U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gore Vidal, Master Polemicist

I have always loved a good polemic. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I selected the culture wars as the topic of my current research. The polemic is the genre of choice for culture warriors. Unfortunately, most of the culture wars polemics I read are bad; they are mostly, to phrase it generously, “inartful.” So much so that I have almost grown immune to the polemic. But every now and then I come across a master polemicist, someone like Gore Vidal. For anyone interested in learning the art of the polemic, his 1981 essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” should be compulsory reading. (The essay was originally published by The Nation [Nov. 14, 1981] but is perhaps easier located in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, 339-356.)

“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” is a 17-page review of an article of about the same length, which might seem strange minus some context. Vidal’s essay was a scathing critique of Midge Decter’s infamous “Boys on the Beach” article—a vicious, anecdotal attack on the gay right’s movement—published in Commentary (Sept. 1980). “Boys on the Beach” was widely read and discussed in literary circles. In other words, Decter’s article merited the Vidal treatment.

Decter opposed the gay right’s movement in general, just as she opposed women’s liberation, and all the other movements associated with the Sixties. In this she was the typical, even prototypical neoconservative. But specific to her 1980 Commentary article, she framed her opposition to gay rights, and to homosexuality more generally, by way of her observations of the gays who populated Fire Island, a Long Island beach resort where Decter and her family spent their summers in the early 1960s. Among other slanders, Decter interpreted the homosexuality she observed on Fire Island as a flight from the responsibilities of women and children. She accused the Fire Island gays of flaunting their narcissistic behavior in the face of the straight men who duly went about their unexciting but meaningful lives but who nonetheless felt that the gays were flaunting their irresponsibility. The straight men Decter defended—men like her husband, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz—“feel mocked most of all for having become, in style as well as in substance, family men, caught up in getting and begetting, thinking of mortgages, schools, and the affordable, marking the passage of years in obedience to all the grubby imperatives that heterosexual manhood seems to impose. In assuming such burdens they believe themselves entitled to respect, but homosexuality paints them with the color of sheer entrapment.” The upshot is that Decter believed the gays of Fire Island already had everything they wanted, so what need was there for a gay right’s movement?

Vidal cut Decter down to size on the merits of her argument, to be sure. As Vidal makes clear, Decter described the Fire Island gays as if they represented all gays, ignoring that plenty hid in plain sight due to social prejudices. And on the notion that gay men lived to torment the straight men around them, Vidal had this retort: “Although Decter’s blood was always at the boil when contemplating these unnatural and immature half-men, they were, I would suspect, serenely unaware of her and her new-class cronies, solemnly worshiping at the shrine of The Family.”

Vidal also went after Decter’s style, since, for the master polemicist, there is no strict division between style and substance. A small sample: “[Decter] writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known to those few who know her.”

Even more damning, Vidal questions Decter’s basic understanding of homosexuality, in response to her remark, a mix of wonder and disgust, that the bodies of the gays on the beach were seemingly always hairless. “It is startling that Decter has not yet learned that there is no hormonal difference between men who like sex with other men and those who like sex with women.”

But the icing on the polemical cake is the way Vidal framed his overarching argument. By titling his article “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” Vidal called attention to Decter as a Jew, and to Commentary as a Jewish publication. “In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles.” In the context of Reagan’s election and with the newfound political visibility of evangelicals, Vidal reasoned that Jews and homosexuals, once again, had common enemies and should unite. And yet, to the contrary, “Mrs. Norman Podhoretz… has managed not only to come up with every known prejudice and superstition about same-sexers but also to make up some brand-new ones. For sheer vim and vigor, ‘The Boys on the Beach’ outdoes its implicit model, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.”

This latter element of Vidal’s argument is the most suspect, at least, in terms of accurately judging the Jewish position in the United States. That many Jews have found common cause with evangelicals, and not just regarding Israel, has not constrained their freedom as Jews in the United States. Quite to the contrary, as George Nash convincingly demonstrates in “Joining Ranks: Commentary and American Conservatism,” a chapter from his latest book, Reappraising the Right, the conservative turn taken by the Jews at Commentary demonstrated that Jews were more mainstream than ever, and thus less threatened as a minority than ever. Nash writes: “In 1945, Commentary had been born into a marginal, impoverished, immigrant-based subculture and an intellectual milieu that touted ‘alienation’ and ‘critical nonconformity’ as the true marks of the intellectual vis-à-vis his own culture. Two generations later, Commentary stood in the mainstream of American culture, and even of American conservatism, as a celebrant of the fundamental goodness of the American regime, and Norman Podhoretz, an immigrant’s milkman, was its advocate.” Of course, perspicuity is not always a prerequisite for a powerful polemic, nor for a proper ethical stance.

