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America the Great ... Police State

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Posted on Aug 2, 2012
Gore Vidal
Truthdig/Zuade Kaufman

By Gore Vidal

Truthdig was proud to be the home of Gore Vidal’s essays over the last six years. In a tribute to his legacy, we’ll be rerunning his great works. The following was first published July 28, 2009.

For those of us who had hoped that the Obama administration would present us with a rebirth of the old republic that was so rudely erased a few years ago by that team of judicial wreckers, Bush and Gonzales, which led, in turn, to a recent incident in Cambridge, Mass. that inspired a degree of alarm in many Americans. But what was most alarming was the plain fact that neither the president nor a “stupid” local policeman seemed to understand the rules of behavior in a new America, where we find ourselves marooned as well as guarded (is that the verb?) by armed police who have been instructed that they are indeed, once armed, the law and may not be criticized verbally or in any other way and are certainly not subject to any restrictions as to whom they arrest or otherwise torment.

This is rather worse than anyone might have predicted, even though the signs have been clear for some years that ours is now a proto-fascist nation and there appears to be no turning back; nor, indeed, much awareness on the part of our ever-alert media. Forgive me if you find my irony heavy, but I too get tired of carrying it about in “the greatest nation in the country,” as Spiro Agnew liked to say.

I was first made aware of this development in 1946 when I was limping around in army uniform in New York City and noticed that the local police (admired by none) were beginning to run wild, possibly because so many of the able-bodied young had, like myself, been serving for some years overseas. I recall that some sort of parade was being held and what looked to be a thousand or two citizens were trying unsuccessfully to cross Fifth Avenue. I waited on a street corner for an hour in my uniform, limping from my disability earned by my service in the war. But after nearly an hour of waiting, I stopped a policeman who was wandering idly around and asked him politely when I’d be able to cross Fifth Avenue. He shrieked at me, “Go call da mayor!” And I said, “Oh I will, I will.” Actually, I did know the mayor at that time, but he was not available on that sacred day. I did make a protest as a veteran who had mustered out with a disability for life, but this seemed to be a cause of great merriment. In any case, that was my first experience of a Nazi-like police force in New York City, a city pretty much home to me from childhood on.

I was also aware as the years passed how often friends would be beaten up in front of what were called “faggot bars.” Meanwhile, the police never seemed to stop an incessant whining about the enormous dangers to which their work subjected them as they gallantly served our great city, even though they were insufficiently paid and admired. I thought then that the whole damn lot of them should be sent to Camp Lejeune to be put through a strong course of basic training by the Marine Corps.

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I also propose this as a solution to the problem that they currently pose us, not only on Fifth Avenue but in Harvard Yard, where a young policeman recently distinguished himself by being rude to the president, complaining with the irresistible policeman’s whine that he and the president were just alike in their problems, only he was being particularly bugged by the press, in effect, said, “join the club.” Now that they were becoming buddies in embarrassment, the little corporal said, characteristically allowing his envy to show, “You’ve got a bigger lawn than mine”—thus, proving how serious daydreaming can place yourself into a position of parity.

But the true meaning of the mess in Cambridge has been carefully avoided by a media incapable of getting the point to anything if they can excitingly change the subject to something else. So here we now have a cast of characters that includes the president himself, a distinguished scholar and a feckless young policeman who on the radio said, when asked why he had behaved so rudely to the “old” scholar, he said because the old guy had been rude about his mother. I haven’t heard this excuse since the playground of St. Alban’s in 1935.


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