I won’t be shamed into voting for Clinton

Liberal supporters of the Democrats save their nastiest attacks not for Republicans but for anyone who criticizes them from the left. Khury Petersen-Smith says he’s tired of it.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail


They tolerated–barely–the progressive campaign of Bernie Sanders so long as he never came too close to threatening Hillary Clinton’s hold on the Democratic presidential nomination. As dismaying as his on-the-mark criticisms of Clinton’s Wall Street-connected candidacy might have been, he was at least bringing some enthusiasm to an uninspiring election and a stale Democratic Party.

But now, the managers of the Democratic Party machine and their allies in the mainstream media are speaking with one voice: The party’s over.

Those who were excited about Sanders’ candidacy–and the notion that the U.S. political system could offer something besides austerity, war and oppression–should be thankful for the memories of a hopeful winter and spring. But now, goes the argument, they need to accept Hillary Clinton as the candidate to support this fall.

We should all take note that it isn’t the right wing campaigning against universal health care, free college tuition and student loan debt relief, and other planks of Sanders’ social democratic platform as “unrealistic.” They’re too busy scrambling to manage their own crisis in the form of Donald Trump and his impact on the endlessly pathetic and dysfunctional Republican Party.

It is, instead, the Democrats who are doing their best to dash the hopes and lower the expectations of people who dared to think that U.S. politics might have something to offer to working class people, women, people of color or LGBT people.

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HOW WILL they do it? How will the Democratic Party corral a generation that has become aware of and sickened by racist mass incarceration, Wall Street’s dictatorship over the U.S. economy and politics, and permanent war–and get them to support a candidate who has devoted her political career to championing those very things?

One tactic has been to get political figures seen–rightly or wrongly–as the most party’s most “progressive” faces out front in backing Clinton: Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama and, yes, Bernie Sanders himself.

But that’s not all.

Party leaders and their liberal supporters are cynically using outrage at racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and economic inequality–generated and crystallized by resistance movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter–to shame progressives and leftists into supporting Clinton.

Liberal commentators have in particular targeted Sanders supporters who, disgusted by the various undemocratic maneuvers used against their candidate and by Clinton’s own dismal record, say they can’t stomach voting for a candidate who epitomizes everything Sanders’ “political revolution” was supposed to be against.

But their insults extend to anyone who challenges Clinton and the Democrats from the left and want something better.

In March, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow took to the Times op-ed pages to denounce as “bonkers” people on the left who question whether Clinton deserves their vote in November.

Blow began by recounting an exchange between Sanders supporter Susan Sarandon and MSNBC host Chris Hayes. In the midst of other remarks, Sarandon said that she wasn’t sure what she would do in November if Clinton were the Democratic nominee, but that some argue a Trump presidency would be so over the top that it would force a needed revolution.

Blow hit the roof. “The comments smacked of petulance and privilege,” he wrote scornfully. “No member of an American minority group–whether ethnic, racial, queer-identified, immigrant, refugee or poor–would (or should) assume the luxury of uttering such a imbecilic phrase, filled with lust for doom.”

It was another example of a proven fact about liberalism–Democrats and their media cheerleaders save their deepest contempt not for right wingers, but for those who challenge them from the left.

The idea that the left should hope for a Trump presidency to provoke resistance is wrong. But Sarandon’s aside about that prospect wasn’t the central thrust of her interview anyway. She spoke for the most part about her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, militarized police, sexism and discrimination, and the ruin of the working and middle classes by corporate greed–all of which give her strong reasons to oppose Clinton.

Blow conveniently ignored the political points, while baiting Sarandon–and, by extension, other Clinton critics–along the lines of race, sexuality and nationality.

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BLOW ISN’T the only one. On the blog Bustle.com, Mari Brighe wrote: “The point is that if you’re happy to let a GOP candidate win the presidency because Sanders isn’t the Democratic candidate, you’re not nearly as progressive as you think you are, and you probably should examine your own social privilege.”

Instead of acknowledging the countless actions that Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has taken to alienate previously enthusiastic supporters–the record number of deportations and bombing no less than seven countries in the past seven years, to name a couple–Brighe shifts the blame to those who refuse to ignore these injustices.

