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"Our Religion is called America": Interview with Norman Mailer
"Now we act as though we rescued these people from terror. There is no reason to eulogize or praise ourselves to the skies. America is not a noble country..Flag conservatives live in the illusion that America is the good and the only hope for the world."
“Our Religion is called America”
Author Norman Mailer on the Mood in the US and on George W. Bush
[This interview is translated from the German in: Der Spiegel 21/ 2003. Norman Mailer, an important American author, was known through the novel “The Naked and the Dead” (1948). His latest polemical book is “Holy War: America’s Crusade. Essays and Interviews on the US struggle against terrorism after September 11, 2001.” Mailer lives in Provincetown (Massachusetts) and in New York.]
Spiegel: Mr. Mailer, you could see the towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan from your apartment. Do you miss them?
Mailer: When they were built, I hated them because they reflected the arrogance and enormous vanity of the architects. I didn’t know what was built there. Untalented architects with vast budgets could raise buildings with 40 or 50 floors that look like latrines made of bricks. The bricks remained when the Twin Towers collapsed. Although outrageous, they made Manhattan interesting. Now an ugliness without shadows exists there.
Spiegel: Unlike many Americans, you obviously don’t take the attacks of the terrorists personally.
Mailer: This was an attack on the American upper class in a certain regard, not an attack on America.
Spiegel: The 2800 murdered in New York were hardly representatives of the establishment.
Mailer: They could be termed the establishment. They worked in the financial economy, import-export trade and the stock market. Since then, the upper class in this country has felt threatened after suffering a deep shock. I compare the effect of September 11 with the shock of Germans after the First World War when their currency lost all value…
Spiegel: …Do you mean the inflation of 1923?
Mailer: You lost your sense of self-esteem at that time. Similarly the sense of security was lost to Americans on September 11,
Spiegel: Since then president Bush has great popularity after waging two wars. Was revenge practiced?
Mailer: The war against Iraq has nothing to do with revenge. This was an enormously skilful political move without any moral significance. All preventive justifications that Saddam had an incredible arsenal of weapons of mass destruction are now rather pale. We may find a little but certainly not in the exaggerated extent.
Spiegel: However the Bush administration is hardly in a legitimation emergency.
Mailer: Americans are obviously not worried if nothing is discovered.
Spiegel: Why aren’t they concerned?
Nailer: Because we want to win or gain victory. We need this for our national ego. The new reason for the war is now that we must liberate Iraq from a tyrant who dreadfully torments and murders his people. The newspapers are full of terrible stories of persons who were shredded. We don’t take into account that we share in the blame and were partly responsible.
Spiegel: Do you think this is because Bush Sr. outlasted Saddam politically in 1990 and the US military silently looked on when Saddam violently crushed the Kurd- and Shiite rebellions?
Mailer: Now we act as though we rescued these people from terror. There is no reason to eulogize or praise ourselves to the skies. America is not a noble country.
Spiegel: For some in the Bush administration, America’s hegemony in the Middle East is at stake, a new imperial order.
Mailer: Some protagonists in the government are actively establishing an American empire. Others say this is rather difficult. Still others are convinced: America is attempting too much. Seen as a whole, there is a tendency to consider the empire as a suitable means for solving the problems of the country.
Spiegel: America was considered an empire since 1945.
Mailer: We didn’t understand ourselves that way. We didn’t admit this.
Spiegel: America’s monopoly as the unparalleled superior superpower is hard to ignore since the collapse of the communist block.
Mailer: America commands an economic world empire with a great number of military bases all over the world. Telling people openly that we actually intend to rule the world and are not a silent empire is vital. Citizens must only realize how many of them will be needed by the military. Today we have around one and a half million soldiers. For its empire to dominate militarily, America needs considerably more soldiers, perhaps ten times as many. This changes the economy, the psychology of citizens and everything.
Spiegel: What are the time spans?
Mailer: In 20, 30 or 40 years. I have my doubts that we can manage with a life made uncertain from time to time by terrorist attacks. Instead we seek for the liberating solution that Americans always seek. There is the famous remark about our landing on the moon circulated by John Kenneth Galbraith. He asked sardonically: Why don’t we pour concrete? The American solution for our problems is to pour concrete or stonewall and cover up.
Spiegel: Do you believe that a solid majority of Americans can be won for the open claim to empire?
Mailer: This readiness exists. I estimate that half of all Americans are enthusiastically in favor of empire. America is a Christian land; a third of all Americans are strict believers. Love for America is one component of our Christianity. America is the religion in this country. Loving Jesus and loving the country go hand in hand.
Spiegel: That is typically called American patriotism. Did September 11 rouse the militant parts in American Christianity?
