Norman Mailer: Against the Empire

The death of author Norman Mailer stills an eloquent voice in defense of the old America — the pre-9/11, pre-neocon -dominated America, which disdained the idea of empire. During the Vietnam war, whilst in attendance at Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball,” he went up to McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy advisor, and demanded that he step outside so they could settle accounts like two gentlemen. Here’s an excerpt from his remarkably prescient 2003 op ed:

“There is a subtext to what the Bushites are doing as they prepare for war in Iraq. My hypothesis is that President George W. Bush and many conservatives have come to the conclusion that the only way they can save America and get if off its present downslope is to become a regime with a greater military presence and drive toward empire. My fear is that Americans might lose their democracy in the process.

” … Iraq is the excuse for moving in an imperial direction. War with Iraq, as they originally conceived it, would be a quick, dramatic step that would enable them to control the Near East as a powerful base – not least because of the oil there, as well as the water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – to build a world empire.”

He elaborated on his view of the US as a developing world empire in a fascinating interview with the editors of The American Conservative, in which he explains why he called himself a “left-conservative. Here’s a fascinating snippet: 

There is just this kind of mad-eyed mystique in Americans: the idea that we Americans can do anything. So, say flag conservatives, we will be able to handle what comes. Our know-how, our can-do, will dominate all obstacles. They truly believe America is not only fit to run the world but that it must run the world. Otherwise, we will lose ourselves. If there is not a new seriousness in American affairs, the country is going to go down the drain. That, I am fully ready to speculate, is the subtext beneath the Iraqi subtext, and they may not even be wholly aware of it themselves, not all of them.” 

And here’s one for the road: “The White Man Unburdened,” his 2003 antiwar essay in the New York Review of Books.

  • lester

    I have a retrospective book of “the nation” that includes a piece by him on the subject of american empire from I think the 80’s. It’s very good

  • I remember seeing him on an episode of The Gilmore Girls. Ha.

  • lol no kidding. also, my mistake it was gore vidal i was thinking of

  • SanFernandoCurt

    “My hypothesis is that President George W. Bush and many conservatives have come to the conclusion that the only way they can save America and get if off its present downslope is to become a regime with a greater military presence and drive toward empire.”

    Well… It has seemed to me, over the course of the last few years, that greater military presence and drive toward empire are what put us on the “present downslope”. They are not the corrective, they are the CAUSE.

    Guess Mailer’s self-description as a “left-conservative” is emblematic of his confusion. May he rest in peace.