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Democracy is Troublemaking: Lewis Lapham in conversation with The Straddler

On Monday, March 26th, The Straddler met with Lewis Lapham at his offices on Irving Place in Manhattan. Lapham was editor of Harper’s Magazine from 1976-1981, and again from 1983-2006. In 2007, he launched Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal devoted to the proposition that the texts of history provide contextualizing lifeblood for contemporary thought about the present and future. “We have,” as Lapham puts it, “nothing else with which to build the future except the lumber of the past.”

Any conversation with Lapham on the intersecting themes of media, democracy, and history is bound to be rewarding, but our timing was especially auspicious as Lapham’s Quarterly had just released its Spring 2012 “Means of Communication” issue while Lapham himself had just completed an essay, “Ignorance of Things Past: Who Wins and Who Loses When We Forget American History,” which ran in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

A legendarily gifted essayist, Lapham is the author of numerous books including Waiting for the BarbariansMoney and Class in AmericaLapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-CongratulationPretensions to Empire; and Gag Rule. He also hosts “The World in Time,” a podcast centered on discussions of new books on history.

March 26th, 2012
THE STRADDLER: In your 2006 conversation with Harry Kreisler at UC Berkeley, you said that television engenders “a credulous anxiety;” that in the land of television, there is no past or present but only “the eternal now.” Can you describe the “eternal now” and some of its consequences?

LAPHAM: The electronic media eliminate the dimensions of space and time. Take the Internet, or take the 1,001 channels on cable TV, streaming live or on demand to the home screen or the iPhone. Here you are with your remote, and it’s always now, no matter where—keeping company with the porn stars in Burbank, California, watching Henry Kissinger make a speech in Austria, with the President of the United States as played by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, by Anthony Hopkins or Kevin Costner. Choose your President and find him saying whatever you’d hope he say.

Marshall McLuhan referred to the television screen as the “Pool of Narcissus,” because what’s usually looked for is a reflection of oneself—an ambience, an atmosphere, a mise-en-scene in which you feel yourself at home. You are King of the hill, Queen for the day, waving a wand that lines up your subjects in whatever way you find pleasing or convenient. McLuhan also said that television’s best use is the selling of a product, not the expression of a thought. The camera sees but doesn’t think; it seeks a volume of emotional response, and doesn’t care about the content, doesn’t distinguish between a bloodbath in Afghanistan or a bubble bath in Paris.

THE STRADDLER: We have a quote of yours here which says, “to stop and pause and seem to think is a crime from a television camera’s point of view.”

LAPHAM: Yes, it is. The camera doesn’t like “dead air.”

THE STRADDLER: And is that exclusively the result of the medium, or does the culture in which the medium is being received have some bearing?

LAPHAM: Well, it’s the medium—but then again, you go back to McLuhan and he says, “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” So it’s the medium—and then one adjusts. Just the way politicians adjust to answering in thirty seconds questions that really can’t be answered in less than four hours. When I was writing a television documentary, “The History of American Foreign Policy in the 20th Century,” I was given 73 seconds and 45 words, or 45 words and 73 seconds, to explain the origins of World War II while at the same time making a voiceover transition between Munich in 1938 and Poland in 1939. So it’s the medium, which plays to a clock.

It’s the same thing with stand-up comedy, which is the difference between Jon Stewart and Mark Twain. Twain was a public lecturer and performer—and a very good one. He’d walk into an auditorium—sometimes there’d be as many as three or four thousand people present—and he’d feel the sense of the room. He’s talking to human beings, he’s talking to an audience, and the timing and the rhythm depend on that. They depend on the human context. They don’t depend on “we’ll be right back.” Once you understand television as an advertising medium timed to a clock, then you understand that it’s the “now” reaction that is being sought, the impulse buy at the grocery checkout counter. Text A for yes, B for no.

THE STRADDLER: Part of the anxiety of the “eternal now,” then, seems to be the notion that the now that you know is always a second away from being outdated.