Allow me to conclude by asking two questions of you, dear reader: What makes a good polemic? And who are some of your favorite polemicists?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. That whole generation of public intellectuals was great at it–Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley, Jr., Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Susan Sontag. They had it all for a good polemic–smarts, humor, and the ability to cut to the quick. After a punch by the permanently insecure novelist Norman Mailer landed Gore Vidal on the floor of a bar, he looked up and said “Words fail Norman Mailer once again.” How do you respond to that?

  2. Another great Vidal anecdote, thanks Kevin. I linked to this post on the S-USIH facebook page, and David Greenberg politely scolded me for not mentioning Vidal’s anti-Semitism. He referenced the New Yorker letters that revealed as much. Does anyone know more about this? I responded to David that, besides Norman Podhoretz’s famous accusations that Vidal was a virulent anti-Semite in a 1986 Commentary piece, I confess to not knowing enough about Vidal’s anti-Semitism. In what I’ve read I’ve never detected anti-Semitism. I obviously haven’t read everything he’s written. Who has? He’s written so much. In the anti-Decter piece I analyze here, Vidal definitely comes across as anti-arriviste,

  3. There’s something jarring about Vidal’s “[calling] attention to Decter as a Jew, and to _Commentary_ as a Jewish publication.” Is this deft and clever on Vidal’s part, or crudely reductionist and essentialist?

    Decter’s argument is easily dismantled on its own (lack of) merit without recourse to the obviously exaggerated claim that it implicitly draws upon / is modeled after _The Protocols of the Elders of Zion)_. And then there’s his referral to her as “Mrs. Norman Podhoretz.” Yes, that’s a way of calling attention to her traditionalist gender politics, but it is also condescending and dismissive. It suggests Vidal does not believe Decter to be his real opponent — he is arraying himself against part of the cabal [I choose the word with care] churning out _Commentary_.

    And what does it meant that he pointed out that _Commentary_ was “a Jewish publication”? That it had Jewish editors? That all the articles were written by Jews? That very characterization — “Jewish publication” — relies on a whole set of assumptions that allow Vidal’s readers to understand it as a pejorative term.

    It may not be a direct quote. But I trust your reading, and so I would assume it’s a fair summary of Vidal’s point. It seems likely that there’s more to his point about Jewishness than charging Decter with a sort of historical hypocrisy. It is as if Decter is obligated to feel empathy, while Vidal is not.

    Polemicists in general annoy me. For an intellectual historian, this is problematic — ideas come through very clearly when they are thrown into high rhetorical relief.

  4. And yes, I realize the irony of saying that polemicists annoy me — what, pray tell, do I think William Lloyd Garrison was? (Though, to be fair to myself, I’m sure he would have annoyed me too.)

    Ah well. “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

  5. LD: I see what you mean. But to be fair, Commentary was founded by the American Jewish Committee, and though it has grown into something much bigger in American social thought, to this day one of its organizing principles is to examine “the future of the Jews, Judaism, and Jewish culture in Israel, the United States, and around the world…”

    For some, the very mention of Jews in the same breath as neoconservatism reflects an anti-Semitic mindset. For those who think the neocons were a secret “cabal” who had conspired to shape the Bush administration and to lead the US into Iraq, this is probably an accurate assessment.

    But most of the early neocons were in fact Jewish, and so I think it’s legitimate to wonder about this relationship. Certainly George Nash does in the essay I cited in the post, where he credits the Jews at Commentary, especially Podhoretz, for helping to mainstream Judaism by making it OK to be Jewish and conservative.