It turns out that we’re the real enemies of the oppressed in this country–because we won’t “look past your signs, your ideals, your clever slogans and your movement, and realize that you’re standing on our necks,” Brighe concluded.

Michael Arceneaux, writing for the Guardian, wheels out another old line to claim that the people most committed to the principles of solidarity with the oppressed, here and abroad, are the problem, not the solution. “Cling to your self-righteousness all you want,” Arceneaux writes, “but be very clear that only some people can afford this kind of sacrifice.”

So taking action to make Black Lives Matter, building solidarity with Palestine, resisting Wall Street, defending women’s right to choose abortion–all fights that Hillary Clinton has, during her career, helped to make necessary–are sideshows compared to our concern for our own egos. Arceneaux lectures us to “do something besides pretending that your lack of vote does anything but suit your own moral superiority at the expense of others.”

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WHAT THESE writers are doing is taking disgust at Clinton’s conservatism and twisting it. They present principled opposition to oppression and inequality as privileged self-indulgence.

But in the face of so many outrages–from legal decisions that blame rape survivors for the actions of their assailants or that further empower already out-of-control police, to the unending destruction of the environment–principled opposition to injustice is something that we need more of, not less.

But the scolders in the service of Hillary Clinton are prepared to demean the awareness raised, for example, by the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings by trying to harness it for a candidate whose support for the criminalization of African American youth is clear.

These writers are also disregarding what seems to be a greater willingness among progressives and leftists–Black activists in particular–to defy the logic that we have to accept the “lesser evil” to fight the greater evil.

Are they calling Samaria Rice–the mother of Tamir Rice, murdered by the Cleveland police, who has seen nothing but betrayal from politicians–“privileged” for her refusal to endorse a presidential candidate? Similarly, Michelle Alexander, author of the The New Jim Crow, is hardly speaking from a position of blinding self-involvement when she identifies the Clintons as central architects of mass incarceration and calls for a political alternative.

Those who try to shame us into voting for Clinton avoid the substance of criticism so as to avoid acknowledging her long record of political crimes. Adding to those already mentioned, consider Clinton’s call for the detention and deportation of child migrantsfrom Central America in 2014.

Or her personal role in defending and promoting the 2009 coup in Honduras. The coup continues to have catastrophic repercussions in Honduras, including the recent assassination of human rights activist Berta Caceras. Yet Clinton takes pride in her role in in her memoir Tough Choices.

These opinion articles and blog statements that attempt to shame us into supporting a politician we oppose share other features in common. They accept the all-or-nothing, narrow logic of the U.S. elections–the idea that if you aren’t actively supporting a Democrat’s bid for office, then you’re assisting a Republican’s victory.

It isn’t the fault of ordinary people outraged by injustice that the U.S. electoral system is so undemocratic that it offers such a limited “choice.” Perhaps the shamers should examine the hidden-in-plain-sight secret of U.S. “democracy”: Most people don’t vote. An honest look at that reality would reveal widespread alienation from politicians and from a government that is disinterested in representing the will or interests of regular people.

Instead, the blame is heaped on us. This points to the conservatism of writers like Charles Blow. Behind the shaming of Clinton’s critics on the left is an embrace of the status quo.

Thus, in the same column cited above, Blow writes that “there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Not only that, but…there were also 84 federal judiciary vacancies with 49 pending nominees. The question of who makes those appointments matters immensely.”

Yet when you consider the injustice handed down in the Stanford rape case and the countless acquittals and non-indictments of cops who murdered Black people, the undemocratic and oppressive role that courts play in this country should be questioned.

Instead, Blow points to the justice system as a reason to participate in Election 2016. The idea that we should vote for Clinton in the belief that she might be more likely to appoint justices sympathetic to oppressed groups and social movements is a celebration of an arena where we’re powerless.

It’s one of many examples where Democrats implore us to vote for our enemy and hope for the best. Don’t blame us for refusing to do so.



