“I Am Not For World Empire”
On a crystalline day in October, Taki, Kara Hopkins, and Scott McConnell met at Logan Airport and drove up the Cape to Norman Mailer’s home in Provincetown, Mass. Taki is an old friend of Mailer’s; McConnell and Hopkins knew his writing well but had never met the man.
The vagaries of literary reputation are not the main beat of The American Conservative, but we were struck by how many people told us how important Mailer was at a certain time of life and how invariably that time was young adulthood—somewhere between 18 and 21. Perhaps that is the moment in life when readers are most receptive to a certain kind of bold writing.
What follows is a conversation about what most interested the four of us on that day, as well as an addendum Mailer wrote later. We spoke of the present and future more than the past: a mixture of politics (Iraq, the imperial urge, styles of conservatism) and more typically Maileresque themes (the problem of technology). After several hours of talk and the gracious hospitality of Norris Church Mailer we made our way back to normal life, not doubting that we had spent an extraordinary afternoon with the greatest living American writer.
AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE: You’re just back from Europe…
NORMAN MAILER: My wife, Norris, and I went with George Plimpton and his wife Sarah. We did George’s play, Zelda, Scott & Earnest (Terry Quinn, co-author) in six capitals over two visits.
We were in Paris and Amsterdam in June, then at end of summer, in Vienna and Berlin and Moscow and London. It is the most amazing play. There is not one original word in it. It is all taken from Scott’s writings, Zelda’s writings, and Hemingway’s, plus their letters back and forth. The first time we did it, I said to John Irving, “Can you imagine how good this will be with top-flight actors?” He said, no, no, no. The fact that you people are doing it makes it interesting because sitting in the audience, you go back and forth between the originals and the people who are doing it on this night.
I think that is a part of it. Americans need mythos, certainly, in the literary world. Nationally, we have Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and FDR and Camelot, and in some quarters I fear there is Ronald Reagan, but nonetheless, in the literary world, it is probably Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Zelda, the nearest thing to a literary mythos within living reach. People take to it.
AC: Why do you think so? Because they are good, but not necessarily the best.
NM: Hemingway and Fitzgerald? Well, they are arguably the best. Who would you call on in that period? Going back, you could certainly argue that Melville’s a greater writer or Emerson or a few others. But who would you name for now?
AC: I would put Henry Miller there with them.
NM: Yes, Henry Miller I would put there. Maybe a century from now, people will decide he was greater. But a myth doesn’t depend on who is greatest. It needs figures who are extremely well known and yet not quite understood. That lends itself to myth. Why we need mythos may be the real question. I would assume it is the counter-weight to technology.
AC: Technology has been a theme you’ve written and spoken about for 50 years. Do you think in terms of sensory deadening or soul deadening, that the impact is much worse now than 40 or 50 years ago? I am not sure whether you do the Internet and all that…
NM: I don’t. That would use up what I have left. Not long ago, I said that what technology promises is less pleasure and more power. Part of the crisis of modern times is that there is a tendency for all of us to become more and more narcissistic and power-driven. (And icy within.)
AC: Are you gloomy about the looming power of the state, of American totalitarianism? You’ve said you’ve been wrong about that many times and have been cheerful about having been wrong.
NM: I am more worried this time than ever. Did you see a piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a marvelous piece by a man named Jay Bookman? If you want to talk about Iraq, I’m ready to get into that.
AC: Our little magazine has been talking a lot about Iraq.
NM: I, too, am not for going to war, so we certainly meet there. What I thought from the beginning is that there is a most peculiar subtext under the Bush administration’s approach on what has to be done with Iraq. Some time ago, they began by suggesting that Iraq was an immediate nuclear threat. It is now generally agreed that they are not. The Bush people then began to carry on about the huge danger of a biochemical assault on us. But they’ve not made the case that Iraq is on the ready for such a dire possibility. Then, another big accusation—Iraq is a harbor for terrorists. Well, as far as I can see, and this is from a novelist’s point of view, if I were Saddam Hussein, the last people I would want to have in my country are terrorists from other countries because I am interested in total control over my own land. Terrorists are loose cannons. Why would Hussein want to pay an unforeseen price? Then, on the other hand, if I were a terrorist, going along the underground railway that I assume runs from Pakistan through Iran and has to pass through Iraq to get to Syria and Jordan and Lebanon and Palestine, the worst place on this trip would be Iraq because I’d probably be put in a compound. So what is the subtext? Why does the White House want to have that war, why? What do they want? One can name access to oil as the motive, but is that a large enough reward for what could be the unforeseen and immense dangers of such a war?
Then I saw that piece in the Journal-Constitution, printed on Sept. 29, a piece to which no attention was paid in American newspapers. I was surprised by that. It is a powerful piece. Bookman remarks that everybody has been asking, why is there no plan for what is to be done in Iraq after the war is won? Bookman’s firm suggestion is that there has been a plan all the time. We are going to occupy Iraq and occupy it for a long time. Then it all does begin to make its own kind of sense. Because that means we are inaugurating the commencement of the American World Empire. Right there is the subtext. Incidentally, the political seat from which I speak is as a Left-Conservative.
AC: It was much more clean when you were an anarchist. We knew what that meant. But Left-Conservative?
NM: I have to redefine the term for myself every day because on its face, we have an oxymoron. But, it does have meaning for me. I think there are elements in the remains of left-wing philosophy (which has not had all that many new ideas for the last 30 years), that are worth maintaining.
AC: Such as?
NM: The idea that a very rich man should not make 4,000 times as much in a year as a poor man. On the other hand, I am not a liberal. The notion that man is a rational creature who arrives at reasonable solutions to knotty problems is much in doubt as far as I’m concerned. Liberalism depends all too much on having an optimistic view of human nature. But the history of the 20th century has not exactly fortified that notion. Moreover, liberalism also depends too much upon reason rather than any appreciation of mystery. If you start to talk about God with the average good liberal, he looks at you as if you are more than a little off. In that sense, since I happen to be—I hate to use the word religious, there are so many heavy dull connotations, so many pious self-seeking aspects—but I do believe there is a Creator who is active in human affairs and is endangered. I also believe there is a Devil who is equally active in our existence (and is all too often successful). So, I can hardly be a liberal. God is bad enough for them, but talk about the devil, and the liberal’s mind is blown. He is consorting with a fellow who is irrational if not insane. That is the end of real conversation.
On the other hand, conservatism has its own deep ditches, its unclimbable walls, its immutable old ideas sealed in concrete. But lately, there are two profoundly different kinds of conservatives emerging, as different in their way as the communists and the socialists were before and after 1917, yes, two types of conservatives in America now. What I call “value conservatives” because they believe in what most people think of as the standard conservative values—family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance—dependable human virtues. And then there are what I call “flag conservatives,” of whom obviously the present administration would be the perfect example.
I don’t think flag conservatives give a real damn about conservative values. They use the words. They certainly use the flag. They love words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) is to use the word “evil” as if it were a button he can touch to increase his power. When people are sick and have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as his hot button for the American public. Any man who can employ that word 15 times in five minutes is not a conservative. Not a value conservative. A flag conservative is another matter. They rely on manipulation. What they want is power. They believe in America. That they do. They believe this country is the only hope of the world and they feel that this country is becoming more and more powerful on the one hand, but on the other, is rapidly growing more dissolute. And so the only solution for it is empire, World Empire. Behind the whole thing in Iraq is the desire to have a huge military presence in the near-East as a stepping stone for eventually taking over the world. Once we become a twenty-first century version of the old Roman Empire, then moral reform will come into the picture. The military is obviously more puritanical than the entertainment media. Soldiers can, of course, be wilder than anyone, but the overhead command is a major pressure on soldiers, and it is not permissive.
AC: Who in American politics is a value conservative?
