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March 21, 2003

When will Lewis H. Lapham Learn to Count?


I just don’t know how Lewis H. Lapham does it. By “it,” I mean, act as the editor of a magazine. Let me give some small examples from his latest screed, um, essay in the April 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

His essay is entitled “Cause for Dissent: Ten Questions for the Bush Regime [emphasis added.]” It has ten numbered sections. Oddly, however, at least three of the sections contain no questions. As best I can tell, having gone over the essay roughly four times, there are only eight questions in the text, one section having two. Still, it ain’t ten.

The essay is advertised to page-flipping readers via large type excerpts. These excerpts turn out not to be excerpts, exactly. The differences are telling:

Large Type Excerpt: Tyranny never has much trouble drumming up prompt agreement. Democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask.

Actual Copy: Tyranny never has much troubled drumming up the smiles of prompt agreement, but a democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask of their own stupidity and fear. [emphasis added]

Did some vestigal commercial sense persuade Mr. Lapham to shift the wording to avoid alienating the legions of the stupid and fearful who actually shell out for his magazine? Or was he—gasp—edited by someone else?

The essay is utterly without a central thought, other than Mr. Lapham’s constant whine that he knows better than the Bush Administration, goddammit, and if the American people were so f---ing stupid as to elect George W. Bush then they should get smarter and vote for Lewis H. Lapham next time around. His individual points are, however, as follows:

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to fall for Bush Administration agitprop about the risk posed by Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Powell can wave little jars of pseudo-anthrax around all he wants to, but Lewis H. Lapham is not going to accept any proof of Saddam’s bad intentions short of, one presumes, a video tape of Saddam personally infecting Americans with anthrax.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to believe Bush Administration rhetoric about its own “moral clarity” and “principled resolve.” He noticed right away that the Bush Administration does not appear to be ready to invade North Korea, explaining this failure of moral courage on the fact that Pyongyang has 3 nuclear weapons and Baghdad none (hopefully). Living, as he does, in a wonderful world untroubled by practicality, Lewis H. Lapham can spot a moral evasion like the “Koren Exception” when he sees one, by God, and he’s not going to pass over it in silence.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to take seriously the Bush Administration’s public resolve to not live in fear. He notes that the Bush Administration has issued many warnings of terrorism—which Lewis H. Lapham is smart enough to realize, could make people afraid. Obviously, according to Citizen Lapham, the real purpose of these warnings is to prevent smart guys like him from asking penetrating questions, although the exact manner in which the warnings have silenced penetrating questioners (like him) is not spelled out.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to be lulled to sleep by slogans and sound-bites. Lapham the All-Wise knows in his heart that the Bush Administration is full of messianic lunatics eager to actually do something about the Middle East—the Arab part, that is, not the Israeli part (where they should be focusing, as everyone knows.) Unfortunately, Lewis H. Lapham is also too smart not to notice that most Americans are pretty much as dumb as posts, and thus vulnerable to slogans and sound bites. This pains Lewis H. Lapham deeply, and even makes him come close to telling the average American slob that he deserves what he’s about to get before he remembers how elitist that would sound.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to take the Bush administration’s haughty attitude lying down. He spots right away that senior administration officials are often “petulant and openly contemptuous of opinions not their own…” Lewis H. Lapham is, regretfully, not smart enough to remember the slogan “it takes one to know one.”

Lewis H. Lapham is so smart he believes that 9-11 caused an “immense surge of pro-American feeling everywhere in the world...[emphasis added]. (Maybe he watched a different TV station than I did, although come to think of it he is on record as refusing to watch TV or use the Internet.) He is also way too smart to miss how the Bush Administration has squandered this whole, incredibly-valuable pro-American feeling “asset.” Presumably, doing nothing about terrorism (as Lewis H. Lapham appears to advocate in his very intellectually lazy rant) would have preserved this “asset.” No doubt, if we could only be lucky enough to suffer a whole series of terrorist incidents, the world's pro-American feeling would swell to such a fever pitch and our "asset" attain such value that (those of us left alive) could retire.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to think that anything can actually be done about terrorism. This is because of the unavoidable fact that doing anything (other than, presumably, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms highly gratifying to the Palestinians and then performing a great deal of bowing and scraping toward the Islamic world) could irritate at least some individuals in the Middle East and thus increase support for Osama Bin Laden! Lewis H. Lapham knows, in his infinite wisdom, that the way to deal with fanatical, murderous enemies is to avoid giving them the slightest offense.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to miss the fact that any erosion of anyone’s civil rights under any conditions whatever is a much bigger threat to our free society than mere crazies who want to kill us. He also knows that his freedom is worth far more than our safety.

Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to think that the Bush Administration has any reason for invading Iraq other than laziness. How does he know this? Because it's obviously so much easier to invade another country than to fix an America defaced by “hungry children…crowded prisons, and…corporate thieves.” (I must say, I missed the whole Enron-Iraq connection before now, but it's all so clear now.)

Lewis H. Lapham is way too smart to practice solidarity in time of war. As Lapham the Great notes:

[d]emocracy proceeds from a more adventurous premise, its structure akin to a suspension bridge rather than to an Egyptian pyramid…

I guess that particular image just proves that Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to be permitted to edit his own essay, huh?



posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2003


I am one of the legions of stupid and fearful people who find Lapham's'whining'
against the American Imperium useful and, at least,a well conceived contribution to public discourse in this country. I admire his grasp of social and political policy so much that I have been duped into owning (and reading) all his books.

Hats off to you though. While you are not doing much to advance the quality of ad hominem argument and attack by nomenclature you should be recognized as a shining example of
attack and argument by droning.