Turns out “Friends” treated fat people as punch lines and kind of had a homophobia problem

“Chandler’s treatment of his gay father is appalling”: Everything critics realized while watching “Friends” in 2015


"Chandler's treatment of his gay father is appalling": Everything critics realized while watching "Friends" in 2015

“Friends” hit Netflix for the first time in 2015, and while it’s certainly not the first time people have had the opportunity to rewatch the show since it went off the air in 2004, it has provided a handy excuse for people to ruminate belatedly on the show’s impact — and for crazy super-fans to binge-watch all 10 seasons, obviously — and perhaps learn something new about the gang in the process. And they did! Some revelations were goofy, some light, and others pretty damning. Here’s what the Internet dug up about our favorite sitcom when viewed in the cold harsh light of 2015:

Chandler is the worst, and he’s also pretty homophobic.

As Ruth Graham wrote in Slate: “Chandler’s treatment of his gay father, a Vegas drag queen played by Kathleen Turner, is especially appalling, and it’s not clear the show knows it. It’s one thing for Chandler to recall being embarrassed as a kid, but he is actively resentful and mocking of his loving, involved father right up until his own wedding (to which his father is initially not invited!)… his continuing discomfort now reads as jarringly out of place for a supposedly hip New York thirtysomething — let alone a supposedly good person, period…. When it comes to women, Chandler turns out to be just as retrograde as Joey, but his lust comes with an undercurrent of the kind of bitter desperation that I now recognize as not only gross, but potentially menacing.”

Although, this, of course, is not the first time the show’s homophobia has been addressed:

Refinery29, meanwhile, delved into the issues with the show’s use of “Fat Monica” as a punchline.

“In the show’s storyline, Monica loses weight in college after overhearing Chandler make fun of her size. Shamed into thinness, Fat Monica becomes just Monica — desirable and (finally) human. Monica is many things: funny, uptight, loving, competitive. Fat Monica is just fat… and always hungry. I was grateful for Fat Monica as a kid. She was proof I could overcome my disgusting plumpness and be seen as lovable, too. True, I would always bear the shame of my inflated past, just like Monica did, but I was willing to live with that if it meant I’d be a person instead of a punchline.”

The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle, meanwhile, asked if nostalgia for “Friends” is all about white privilege.

“The issues of race and ‘white privilege’ make some Americans deeply uncomfortable. Maybe, at a time when mainstream U.S. TV is finally airing shows with ensemble casts that look like the ensemble that is America, and after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and after the shooting and rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and all the attendant questions raised, there’s an instinctive need on the part of some to return to the bubble of white-bread America that is epitomized by ‘Friends.’”

Yet while some griped about the show’s retrograde identity politics, others were able to find a feminist message.

Refinery29 picked out 21 of “Friends’” most surprising feminist moments. Meanwhile, Bustle listed the nine most feminist things about “Friends,” such as:

“When Rachel got pregnant, she turned down marriage proposals from both Joey and Ross. Being married and having a family don’t necessarily have to be connected, and Rachel was the hottest single mom on network television, and everyone respected (and applauded) her decision.”

In an interesting morsel of critical theory, Maggie Wheeler — aka Janice —  suggests her character is a stand-in for the viewer. As she tells EW:

“This crazy girl who is not particularly self-aware who still gets to be at the party. This interloper, this outsider managed to find her way into this little community of friends, and I think that was a vehicle for a lot of viewers who were sitting around in front of their televisions going, ‘Well, how do I hang out with those people?’”

There were also some novel discoveries on a more micro level — like the fact that the Friends intro without music is super creepy:

Perhaps the biggest revelation of all: Some geniuses at Bustle discovered the answer to the age-old question — How was the gang always able to get a seat at Central Perk?

While, as part of their comprehensive friends countdown — which is full of gems —Vulture reminded us that “Friends” actually invented the term “friend zone.” 

There was much discussion about why the Netflix episodes were shorter than the DVD episodes.

Turns out that, back in 2012, co-executive producer and director Kevin S. Brightexplained that the DVDs had a few minutes of extra footage: “The deleted footage was, frankly, added specifically for one home video release,” he said. “If fans are particularly interested in additional footage, those versions are still available. But for this, we wanted something that we, the creators, felt represented the show as we always wanted it to be remembered, which is the original NBC broadcast versions, which have never before been released as that, combined with fantastic new picture and sound, a new documentary and other new features.”

