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The doyen of dissent

Readers of Harper’s Magazine are fiercely loyal. One Australian author put it to me this way: ‘I will go without coffee, I will go without shoes, but not without my Harper’s subscription.’

The independent, liberal-minded monthly journal of literature, politics and culture has been published continuously in the United States for 150 years, and is regarded, along with The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, as among the best. The man who redesigned the magazine in 1984, introducing innovations such as the ‘Harper’s Index’ (since copied by many other magazines), editor Lewis H. Lapham, delivered the keynote address at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The morning after, I passed along the subscriber’s compliment, and Lapham laughed appreciatively. ‘We have a strong circulation renewal rate, close to 70 per cent,’ he said, ‘and since 9/11, in part because of the stand the magazine has taken, the newsstand circulation has gone up, not down.’ (Harper’s has about 200,000 subscribers, with another 30- 50,000 in newsstand sales each month, making it ‘the second dog in the race’ against The New Yorker, which, says Lapham, has a circulation of about 800,000.)

We were on the 23rd floor of the InterContinental Hotel in a room overlooking Circular Quay. Close to here, nearly 200 years ago, unrest was growing over the repressive policies of Governor William Bligh. Eventually, an uprising known as the Rum Rebellion, led by John Macarthur and others, resulted in Bligh’s recall to England. Lapham, ever alert to historical parallels, pointed out that the current publisher of Harper’s, John R. Macarthur, is a direct descendant of the man who inspired the 1808 rebellion.

‘I’m fortunate,’ said Lapham. ‘Macarthur is as independent-minded and courageous a publisher as can be found anywhere in New York, so he is entirely supportive of the point of view.’ Here is a sample of ‘the point of view’, from Lapham’s keynote address: ‘The war on terror is a futile enterprise, like having a war on lust’; ‘Ignorance is viewed as a natural resource far more valuable to America than oil or timber’; ‘The media is content to tell fairy tales’.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lapham was one of the few public figures in the United States to openly criticise American foreign policy, in his monthly ‘Notebook’ essay in Harper’s (three of which won him a 1995 National Magazine Award). In ‘Notebook’ he has persistently expressed alarm over such trends as declining standards of American education and literacy, the rise of celebrity worship, the widening gap between rich and poor, the growing unaccountability of the military, and the creeping complicity of the news media in the whole malaise.

In his keynote address, Lapham surveyed these and other themes, opening by reading a series of quotations from exam essays written by American high school and college students. Among them: ‘A myth is a female moth’; ‘Archimedes made the first steamboat and power drill’; ‘The Davy Jones Index crashed in 1929’. The quotations brought laughter, but the humour, as always with Lapham - who has been compared to Montaigne, Mencken and Mark Twain- was merely the frosting on a much darker satirical cake.

Lapham’s book of essays 30 Satires (published by The New Press in the US in 2003 and available now in Australia through Palgrave Macmillan) was written mostly during the 1990s, that decade when the beast of al Qaeda was slowly slouching towards Gotham. A later book, Gag Rule (published in the US last year), focuses on what Lapham sees as the Bush administration’s crushing of dissent since September 11, and the relentless shift to the right in religion, politics and foreign policy, with its attendant encroachment on civil liberties.

‘I’ve gotten less optimistic,’ Lapham said. ‘I don’t see where the good news is coming from. The Bush administration continues to force legislation through the Congress that is - intended to enrich the oligarchy and further impoverish the poor ...

‘There’s an old American expression, never give a sucker an even break, but ... you could actually say that that was the policy of the Bush administration: never give a sucker an even break, because they obviously think of the American people as the sucker.

‘They stand up in front of microphones and tell outright lies about weapons of mass destruction, about social security, about the medical prescription bill, about the energy policy, about our state policy that approves of torture, and nothing happens ... there are a few voices of objection but not many.’
Cropping up throughout 30 Satires, usually in a scathing context, are the names of many contemporary American celebrities, two of whom - businesswoman Martha Stewart and CBS News anchorman Dan Rather -have fallen from grace since the essays were written.

‘Martha’s recovered, and who knows, somebody may bring back Dan Rather,’ Lapham said with a laugh. ‘It’s like the set of stock characters in the Italian Comedia del Arte of the 14th and 15th centuries where they had the old fool and the young buck, the clown and the pompous scholar, the vixenish woman and so on.
‘It’s a repertory company, the American celebrity circus, and it’s remarkable how many of them manage to stay in the limelight over long periods of time- The glory of the American public is the willingness to believe in what isn’t there.’

