May 2006 Issue of the Progressive
I spoke with Lewis Lapham in New York City on the eve of his departure, after nearly thirty years, as the legendary editor of Harper’s Magazine. We met for drinks at the Noho Star on Bleecker Street, around the corner from the Harper’s offices. It was a Sunday evening, and Lapham had been in the office all day, laboring over his “Notebook” column.
Lapham: … The right is perfectly happy to lie, cheat, steal, say anything that comes conveniently to mind. If you make your politics a matter of waiting to see what the other fellow will do, you have already lost the argument, or the election. And it is this kind of pussyfooting on the part of the Democratic Party that has led us into this morass.
We presumably elect members of Congress to look out for the interests of the American citizen, to protect and uphold the Constitution. Here we have the executive trampling on the legislature and on the judiciary, and it is up to the Congress to correct that condition. Because that is a fouling of the constitutional form of government.
Lapham: I know the ethos of the American oligarchy of which young Bush is a servant. It was a tempting subject for discussion and commentary. He’s an agent of the selfish greed that usually overtakes a fat and stupid oligarchy. Aristotle makes this point in his Politics. He has a circle. At one point you have an oligarchy, and it becomes rancid with its own wealth and stupidity. That in turn gives way to tyranny. Then, after a period of time, tyranny turns into anarchy, and out of that comes some form of democracy, which then deteriorates into oligarchy, and you go around the circle again.
Q: I can’t tell if you’re hopeful or if you just see an inexorable decline.
Lapham: Well, I’m open to surprise. Political change is always possible. But you can’t depend on mercenaries and foreign loans forever.
Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking.
You see that in the Bush Administration. This is a form of magical thinking: the idea that you can transform the Middle East and make the deserts of Iraq bloom with small New England towns built on the model of Greenwich, Connecticut. Anyone with a sense of history knows that was unlikely.
Q: We on the left have been admonished that Bush is not stupid, just intellectually incurious.
Lapham: Bush is clever, I assume, in a somewhat limited way. I mean he’s incompetent in a way that a lot of corporate CEOs are incompetent. You could put him in a class with Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay. But he makes a virtue of his ignorance: Don’t confuse me with qualms or history; I have the will to change the world.
He wants power. Whereas somebody like Kerry doesn’t want power and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he got it. And Kerry does not have the strength of his own supposed convictions. That’s why Bush got elected. I knew a lot of people who disagreed with him but who voted for him. They said, “At least the man knows what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to act.” Whereas Kerry, who knows what he thinks? He’s somewhere on a surfboard in a plastic suit.
Lapham: Well, the true idea of democracy is that we learn from people with whom we don’t agree. Societies perish when they become afraid of differences of opinion. So it’s not personal with me. I’m perfectly happy to sit down at breakfast with Newt Gingrich and listen to him present himself as a teacher of civilization.
Q: Whom do you admire?
Lapham: I admire Ralph Nader. I wish in 2004 he had run for the Senate. His Presidential campaign was mistimed. But I admire almost anybody that tries to speak up for himself or herself. I admire writers.
Any political regeneration comes out of a better concern for the language. This is Orwell’s point in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane.