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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Flogging Lewis Lapham: BDS so bad the NYT notices 


Jennifer Senior, a political writer for the New York Times, has reviewed new Bush-bashing books from Lewis Lapham, long the editor of Harper's Magazine, and Sidney Blumenthal. She takes both of them apart.

Regarding Blumenthal, she is mostly just sad, or maybe tired:

There was a time when Blumenthal was an unpredictable writer and thinker (during his years at The New Republic, for instance), but by 1997, when he left The New Yorker to go work for the Clinton White House, his transformation to predictable partisan was more or less complete. During the Ken Starr years, Blumenthal was publicly accused by the journalist Christopher Hitchens of waging a covert campaign to portray Monica Lewinsky as a stalker; today, he seems to appreciate the value of special prosecutors a good deal more. His book is dedicated to Joseph C. Wilson IV, the American diplomat who publicly challenged Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to get yellowcake uranium from Niger, and whose wife’s identity as a spy was thought to have been leaked by the White House in retaliation. (It now looks as if the State Department was the original source of the leak, though people in the White House certainly had no trouble passing the information along.) Blumenthal devotes quite a few columns to this subject. One of them ends in a long list of questions — 19, by my count — that he hopes the prosecutor investigating the leak will ask Dick Cheney. “Mr. Vice President,” it solemnly concludes, “you are under oath.”

It must suck to have one's book overtaken by the truth before it is even published.

On Lapham, though, Ms. Senior pops open her switchblade and just starts slashing. At the risk of pushing fair use to its far horizon, I've reproduced the Lapham paragraphs from first cut to last. They are that hilarious.
Since the president’s re-election, loathers of George W. Bush have had no shortage of cudgels with which to club him: a distressingly belated response to Hurricane Katrina; an experiment in warrantless wiretapping; a modest parade of indictments; a nation-building project so distant from its original intent that our troops are now caught in a proto-civil war. One can certainly understand how these developments — and Bush’s correspondingly rotten approval ratings — have emboldened the opposition. The problem is that these developments have also made the president’s critics more susceptible to rhetorical excess, and Bush, like his predecessor, already has an impressive gift for bringing out the yawping worst in those who disagree with him. Otherwise reasonable people go slightly berserk on the subject of his motives; on the subject of his morality, the hinged fall off their door frames and even the stable become unglued. This is both an aesthetic problem and a substantive one. Substantively, it means gerrymandering evidence so that inconvenient facts don’t make it onto the map. And aesthetically, it means speaking in a compromising and not wholly credible tone.

Now, just in time for the midterm elections, the collected columns of two passionate Bush critics, Lewis H. Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal, are landing in bookstores. Both, to varying degrees, suffer from a distorting case of Bush-phobia. Lapham’s “Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration” is by far the more trying of the two. The editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine and its Notebook columnist for more than 25 years, Lapham compares the Bush administration to a “criminal syndicate” and Condoleezza Rice to a “capo.” He likens the United States to “a well-ordered police state” and the policies of its Air Force to those of Torquemada and Osama bin Laden. He calls Bush “a liar,” “a televangelist,” “a wastrel” and (ultimately) “a criminal — known to be armed and shown to be dangerous.”

Well. At least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent — and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis in support of these claims — you may feel less inclined to throttle Lapham’s targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham: the breathtaking lyricism of his voice, the breadth of his remarkable erudition. He goes across the street and around the corner to confirm the worst stereotypes about liberals — that they’re condescending, twee, surpassingly smug. “What I find surprising is the lack of objection,” he writes of the misguided American public. “The opinion polls show four of every five respondents saying that they gladly would give up as many of their civil rights and liberties as might be needed to pay the ransom for their illusory safety.” Wouldn’t Lapham be a more interesting columnist if he took this finding seriously? And analyzed it, perhaps, giving it its due? (Though later he generously allows that not every Idahoan and Nebraskan “is as dumb as Donald Rumsfeld,” based on his “reading of the national character in the library of American history and biography and a fairly extensive acquaintance with the novels of Melville, Twain, Howells, James, Wharton, Dreiser, Faulkner, Cather, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Hara and Roth.” Idahoans and Nebraskans, rejoice.)

