Thoughts on Gore Vidal’s “Virgin Islands”

Virgin Islands is a very enjoyable essay collection with subjects ranging from American literary figures to presidents to policy at home and abroad, concluding with an account of Vidal’s personal experiences of two UK elections three decades apart (1964 and 1997). He offers brief portraits of Blair, Major, and Ashdown on their campaigns, getting in a few digs at Rupert Murdoch’s publications while he’s at it, to illustrate his view that elections had by the time of the latter become heavily Americanised. Vidal’s prose style is compelling and often dryly humorous, but always brimming with anger and disgust. His views on American literature are illuminating (for me at least), and his insight into US politics is fascinating. Vidal is a strong critic of US foreign policy, and his unpopular views of great American figures like Abraham Lincoln, JFK, FDR, and even George Washington himself make entertaining and unique reading.

Above all I appreciate Vidal’s writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, because he was someone who was willing to take enormous amounts of flak for having unpopular opinions because he truly believed in what he was saying (and yes, because he loved to argue). His novel The City and the Pillar, a story of a gay love affair which treated its subjects as ordinary young men, was hugely controversial when it was first published in 1948, and his willingness to go against the grain of the times to stand up for what he believed in was a constant feature of his public life. It seems like very few people of that stripe are still around. The supposedly blooming “right wing counterculture” I have previously this year and in 2016 looked to to offer some balance to the more ludicrous elements of contemporary leftist ideology rarely if ever amounts to more than a gaggle of internet trolls, authors of trashy vanity books in business suits, and froth-mouthed lunatics selling proverbial and literal snake oil, seemingly every last one of them trying to become internet celebrities and live off of the revenue generated by their fucking merch.

To read this book put in stark relief the dire situation in which we presently find ourselves. Very few individual thinkers seem to exist in public today, to my counting we have Noam Chomsky, Camille Paglia, and possibly (though he abhors being called a “public intellectual”) Peter Hitchens. The current climate of ideological tribalism understandably makes a lot of people with opinions that transgress party lines unwilling to air their thoughts publicly for fear of harsh reprisal, possibly violence in some cases. There are some who aren’t: Jordan Peterson for example is interesting enough for a certain audience, but I find that he often gets bogged down in terminology to the point where his ability to communicate ideas with clarity to people outside his own area of expertise is severely hampered. I also think because of the misunderstanding of his stance on pronouns that he is often co-opted by Trump-loving agitators. The “sceptic community” on YouTube and social media, most of them merch hawkers and mediocre controversialists, would be shit out of luck if the general level of public discourse weren’t so pathetically low.

I could scream, but instead I think I’ll just look for another collection of Vidal essays and bury my head in that sand.

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