Mailer: Firstly, it awakened the Christian warrior in George W. Bush. He quickly realized that he wasn’t alone and could gain great support and solve seemingly intractable problems this way.
Spiegel: What problems?
Mailer: The Catholic Church, a pillar of patriotism, is immersed in devastating conflicts. When a priest – and I feel in solidarity with priests – walks down the street, everyone looks questioningly and asks whether he attacks children. Then there was the series of corporate scandals. Moreover, marketing is more important than the products in the economy dominated increasingly by America for several decades.
September 11 solved many things for Bush. For a few years, he had his run. He is clever enough to know that he can bring half of America behind him in the struggle against evil.
Spiegel: Does Bush interest you as a person? Does the person in the president stimulate you as a writer?
Mailer: He is one of the most photogenic men in history. Aren’t you struck by his skill in not looking unattractive? He moves very well when he strokes a dog or climbs out of an aircraft. He could be an excellent male model.
Spiegel: As an author, you must be interested in his motivations. We know his family history, his earlier alcohol problems and his long unsuccessful career in an upper class family accustomed to success. What does this symbolize?
Mailer: I have friends in Alcoholics Anonymous. They describe themselves as dry drinkers.
Spiegel: The president is described this way. What does this mean?
Mailer: Forces rage in this person that may not be given free rein. They must find a replacement or they cannot function. Activity and power offer enough satisfaction.
Spiegel: Do you know the Bush family?
Mailer: His mother, a little. In the 80s I sat next to her at two dinners, an attractive woman, witty and strong. With personal magnetism, she seems genuine and sympathetic in a natural way. His father has much more power than is ascribed to him. I once wrote a story about him titled “How the Weakling Won the War”. The point was he was not a weakling.
Spiegel: How does George W. fit in this family?
Mailer: As a writer, I naturally would like to know what his parents think of him. On one side, they are proud of him. Parents don’t want their children to be failures. On the other side, in a corner of their hearts, they are dismayed about him since he doesn’t have their style.
Spiegel: The parents are old-established East-coasters. George W. is a Texan by conviction.
Mailer: Something raw is in this man. This is a surprise. We describe this breed of people as “yahoos” or brawlers. He is vulgar. He made a choice with his vulgarity in view of his dignified, interesting and vigorous parents. He is cynical and loves manipulating people. Thus the dry drinker commands the situation. He needs the satisfaction of leading a very active and dynamic life. He understands how to manipulate half of America by constantly waving the star spangled banner.
Spiegel: The son is a revolutionary compared with his father who drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait without putting his finger on the powder keg of the Middle East and without single-handed American actions and claims of empire.
Mailer: I cannot bear when the marvelous leftist word revolutionary is applied to archconservatives. He is a militant flag conservative. These flag conservatives are currently in the majority. The value conservatives don’t know what is happening.
Spiegel: How are flag conservatives different from value conservatives?
Mailer: Traditionalists like Pat Buchanan believe that America should be occupied with itself in solving its problems. They hold to the family, the Fatherland and faith. They stand for hard work, honesty and a balanced state budget.
Bush is different. Flag conservatives like him act as though they believed in the old values but completely ignore them. They use the flag; they use biblical symbols like “evil” unscrupulously. They live in the illusion that America is the good and the only hope for the world. Flag conservatives believe that America can and must rule the world. Without empire, the country goes downhill economically and morally. This is the unexpressed subtext for the Iraq war that is always denied.
Spiegel: Bush is compared with President Harry Truman. Both had simple natures and were inexperienced in the world but were capable of momentous decisions.
Mailer: No. Truman was a self-made man. He had stubbornness and strong roots that Bush doesn’t have. Bush reminds me of Ronald Reagan in some regards. They both have a quality that makes them appear very endearing for Americans.
Spiegel: What is that quality?
Mailer: As a play actor, Reagan was always Number two in love stories. He won the maiden but also left her to another man – with a smile on his face. Americans loved him for that. In the biography of most men, they weren’t the first choice of the women of their dreams. Bush is just the same. As an actor, he played the role of the loser in dignity.
Spiegel: Reagan denounced “evil” playfully while Bush seriously marched into war. He means what he says.
Mailer: That is hypocrisy. He resembles Maggie Thatcher. He believes in what seems useful for him to believe.
Spiegel: Mr, Mailer, you discussed current politics in a slender volume. You survived the celebrations for your 80th birthday. What kind of novel are you working on now?
Mailer: I am working on an ambitious book, a very intricate novel that may surpass my possibilities.
Spiegel: How often have you said that about novel projects?
Mailer: This novel is not a continuance of “Ghosts”, my book about the CIA. I will do everything to end the book but it could take ten years. I don’t know how well one writes at 90.
Spiegel: Mr. Mailer, thank you for this conversation.