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Father to Son: What I've Learned About Rage

A conversation between a man of legendary fury and his son preparing to go to the barricades about the uses and abuses of Bush hatred.

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Norman Mailer and son, John Buffalo Mailer.  

John Buffalo Mailer Let’s start with Fahrenheit 9/11. I’ve seen it three times, and with each viewing I became more aware of Michael Moore’s tricks. I would say about 50 percent of the film is indisputable, particularly the portion on Iraq, but in the first half he uses too many needless tricks.

Norman Mailer I don’t disagree. I saw it for the first time last night, and was upset through the first half. You don’t make your case by showing George H.W. Bush and a Saudi sheikh shaking hands. On a photo op, important politicians will shake hands with the devil. Moore seems to think that if you get people laughing at the right wing, you will win through ridicule. He’s wrong. That’s when we lose. Back with the Progressive Party in 1948, we used to laugh and laugh at how dumb the other side was. We’re still laughing, and we’re further behind now.

On the other hand, the stuff on Iraq was powerful. There, he didn’t need cheap shots. The real story was in the faces. All those faces on the Bush team. What you saw was the spiritual emptiness of those people. Bush has one of the emptiest faces in America. He looks to have no more depth than spit on a rock. It could be that the most incisive personal crime committed by George Bush is that he probably never said to himself, “I don’t deserve to be president.” You just can’t trust a man who’s never been embarrassed by himself. The vanity of George W. stands out with every smirk. He literally cannot control that vanity. It seeps out of every movement of his lips, it squeezes through every tight-lipped grimace. Every grin is a study in smugsmanship.

JBM His face does bring out the rage of the left. Never before have I seen so many people’s blood boil at the sight of an American president. Especially in New York. Of all the cities out there, why would the Republicans pick New York to hold their convention?

NM I would say they are hoping for ugly attacks. If I were a voice in top Republican circles, I might be offering this advice: “What we need for New York is a large-scale riot. Some of those activist kids will be crazy enough to do a lot on their own, but we can do better with a few of our guys, well-placed, ready to urinate on the good American flag. Let us recognize that if we lose, all we’ve been doing since 2000 is bound to come out. Back a couple of years ago, Karl Rove was saying that we could gain a twenty-year hegemony by winning the next election. He hasn’t said it lately, not since the worst of Iraq came through. Because now we could be out of power for those same twenty years. So I recommend that we put as many of our people into the protest movement in New York as we can find.” Or so, at least, speaks the cool Republican planner I envisage in my mind.

JBM There could be such people out there. But the Republicans may not even need them. There are thousands of 15-, 16-, 17-year-old anarchists who are truly angry. These kids don’t really know what anarchy is all about, but they do know that when they throw a brick through a window, it makes them feel good and there’s a chance they will end up on television. This feeds into the celebrity craze that America is under right now of “Get on TV, man! That’s when you’re really important!” This may be the first protest where there will be as many cameras as protesters.

NM Some of them will have footage to sell afterward. The networks and cable companies will be looking for clips.

When I was young, the suggestion to be moderate was like a stink bomb to me. An orderly demonstration? What were we, cattle?

JBM Right, but it’s also for the demonstrators’ own protection. A cop is much less likely to bash a protester in the head if he’s holding a video camera.

NM I must say, I hadn’t thought of that.

JBM I feel we’ve entered a realm where the question is, whose propaganda is better? The left is beginning to figure out that they can’t beat the right with intelligent argument. They need punch phrases that get to the heart of the average American. If that’s the case, what is the future for our country?

NM That’s not my first worry right now. Do the activists really know what they’re going into? That’s my concern. Or do they assume that expressing their rage is equal to getting Kerry elected? It could have exactly the opposite effect. The better mode may be to frustrate the Republicans by coming up with orderly demonstrations. Now, when I was young, the suggestion to be moderate was like a stink bomb to me. An orderly demonstration? What were we, cattle? You have to speak out with your rage. Well, I’m trying to say, we would do well to realize that on this occasion, there are more important things than a good outburst. I wish we could remind everybody who goes out to march of the old Italian saying: “Revenge is a dish that people of taste eat cold.” Instead of expressing yourself at the end of August, think of how nicely you will be able to keep expressing yourself over the four years to come if we win. Just keep thinking how much the Republicans want anarchy on the street. I say, don’t march right into their trap.

JBM What can activists do to avoid that?

NM Well, the trouble with being in a cautionary position is that you’re limited. You’re trying to slow down a wave. Everyone expects excesses—it’s a question of how many there will be. Most of the leaders of most of the activist organizations are responsible, most of them, certainly. And I think some of them see the peril. They will do well to look at their own ranks and see if they’ve got some peculiarly rotten apples in the barrel.

JBM One of the problems with this movement is that there’s no leader per se. There are spokespeople for each group. But this is a movement that has grown organically and has relied on the goodness of human nature almost to a fault. And I believe it’s coming to a head, where, without somebody directing the huge crowd that’s going to be there, without saying, “This is what the movement believes in,” Middle America will see nothing but anarchy.

NM You make me think of the march on the Pentagon in 1967. There was a marvelous guy named David Dellinger, now dead, who led it, and a man named A. J. Muste, an old anarchist, also gone, a fine old anarchist. They got together and realized they had to find some kind of umbrella organization that could have input to all the activist groups. And they succeeded. They had a series of discussions with the various elements. And there was virtually no disarray to speak of, compared to what it could have been. The march on the Pentagon even ended up having a final effect that was impressive. I think it was the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam, and for a very simple reason: Lyndon Johnson saw 50,000 mostly middle-class people come to Washington to stage a set of demonstrations that were going to be opposed by troops and police. LBJ knew people well. From his point of view, most middle-class people were hardly full of physical bravery. If they were going to pay their own money and come by car or bus or train to march into the possibility of being hit over the head with a cop’s club, then there had to be millions of people behind them.


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