A contrarian and a gentleman

If, as Tocqueville wrote, Americans are terrified of free expression, then thank heavens the U.S. has Lewis Lapham, writes MICHAEL VALPY


Monday, March 25, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R1


Agony of Mannon, The
American Album, An: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper's Magazine
End of the World
Fortune's Child
Harper's Index Book, The
High Technology and Human Freedom
Hotel America
Imperial Masquerade
Lapham's Rules of Influence
Lights, Camera, Democracy
Money and Class in America
Party Leadership and the House Committee on Rules
Waiting for the Barbarians
Wish for Kings, The

TORONTO -- Lewis Lapham spends one week of each month composing the most elegant political essay in America, shaping 3,000 words on a craftsman's wheel into a near-perfect pitcher of brilliant, layered human thought.

He likely is his country's most lethal social critic, flitting from subject to subject in the editor's Notebook of Harper's magazine with the amiability (as one critic has said) of a tsetse fly.

With each issue, his skean slips dazzlingly in and out between the third and fourth ribs of his targets, skewering America's media, America's governing classes, American greed, the decay of American character, American media-constructed mythology in the wake of Sept. 11, America's bruited war on terrorism.

His images offer the pure "ping" of crystal struck with a fork.

On George W. Bush: "On September 11, like Pinocchio brushed with the good fairy's wand on old Gepetto's shelf of toys, the wooden figure head turned into flesh and blood."

On post-9/11 participants at the World Economic Forum in New York: "Accustomed to believing themselves the masters, not the servants, of the brute mechanism that generates the wealth of nations, they assumed that Leviathan could be invested with Christian scruples, taught to sing Christmas carols and trained to walk on a leash; it didn't occur to them that their beloved 'free market' was as mindless as a ball bearing."

He is the quintessential public intellectual in the Emile Zola mould, the superbly well-educated and informed generalist beholden to no one, serving freedom, civility, dignity, the enshrinement of ideals and the protection of moral character.

He has carried home U.S. National Magazines Awards in a wheelbarrow. He has been compared, favourably, to Mark Twain (whom he tries to read for half an hour each morning), William Hazlitt, Montaigne, H.L. Mencken and, indeed, Zola. He has written books whose titles say all that needs to be said: Money and Class in America (1988), Imperial Masquerade (1990), The Wish for Kings (1993), Hotel America: Scenes in the Lobby of the Fin-de-Siècle (1995), Waiting for the Barbarians (1997).

And here he is, in a mezzanine anteroom of Toronto's King Edward Hotel, attempting with some difficulty to make a list of who in America pays attention to him.

He has appeared on French and German television, the BBC World Service, CBC Newsworld's Counterspin and been invited on other occasions to appear on CBC-TV. He readily recalls all that. He is in Canada to give a major public-policy lecture at University of Waterloo and to speak at a hotel luncheon for U of W alumni in Toronto.

But America? He remembers after a few moments thought that he has appeared once -- or is it twice? -- on CNN since Sept. 11. He is going to speak at a Virginia military academy in mid-April on alternative directions for U.S. foreign policy and attend a conference on more or less the same subject with Gore Vidal toward the end of the month in San Francisco.

"That's it. Not many invitations." He pauses, and then says with a tone bordering on amazement: "I don't even get attacked."

Which illustrates, of course, what Lapham has been saying about American public discourse in general and American media in particular for about as long as he has been writing for Harper's -- since 1970, as editor since 1983 -- and most stridently since Sept. 11: that the U.S. media by and large is a cheerleader press for the business classes and the government of the day, obediently reporting what it is told to report, thinking what its betters think and showing an unsettling tendency to repress dissent.

Though not the only American to hold that view, Lapham holds it more eloquently.

He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville writing in 1841 that he has never encountered a people more frightened of free expression than the Americans. Smoothly he adds a coda, that the newspapers founded west of the Mississippi were for real-estate advertisements, not news. One has the impression that, were there time, Lapham extemporaneously could give the entire history of the press muzzled in America.

A few minutes later, in front of a University of Waterloo alumni audience, Lapham -- age 67, lean, tall, handsome, silver-haired, good suit, Edwardian manners (with American edge) -- is telling the story of the song U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft has written, and which he sings with his staff each morning before they pray together.

Let the Eagle Soar, the song is called: "Let the eagle soar . . . like she's never soared before . . . soar with healing in her wings."

Lapham quotes Ashcroft as telling a university graduating class in 1999 that "in America, we have no king but Jesus."