Compounding this, in Lapham’s view, is a news media that has, since September 11, ‘become much more timid, much more willing to take instruction from the Pentagon or the White House’. He gave, as an example, a Newsweek magazine report that guards at Guantánamo Bay had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. According to Lapham the item had been sent to Newsweek by the US government, but when at least 15 people died in riots in Afghanistan afterwards, the Bush administration claimed the Newsweek report was wrong and the editors ‘fell on the grenade and took one for the team. That’s the proper way to behave in a make-believe democracy.’

Another example was the 2004 presidential election. ‘When the reports came in right away in November about the probability of the election in Ohio having been rigged or stolen, the tone of the established media - the Times, the Washington Post—was one of mockery: this is crazy conspiracy theorists; this is the work of the blogosphere, the cretins of the internet; this is a story so repulsive that we won’t even consider it.’

Lapham’s was one of the few public voices of dissent against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His essay ‘The Road to Babylon’, published in Harper’s December 2002 issue, is one of the great political essays on the folly of going to war, and compares the debate in the US Congress over whether to invade Iraq with the debate in the Athenian assembly in 415 BC over whether to invade Sicily.

‘Much of the story I’d long forgotten,’ he wrote, ‘but I remembered that Athens corrupted its democracy and brought about the ruin of its empire by foolishly attempting the conquest of Sicily, and when I found the relevant chapters (the debate in the Athenian assembly prior to sending a fleet westward into the Ionian Sea), it was as if I were reading the front page of that morning’s New York Times or the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance ’

One of the only voices of objection in Congress was Robert Byrd, the senator from West Virginia. ‘He made a very eloquent speech prior to the invasion against the war,’ Lapham said, ‘shaking the Constitution and saying, 'Fie, fie he actually said that - and The New York Times on page one wrote a mocking report saying here’s this fuddy old man who’s practically lost his mind ... They discredited him because he was not blowing the bugle.’

Lapham thinks the 2004 electoral vote in Ohio was rigged, giving Bush the presidency, but that John Kerry had not offered an alternative. After receiving the Democratic nomination Kerry had gone on ‘to present himself as an at-heart better Republican than George Bush - Bush proved to be a bigger hit in the role of Batman than did Senator Kerry in the role of Flash Gordon.’

Lapham, as to be expected of someone who cuts so sharply against the grain of the status quo, is not without his critics. Google his name on the internet and you’ll find plenty of detractors pointing out what they say are errors of judgment and fact. Lapham admits he’s not faultless. A letter pointing out an error in one of his essays is posted on the Harper’s website (www.harpers.org) along with his response and apology.
But, at the age of 70, he’s not about to change his tune or give up his position as America’s doyen of dissent, although ‘there are a couple of books that I wish I would have time to write. I’ve published eight or nine collections of essays over the years, most from Harper’s Magazine, but I would like to write one big long book about the history of my family in the United States.’

It’s an illustrious family. Lapham’s grandfather was mayor of San Francisco, where Lapham was born, and his great grandfather was a founder of the Texaco Oil Company. In Sydney Lapham told a story about his great-great grandfather, Henry Dearborn, who was Secretary of War in both administrations of Thomas Jefferson but who, in 1812, at the age of 65, was enjoying the good life as Collector of Customs in the Port of Boston when President James Madison ordered him to move an army north ‘and take Canada by September 10’.

Dearborn failed abjectly in that campaign and returned to Boston to his ‘warming pot of rum’. As with most Lapham stories, there was a moral. In this case, it was that despite the Bush administration’s claim that Americans will happily go abroad to fight for ‘all who live in tyranny’, the American attitude in reality is quite different. It was General Dearborn’s men who refused to push on to Montreal, and today, according to Lapham, the Bush administration, despite the Pentagon’s sales pitch, ‘is having a great deal of trouble finding recruits’ for Iraq.

Later on the day that I interviewed Lapham, I read a  report from The Guardian newspaper that Walter Jones, the Republican congressman from North Carolina who led the campaign to change the name of french fries to ‘freedom fries’ because of France’s refusal to join the war in Iraq, had now turned against the war.

Has somebody turned up the heat, or is it merely out of the frying pan and into the fire?                   

30 Satires, by Lewis Lapham (The New Press, 263pp, $26), is available in Australia through Palgrave Macmillan.

Robert Hefner is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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