NM: Someone like Taft would be a good example of a value conservative. Eisenhower, probably, a gentle value conservative. More recently? Reagan, I think, was not. I will say that I don’t think Reagan ever had an original idea in his life. I once sat next to him, as near as I am sitting to you, at a lunch for eight people. This was in 1972 at the convention that nominated Nixon for the second time. I spent the entire meal trying to figure out a tough question to ask him. I always found that if you meet someone’s eyes, a good question can come to mind. And for two hours he sat there, perfectly calm and pleasant and kept making jokes and talking. It was a lightweight conversation. The physical impression of him was that he had about as much human specific density as, let’s say, a sales manager for a medium-sized corporation in the Midwest. That kind of modest, mild, well-knit heft was in his bearing. During those two hours, he chatted with all six Time reporters at the table, and his eyes never met mine. I found myself unable to come up with that tough question as a result. It became a matter of decorum. The mood was too genial. It occurred to me after he became president that he probably, if he could help it, never spent time talking to anyone who was of no use to him. An instinctive climber who scaled the face of success with great skill: that was his gift, if you will. He was surrounded by people who had many powerful ideas and who illumined him to the point where they could wind him up and then he could do his special stuff. At the time, he had an enormous impact on value conservatives because they thought he was one of them. I suspect he had about as much to do with them as a screen star does with an agricultural laborer.
AC: Returning to the question of empire…
NM: One of the most interesting remarks in the Journal-Constitution piece was that after this excellent explanation of what the subtext probably is, Bookman wrote that if it is true that America is going towards empire, that should be made public to the American people. Let them, at least, have some say on that because it is one of the largest issues we face in the future. I agree wholly with that.
You see, behind flag conservatism is not madness but logic. I’m not in accord with the logic. But it is powerful. From their point of view, America is getting rotten. The entertainment media are loose. They are licentious. The kids are getting to the point where they can’t read, but they sure can screw. Morals are vanishing. The real subtext may be that if America becomes again a military machine that is huge in order to oversee all its new commitments, then American sexual freedom, willy-nilly, will have to go on the back burner. Commitment and dedication will become necessary national values (with all the hypocrisy attendant on that.) Flag conservatives may see all this as absolutely necessary. In the last decade, there have been many blows to the psychic integument of conservatism. And the last half-year has been horrific. We have all had to recognize the outsize chicanery and economic pollution of the corporations, we have had to deal with the great blow the Catholic Church took, not to mention 9/11, which was a shock, if not an outright chasm at our feet. I think Americans took a hit that is not wholly out of proportion to what happened to the Germans after World War I when inflation came and wiped out the fundamental German notion of self, which was that if you worked hard and saved your money, you ended up having a decent old age. It is my belief Hitler could never have come to power ten years later without that runaway inflation. By the same measure, I think 9/11 did something comparable to the American sense of security.
AC: What would the empire builders have done with out 9/11?
NM: I don’t think they would have proceeded this way at all. There is such a thing as luck in human affairs. Without 9/11, I don’t think they could have exploited this push to have a war with Iraq. I think, rather, the administration would have been in trouble. The attention of the media was fixed on the bad market, the increase in joblessness, the Church and corporate scandals, the high school serial killers, the drugs, new and old.
AC: Do you think we may be in al Qaeda’s script or Osama bin Laden’s script? Is there really a war of civilizations, which will, if it starts in earnest, not bode well for American globalism?
NM: I think there is a good deal of reality to this. From a radical Muslim point of view, America is absolutely the Great Satan, and this is a war to the death. But in terms of military realities, I don’t think it is necessary for us to build an empire to be able to contain Muslim rage. For one thing, apart from anything else, it would take Islamic extremists, what? A hundred years to overthrow us? Systematic terrorism for 100 years? Fifty years? Their all-out rage is not likely to last that
Historic moods shift. Temperaments grow old. The point I want to make is that—let me do it in two parts: First, there was a fierce point of view back when the Soviet Union fell. Flag conservatives felt that was their opportunity to take over the world because we were the only people who knew how to run the world. And they were furious when Clinton got in. One of the reasons he was so hated was because he was frustrating what they wanted. That world takeover, so open, so possible from their point of view in 1992, was missed. How that contributed to intense hatred of Clinton! This attitude, I think, grew and deepened and festered through the eight years of the Clinton administration. I don’t know if White House principals talk to one another in private about this, but the key element in their present thought, I suspect, is that if America becomes an empire, then of necessity, everything here that needs to be strengthened will be affected positively. By their lights! If America grows into the modern equivalent of the Roman Empire, then it will be necessary to rear whole generations who can serve in the military in all parts of the world. It will put a new emphasis again upon education. Americans, who are famous for their inability to speak foreign languages, will suddenly be encouraged and over-encouraged to become linguists in order to handle the overseas tasks of empire. The seriousness of purpose will be back in American life. These are, I suspect, their arguments. They are not mine. I am not for World Empire. I can foresee endless disasters coming out of that.
