted as if King had personally called his dead mother a syphillitic whore and proceeded to rail on about the evils of the liberal media while King attempted to sink his head down into his chest cavity. Gingrich getting incensed at this question is not unlike a potential employee becoming outraged that his employer would have to audacity to ask about his work history. It was beyond stupid and King stood there and took it like a Dickensian orphan being whipped after asking for seconds.
If our boy Gore had been moderating this debate, things would have turned out a little differently. Not that I can put words into the mouths of the dead, but I imagine that Vidal’s response would have been something along the lines of, “Former Speaker Gingrich, you describe my acts tonight as ‘despicable’. What word would you use to describe a man who takes a mistress while his wife is battling with cancer and then asks her for a divorce while she’s recovering in a hospital bed?” Of course, I have neither Vidal’s quick-wit or biting commentary, but you get the idea. Men like Vidal had spines that were inflexible. They may say things that are outrageous and offensive from time to time, but they never let the corrupt go unchecked.
Perhaps what we face now is not so much a crisis of message but of medium. That the age of the “man of letters” may be coming to a close could just be indicative the myriad ways we consume opinions in the 21st century. There are certainly thousands of blogs and podcasts featuring men and women who are expressing the same types of trenchant, incisive commentary, but we don’t know who the hell they are because our media is so diffuse today. It was easy to get an audience when our only choices were The Big Three networks and the two our three newspapers that were carried in our area. Now, everything is hyper-specialized so that people only have to listen to the voices they want to hear and media outlets compete not through who can do the best reporting, but by who can get it first. Forget insightful analysis and interview when we’ve got giant touch screen maps telling us how many people with last names beginning with C voted for Romney in New Hampshire. And until someone comes along who can integrate worlds of the stylish and the substantive, it looks like we’re in for more meaningless information masquerading as substance. That is, until we find blessed, blessed group of men and women who have a voice and aren’t afraid to tell the emperor his dick is hanging out.