Strakon Lights Up, No. 104

Reflections on conspiracy,
or, Breathing together
with Gore Vidal and the Lone Eagle

Part one


I must have read ten times as much of Gore Vidal's fiction as I've read of his non-fiction — in fact, I'm nonplussed when I reflect that over the years I've somehow read a larger share of his novels than of any other important modern novelist's apart from Ayn Rand's, as well as two of his plays (I fear the shade of Rand would not be amused) — but I have to make a rare confession of agreement with received wisdom in maintaining that Vidal is at his best, and most thoughtcrime-provoking, as a critic and essayist. The preceding sentence, incidentally, has turned out distinctly Vidalesque; when I read the old pagan, his style seems to sneak its way under my skin and lurk there for a while. Rand, that other old pagan, is a greater light, but her style has never proved similarly contagious.

I've been parading through Vidal's most recent collection, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000, and so far, since I'm more of a political and historical type than I am a literary one, I'd say the high point (no pun intended) is Vidal's appreciation of one of my own heroes: "Lindbergh: The Eagle Is Grounded" (pp. 129-48). Vidal wrote the essay in 1998 for the Times Literary Supplement (for the benefit of my fellow cornfolk, I reckon that to be the Times of London), and it was principally occasioned by Scott Berg's 1998 biography; but Vidal also mines Joyce Milton's earlier bio, as well as Miss Reeve Lindbergh's Under a Wing and her father's own Autobiography of Values. Vidal has much to say about Charles Lindbergh that's interesting, even moving, such as this envoi: "It might be a pleasant gift to the new century and the new millennium to replace the pejorative 1812 caricature of a sly treacherous Uncle Sam with that of Lindbergh, the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American style."

Hear, hear. Those who are alive to the manipulation of symbols need not worry. Lindbergh's is an image of inspiration for Us only, never Them. We can count on the Empire not to kidnap and debase his image, given imperial courtiers' defamation of Lindbergh for the past 60 years as anti-Semite, crypto-Nazi, and traitor (i.e., opponent of Franklin Roosevelt). In passing, I do have to quibble with Vidal's characterization of the Uncle Sam icon. I don't find it sly and treacherous so much as evil and terrifying. Whenever I think of it I can't get beyond the classic caricature from the Vietnam time, the one in which Uncle is depicted as a leering, fanged, blood-dripping skull-demon of Death, stabbing a skeletal finger at the viewer and intoning: "I Want You!" It's only natural: I was afraid I might be one of those whom Uncle Skull wanted. The terror of that made a permanent impression.

Lindbergh was a pioneer aviator, a writer both graceful and profound, and a life-saving creator (he invented the surgical perfusion pump and the whole idea of the pilot's checklist), but it is his patriotic struggle to keep his beloved country out of World War, Part II — and thereby save many more lives — that chiefly attracts Vidal. The latter is an anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist whose anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism I can only describe — with apologies to the man himself, who is a policeman of adjectives and scourge of cliché-mongers — as mordant, sardonic, ironic, and acerbic.

As I say, I'm still most familiar with Vidal the fiction writer; I've read several of his linked novels dealing with the American Empire. I hadn't gotten far into the most recent installment, The Golden Age, set during World War II, before starting to suspect that one of Vidal's chief sources was Thomas Mahl's astonishing exposé, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44. (Those who don't know about Mahl's revelations might want to proceed — after finishing this column, of course — to Stephen J. Sniegoski's review of Desperate Deception, posted on this site.) Sure enough, in his Lindbergh essay, Vidal cites Mahl several times.

What strikes me is the fact that, in doing so, Vidal is unterrified by the word "conspiracy." On Roosevelt's bellicose and one-sided sermon of 1937 about "quarantining" aggressor nations, Vidal quotes John Buchan's comment that the speech is "the culmination of a long conspiracy between us. (This must be kept secret!)" Now, you may be thinking of Buchan as the author of a whole slew of thrillers, but he was speaking here as the august Baron Tweedsmuir, governor-general of Canada and, until his accidental death in 1940, an eminent asset of British intelligence. (P. 142 in Vidal, pp. 4 and 60 in Mahl) The Britannica's article on Buchan says that his tales "usually involved upper-class Englishmen confronted with improbable conspiracies in a world otherwise realistically portrayed." It transpires that milord knew a little more about conspiracies, not to mention the real world, than the encyclopedia's contributor did.

Vidal goes further than merely quoting someone using the dread C-word. He declares straight out that "although media and schools condition Americans to start giggling at the mention of the word 'conspiracy,' there are, at any moment, all sorts of conspiracies crisscrossing our spacious skies and amber fields of grain." He goes on to write that of all the conspiracies of the 20th century, "the largest, most intricate, and finally most successful was that of the British to get us [i.e., the United State] into the Second World War." Winding up the same paragraph, he writes, "There was indeed a vast conspiracy to maneuver an essentially isolationist [i.e., anti-interventionist] country into war. There was also a dedicated conspiracy to destroy Lindbergh's reputation as hero." (p. 131)

Throughout most of his career, beginning with the 1948 publication of his homosexualist novel The City and the Pillar when he was 20 or 21, Vidal has paid the price for his bad attitudes. Nowadays both homosexuality and homosexualism are sacrosanct in the culture, of course, but you've got to hand it to the man: he goes on paying prices. Several years ago he, too, was tarred and feathered as an anti-Semite when he criticized the Israeli Empire and its power as exercised both in Palestine and here in the Home of the Cowed and Land of the Intimidated. And now he's paying the price for his bad attitude on the American Empire. (I certainly don't identify with all his bad attitudes, but right there we have two in a row that qualify.) Recently some Establishment spokescreature, ridiculing Vidal's take on the murky possibilities surrounding Timothy McVeigh, announced that Vidal had officially "joined the black-helicopter brigade."