    For Jacob Heilbrunn, the author of a history of neoconservatism, (THE KNEW THEY WERE RIGHT, not my favorite book on the topic), who used to sympathize with neoconservatism, it is “about a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism.” Heilbrunn is too crudely Hofstadteresque when he writes that “neoconservatism is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas.” But critiquing Heilbrunn for reductionist psychohistory is not to claim that he’s wrong to examine why so many of the early neocons were Jews.

    None of this is meant to let Vidal off the hook for his anti-Semitism. But it does, I think, mean that “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” can be read as a non-anti-semitic polemic. Of course, larger context is everything.

  6. Fair enough. I really need to read Vidal’s piece in its entirety to see if my spider senses are reliable now, or are lending me astray. It just seems like he is invoking Jewishness as a totalizing explanation (that’s all or essentially what _Commentary_ is, what Decter is, etc.) and an ironic indictment.

    It may be that the whole “Mrs. Podhoretz” thing is the more problematic. You see that a lot in the armchair polemical debates that happen on the interwebz — say, in the comment threads of Chronicle.com. The over-polite “Ms. So-and-So” or “Mrs. So-and-So, and sometimes, “Mr. So-and-So,” foregrounds gender and (in the case of women) assumed relationship status as a very genteel kind of ad hominem argument. The more officiously genteel the diction — “the good Ms. So-and-So” — the more unmistakably hostile the intent. Usually it’s a quick slide from that kind of feigned politeness to undisguised sexism — some commenter addressing an author or opponent in argument as “darling” or “sweetheart.” I am not sure what the corresponding gendered terms of dismissal would be for men — they haven’t jumped out at me yet. But I do my best to stay away from the Chronicle’s comments anyway. It’s all I can do to stay out of trouble on USIH.

  7. I’ll say that one trope often used be antisemites is to make Holocaust analogies to things Jews, especially Israelis, are doing. A few years ago, Irish poet Tom Paulin referred to the Jewish settlers in the West Bank as the “Zionist SS.” I think that was unfair and in poor taste. Talk of Israeli apartheid definitely stings Jews, even if there is some truth to it, but not as much as Holocaust analogies, which I think are sometimes used to get under their skin. Then again, Jewish critics of Israel probably use Holocaust analogies too.

    The late Tony Judt, who was certainly not an antisemite, far more eloquently said that the fact that an IDF soldier’s grandparent was murdered at Auschwitz is not an excuse for that soldier oppressing Palestinians (I’m paraphrasing).

  8. Slightly off-topic, though generally related to polemics. Just don’t know where else to post it…

    Today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” James Livingston got raked over the coals for his editorial in the NY Times.

    Here’s a link w/ a video clip: When Worlds Collide

  9. Vidal’s partner of 40 years or so was Jewish. This, of course, proves not much of anything in and of itself. It’s one fact among many, just as “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” is one among many Vidal essays.

    It’s a possibility that Vidal’s essay reflects his exasperation with a kind of narrow identity by Commentary as, by self-description, a Jewish-conservative/conservative-Jewish publication. After all, he rolled his eyes just as much at the notion of a “gay community.”

    To me, some of the essay’s references were a bit like saying, “Midge, you’re a dunderhead if you and Commentary stress a political conservatism informed by Jewish identity but then you can’t see how you might have common cause with another persecuted minority.”

    But, maybe I’m being generous.

  10. It feels a bit cheap to mention Hunter S. Thompson here just a couple weeks after the release of the film adaptation of his novel The Rum Diary (which I haven’t seen), but in my view the high points of his incisive, if somewhat misunderstood body of work warrant inclusion among the most searing, wildly humorous polemics of the twentieth century. While his long-running commentary on the developments of the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s stands as an insightful critique of modern American life, society, and political culture, his coverage of the 1972 Democratic primary and presidential campaigns, as well as the subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate investigation, should be recognized as some of the finest political journalism produced during that or any other period. Unfortunately, he is best known, at least by my generation, as more a personality than an intellect – a caricature too closely associated with the excesses he routinely exaggerated in his writing.

  11. Being critical of the Evangelical/Jewish unholy alliance regarding Israel’s and Netanyahu’s rush towards Armageddon is not being anti-Semitic. The Evangelicals want the Final War so that Jesus can come back. I’m Jewish and gay and we don’t think Jesus is coming back because he’s been dead 2012 years.

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