LAPHAM: Yes. To live in the now can make you very anxious because you don’t remember where you’ve been. You don’t have the security of your own story, your own thought, your own experience. You’re always missing something. You’re never quite in the right place—if you just had this, or if you had just been here then, or next week. So in a funny way it doesn’t let you live in the present. The present that it offers is an illusion.

THE STRADDLER: You regularly speak with authors and historians as host of the podcast “The World in Time.” Back in November of last year, you spoke with Steven Ross about his book Hollywood Left and Right in which he argues that Ronald Reagan pioneered the effective postwar Republican rhetorical strategy of “fear and reassurance” in contradistinction to the postwar Democratic strategy of “hope and guilt.”  Do you see this “fear and reassurance” message successfully at play in media and politics today?

LAPHAM: Sure. That’s essentially advertising. Think of all the advertising on television for prescription drugs—to treat illnesses that aren’t even specified. And the whole project of the Bush Administration was to promote fear; its war on terror meant to terrify the American public. The security devices at the airport are really meant to instill the habit of obedience.

THE STRADDLER: In Walter Karp’s The Politics of War, for which you wrote the introduction, he quotes Jefferson’s remark that “liberty is not for the nervous.” Is a populace that is constantly nervous more likely to give up its liberties?

LAPHAM: Absolutely. That was the underlying tactic of the Cold War. Children hiding under desks and being told that the Soviet Missiles were ten miles offshore Cape Cod. There’s a wonderful quote from Hamilton on that very point where he says, “in the hope of achieving perfect security, what one gives up is one’s liberty.” It’s the same idea that Karp talks about in The Politics of War—it was the strategy pursued by the Wilson Administration. It’s the military-industrial complex. It’s our current PATRIOT Act and surveillance cameras, and so forth and so on. It’s to intimidate, to keep the populace in a state of paralysis. This of course was the great weapon of the Catholic Church. Forever threatening damnation in Hell.

THE STRADDLER: Does the Internet, as a medium, intensify or lessen this constraint on liberties?

LAPHAM: Well, I don’t know. Who knows what the Facebook persona is? It’s a construction—the temptation will be to make oneself look as attractive, or as intelligent, or as interesting as possible. That’s the new form, like the video game Second Life. I saw a story a couple of days ago in the New York Times which said that General Motors is having a very hard time selling cars to young people. The big market for cars used to be young men between the ages of sixteen to twenty-eight. Apparently the market has shrunk substantially because the kids think, “What’s the point of the car? I can do it on the Internet. I don’t have to go anywhere.” Maybe we learn to live entirely in our heads, which is where we live anyway. Maybe it makes us freer—freer to invent ourselves. I have no idea how that will work, but I know it won’t be democratic.

do know that I would be very, very careful to ever say to the Internet what I truly felt or thought. There’s as much possibility that it can limit and suppress and inhibit the expression of feeling or thought because it will be used to somebody else’s purpose. Let’s say you’re running for political office, or you want to get a divorce, or find a new boyfriend. And now there’s somebody who you thought was your friend but is now your enemy—or somebody who is trying to use your life as a means of making money. You see what happens to the movie stars. They walk around in mufti, behind dark glasses, and they spend a lot of time hiding. So in some ways the Internet may work to limit one’s freedom of movement or thought.

THE STRADDLER: Returning to McLuhan, he very rigidly separates medium from content, but surely content affects sensibilities as well. What effects do you see of a media landscape that skews its content, in whatever form, in the direction of the 18–34 demographic that is most desirable to advertisers?

LAPHAM: The short answer is I don’t know. But I do know that in the sixties we had Woodstock, and we had Flower People, who in large part were a creation of the media in order to sell clothes.

THE STRADDLER: In your introduction to Understanding Media, you write of McLuhan’s belief that “content follows form, and the insurgent technologies give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.” In this context, I wonder what you think of the persistence of right-wing economic gospel—unfettered markets, small government, and so on—which has survived a major event like the financial crisis. In a different era, under different dominant forms of media, would it be easier to push against that gospel after an event that had empirically discredited it?