Still, just remember, no matter how these revelations may make you see “Friends” in a new light, it’s still okay to love the show (albeit with a grain of salt”).

As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote in her “Stay Tuned” TV advice column, in response to a reader expressing discomfort with the show’s homophobia: “You can still love ‘Friends,’ but why would you want to love it like you did before? Love it the way you see it now, with the things you know now and the values you have now. I love ‘Friends,’ but I do not love its body or queer politics. Those things can be true at the same time.”

#JeSuisCharlie? No, I’m Really Not Charlie Hebdo–And Here’s Why


Most of us are not even close to being on the same page when it comes to freedom of expression.

Je suis Charlie?

Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.

Nothing – no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”

And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.

But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags also elides over the really thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.

Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.

Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

And that’s putting it mildly.

In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.

Let’s make no mistake – these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”

But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the view point being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.

In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.

As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.

In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.

But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.

And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas at Human Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.

A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.

Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France’s xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.

And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”

But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.

I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.




BLOGGER COMMENT:  I think the level of “satire” in Charlie Hebdo falls around high school-college “look at me” stuff and is of little interest to me. What is bothersome is the overt racism and homophobia found in many of the cartoons. Now, I’m not “passive aggressive.” I don’t read shit like this anymore; guess I did when i was a college freshman. From what I’ve seen of this 30K per-month circulation rag, though, we don’t have quality satire here. Of course, and I wish i didn’t have to write this here but I guess posters demand it, the murders were an abomination. I don’t think I would die to protect “Charlie Hebdo’s” right to publish but their rights are protected and we should honor the concept of freedom of press here.

How one sexy gay novel derailed Gore Vidal’s literary career

A new movie paints a loving portrait of the ruling-class rebel — but the great critic’s real legacy is complicated

How one sexy gay novel derailed Gore Vidal's literary career

Every intellectual who tries to crack wise on television is emulating Gore Vidal, whether or not he or she knows it. Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” is an unabashed love letter to its subject that captures how and why Vidal became one of the dominant public intellectuals of the 20th century, an heir to the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, and a fearless post-partisan scourge of American hypocrisy and corruption well into the Bush-Obama era. Perhaps without meaning to, the film also captures many of Vidal’s contradictions. Less than two years after his death, Vidal simultaneously looks like a creature from a bygone era, shaped by privilege, oppression and the refined self-hatred of pre-Stonewall gay identity, and like a bracing, cautionary example to all the certainty and sanctimony and stupidity of our time. Saying that we need a new Gore Vidal is both true and nonsensical; the precise combination of ingredients that made him who he was could only have come together when and where it did, and is not possible now.

At the height of his fame as a novelist, critic and bon vivant in the late 1960s, Vidal became the puckish left-wing sparring partner of William F. Buckley Jr., in a series of ABC News throwdowns that set the gold standard for all such future encounters. In one of the most famous moments in TV history – now a YouTube classic – the two nearly came to blows during a debate over the protests outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. After Vidal described Buckley as a “pro- or crypto-Nazi” (or possibly a “proto-crypto-Nazi”), the latter called Vidal a “queer” and threatened to “sock [him] in the goddamn face.” That was pretty hot language for network TV in those days – or any time, really – and there was the added comic attraction that both men were obvious Northeastern blue bloods with prep-school manners and patrician accents. It was as if the race for student body president at Phillips Exeter had boiled over into fisticuffs, and on the evening news. (Actually, only Vidal went to Exeter; Buckley attended the Millbrook School, a more modest and more progressive institution, believe it or not.)

Vidal won the exchange, in much the same way as his old friend Jack Kennedy had won the televised debate with Richard Nixon eight years earlier. Perhaps he had absorbed Marshall McLuhan’s nascent media theories and perhaps it was instinct, but Vidal retained a cool, amused demeanor while Buckley blew a gasket and descended to hate speech, for which he would later half-apologize. (He had been driven to the insult by his distaste for Vidal as “an evangelist for bisexuality,” Buckley wrote.) But there’s one more thing to notice about this legendary incident, which is that Vidal fought dirty even before Buckley did. God knows I don’t want to take William Buckley’s side against pretty much anyone ever, but Vidal surely understood that it was unfair to accuse his opponent of being a Nazi, even in jest. (An autocrat, an elitist or a monarchist, sure.) In fact, Vidal picked a vulnerable spot and stuck in the knife; he knew that Buckley had struggled to purge the reborn conservative movement of overt racism and anti-Semitism (as well as John Birchers and Ayn Rand libertarians) and would likely rise to the bait.