He talks of Ashcroft having become so religiously impassioned in a speech to 6,000 religious broadcasters last fall that the air was rent by cries of "Amen" from the audience.

He says: "We have an Attorney-General of the United States who believes God wrote the Constitution . . . who believes that the verdict of history is inconsequential but the verdict of eternity is what counts." He adds: "Ashcroft genuinely frightens me."

His audience is getting the point before Lapham makes it -- that there is something chillingly comparable between the U.S. Attorney-General (and America's born-again President, who endorsed a statewide Jesus Day when he was governor of Texas) and Islam's fundamentalists.

Lapham compares the rhetoric of Bush to the oratory of Pope Urban II at Clermont, France, in 1095, summoning Christian armies for the crusade against Islam: "Let them turn their weapons dripping with the blood of their brothers against the enemy of the Christian faith. Let them -- oppressors of orphans and widows, murderers and violaters of churches, robbers of the property of others, vultures drawn by the scent of battle -- let them hasten, if they love their souls, under their captain Christ to the rescue of Sion."

He takes the word "unbelievable" that American media repeatedly used in describing the attack on the World Trade Center. Horrific, horrible, yes, he says, but unbelievable? No more unbelievable than American pilots dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; no more unbelievable than American bombs and foreign policy being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children.

A Lapham does not exist in Canada. The late Dalton Camp came closest, and Rick Salutin stands in mufti on the wings. But they're not the same, Camp and Salutin, and, when you think about it, you realize why. Canada is the egalitarian society that the United States pretends to be but isn't; Canada couldn't have a Lapham.

Lewis Henry Lapham II is pure patrician American, the descendant of wealth, rank and privilege dating back at least to the War of 1812 (a great-great-ever-so-great grandsire, General Henry Dearborn, sacked Toronto in 1813).

His great-grandfather was a founder of Texaco. His financier grandfather Roger was a long-time mayor of San Francisco. His father was a shipping and banking executive. He describes himself as a member of America's "equesterian class." He is listed in the Social Register. He was educated at Hotchkiss prep school in Connecticut, at Yale and Cambridge.

When Lapham writes about greed and moral decadence in America, he is writing about the betrayal of America by his own class.

It is why, I suspect, he is so fascinated, and so embraced, by the great dialectic of American history -- the two impulses of those who arrived in America seeking a new Jerusalem and a higher form of social good, and those who arrived seeking a fortune.

What really gets up Lapham's nose is today's very bad smell emanating from American noblesse oblige. He tells a story to illustrate. As a little boy of 7, he is taken aboard an aircraft carrier in San Francisco harbour, where he salutes the great American Second World War admiral, Chester Nimitz.

As a not much bigger boy of 10, his grandfather takes him to hear many of the speeches delivered by delegates to the founding assembly of the United Nations in 1945. At receptions for the delegates in his grandfather's house, he remembers "passing the puffed cheese while withholding comment on the strange costume of King Faisal."

As a university student, he tries to enlist as an air-force pilot (he is rejected because of colour-blindness) and join the Central Intelligence Agency ("That's when something starts to go wrong. I stood up in the middle of the interview and said, 'Gentlemen, I'm in the wrong place.' ").

He becomes a newspaper reporter. In 1961, he is listening to John F. Kennedy's famous inauguration speech. A correspondent from Paris's Le Monde, standing beside him, calls it third-rate sophistry. "We almost come to blows."

And then he goes through the administration of Lyndon Johnson, with its subterfuge over invading the Dominican Republic and lies about Vietnam. "I become a disappointed idealist."

Lapham recounts how Harry Truman's secretary of state, George Marshall, left office in 1949. Twelve publishers went to Washington to offer him money for his memoirs.

"Marshall said, 'I did what I did as a citizen of the United States. All my papers belong to the government of the United States and, through it, to the people of the United States. I am leaving this office with nothing but my hat.'

"Compare that to [Richard Nixon's secretary of state] Henry Kissinger. He's stolen all the papers he can get his hands on, and what isn't favourable to him, he's sent over to the Library of Congress with instructions that it be sealed until 25 years after his death.

"That's what pisses me off." The word is startling in its vehemence.

Says Lapham: "I have been left a mournful, romantic conservative."

"Speaking of which, how do you get along with Brian Mulroney?" I ask. Lapham's son Andrew is married to the former prime minister's daughter Caroline.

"I find him a very interesting guy," Lapham says. "I find him a very engaging, informed, generous man. I had lunch recently with him and said to him, 'Brian, explain Canada to me.' "

A disturbing concept to some.