What they don’t take into account is the exceptional perversity of human affairs. At the least we could become a species of totalitarian country, dominating the world, with very little freedom of speech. Moreover, the entire scheme could fail. The notion itself has an overweening hubris to it.
AC: This could very easily fail— especially if China and Europe were opposed to it.
NM: One of the messages that the flag conservatives are trying to send to China is, I expect: Hear this! You Chinese guys are obviously very bright. We can tell. We know! Because your Asian students in our universities get better marks than our people do. They are more serious. They were born for technology. People who have led submerged lives love technology. They don’t get any pleasure anyway, so they do like the notion of personal, right-at-your-desk power. Technology is ideal for them. All right, goes the unspoken message of the flag conservatives, you guys can have your technology, but you had better understand, China, that you will be the Greek slaves to us Romans. We will treat you well because you will be most important to us, eminently important. But don’t try to rise above your future station in life. The best you can ever hope to be is Greeks.
There is just this kind of mad-eyed mystique in Americans: the idea that we Americans can do anything. So, say flag conservatives, we will be able to handle what comes. Our know-how, our can-do, will dominate all obstacles. They truly believe America is not only fit to run the world but that it must run the world. Otherwise, we will lose ourselves. If there is not a new seriousness in American affairs, the country is going to go down the drain. That, I am fully ready to speculate, is the subtext beneath the Iraqi subtext, and they may not even be wholly aware of it themselves, not all of them.
AC: What now?
NM: I’m not sure anything can be done. I think America is in pretty bad psychic shape. If it really is, then many people may turn to the idea of Empire as a transcendent solution, a way to get rid of our ongoing guilt. I would argue that there has always been a tremendous guilt in our lives, at least as long as I know. I can go right back to my World War II days in the Army. We were all convinced then that when peace came, we’d return home to a depression. We G.I.’s were bitter about that and we enjoyed our bitterness. We were maybe going to lose our lives, but if we got through this, we’d probably go back to depression. Good luck! But after we returned, the country took off on an economic ascent. A lot of Americans were very happy to be prosperous, but they also felt secretly guilty. Why? Because we are a Christian nation. The Judeo in Judeo-Christian is essentially a grace note. We are a Christian nation. And the idea, if you really are a Christian and a great many people in America at that point were significantly devout, was that you were not supposed to be all that rich. God didn’t want it. Jesus certainly didn’t. You were not supposed to pile up a lot of money. You were supposed to spend your life in reasonably altruistic acts. That was one half of the collective psyche. The other half: Beat everybody you are in a contest with because you’ve got to win. To a certain extent, and this is a cruel, but possibly an accurate remark, to be an American is to be an oxymoron. On the one hand, you are a good Christian, and on the other, you are viscerally combative. You are supposed to be macho and win. Jesus and Evel Knievel don’t necessarily consort too well in one psyche. Nonetheless, we moved forward, we became more and more powerful, even as the guilt developed in all sorts of subterranean ways. The communist Red Scare of the early Fifties, at a time when the Soviet Union was still hugely ravaged by its war wounds, is one example of how we reacted. When 9/11 occurred, there was an immense guilt mixed in with the rage. I was here in Provincetown, 300 miles away at the time, and the reality of it didn’t hit me directly, but after a while I began to perceive part of the key element in it. The terror of that act involved the TV audience all over America. It was as if our TV sets had come alive. For years we’ve been seeing scenes just like that on the tube and enjoyed them because we were so insulated. A hundredth of our psychic receptivity could enter the box and share the fear while 99% of ourselves felt absolutely safe. Now, suddenly, it was real. Gods and demons were invading the U.S., coming in right off the TV screen. That may account in part for the odd guilt so many felt after 9/11 as if untold divine forces were erupting in fury.