You can draw a variety of lessons from that episode and its ripple effect across many decades of pop culture. Most subsequent left-liberal or even radical critics (Vidal would have rejected any such label, by the way) strive to appear reasonable in pop-culture contexts, rather than just sticking the boot in for maximum effect. Vidal never cared about seeming reasonable, and relished entertaining positions or ideas that horrified mainstream commentators of all stripes. (He explored conspiracy theories about both the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks, for example, although he stopped short of endorsing them.) In that sense, his would-be heirs can be found all over the ideological map, from Steven Colbert to Bill Maher to Glenn Beck, who is like the numb-nuts right-wing lower-middle-class hetero version, with the 1940s liberal-education reading list replaced with 1990s political-religious gobbledygook. (I’m not entirely kidding about that; both Vidal and Beck were autodidacts and self-invented characters who never went to college.)

But the Buckley contretemps also suggests some of the ways Vidal was a dark and occluded personality, one of the most brilliant minds and sharpest cultural critics in our history and perhaps his own worst enemy. Wrathall’s most obvious audience for this film is children of the 1960s and ‘70s who can dimly recall the events in question, and will respond to this nostalgic voyage into the cultural realm of our parents’ generation, at once antiquated and avant-garde: There is the drunken Norman Mailer, being berated by Vidal and Dick Cavett on late-night TV. There are Federico Fellini, Mike Wallace and a Gabor sister, at a party at the Italian seaside villa where Vidal lived for several decades with Howard Austen, his longtime partner. But the film will have done its work best if it reaches at least some younger people of the Snowden-Occupy generation, who may need to know that ferocious resistance to American empire – and for that matter a refusal to conform to norms of gender and sexuality – were not invented yesterday.

Wrathall’s film has extensive interviews with Vidal during the last several years of his life, and includes an immense amount of vintage file footage from all phases of Vidal’s career. This goes all the way back to a 1936 newsreel of 10-year-old Eugene Vidal Jr. flying an airplane built by his father, an engineer and inventor who was then an aviation official in the Roosevelt administration (and apparently the lover of Amelia Earhart, a gender rebel on her own terms). Young Vidal ditched the “Eugene” for “Gore” a few years later, in tribute to his beloved grandfather Thomas Gore, who was probably the first blind person to serve in the U.S. Senate. (Vidal and Al Gore were distant cousins.) It strikes me that this upper-crust rebel decided, consciously or not, to deal with his sexuality as his grandfather had dealt with disability – an obvious deficit in the eyes of the world, but never as a factor that defined his identity, still less an excuse for lack of accomplishment. Vidal never described himself as gay, never spoke out about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to the end of his life avoided any public association with the gay community or the LGBT political struggle. He reluctantly called himself bisexual on occasion, but only within the context of insisting that everyone else was too.

Both he and Buckley understood the epithet “queer” to be a scurrilous insult, of course, but if Vidal was partly a throwback to the old-fashioned shame of the closet, he was also a rebel trying out an early version of what might be called “queer” sexuality by today’s radicals. According to Vidal, his relationship with Austen was not sexual, and they both slept with whomever they wanted to. Vidal had female lovers at least occasionally (reportedly including Anaïs Nin and Joanne Woodward!), and may have had an illegitimate child in Florida. Since Wrathall relies entirely on the testimony of Vidal and his closest friends, we don’t get all the juiciest gossip; according to biographer Tim Teeman, Vidal had sex with any number of Hollywood and literary figures, including Jack Kerouac, Fred Astaire, Dennis Hopper and Brad Davis, who later contracted HIV and died of a drug overdose. We also don’t hear anything about Vidal’s uglier attitudes about homosexuality. Vidal’s literary executor and close friend Jay Parini appears in the film, but does not repeat the things he told Teeman, including that Vidal frequently derided gay men as “fags” in private, and that Parini came to think of him as “self-hating.” It’s slightly reminiscent of Roy Cohn’s character in “Angels in America,” assuring his doctor that he was a heterosexual who had sex with guys.

