lewis lapham

Tonight Jen and I went to see Lewis
Lapham, editor of Harper’s magazine,
speak at the Elliot Bay Book Company. Lapham writes a sardonic, extraordinarily
literate column at the beginning of each issue, the last few years
of which have recently been compiled into a book.

The
basic thesis of his book is as follows: the United States more or
less inherited the world in 1945. At the end of WWII we emerged
on to the world scene, preeminent militarily, economically, and
morally. We had defeated the Nazis and formed the UN. Since then,
we have squandered our moral capital; our economic dominance is
shaky; militarily, however, we remain overwhelmingly dominant. But
Lapham doesn’t see what we gain by that.

The reason we’ve lost our moral
standing in the world, per Lapham, is that the State Department
has always been run by the same kind of people–people for whom
money is the paramount value, and for whom force is the means to
that end. We have been on the side of dictators and repressive regimes
again and again, and the distance between the foreign policy establishment
and the American people has grown wider and wider.

 

He mostly just rambled–he’s a wonderful
talker and it’s fun just listening to a literate, intelligent person
speak. He took annoying questions from the typically smug, self-congratulatory
crowd of Seattle lefties. Oh, and a question from me.

One thing struck me (ok, several,
but I have enough problems with brevity as it is). Lapham has a
bit of the doom-sayer in him. He never came right out and said it
(he seems to be a little like me, almost crippled by his constant
attention to complexities and his own fallibility, so he rarely
makes an un-footnoted statement), but he seems to think that we
are sliding farther and farther away from democracy and towards
empire, and that this trend signals the death of the American idea
and our eventual downfall.

I appreciated much that he had to
say (one excellent point was just how well GW Bush is suited to
the age of television, what with his difficulty with language but
mastery of "the gesture"–the perfect man to lead the
country in a "moment of silence"), but I just can’t buy
the end-is-nigh stuff. It’s amusing that my father is about as far
away from Lapham on the political spectrum as possible, but he shares
this crusty apocalyptic conviction. Maybe it’s age, maybe I’ll think
the same way when I’m older, but some people just seem convinced
beyond swaying that everything is falling apart.

There have always been people who
think that the kids have gone completely decadent, who think that
the gov’t has gone completely corrupt, etc. etc. And the majority
of the time, they’ve been wrong, no? I mean, empires fall, but falling
periods are always shorter and less frequent than period of persistence.
Perhaps my generation has grown up in such constant progress, in
such unmediated American supremacy, that we can’t really feel "the
end" in our bones. I tend to think that this current war hysteria
will pass, because it’s so far out from what the average person
feels. Our democracy, however slow and inefficient, eventually tacks
towards the middle. This is my central conviction about America’s
future: we will blunder forward, making asses of ourselves, but
slowly getting it right. Naïve? Perhaps.