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Imperial America - Reflections on the United States of Amnesia
by Gore Vidal
A Long View Of History
JOHN KERRY is doing his best to lose the US Presidential election but can George Bush steal it as he did the one in 2000? Gore Vidal, in a collection of brilliant essays on the history and contemporary situation in the USA, warns that he could! Far fetched? Not if you read this book.
Florida's infamous 'hanging chads' may have gone - Republican gerrymandering in that state has not - but in their place in some key states have been installed "direct recording electronic (DRE) systems" like touch screens. Vidal comments: "There [is] only one flaw: DREs are less accurate than punch cards."
In Georgia, when touch screens were used last year, a Democratic candidate was ahead in an election according to polls but then there was a "sudden swing of 9 to 12 points". Californian authorities are so worried about the danger of electoral malpractice that they have mandated a "paper trail" as proof to the voters and the ballot counters that each touch screen was actually registered and totalled properly. However, even these safeguards will not come into effect until 2005, after this year's elections.
The US, or to be more precise, the rich who have controlled the 'republic' almost from the outset, have a history of stealing elections when they don't like the outcome, as in the election of 1876. Vidal also quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of US President Franklin Roosevelt; after canvassing for the Democrats in New York, she rushed home and declared: "Franklin, there are people buying votes right here in Dutchess County. I have seen them." Roosevelt's response was: "Don't worry, dear, the Republicans are buying them, too"!
Shamefully, there is no procedure for checking the accuracy of voting machines because the private companies that run them will not allow them to be examined in defence of "trade secrets". Vidal quotes an expert in this field: "Whereas vote-rigging has always required physical access before, modems and wireless communication devices now open up possibilities for remote rigging that no one can observe."
This is just one theme of Vidal's book, which is a fascinating excursion into the history of the US and the role of the elite which has historically controlled its destiny. We read here about how the US 'Empire' was built upon the massacre of 200,000 Filipinos and the annexation of Mexican territory in a war with that country, which the famous US General Ulysses S Grant said he was "ashamed of".
In most of his writings, Gore Vidal has explored the theme of the corruption of the original ideals of the "US republic". The famous "separation of powers" enshrined in the US Constitution from the outset was loosely based upon the British system of monarchy (read president), Parliament (House of Representatives and the Senate) and independent judiciary.
Vidal vividly demonstrates, however, how this system has been superseded by the establishment of virtual dictatorial powers of US presidents. No vote was taken by Congress over the wars in Korea or Vietnam and only ex post facto, after Bush had decided to go to war, was Congress consulted over the recent war in Iraq.
In a series of memorable, pithy phrases he underlines the inanity of Bush's policies and statements and relates them to the current political situation. On Bush and terrorism, for instance, he writes: "All on his own he has declared a war on terrorism, a nonsensical notion like a war on dandruff."
On electoral choice in the US he is to the point: "We have only one political party in the US, the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat."
Zell Miller, a Democratic senator, underlined Vidal's claim when he gave a keynote address lauding Bush at the recent Republican National Convention in New York. In 1992, however, as Governor of Georgia he spoke at the Democrats' Convention attacking Bush's father, George senior!
Writing in a clear, simple style the substance of the class realities of the US is laid bare: "Those with large amounts of property control the parties which control the state which takes through taxes the people's money and gives a certain amount of it back in order to keep the populace docile while reserving a sizable part of tax revenue for the oligarchy's use in the form of 'purchases', for the defense department, which is the unnumbered, as it were, bank account of the rulers."
The contempt with which the rich view the mass of the American working class is illustrated by the comment of a movie mogul: "When the American public walks, its knuckles graze the ground." Interestingly, while Vidal incorrectly says the US has never had a "left wing" he mentions the idea of a "labor party" but adds that there is "no chance" of it being established in the US. Yet, everything in this book points to an inevitable revolt of the majority of the US population, leading to the formation of their own distinct party. Vidal demonstrates that the working class is completely locked out of the present electoral system.
His quote from an old American Tory sums up brutally the attitude of the capitalists: "The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest. They always did. They always will." But given the scenario, which is traced out, of a US economic collapse, of an electoral system based on a shrinking minority, of mass poverty, then a revolt of the mass of the population is inevitable.
There are some faults and deficiencies in the book. Vidal attempts to devise a more "perfect" constitution and electoral system for the US within the framework of capitalism, which is utopian. Some of his well-known polemical exaggerations are also on view. Nevertheless, this book takes you onto a higher plane. Vidal always gives you a long view of history, as well as vital insights on the situation in the US today.
Imperial America - Reflections on the United States of Amnesia by Gore Vidal, published by Clairview Books, £9.95.
In The Socialist 11 September 2004:
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