LAPHAM: It might be easier to push against with different media. Now, with television, it’s always in your face. The distance between the rich and the poor is on offer twenty-four hours a day. The most brilliant object in the media is money. Celebrity is money walking around. It would be very hard to think of such a thing as a poor celebrity, at least in our society. A good author is a celebrity author, and a celebrity author is a good author. And with the 24/7 sales promotions, the dominance of money becomes tyrannical. Most of the time you’re looking at advertisements. In a three-hour NFL football game, there are exactly eleven minutes of live play. The rest of it is either replay, standing around, advertising, or telling you what’s going to come up next week. So when the brilliance of money is constantly being pushed on you, it’s hard not to believe that money is God.

There are various subsets of the Republican right, but the one thing they agree upon is that money is good for rich people and bad for poor people. That’s what it comes down to. And that, of course, is also the message of advertising. No distinction between the price of a thing and the worth of a thing. The more expensive the product, the more worthwhile—which, as we all know, is not true.

THE STRADDLER: In that 2006 conversation with Kreisler, you said that “implicit in the idea of democracy is virtue—the idea of looking out for one another.” That reminded us of a conversation that Norman Mailer had with Charlie Rose just before the second Iraq war where Mailer said, “democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades, and finally over centuries, and build traditions. The only defense of democracy are the traditions of democracy, and when you start uprooting these traditions, you’re playing with a noble and delicate structure.”

LAPHAM: I agree with that. Democracy is geared to ceaseless argument and change, the friction between labor and capital, men and women, matter and mind, the government and the governed. It’s like a suspension bridge; it needs the balance of opposite stresses. That’s why it’s a volatile substance, just the way freedom is. Democracy is not a trust fund, and it’s not a monument; it’s the antithesis of empire.

Democracy is supposed to be dangerous, which is why it’s the hardest form of government. Power always seeks to multiply itself. This was something Walter Karp was very keen on, and so was Thomas Paine. Paine understands the democratic idea—he understands it’s an argument, and he understands it’s constantly changing. It’s not a steady state, just the way freedom is not a steady state. But the object of entrenched power is to make time stand still, to keep people afraid, frightened birds in front of the IRS or a snake. Power doesn’t want an argument. Paine was a writer and a thinker and a philosopher, but he was not a politician. So after the Revolution—here America had seized the property from Britain, and they were interested in dividing the spoils—they had no use for him anymore because he was troublesome. Paine kept asking questions. Oh, Paine was great in Common Sense in 1776, but now it’s 1782, and we’ve got to find out who gets to inherit what. They wouldn’t even give him a job in Washington. He had to go to England—and he made trouble in England, so they chased him out of there, too. Democracy is troublemaking.

THE STRADDLER: You have said of William Sloan Coffin, Chaplain of Yale in the 1960s, that he had “a notion of democracy as a great escape from the prison of the self.” That seems especially interesting now in an environment that encourages one to—

LAPHAM: —dwell on the self. Yes. It’s the way you think about society. Society is participation. It’s my learning from you, and we both learn from someone else. To learn you have to try to get out of the prison of your self. I actually came across that phrase in Montaigne, who uses it to explain why he’s constantly reading. To take part in a wider world, in the continuity of the human mind. The more you can take part in it, the larger your experience. That’s what Coffin means. Essentially, he’s talking about love. Lucretius is talking about the same thing in The Nature of Things, which begins with an ode to Venus. You know, atoms colliding and combining with one another. Whereas pyramids, giant bureaucracies, jails—they don’t like to move. We have God knows how many million surveillance cameras on the streets of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Quite a few.

THE STRADDLER: On this idea of “the continuity of the human mind,” many evangelists of new technologies hold out the promise of a harmonious future that will be almost entirely facilitated by technology. The Internet has even been dubbed “the worldwide mind” by some.