AC: Do you think there is any turning back? Or are we set on this course? Or is there still a chance to turn prudently away from it?
NM: I think if Bush has to turn away from it, he will do so with great frustration. He will have to go back and live with the old dull insolubles again! I expect the White House feeling still remains that it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks or feels. But, force majeure, these flag conservatives are now obliged, nonetheless, to acknowledge the fair amount of division in this country and the unhappiness of France, Germany, Russia, not to mention China, Japan, we can keep naming them. It had to get to the White House principals. They might not be able to bring off this first big step. Were they really ready to do it against the feelings of the rest of the world? Some of the administration who had been all for it in the beginning might have begun to waver. Others, I expect, argued that they had to stay on course. Suck it up! No room for weaklings on this ship!
One of my favorite notions about Bush is that although he is not a bright man, he does have what Ernest Hemingway used to call a bull-s**t detector. Like Reagan, he doesn’t have ideas of his own, but he does listen to his experts. He has to. They know more than he does. Still, he can probably tell fairly often when they are speaking with true authority and when they are glossing over their own uncertainty. Sometimes an expert has to maintain his or her position, even though inwardly dubious of its authenticity. Perhaps Bush can hear who is speaking with inner conviction on a given occasion and who is not. So he tacks with each yaw in the breeze.
AC: There is a lot being said in most of the journals of the American Right about Islam being an essentially evil religion which somehow we have to vanquish. Speak to your sense of Islam and where the Christian West or post-Christian West is in relationship to it and how that could play out.
NM: Well, to begin with, I would say that flag conservatives are not Christians. They are, at best, militant Christians, which is, of course, a fatal contradiction in terms. They are a very special piece of work, but they are not Christians. The fundament of Christianity is compassion, and it is usually observed by the silence attendant on its absence. Well, the same anomaly is true of the Muslims. Islam, in theory, is an immensely egalitarian religion. It believes everyone is absolutely equal before God. But the reality, no surprise, is something else. A host of Arab leaders, who do not look upon their poor people in any way as equals, make up a perfect counterpart to the way we live with Christianity. We violate Christianity with every breath we take. So do the Muslims violate Islam. Your question, is it a war to the end? I expect it is. We are speaking of war between two essentially unbalanced inauthentic theologies. So, it may prove to be an immense war. A vast conflict of powers is at the core and the motives of both sides are inauthentic which, I expect, makes it worse. The large and unanchored uneasiness I feel about it is that we may not get through this century. We could come apart—piece by piece, disaster after disaster, small and large.
AC: The conflict between communism and capitalism seems so much more sensible and manageable in comparison.
NM: Looking back, it was kind of logical. Capitalism and communism had clear and opposed objectives but neither was ready to destroy the world. Certainly, the more that conflict ebbed into its conclusion, the less danger was present that the big bang would come.
AC: You have cast the fight as Allah versus moolah—Islam versus money. If ours is indeed a post Christian society in which materialism is the highest good, and it takes a faith to fight a faith, are they not better suited to combat us?
NM: Are they better suited? No, I don’t think so. The difficulty I have when I speak about this is I don’t know enough about Islam. But it does seem to me, on the face of it, that if we did nothing in terms of attacking them, that might delay such a war for 50 years. The next argument would be, well, can we afford to delay? We can win it now and we might lose it in 50 years. But my notion is that this war is so unbalanced in so many ways, so much power on one side, so much true hatred on the other, so much technology for us, so much potential terrorism on the other. It is not that complicated to be an effective terrorist after all. Pick up the phone, make a call, and disrupt traffic for half a day. The real question is how pervasive can terrorism get, not whether you can wipe it out. There will always be someone left to act as a terrorist. If we try to become an empire, the real question will become whether we are able to live with terrorism at the level that the Israelis, let us say, are living with now. To be an Israeli these days means that you can never make solid plans, and Jewish people love to have such agendas and carry them out. Now, we are already at the edge of not knowing when our children might be in danger.
