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Lewis Lapham: Nothing New Under the Sun

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Timothy Noah at Slate dreads former Harpers editor Lewis Lapham's new magazine Lapham's Quarterly, and sums up the message of Lapham's entire career as, essentially, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Oh, and Bush sucks.

Noah surveys decades of static Laphamisms with lovely and admirable cruel wit, ending with this Lapham mad lib:

Just fill in the blanks below.

The Bush administration's forbearance as Gen. Pervez Musharraf proclaims, like [vainglorious monarch], that [famous megalomaniacal statement] recasts [open Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to any random page, close eyes, plunge finger into text, and insert here a précis of incident described therein] as opera bouffe. The sham outrage teases forth memories of the contortions displayed by [famous Ottoman acrobat of the 15th century] or the prevarications of [obscure three-fingered gangster of the 1930s] as the Katie Courics and Wolf Blitzers of their day distracted the starving masses with [celebratory ritual performed by an island-based indigenous people] and competitions to mimic the cry of the mighty [extinct animal from the Cretaceous period].

I took on the reflexive anti-capitalism of Lapham-era Harpers in this May 1998 reason feature. Why, the more things change….!

NEXT: The Liberal Candidate

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  1. That’s the beautiful thing about capitalism, you can actually make money denouncing capitalism. In other words, even those who denounce capitalism realize that it is in their best interest to play at the game.

  2. Is this the guy who wrote a polemic book about the notoriously difficult to pin down (according to a philosophy student buddy) Leo Strauss, and admitted that he’d never read him?

    I’ve always cringed when passing Harpers in the magazine section.

  3. Hey, if I could make money denouncing capitalism, I’d be doing it. Because being a capitalist sure hasn’t netted me much in the way of cash.

  4. The 1998 article mentions Stephen Glass and calls him “…the excellent New Republic writer…”

    teehee

  5. Yeah, capitalism sucks. But it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

  6. Don’t forget that Lamphram is eponymous for lamphramism, the practice of corrupt or lazy journalist writing a story before the actual event occurs.

  7. I forgot that I liked Slate sometimes!

  8. I love HARPER’S but I have suspicions that I don’t “get” the short excerpt pieces in the way they are intended.

    Lapham is much funnier than Krugman or Rich over at the NYTs.

    The longer original pieces are a mixed bag.

    (David Foster Wallace and Jack Hitt are always welcome)

    The fiction nearly always blows.

    Still, for $12 a year it ain’t bad.

  9. Lapham’s son is dating Amanda Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s (knockout) great-granddaughter. I guess you can enjoy the spoils of capitalism, as you long as you decry it publicly. . .

  10. All this Harper’s hate, what a shame. I always considered Reason a sort of libertarian Harper’s–kind of a cutesy, cranky, market-worshipping-I’ve-got-the-answer-before-the-question-is-asked Harper’s. Oh well.

    And Lapham, he writes circles around anyone on the Reason staff. I can’t say I care much about whatever rhetorical devices he chooses to deploy.

  11. Noah’s piece wasn’t bad, but someone needs to tell him Spy folded a few years ago, and he’s not getting an editorial spot.

  12. the last time i read harpers was around 1998, and i was compelled to write a letter to them correcting a lapham editorial, pointing out that (in a silly analogy he was making) it wasnt Patton’s 3rd army who took the bridge at remagan, but units of the unrelated 9th Armored division under Lt Timmerman.

    The point was acedemic, neither here nor there, but my comment was that it was sort of embarrassing that a 20something knew more about WWII than someone who’d been born before the war. They printed it at least. I’d decided lapham was a boob before he got busted for more base journalistic fantabulism. He ties together boring cliches with lots of superficial erudition. He should be credited with driving me away from his magazine forever at the least

  13. Nice article about Harper’s. I was just wondering recently whether it was safe to write it off when I saw their recent issue with the cover article by Naomi Klein.

  14. Harper’s was great from the late 1990s thru 9/11. Sure, the Lapham editorials and the fiction was bad, but the rest was pretty consistently great, better even than Reason.

    The magazine made me somewhat less libretarian than I had been before I started reading it.

    If Reasonwriters want to be persuasive to a skeptical audience (you know, teach), rather than just preach to the converted, then they ought to go back and look at those old Harper’s issues, and maybe even discuss them among themselves for the rhetoric, if not the ideology. Careful, though, we don’t want to lose any of you the way we lost Mr. Sanchez.