Since I have a moment, let me offer some more choice LL whining that I am certain you will enjoy:

… Congress represents the constituency of the frightened rich—not the will or the spirit of what was once a democratic republic but the interest of a scared and selfish oligarchy anxious to preserve its comforts in the impregnable vaults of military empire. The grotesque maldistribution of the country’s wealth over the last thirty years has brought forth a class system fully outfitted with the traditional accessories of complacency, stupidity and pride. People supported by incomes of $10 or $15 million dollars a year not only mount a different style of living than those available to an income of $50,000 or even $150,000, they acquire different habits of mind—reluctant to think for themselves, afraid of the future, careful to expatriate their profits in off shore tax havens, disinclined to trust a new hairdresser or a new idea, grateful for the security of gated residential protectorates, reassured by reactionary political theorists who say that history is at an end and that if events prove otherwise (angry mobs rising up in the Third World slums to beg a chance at freedom or demand a piece of the action) America will send an army to exterminate the brutes…

It’s conceivable that we might soon see a change in the program. The American citizenry isn’t as dumb as the American elites condescendingly like to think and believe, and if it can be generally understood that an ill conceived war with Iraq comes to us courtesy of the same feeble-mindedness that set up the Enron and WorldCom swindles, we might learn to elect politicians, who speak to our courage and intelligence rather than our weakness and fear.

From "Hail Caesar" by Lewis Lapham, Harper’s December 2002

By the way have you thought of doing a talk radio show?

Posted by: robert binbaum on March 21, 2003 8:35 PM

Dear Robert,

I'm sorry if my posting didn't contribute to your equanimity. I know these are tense days and perhaps my own reaction to Mr. Lapham's essay reflects the same anxieties. However, when you suggested I should work on talk radio, you were having the same reaction to me that I have to Lewis Lapham: that is, his level of intellectual discourse strikes me as, at best, name-calling and preaching to the choir (which is why, in frustration, I responded to him in exactly that same way.)

Note the piece that you quote to me: does it suggest a political program more profound than "let's get rid of the rich white guys who run everything"? Do you notice any facts, or statistics? Any detailed history, or case studies? Anything other than (excuse me for repeating myself) name-calling and preaching to the intellectual/populist choir?

Perhaps even more irritating, to my mind at least, are two additional aspects of his writing, one conspicuous by its absence and one by its constant presence. The absent piece is any positive program, any suggestion that maybe things would be better if we did X, as well as a reasoned discussion of the pros and cons associated with X. (Of course, to discuss policy on this level is to descend to the marketplace of ideas, and to open oneself to criticisms that one's ideas are wrong, incomplete or ill-intentioned. Mr. Lapham doesn't seem up for this type of egalitarian give and take.) I cannot recall seeing anything written by Mr. Lapham that could be described as an attempt to address a complex, real-world problem with the usual assortment of complex, real-world tradeoffs. Which leads us to his other mental defect: the constant demonization of "the other" in his writing. Somebody is always screwing up (probably with pretty bad motives) in Mr. Lapham's world, and it never seems to be Mr. Lapham. In the example you provide above, he can't help but point out the inadequacies of the American electorate, who--while they may perhaps someday (with his tutelage) learn to elect politicians "who speak to our courage and intelligence"--currently have the regrettable habit of electing politicians who speak to "our weakness and fear."

While it's nice of Mr. Lapham to include himself among the erring sheep by using the word "our," I don't for a minute believe he believes he has ever made such a mistake.

No, Mr. Lapham has chosen to be the lead actor in a lifelong play during which he cuts a heroic figure while "telling truth to power." I don't find such a narcissistic personality particularly insightful or likely to have a genuine interest in helping his fellow man.

But I'm certainly willing to agree to disagree.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 22, 2003 12:56 AM

I rather like the idea of 2Blowhards as the talk radio of the artchat world.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 22, 2003 1:04 AM

Friedrich, you just hit the nail on the head. I've adopted the litmus test of "do they present any alternative program?" for a while now when evaluating political speech.

If the speaker/writer is being purely reactionary, I no longer give them space to clutter my thoughts.

Posted by: David Mercer on March 22, 2003 7:29 AM

First there was "car talk", then there was "two blowhards"...

Posted by: Felicity on March 22, 2003 11:32 PM

An amazing number of people these days, people who should know better, seem to base their entire political philosophy on simply hating George W. Bush. This is childish.

Instead of talking about where we are and what might be done, they enjoy just moaning on and on and being smug. I am this close to bitch-slapping someone. Anyone.

Posted by: j.c. on March 23, 2003 5:52 PM

Yo, yo,

What's this bling bling about bitch slapping?

As arrogant as the Bush regime appears to be, oppostion to President Bush can not hope to be fruitful if it is based on hating his simple minded ass.

There is something to be learned from the eight years when opposition to Bill Clinton appeared to be much the same thing— athough some people were whacked out enough to call it a right wing conspiracy. That couldn't happen here.

It is amusing to see President Bush's defenders use the same
arguments to bolster his creds as an
independent thinking, savvy and creditable leader as was trotted out for Ronald Reagan. It was unconvincing for Reagan and
Bush II, well, he's no Reagan.

Personal animosity has no place
in thrashing out public policy except when one discovers war criminals, and thieves and hypocrites are occupying seats of power. For sure Henry Kissinger deserves a full share or more of animus (what is one to make of the geniuses who wanted to appoint him to a commission to investigate international mayhem and wrongdoing?)Also, Richard Perle may be vying for the KIssinger laurels.

And, yeah, litmus tests. Why think when you can just apply a scientific

We need more Xsand Os kind of guys . Like the guys who made the trains run on time in Italy or some Soviet power plant managers...

Or the good Americans who created and executed Operation Paperclip

Word up!

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on March 23, 2003 7:55 PM


Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 25, 2003 4:00 PM


Make that 42.


Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 26, 2003 10:03 AM

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