This bitterness was probably connected to the fact that Vidal’s personal interest in sex with men (however he defined it) derailed his literary career and sent him into exile, first to Hollywood to write movies and TV shows and then to Europe. His debut novel, a taut tale of nautical adventure called “Williwaw,” published when he was 21, was a smash hit. Then came the explicit homoeroticism of “The City and the Pillar,” published in 1948 and received by the New York establishment as an outrage. Difficult as this is to imagine, Times critic Orville Prescott issued a fatwa against reviewing Vidal’s books that endured for 20 years. Although Vidal returned to fiction many times, writing the gender-bending farcical bestseller “Myra Breckinridge” and a series of laborious, agenda-driven historical novels, he was effectively barred from membership in the all-male Great Postwar Novelists club that included Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and so on.

Being pink-listed evidently did nothing to improve Vidal’s cantankerous personality or relieve his internalized homophobia. In his late interviews with Wrathall, Vidal still cherishes his ancient feuds with Buckley, Mailer, Truman Capote and numerous others. He never made up the split with his onetime acolyte Christopher Hitchens after the latter’s apostasy on the invasion of Iraq. In an interview conducted shortly before his own death, Hitchens comes to the edge of tears, which is something Vidal would never have let an outsider witness. But it’s also possible that Vidal’s exclusion from the inbred world of literature set him free to say outrageous things on television, to run unwinnable political campaigns, and to launch Wildean bons mots and brilliant broadsides against the greed, corruption and mendacity of America from his hillside above the Amalfi coast. Vidal’s sarcastic, unforgiving and relentlessly eloquent essays, especially as collected in the volumes “United States” and “The Last Empire,” hold up better than his novels. (In the film, Vidal’s commentary on election night in 2008, that high-water mark of recent political idealism, is worth the price of admission all by itself.)

There are other cultural critics who can write serious, long-form essays that fly in the face of orthodoxy and challenge the entrenched stupidity of conventional wisdom, but Vidal’s were better, deeper, funnier, more challenging and surprising than almost anyone’s. I recently reread his Vanity Fair article about Timothy McVeigh from September 2001 (the date alone will tell you why it was quickly forgotten), and even with its forays into conspiracy theory, it’s the most cogent summary of what we really know about that entire sordid episode (not nearly enough) and the multifarious lies we told ourselves about it. Liberals who are still aboard the Bill and Hillary Clinton love train – you guys seriously need to read that.

There are also plenty of people who are quick on the draw, who can puncture an adversary with a snappy comeback or a moment of drawling folksy parody. But they’re hardly ever the same people, and Vidal was funnier and sharper than almost all of them too. He wasonce on TV with the English novelist Richard Adams, who told him his work was “meretricious.” “Pardon?” asked Vidal. “Meretricious,” Adams repeated. Vidal laughed heartily. “Well, meretricious to you,” he said, “and a Happy New Year.”

“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” opens this week in New York and June 6 in Los Angeles, with other cities and home video to follow.


Eminem’s homophobic lyrics are the worst kind of throwback


The rapper tries to stay relevant by tossing out the f-word. It has the opposite effect


Eminem's homophobic lyrics are the worst kind of throwbackEminem (Credit: Reuters/Jumana El-heloueh)


Eminem, in the lead-up to his new album, has released several songs, and one of them is getting the sort of media attention he enjoyed in the early 2000s.

Younger readers may not recall that, years before the dark but sanitized “Love the Way You Lie” and “Not Afraid” iteration of Eminem, the rapper was deeply controversial for violent and homophobic lyrics; he ended up performing with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards in order to quiet some of the criticism. (Not that it mollified the critics entirely; GLAAD protested outside the ceremony.)