  15. The magazine made me somewhat less libretarian

    1. By “the magazine” I meant Harpers there.

    2. –libertarian–

  16. Harpers – Harpers!? – made you less libertarian? Dude, you’re easy. I suggest you stay away from Dianetics.

  17. Lapham writes like Christopher Hitchens on a bender (not unusual) trying to sound like Peter Shaffer.

    Not a good thing.

  18. An anti Wal-Mart polemic (and not a very good one at that) made you less libertarian? (“Brute economic force,” indeed.)
    If the Mormons knock at your door, for god’s sake don’t open it.

  19. and not a very good one at that

    Is there such a thing as a good anti-Wal*Mart polemic to your mind, Steve S.? Your comment suggests there is, but I don’t think you really think such a thing exists.

    As Nat X would say, “here’s a quarter . . .”

  20. You are right, Dave W. I’ve never read a “good” anti Wal-Mart polemic. But some are better than others. Any that use the phrase “Brute economic force” high in the story are automatically disqualified by TKO.
    And I’ll take the quarter. I could probably use it to buy a set of steel-belted radials at Wal-Mart, if I shopped at Wal-Mart, which I don’t. (Some brute economic force.)
    Beware the Avon lady!

  21. “Brute economic force” high in the story are automatically disqualified by TKO.

    What is it were a Reasonwriter complaining about capital gains taxes or large marginal tax rates. Would you say the same?

  22. Ah, Dave W. I see the problem.
    You never got a sufficient libertarian brainwashing to begin with.
    If you had, you’d know that taxes really are extracted by brute force – the real kind, you know, with guns?
    But Wal-Mart – hey, they leave weekly ads in that bag hanging on my mailbox. Oh the humanity! It’s like waterboarding, only with really great prices on crap I can’t use.
    Somebody make them stop!
    Here comes the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Hide!!!

  23. If you had, you’d know that taxes really are extracted by brute force – the real kind, you know, with guns?
    But Wal-Mart – hey, they leave weekly ads in that bag hanging on my mailbox.

    Wal*Mart can choose not to do business in your state or nation, just like you can choose to shop at Wal*Mart. The state can get Wal*Mart put in jail for not paying taxes, just like Wal*Mart can get you put in jail if you chose to shop there, but not pay the prices. There is a rough symmetry of “coercion” in other words. Accordingly, my question re “brute economic force” stands, Steve S.

  24. Honestly, Dave W. I think we’re just talking past each other at this point, and I’m starting to lose my morning snark.
    I honestly can’t get my mind about this “symmetry of coersion” of which you speak. Perhaps I’ll someday find enlightenment within the pages of some progressive magazine.
    Walk in peace, my friend. And good luck to you and yours.

  25. Steve S with the backdoor curve ball – called strike three!!!

    well challenged, Hr. S.

  26. One time I lost my morning snark and then The Gin Slinger asked, “Dave, you know what that sound is?” And I replied that I did not. And then he said. He said, “Ooh ee ow oh! Ooh ee ow oh!” It feel so good!

  27. and just like that [poof], it’s gone.

  28. Oh, am I going to be keeping you busy over the weeks to come, VM!

  29. Dave,

    “Wal*Mart can … There is a rough symmetry of “coercion” in other words.”

    If that were an accurate analogy, than just as Wal*mart cannot extract money from me should I ignore their products, the government cannot collect taxes from me should I ignore their products. Now, I don’t attend public schools, nor due I recieve Medicaide or Medicaire or Social Security. I also do not recieve any grants. Etc… Are you saying that I then do not have to pay taxes for those things? I think your ‘symmetry of coersion’ is bunk.

  30. Now, I don’t attend public schools, nor due I recieve Medicaide or Medicaire or Social Security. I also do not recieve any grants. Etc… Are you saying that I then do not have to pay taxes for those things?

    Here is how it works. Say that someone lived in the US and did not like the Iraq War because he read Harper’s magazine and because Harper’s magazine (wisely and insightfully) had less ambivalence about The Iraq War in 2003 than, say, Reason’s Michael Young.

    So the someone, and we will call him Dave, inquires about whether he can suspend a portion of his tax payments so as to avoid paying for this war that Dave has been persuaded by Harper’s to dislike. Dave finds out he cannot. Dave however, will not be coerced by anybody. Not Mr. Cavanaugh, not URKIE, and not even the US government, nobody. So Dave moves to Canada (who is not making war in Iraq) to avoid paying for the war until the American people come to their senses. When anti-war sentiment increases, Dave decides it is okay to come back, more comfortable in the sense that the war is being minimized on a looking-forward basis, rather than being dilated by the funds he is paying into the system.

    Dave is not coerced, or, if you must characterize him as being coerced, then he is only coerced in the sense that Wal*Mart is coerced into doing business in the US. Frankly, Wal*Mart gets a lot more out of the US (and its Iraq War for oil) than Dave does.