AC: You have described the neoconservative support for the war as potentially problematic for Israel. Why?
NM: America could win easily over Iraq, but if Saddam has a Samson complex, what would his last act be? Might he hit Israel at the end with everything he’s still got? At that point, he is a very dangerous man. Nothing more to lose. He would never dare to attack Israel first. That would certainly destroy him. He wouldn’t even dare, I think, to allow terrorists to do it for him because of the obvious reason that it would be too easy to trace it to him. But if Saddam has lost everything, if he is remotely as bad as they paint him—and he may well be—then the likelihood is that he will pull down the columns of the temple: He will be ready to rest as history’s super-terrorist. What I don’t understand, therefore, is why the Sharon government is so ready to gamble with Israel’s aility to defend itself (or be defended) against extreme attack.
AC: Perhaps because they think that if he is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, then Israel will no longer have a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, and that is potentially risky.
NM: Immensely risky. But at that point, they can both destroy each other. In miniature, it’s analogous to the potentiality for instant destruction that America had with the Soviet Union. So, time itself might bring a species of peace. Have they thought it through?
AC: Can we address more generally Israel and its unavoidable existential dilemma, which is the Palestinians? I don’t think you’ve written a lot about Israel…
NM: No. I’ve never been there. For a basic reason, which is that I am always writing a book. To go to Israel would mean another book to write, and it would be an important book. It would take over all I am doing now, and what I am working on now is more important to me.
AC: But you were never any kind of anti-Zionist…
NM:No, I start with a set of simple, unsophisticated notions about Israel. It was such a small country when it began. If the Arab leaders had had any kind of human goodness in them, they could have said, these people have been through hell. Let’s treat them with Islamic courtesy, the way we are supposed to treat strangers. Instead they declared them the enemy. The Israelis had no choice but to become strong and to get allied with us. In the course of doing so, some of the best aspects of the Jewish nature—irony, the love of truth, the love of wisdom and justice, suffered internal depredations.
The prevailing attitude over the decades demanded that they become good farmers, good technicians, and good soldiers. No need to use the minds for fine-tuning any more. Do not even speak of hearts. Be there when you’re needed became the overriding virtue.
Once it was a matter of saving their country, everything changed. Quantity changes quality, which may be the best three words Engels ever wrote. Quantity changes quality. As the Israelis became tougher, so they lost any hard-earned and elevated objectivity, any high and disinterested search for social value. The logo became Israel, my Israel. That was inevitable. It is also tragic, I think. Israel is now one more powerhouse in the world. But what they’ve lost is special. Now, they treat the Palestinians as if the Palestinians were ghetto Jews. It is one of the great ironies. You know, the older you get, the more you begin to depend upon irony as the last human element you can rely on. Whatever exists will, sooner or later, be turned inside out.
AC: Do you think there is any way they can escape that dilemma with the Palestinians?
NM:I don’t see how. Not right now. It may be that what they feel is that if they don’t gamble now, they will be destroyed later. If a war with Iraq ends with Americans installed there, Israel could feel more secure for decades to come. But it could prove a dangerous support. For a good many powerful Americans, the future question in Empire might become: How much is our support of Israel still to our advantage and how much to our disadvantage? The realpolitikers in the American establishment have to have mixed feelings even now about Israel. The neo-cons may feel this is our best shot, this is our best opportunity, this is the moment when we have to take a chance because, if we don’t now, we are likely to be doomed 10, 20, 30 years down the road.
But, again, I say, you don’t gamble that way. I’ve always been thoroughly opposed to gambling with your last thousand bucks. Especially if you have a family. That is one reason I am a Left-Conservative. That is the conservative part of me.
AC: What’s your opinion of Ariel Sharon?