LAPHAM: Right, this is the singularity advocated by [Ray] Kurzweil. I believe in a worldwide mind, but I believe in it historically. Over time. We’re sitting here speaking, and somewhere in the world right now there is every conceivable behavior. People are dying, people are being born, people are shooting their mothers-in-law, people are making a fortune, and so on. And it’s all happening right now in real time—and it’s impossible to participate in all of that even on the Internet. But on the other hand, I’m still skeptical of Kurzweil’s idea, which is that we essentially become “wet apps” for the “hive mind.” I take more pleasure in the human experience than that. We went into that years ago with phone sex. Okay, maybe people could get used to that. It’s got a great deal of advantages. It’s not risky, you’re not going to get arrested, no one is going to try to blackmail you. On the other hand, it’s not much fun.

THE STRADDLER: One of the ideas with which you grapple is the question of how to form a coherent political idea in the forms of the new media. As editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, which is deeply engaged with history as a contextualizing lifeblood for thought, how do you face the challenge, not of creating a historical sense, but of creating the sense of a need for a historical sense? Why should people know more history? Why should they have a broader historical sense?

LAPHAM: I think of history as both a natural resource and an applied technology. The applied technology is in the present, defending the future against the past. The acquaintance with history makes possible the revolt against what G. K. Chesterton called “the small and arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking about.” When a politician tells you he’s going to take America back, the question is, back where? If you know something about the past, it’s not the rose-colored Norman Rockwell postcard that Mitt Romney thinks it is. The ignorance of the past makes you discontented with the present; it sets up the sales promotions for the lost golden age.

The history of the United States is not a pretty story. Bank panics, financial collapses, extermination of the Indians, Civil War, slavery, and so forth. American perfectionism is very overrated. Knowledge of this history prevents you from attacking the present, and therefore not engaging with the present, and therefore not enjoying the present. So that’s the applied technology.

The natural resource of the past allows you to understand how we got from where we were to where we are, and what it cost, and against what odds, and with what force of the human imagination and its powers of expression. Goethe said, “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.” History is a wonderful resource because it’s about opening things up. It’s not about pinning things down. It’s work in progress. History is not what happened 200 years ago or 2,000 years ago—it’s a story about what happened 200 years ago or 2,000 years ago, and the story changes. A history of the British Empire written in 1850 is different from one written in 1900, which is different from one written in 1950. Three different British Empires, each of them limited by the vantage point of both the eyewitness and the historian.

So history defends you against buying a bunch of cheap lies—quack religion and fascist politics—and it teaches you the value of your own inheritance. But there’s something else, too. The past is the new future. We’re much more apt to find a way to deal with the problems of the twenty-first century somewhere in the historical record than we are from the futurists. History is a vast and generative landscape of human energy and possibility. Think of the Italian Renaissance or the American Revolution.

THE STRADDLER: Finally, moving on to the role of the intellectual or thinker, in your introduction to The Politics of War you write of Walter Karp, “he was an historian of the best kind—an excited amateur who didn’t allow the weight of footnotes or the fear of a faculty committee to impede the line of his argument or the enthusiasm of his thought.” Can you talk a little bit about the challenges faced by intellectuals like Karp in our society? Why are there not more Karps?

LAPHAM: Intellectuals like Karp, like Paine, never make any money. They’re not careerists. They’re not going to be speechwriters for politicians or annual report writers for corporations. They’re apt to offend somebody. They find they have a hard road. Take a newspaper columnist. Newspapers want someone who is on the right, and someone who is sort of on the left. And those guys have to stick to a script or they lose the gig.

Paine thought it the duty of a journalist to speak truth to power. Power is always going to become corrupt to a greater or lesser degree, and it does not like to be reminded of its faults any more than the chairman of a corporation likes to be reminded that he’s mortal. The political thinker, columnist, writer who is of any value is going to be reminding people in power of their mortality. Like the Centurion standing behind the chariot of the triumphant Roman general: “Remember that you are mortal.” But there’s no career in that.

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