    That is what I mean by symmetry of coercion, and, no, the lack of ability to have a line item veto on your tax bill does not change that.

  31. Dave,

    If I don’t want to buy a digital camera from Walmart, I don’t have to move to avoid paying for it.

  32. …just like Wal*Mart can get you put in jail if you chose to shop there, but not pay the prices.

    They can? How does that work?

    How does one choose to shop somewhere and not pay the prices? Doesn’t shopping somewhere involve, by definition the paying of prices?

    Somwhow you seem to have gone from mere confusion into pure incoherence.

  33. If Wal*Mart doesn’t want to open a branch in your state, tey don’t have to move to avoid opening one.

    If Wal*Mart wants to sell an outlet in your state and use the proceeds to open one up in a libertarian country, they can do that right from their Arkansas headquarters.

  34. Isaac – he’s playing economist today.

  35. Isaac,

    Dave’s technique involves really rough definitions. Words like ‘force’, ‘shopping’, ‘buying’, and ‘choice’ don’t have precise meaning for him.

  36. How does one choose to shop somewhere and not pay the prices? Doesn’t shopping somewhere involve, by definition the paying of prices?

    Here is the symmetry:

    If Wal*Mart underpays its taxes, then it goes to jail.

    If I underpay at Wal*Mart, then I go to jail.

    VemSter, shouldn’t you be checking your board?

  37. Dave,

    huh? You’re comments are getting weird. Could you address the point that I have to pay for gov’t products I don’t use, yet, if I don’t use Walmart’s products, I don’t have to pay for them?

    Isaac,

    “Somwhow you seem to have gone from mere confusion into pure incoherence.”

    At first I thought that was a little much. Now, not so much.

  38. OK, Dave, then by “shop[ping] there, but not pay[ing] the prices” you mean stealing?

    Last I checked, “stealing” is a completely different activity from “shopping”.

    Yes, kohlrabi, I’ve noticed Dave’s “really rough definitions”. It’s as though he speaks an entirely different language. One that uses English words and all but assigns completely different meanings to them.

    Moose, old boy, I think playing economist is much to dangerous for Dave. It’s like a four-year-old playing carpenter with your power saw plugged in.

  39. HAY, Isaac!

    I swear it wasn’t plugged in. Anyways, I sent the little scamp to the back yard to play with some matches…

  40. How does one choose to shop somewhere and not pay the prices? Doesn’t shopping somewhere involve, by definition the paying of prices?

    There are two answers to this. One answer is the one I gave above involving the hypothetical character Dave who did not like the Iraq War in 2003. His example, theoretical though it might be, shows that you don’t have to pay for the government’s products if you feel strongly enough about the matter.

    A subtler, but perhaps more satisfying answer, is that an average individual avoiding shopping at Wal*Mart entails commensaurate hassle (or, coercive force, if you will) to a well-situated person avoiding capital gains or high marginal income taxes. Each approach is a hassle, but it can be done.

    However, the most accurate answer of all involves (and you are not going to like this) carefully reading the article I linked above (see!). The “brute economic force” mentioned in that article is not “brute economic force” weilded against consumers. Even that article understands that Wal*Mart has limited market power in its role as supplier vis-a-vis individual customers. Rather, the “brute economic force” complained of in the article is “brute economic force” that WAL*MART weilds against suppliers. The proper comparison is not between my ability to avoid taxes and my ability to avoid Wal*Mart. The proper comparison is between my ability to avoid taxes and a manufacturer’s ability to avoid dealing with Wal*Mart. I maintain that the phrase “brute economic force” applies equally well (or badly) in both situations. Moving is hard (but possible). So is selling massive amounts of product without getting into bed with WAL*MART.

  41. “two answers”

    whoops

    –three answers–

  42. Lewis Lapham used to seem like a knee-jerk doomsaying nut. Now he seems prescient. It’s good to be a pessimist, I guess.

  43. Thank God for the Bush administration’s forbearance as Gen. Pervez Musharraf like Holofernes proclaims it an excellent thing to ride in triumph through Persepolis and recasts Theodoric’s elephant squashing a Neoplatonist’s head as opera bouffe.

    Who could refuse to elect a National Medal For The Humanities awardee teases forth memories of the post- Varangian contortions displayed by Ivar the Boneless turned Turk, or the prevarications of Stubby Muldoon as the Katie Courics and Wolf Blitzers of their day distracted the starving masses with tales of boars-tusk root canals and competitions to mimic the cry of the mighty Kronosaur.

