Novelist Gore Vidal was the embodiment of freedom of speech, from his groundbreaking portrayal of homosexuality in his 1948 novel “The City and the Pillar” to his criticisms of Presidents Bush and Obama and their involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vidal never hesitated to speak out against something he thought was unfair, unfounded or just plain stupid. When Vidal died Tuesday at age 86, we lost not only a literary talent but also a vivid representation of the importance of free speech. In honor of Vidal’s life, I thought I’d use Free Speech Friday to share some of his views on language, literature and freedom of expression.
“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and 50 percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same 50 percent.”
This is probably one of Vidal’s most famous quotes, and one I consider having tattooed on my forehead every election year. Not a single person in my family researches the candidates or follows political coverage even casually. They’re proud “straight-ticket” voters who throw their support behind their party’s nominees regardless of how many questions are raised about their suitability. Even when a candidate is an obvious doofus, they can’t see it or don’t care. I wish this was the trend just in my immediate circle, but it seems to be the rule rather than the exception among the American public, and it makes me wonder if journalists like me are obsolete.
“The four most beautiful words in the English language: I told you so.”This would be my response to the people in point one.
“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’” (From Esquire)
Here again, I wonder if the role of the writer has all but disappeared. The “great writers,” the ones who question society, authority and every other aspect of existence, are often dismissed as either paranoid or as “liberal elitists” concerned only with undermining the values all Americans supposedly stand for. The writers who are rewarded are those who seek out the most sensational stories they can find or who maintain the status quo and offer us feel-good stories that reassure us there no is need to question anything.
Have a favorite Gore Vidal quote I missed? Share it in the comment section below, or offer your thoughts on Vidal’s talent, insight and what his death means to literature and public discourse.
Photo: Gore Vidal in 1945 (Credit: Carl Van Vechten)