NM: He is what he is. A brute. A powerhouse general. I think his defense would be: “I am what fate has made me.” If he had lived in the ghetto, he would have been one of the stronger men there and probably one of the more disliked. But now he is an Israeli. What is obvious, what stands out in most Israelis is that they are patriots. My God, they are. After Hitler, how could they not be? In that sense, I am sure Sharon thinks he is doing the only thing he can do; that he is doing the right thing. Just as I was going on earlier about Christians having this great guilt that they were not compassionate, but greedy, so I think there is a similar inner crisis in Israel. I think they are ready to say: We are no longer humanists. We’ve become the opposite of ourselves. Still, we protect the country. We dare the unknown. If Saddam unloads on us? If a large part of Israel is lost to such a war? Well, sometimes one must undergo serious surgery. I think the Sharons are ready for that. Of course, the neocons here will not be losing their own arm or leg or lungs.
AC: Shifting course a bit, years ago in your writing, you created a kind of antithesis between blacks and whites, writing not about civil rights but about black and white attitudes towards life.
NM: Yes. Black and white with their separate geist.
AC: American has become much more complicated now with browns and yellows. Does that lead to any of the sorts of generalizations that came out of “The White Negro”?
NM: You’ve got to put more of a point on the question.
AC: Our side of the immigration debate generally feels that America is getting transformed into something less like the country we understand and are used to. It seems a kind of foreign place. It is not an argument we often use, but that is in the back of it. Have you thought much about the more multicultural America? What are its possibilities? What are its limitations?
NM: I haven’t thought about it for a very good reason, which is, I don’t like thinking about it. There are so many complexities to it and such a collision with so many of my own values. On the one hand, at the time I wrote “The White Negro,” I felt that America was very much in need of black culture as such and that black culture had an understanding of life that white culture didn’t have. That is how I felt then. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that—these remarks are so general, they don’t appeal to me—but the collision I have in my mind and am trying to think it through and can’t—is that I believe that the integrity of races and cultures is very important. It is something you can’t talk about. Hitler took care of race-talk forever. Well, not forever, but for the next 100 years. But I do think that there is such a thing as the integrity of each culture and that cultures ought to be able to go in different directions, even collide. Given the modern world of technology, I am not even sure, however, that the race or culture question is even paramount any more. The long-term tendency is to have no races. It is as if technology has become the dominant culture in existence and may soon be the only real culture. In other words, the similarities between computer experts all over the world is now far greater than their differences in ethnicity.
AC: Go back to the integrity of races as very important. I know it is a politically incorrect thought but it doesn’t have to be expressed with rancor. It might be interesting.
NM: I don’t have any rancor about it, I just have a feeling there is a true problem. To the degree that you lose your culture, you’ve lost what may be irreplaceable. We can end up with a world that is totally homogenized. Of course, the problem, which was never solved, is how can these different races and cultures live together with some equity? Democracy has often made vigorous attempts to solve this. But the tendency to homogeneity can go too far. The answer is somewhere in the balance. And the immense difficulty is keeping a viable balance, a lively balance.
Let me put it this way: I don’t see immigration as a pressing problem other than that it gets some white people so furious that they can’t think about more important things. They feel America is being lost. All right, but America is being lost and has been lost in ways that have nothing to do with races or excessive immigration. America, for one example, is being lost is through television.
Because in advertising, mendacity and manipulation are raised to the level of internal values for the advertisers. Interruption is seen as a necessary concomitant to marketing. It used to be that a 7- or 8-year-old could read consecutively for an hour or two. But they don’t do that much any more. The habit has been lost. Every seven to 10 minutes a child is interrupted by a commercial on TV. Kids get used to the idea that their interest is there to be broken into. In consequence, they are no longer able to study as well. Their powers of concentration have been reduced by systematic interruption. Add to that our present-day classrooms. Does anybody ever say that one reason our education is in such a blighted mess is that just about all schools now use fluorescent lights? Why? Because they cost a little less. I would say that in the final count of dollars and cents they cost more. What characterizes fluorescent light is that everybody looks 10 percent plainer than they do under incandescent bulbs. Fluorescent tubes offer an unhappy livid light. Skin looks washed out and a bit sickly. If everybody seems uglier than they are normally, why, then, everyone grows a little depressed. They begin to think, what am I doing with all these plain-looking people? Aren’t I worth more?
