Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Power, Faith & Unbelief.

"Monotheism is easily the greatest disaster to befall the human race." – Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal agreed with George Bernard Shaw that the subjects which interest civilised men can be narrowed down to politics and religion. Not just in Creation but in his 'inventions' Kalki and Messiah. The religious instinct in man fascinated Vidal, especially as he saw the late 20th Century as a period of the deterioration of the traditional religions. Meanwhile he had preempted the rise of the death cult in America in his 1954 novel Messiah. In the bourgeois fetish for the cultures of the past Vidal found great hopes for our civilisation in the Stoics of Rome and the Confucians of China. The great mistake of humanity, in his view, was monotheism in its claim to universal truth and he held Christianity in particular disdain. In his novel Julian the focus is the Roman Emperor Julian who sets out to undo the union of Christian dogma and state-power in order to revert back to the plurality of Paganism. This exemplifies the liberal side of Gore Vidal, his loyalty to secular humanism.

It is typical of Gore Vidal in his 'reflections' to blend history, religion and politics in fiction for the reason that the court historians are so awful that the novel is now the only medium that can redeem history. In Creation the protagonist is a member of the Zoroastrian faith, perhaps the earliest monotheism, and witnesses the murder of Zoroaster. Cyrus is on the side of monotheism in the book, as well as the established powers in Persia and holds the masses in contempt. This is in contrast to Vidal's own political views, which could be taken as a hybrid leftism. In the book the political leaders of the time, particularly Thucydides and Pericles, are juxtaposed against one another as conservatives and democrats. The chaos of China is presented as a land which may conceive of the totalitarian impulse, while at the same time Confucian politics are received in a very positive light. Cyrus Spitama identifies himself with the conservatism of Thucydides as well as of Confucian hierarchical order and practical moral values.

In Creation Gore Vidal takes us on a tour of the ancient world, from Persia to Cathay and back, with Cyrus Spitama as our guide. Spitama is embedded in the ruling class of the Persian Empire, whilst also being descendent of Zoroaster and a follower of the Wise Lord consequently. Many of the major philosophical and religious ideas of the time are explored in the book, in Ancient Greece Cyrus encounters many philosophers and delivers his tale to his nephew Democritus. It was appropriate given the affinity Vidal had with the atomist principles espoused by Lucretius and Democritus. The vision was of a cosmos as a kind of soup of atoms bumping up against one another. The book culminates in the exposition of the atomist philosophy by Democritus. In another sense the relationship between Cyrus Spitama and Democritus mirrors the relationship between Gore Vidal and his grandfather Thomas Gore. Specifically the passing of the elder's wisdom to the young man.

The focus on the Persian Empire rails against the Western vanity, the tendency to see itself as a great fusion of Hellenism and Judeo-Christian values. Creation begins with Cyrus leaving the Odeon as Herodotus goes over his own version of history. The portrayal of Ancient Greece is just as one of many great powers rather than the centre of the world. The warring forces of China in the days of Confucius as well as the rival kingdoms of India feature prominently. The relativity of Greek glory to the lessons of the Buddha and Confucius, Mahavira and Lao Tzu. It's more than a novel, it is a work of comparative religion and philosophy crafted to persuade the reader not to be so arrogant in his modern assumptions. This is not to say that Vidal isn't writing from a position beyond commitment. Vidal was a lifelong atheist and opponent of monotheism. If anything he wants to enlighten us of the possibilities beyond the desert God of Abraham. The novel was timed well with the rise of Reaganism and the emergence of the Christian Right.

For Gore Vidal the threat of the Christian Right is equivalent to the threat of Le Pen in France, in other words it is fascistic and anti-democratic in nature. The accumulation of obscene piles of wealth in a few private hands matches the concentration of power in American society. This creates a systemic need to block democracy at every turn. Vidal would remind us that the political system in the United States is not at all democratic. First of all, there is only one political party with two right-wings - the Democrats and the Republicans - which is the party of property. Chomsky has spoken in these terms too, except he called it the business party. There is a structural need within capitalism which can be differentiated in terms of a base and a superstructure. The economic base depends upon the ideological superstructure for its legitimacy. The relation of the base to the superstructure is not just dependency, there is a tension between the pluralism and relativism of the market against the sociality of institutions and tradition.

The management of this tension can found in the revival of political religion in the new world. The Christian Right was born out of the attempts made throughout the 70s by conservatives to regroup after the losses in the last decade. The Nixon administration left America disillusioned with politics, only for great hopes to arise with the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. The failures of the Carter administration to achieve significant change cleared the way for Reagan in 1980. Nowadays it is almost compulsory for American Presidents to be Christian: No unbelievers allowed! But it wasn't always this way. Crucially it was Carter who had made religion an issue in his openness about the faith to which he subscribed. This could be taken as a long-time result of the Christian revival of the 1950s. Really it was the 1960s which convinced many Christians that the shared fabric of society - its traditions, institutions and moral values - was about to be destroyed in its entirety. This is less a story of a Christian Right than the story of the New Right.

The debacles of the early 60s such as the Cuban crisis and the assassination of JFK the Establishment was shaken to its foundations. Everywhere there seemed to be collapse as the issues of civil rights, racism and imperialism became the moral battleground in the American body politic. The obvious opponent for Gore Vidal was William F Buckley, l'enfant terrible of American conservatism, and they would cross swords repeatedly in debates at party conventions in the late 60s. Around this time Paul Weyrich infiltrated the student Left and was astonished by the level of planning and tactics that he witnessed. He realised that the conservatives were wrong in their assumption that the people would support them because they were right about the issues. In actuality what was needed was a movement capable of rolling back the achievements of the Left. It would be a counter to the counter-culture. The key was the mobilisation of the religious, who were largely apolitical.

As Adam Curtis notes "The fundamentalists were driven by pietism - the belief that a true Christian should not only devote their life to god, but also turn their back on the secular political world. They should live the good life through their own actions - and forget about politics." The New Left had actually laid the groundwork for the entrance of right-wing Christians into the political realm. The issues of gay rights, abortion and sexual discrimination mobilised the Christian Right because the liberalisation on these social issues threatened the way that they led their private lives. Then Jimmy Carter abolished the charity status of the religious schools. For many it was the last straw, enough was enough. Paul Weyrich reached out to Jerry Falwell, the product of this backroom deal was the Moral Majority. Falwell pulled some strings in order to pull together numerous right-wing preachers in America. The aim was now not just to convert, but to register the converted as Republican voters in what would later be known as the culture wars.

The network of preachers were soon spreading anti-Carter propaganda and then an obvious alternative revealed himself to the newly political Christians. It was Ronald Reagan, the old hero of libertarians, who had been trashed by Gore Vidal in a debate with Buckley. Vidal had condemned Reagan in 1967 as an aging actor with little knowledge of the world outside the United States. This is on top of viciously draconian policies were hardly friendly to blacks and the poor. Before a crowd of Christians, at a mass rally, Reagan said that if he were stranded on a desert island he would only want the Bible to read. The election could've been won without the Christian vote. It was about a movement that could be used to influence and shape the political discourse. The right-wing hegemony turned the debate towards social and cultural issues on which the liberal Left had to be marginalised. Meanwhile the Right could implement an economic agenda as the leading political issues were moral.

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