In 2013, the nasty lyrics haven’t gone away, but the criticism, though definitely happening, is somewhat more muted. It seems unlikely anyone will take to the streets this time; it’s no longer novel to protest Eminem. Eminem’s (or his label’s) current strategy seems to be pitching different singles at different elements of his fan base. “The Monster” is a relatively tame, radio-friendly collaboration with Rihanna; “Rap God,” on the other hand, is violent and nasty. Eminem wants to break a “table over the back of a couple faggots and crack it in half.”

“You fags think it’s all a game,” he intones.

This isn’t the only time even in recent years that Eminem’s played up his homophobic side; in “Roman’s Revenge,” a 2010 collaboration with Nicki Minaj, he rapped, “All you lil’ faggots can suck it / No homo, but I’ma stick it to ‘em like refrigerator magnets.” But nothing ever quite seems to stick to Eminem; he has produced content so regularly in recent years that his reputation as a reliable hitmaker overshadows the elements of his music that people would rather ignore.

After all, Eminem’s mentality seems in many ways paused in the culture as it existed before a lengthy hiatus; he did not release an album for five years, as he dealt with substance issues between 2004 and 2009. Or perhaps his awareness of the culture stopped earlier, upon Eminem’s rise to fame and his existence within the bubble of celebrity. This is a culture where hacky and often outdated jokes (Eminem makes fun of Britney Spears’ ex-husband Kevin Federline, the musician Kid Rock, and “the ugly Kardashian” on a single song) coexist alongside lyrics threatening gays.

Not that Eminem sees his words doing this; this is precisely what comes of existing both as an integral part of pop culture and entirely removed from life as lived by real people. He gets to define what words mean, as shown by his comments to Rolling Stone on “Rap God”:

I don’t know how to say this without saying it how I’ve said it a million times. But that word, those kind of words, when I came up battle-rappin’ or whatever, I never really equated those words …

To actually mean “homosexual”?
Yeah. It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole. So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people. And, not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, but at this point in my career – man, I say so much shit that’s tongue-in-cheek. I poke fun at other people, myself. But the real me sitting here right now talking to you has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all. I’m glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves. And I don’t know how else to say this, I still look at myself the same way that I did when I was battling and broke.

“Battling,” here, refers to rap battling, the one-on-one fighting whereby the rapper’s object is to utterly annihilate his opponent using whatever he can. So calling one’s opponent a “fag” is acceptable — because it has no bearing on whether or not the person actually is gay.

But, obviously, using “gay” as equivalent of “a bitch or a punk or asshole” is language that encourages nasty and stereotypical depictions of gay people. Eminem is good enough with words to recognize its effect as such, but not willing to abandon an effective device to get press or not actually as accepting of “gay, straight, transgender” as he claims.

“Rap God” feels like a relic. Its existence may excite the blood for Eminem’s core fan base who’ve been there from the beginning (the rapper’s new album is called “The Marshall Mathers LP 2,” an apparent sequel to his 2000 record), but it’s entirely out of place amid mainstream rap, whose practitioners are alternately concerned with outsize consumerism, their evolving understanding of themselves as political actors, or gushy emotion. Though the song’s rollout seemed opportunistic, the Macklemore/Ryan Lewis song “Same Love,” an anthem about equality, isn’t just emblematic of where the culture is right now vis-à-vis gay people; it also pointed out where music is. Eminem’s been grandfathered in, as he’s up to the same tricks he’s been doing throughout this aging century. Younger rapper Azealia Banks’ career momentum entirely halted after her attempt to do the same rhetorical trick Eminem does, redefining “faggot” to mean a weak man.

If Eminem really were a rap god, he’d be producing music that will endure. “Rap God” doesn’t feel like the sort of document that anyone will look back on ruefully as a document of how homophobic 2013 was, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the culture right now. Once the excitement of his new material fades away, will anyone take it seriously as music? The kids who listen to it (those unembarrassed they’re listening to music fundamentally meant for their 30-something uncles who actually remember the year 2000) will likely hear the slurs as something entirely outdated. Those offended by Eminem’s latest slurs should take that outlook immediately and hasten his accelerating transit away from the center of contemporary culture.

Daniel D’Addario is a staff reporter for Salon’s entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_