    If Victor Davis Hanson will have him as his running mate, Ron Paul is a shoo-in for Blair House.

    Naah- let’s go with Ron for President and the Kronosaur for Secretary Of Homeland Security

  44. If Wal*Mart underpays its taxes, then it goes to jail.

    If I underpay at Wal*Mart, then I go to jail.

    Dave, could you please find a dictionary definition of the word “theft” that encompasses not paying taxes?

    Thanks.

  45. Tax evasion is theft in the same sense that Wal*Mart is a “someone” that can own “personal” property. Which is to say, constructively and in the eyes of the law.

    Cf, http://dict.die.net/theft/

  46. Dave, Isaac,

    I believe this says it all:

    “…commensurate hassle (or, coercive force, if you will)…”

    Sort of the same, like a splinter and a stab wound.

    Also,

    “The proper comparison is between my ability to avoid taxes and a manufacturer’s ability to avoid dealing with Wal*Mart.”

    Apparently suppliers go to prison when they don’t deal with Walmart. Or, not actually prison, but it’s tougher to compete. Which is a sort of commensurate hassle, in a way.. sort of. Anyway, quick! Look over there!

    Oy.

    Here’s the rub, Dave. I get what you are trying to say, that is, that one can shop around for governments the way they shop for retailers. Problem is, if I don’t like any retailers after trying them all, I could freely pursue some alternatives, like substitute products, or build my own, or live without, whatever. When I’ve decided I don’t like any available governments, I’m stuck. I have no other alternatives, I have to live somewhere.

  47. Here’s the rub, Dave. I get what you are trying to say, that is, that one can shop around for governments the way they shop for retailers. Problem is, if I don’t like any retailers after trying them all, I could freely pursue some alternatives, like substitute products, or build my own, or live without, whatever. When I’ve decided I don’t like any available governments, I’m stuck. I have no other alternatives, I have to live somewhere.

    Look, let me let you in on a little secret. that guy “Dave” in the hypothetical. He is based on me. You might even say he is me and that I was describing my life. I have been more cheesed off at my government and my countrymen (back in 2003 and 2004, that is) than you ever have been and probably ever will be. Canada was a gracious host, but they do not exactly have my favorite kind of government either. You don’t have to explain to me that you have to live somewhere.

    But I did not link that article to make some kind of full frontal assault on capitalism. Rather, the point the article makes is that markets can become irrational and non-functioning merely by economic concentration, and that that concentration can happen on the demand side (eg, WAL*MART vis-a-vis its suppliers) as well as on the demand side. In an important sense, the markets described in the article are not competitive, are not even what you would call free.

    This lack of freedom is being imposed within the private sector, but it is still a freedom problem, a lack of free markets problem, a case where unregulated capitalism is less free than regulated capitalism would be. And that is deep, like deeper than Jack Handy deep.

    I mean, I generally like capitalism, and when I want my business-as-usual “rah, rah, rah” fix, then I come here, or look at my latest print edition of Reason. It is good for that, and I enjoy it not being a socialist (although the socialized medicine in Canada wasn’t too bad).

    But I think Reason could adopt a more nuanced and sophisticated look at provate sector capitalism once in a while. It is sad that one has to go to Harper’s to get that, but, really, you do.

  48. “I have been more cheesed off at my government and my countrymen (back in 2003 and 2004, that is) than you ever have been and probably ever will be.”

    How’d you do that! That seriously freaked me out! Tell me, will I meet the love of my life in 2008?

    Anyway, evidently I forgot to add “free[dom]” to the list of words for which you have ‘alternate’ definitions.

  49. All I am saying is that you are not moving to Canada in 2008. You. don’t. have. the. stones.

  50. Dave,

    I can’t believe I talked to someone who moved to Canada! Stones indeed! How’d you pull it off? What’s it like there? What were the people like? Any bears? I’ve traveled all over the world, but you’re right. I. don’t. have. the. stones. for. Canada.

    Steve S is a wiser man than I. I will defer to his words as I sign off:

    ” I think we’re just talking past each other at this point…Walk in peace, my friend. And good luck to you and yours.”

  51. I didn’t say “travel” — I said “move.”

    You won’t move to Canada and you will not move to any country with taxes lower than the US. That is my prediction for you Kohlrabie and it is a tru one.

  52. Small Business owners are largely forgotten. Thats why I only focus on them. I have experience several members of my family file bankruptcy due to small business failures. I also I suffered through 2 destroyed businesses due to failure however, in my failings I have learned some of the secrets to success. (Who can say they know it all?)

    http://www.onlineuniversalwork.com

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