The angry optimism of Gore Vidal

I haven’t read anything by Gore Vidal, who passed away yesterday. But after Takeaway host Celeste Headlee’s fascinating conversation with writer John Nichols about Vidal’s legacy, I’m thinking I probably should. Here’s a snippet:

Celeste Headlee: We’re talking about a man who gleefully said he thought we were watching the decline of American civilization. I wonder if it’s fair to call Gore Vidal a pessimist?

John Nichols: No, I think it’s not. It is true that because of his amazing intellect, his remarkable delight in all things, he contained pessimism within him. Walt Whitman’s line about containing multitudes certainly applied to Gore Vidal. But the truth is, in knowing him over the years, I came to see him as a great optimist. He believed in the American experiment to such an extent that he was still incredibly capable of getting angry about its missteps — of getting angry about when his country did the wrong thing. […] He delighted in impeachment; he delighted in something that most people see as a great political crisis, because he saw it as one of those places where the people rise up and hold a leader to account. And so he was always believing in, always fascinated by, explosions of democracy.

Headlee: So much so that he at one point called for a new constitutional convention to fix the mistakes of the founders.

Nichols: Absolutely. And you know, the funny thing is that if you know about the founders, you would know that they would have been right with him. The truth is that Jefferson suggested that the worst thing that one generation could do to the next was to hand it a constitution and say “You must live by this.” Gore Vidal really believed that.

Fascinating. And yes, this is one of the things I’m always trying to communicate when making the case for optimism: that it isn’t an attitude of blithe happiness, or of ignoring all the grave problems that face us, but rather a commitment to ideals and to the notion that positive change is possible through human agency, on both an individual and a societal level. Optimism isn’t the opposite of anger; rather, it’s the opposite of despair, of the poisonous notion that there’s nothing to be done. Indeed, anger is often the necessary first step towards change. And to believe in change is to be an optimist.

(Image via The National Post)


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