That contributes to the deterioration of the powers of concentration. Bad architecture, invasive marketing, ubiquitous plastic—these deleterious forces bother me much more than immigration.
* * *
I could go on about this. Our first problem is not immigration but the American corporation. That is the force which has succeeded in taking America away from us. It has triumphed in making the world an uglier place to live in since the Second World War. I would cite 50-story high-rise architecture as inspired in form as a Kleenex box, shopping malls encircled by low-level condominiums, superhighways that homogenize our landscapes, and plastic, ubiquitous plastic, there to numb an infant’s tactile senses. It is the front-runner in the competition to see what can make the world more disagreeable. To the degree we have exported this crud all over the globe, we wield already a punitive species of world hegemony. If I find myself viscerally opposed to the notion of an American Empire, it is because of the all-pervasive aesthetic empti-ness of the most powerful American corporations. There are no cathedrals left for the poor—only sixteen-story urban renewal housing projects that sit on the soul like jail. Sometimes I am tempted to think that I am not so much a left-conservative as a left-medievalist. I am, of course, not serious about such a term, but we are all medieval in one fashion—our movie stars, musical entertainers, tycoons, and politicos are treated these days as an awe-inspiring if rampant bunch of barons, counts, dukes, earls, princes, princesses, queens and kings. It is a world we can live in, but let’s not forget those medieval ratios of difference in income between rich and poor. I once spent a weekend with a wealthy Swedish publisher who lived near Malmo, and he complained for all of a night how much of his wealth was taken from him by income tax. Before we said goodnight, however, he did remark: “You know —when all is said, I do sleep better because I know that in Sweden we can say at least that no one goes to bed hungry or without a roof over his head.” A nice remark. I know that if I were an American making several thousand times more than the poorest man in town, I would not only be afraid of that poor man, but of my relatives and certainly of my enemies, and I would toss at night wondering how to make more money so everyone could recognize that I was the most splendid and exceptional fellow around.
If such a man is not the bane of real conservatives, then I don’t know why we are in a dialogue. Once, in the Democratic primary of 1969, I ran for mayor of New York in the hope that a Left-Right coalition could be formed and this Left-Right pincers could make a dent in the entrenched power of the center. The best to be said for that campaign is that it had its charm. I am not so certain, however, that this idea must remain eternally without wings. It may yet take an alchemy of Left and Right to confound the corporate center. Our notion was built on the premise that we did not really know the elements of a good, viable society. We all had our differing ideals, and morals, and political ethics, but rarely found a way to practice them directly. So, we called for Power to the Neighborhoods. We suggested that New York City become a state itself, the fifty-first. Its citizens would then have the power to create a variety of new neighborhoods, new townships, all built on separate concepts, core neighborhoods founded on one or another of our cherished notions from the Left or the Right. One could have egalitarian towns and privileged places, or, for those who did not wish to be bothered with living in so detailed (and demanding) a society, there would be the more familiar and old way of doing things—the City of the State of New York—a government for those who did not care—just like old times.
It was a menu for social exploration and experiment. If we had been elected, we might have ended up with everything in an abysmal mess. It was a wicked scheme since we had (just like our flirtation to go to war with Iraq) no real notion of how it would all turn out—which is the essence of the wicked—up the ante and close your eyes while you wait for the turn of the card.
Nonetheless, some germ of the idea of a society open enough for people to live intense social lives still appeals to me. I repeat—we do not really know what works in a modern society, but the odds against flourishing in a society of the center (given its potentiality to narrow all exits and promote a single central secure point of view) may prove to be the least good answer of them all. Until the Left and that part of the Right loyal to its old values can come to recognize that with all their differences, they also have one profound value they might look to protect in common—the vulnerable dignity of the human creation—we are all obliged to travel passively into the vain and surrealistic land of corporate hegemony with its basic notion that democracy is a nutrient to be injected into any country anywhere—a totally oppressive misconception of the delicate promise of democracy which relies on the organic need to grow out of itself and learn from its own human errors.
I see that I have ended by writing a small polemic. It could be said that old polemicists never die.