It's a brigade that some folks would like to conscript me into as well. Unlike Vidal, I do get a little terrified, or at least nervous, whenever I use the word "conspiracy," because I know that some readers, even friendly ones, are going to respond by describing me as a "conspiratorialist" and my entire world-view as "conspiratorial." That's despite my insistence that I'm not a conspiratorialist but a ruling-class analyst and that there's a big difference. Inspired by the brave Gore Vidal (not to mention the brave Charles Lindbergh), I intend to sort all of that out, once and for all.

Maybe I deserve to be bedeviled by that giggle-producing tag, however inaccurate. On a few occasions I've no sooner denied I am a conspiratorialist than I've proceeded to get all sarcastic, saying something like, "The most cursory glance at world history reveals conspiracy after conspiracy, but as we all know, they just can't happen here. Not in Our Democracy!" It probably sounds as though I'm trying to have my cake of conspiracy and eat it, too. So which is it?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that this conspiracy business is one funny universe of discourse — funny peculiar. It is thoroughly infected by what Rand would call intellectual package deals. Let a man say that he accepts the reality of a certain conspiracy, that he has been convinced by the evidence and arguments he has encountered, and the first thing his interlocutors will do is mentally translate that to "he believes in the conspiracy" — in the same way that religious people are said, by some secular people, to believe in their creed despite the absence of any possible real-world proof or even despite evidence to the contrary. Odd: no one would speak in terms of a historian's believing, in the manner of a religious believer, in the conspiratorial assassination of Julius Cæsar.

But the oddness is just starting. The second thing those mainstream interlocutors will do — many of them — enough of them — is buy into an intellectual package deal of immense proportions: If their misguided friend believes in one conspiracy, he must believe in all conspiracies! The end result may well be that someone who merely expresses grave doubts about the accuracy of the Warren Report is taken to believe that Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) are flying those black helicopters in search of Elvis, who shot John F. Kennedy from the grassy knoll because Kennedy's space program was trying to deceive people into thinking that the Earth is round. Odd indeed — isn't it? — that the word "conspiracy" exerts stronger mental magic on those who reflexively reject all conspiracies than on those who accept specific conspiracies.

I "believe in" specific conspiracies; or, better, I think that certain historical events, including some in this country, unfolded in a certain way as a result of some sort of conspiratorial — that is to say, deliberately coordinated — action on the part of the powerful. Usually, of course, I don't actually have the goods on anyone, but there is at least one example of a pretty important conspiracy about which the goods are obtainable by anyone who cares to crack a history book. It has to be difficult for an un-brainwashed foreigner to investigate the Constitutional Convention of 1787 without thinking of the C-word, especially in view of the convention's purported purpose (discussion of limited reform) and the secrecy of its proceedings while it was in session, and most especially in view of the fact that it resulted in a stunning coup d'etat against the existing U.S. government. It's hard for most Americans to think of the convention as a coup-producing conspiracy precisely because the coup succeeded and produced a Central Government — and a mental universe of politics and governance — that most Americans decided to acquiesce in and that all Americans soon became used to.

That's an important point. Secrecy isn't necessary after the fact, if enough of the people can be cozened into accepting the conspiracy and its results. But that doesn't make it any less a conspiracy. I don't know how long it took for James Madison's detailed record of the conspiracy's proceedings to become widely available, but it certainly wasn't subject to any Official Secrets Act for 50 years. It's likely that if, in 1963, most Americans had greeted Kennedy's violent de-election as a great and welcome thing, and had been prepared to celebrate the brightened prospects of the assassination's highly placed beneficiaries and orchestrators, most of the fog blanketing the deeds in Dallas would have dissipated long ago. We might even be able to order up from Amazon.com a paperback copy of the Record of the Proceedings, written by some gray-haired statesman with blood on his hands. I'll risk mangling some time-honored doggerel:

Conspiracy is never popular.
Why hath it such a legacy?
For if it be popular,
None dare call it conspiracy.

August 27, 2001

© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Strakon extends his reflections
in his column of September 23, 2002.

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New York: Doubleday, 2001, 465 pp. ISBN 0-385-50154-4. List: $27.50.

Though its list price is typically outrageous, this book is in another way untypical. Despite its having been brought out by a major American publisher, the book reflects some actual proofreading by actual human proofreaders.  It lacks a typo, misspelling, or similar blunder on every page. Rara avis! Prodigious anachronism! Perhaps Mr. Vidal managed to hold a few corporate feet to the fire.