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The doyen of dissent

  • 25 April 2006

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