People who are serious about politics don’t just preen. They report, explain, explore contradictions, struggle with ideas, maybe even propose suggestions. If they do none of these things, they’re simply heckling, and if the best Lapham can do is come up with 50 inventive new ways to call Bush an imbecilic oligarch, that’s all he’s doing: heckling. Like his worst counterparts on the right, he compares those he doesn’t like to fanatics, as when he refers to David Frum and Richard Perle as “Mufti Frum” and “Mullah Perle,” adding, “Provide them with a beard, a turban and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldn’t have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News.” Possibly, but provide Lapham with a blond wig, stiletto pumps and a copy of “The Fountainhead,” and I suspect he wouldn’t look much different from Ann Coulter. He’s just another talk-radio host, really — only this time by way of Yale and Mensa.

There’s one column that’s conspicuously absent from this collection, and that’s the one from September 2004, which included a brief account of the Republican National Convention. Lapham wrote it as if the convention had already happened, ruefully reflecting on the content and sharing with readers a question that occurred to him as he listened; unfortunately, the magazine arrived on subscribers’ doorsteps before the convention had even taken place, forcing Lapham to admit that the scene was a fiction. He apologized, but pointed out that political conventions are drearily scripted anyway — he basically knew what was going to be said. By this logic, though, I could have chosen not to read “Pretensions to Empire” before reviewing it, since I already knew Lapham’s sensibility, just as he claims to know the Republicans’. But I dutifully read the whole book. And I discovered, with some ironic poignancy, that Lapham did have a point: some people never acquire any more nuance as they go.

Finally, Ms. Senior notices something that is only obvious to we few, we happy few, who read lots of stuff from right and left.
The left has often complained that what it needs isn’t polite speech, but voices as pungent as those on the right. Maybe so. But even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny. Books like [Blumenthal's] are a depressing reminder of how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves, if they want to be taken at all seriously.

So, who noticed the pun in the title of this post?

11 Comments:

By Blogger HackleHead, at Sat Sep 23, 11:48:00 AM:

Yes, the Left has gotten in the bad habit of asserting but not explaining. Righteous idignation has replaced reasoned argument. This is how one speaks to other fellow travelers not how you convince those outside the cocoon.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 23, 12:07:00 PM:

They are an unhappy bunch of people. I feel sorry for them at times.  

By Anonymous Al, at Sat Sep 23, 05:05:00 PM:

Its like the always amusing Rush Limbaugh says, being out of power has a way of taking the joy out of life.  

By Anonymous slinkybender, at Sat Sep 23, 09:21:00 PM:

Not being funny -- that's a deal-breaker.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sat Sep 23, 10:36:00 PM:

"Tony Blair's In-Law Problems"

I admit, I don't see the pun.  

By Blogger Buce, at Sun Sep 24, 01:10:00 AM:

Shorter Jennifer Senior: I don't like Lapham, he preens.

I haven't read Lapham, but it is not clear to me how this moves the ball down field.  

By Anonymous David, at Sun Sep 24, 07:54:00 AM:

I might see the pun, but my mind's in the gutter which might be clouding my vision.  

By Blogger J. Peden, at Sun Sep 24, 02:17:00 PM:

"This is how one speaks to other fellow travelers not how you convince those outside the cocoon."
hacklehead

It's also desparate Cultist mantra, assertion of the correct noises, enforcement of speech memes, wailings of the threatened "in crowd", fear of life, absence of free-thought, fear of free-thought, worship of death, Islamofascism.

Fortuneately for them, these "intellectuals" have a market to milk, a saving grace.  

By Anonymous Phrizz11, at Sun Sep 24, 11:00:00 PM:

"fear of life, absence of free-thought, fear of free-thought, worship of death..."

funny that. Those are the same values I associate with such leading Republican party luminaries as Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Sep 25, 11:00:00 AM:

"fear of life, absence of free-thought, fear of free-thought, worship of death..."

What are you talking about? Fear of Life? The two senators mentioned don't fear life - the Dems do! They fear the unborn babies, they fear children, they fear the American people who are passing overwhelmingly popular constitutional amendments to preserve the status quo on Marriage - they fear democracy - which is why the left foists its greatest 'progressive' ideas on us via the courts!

As for "free-thought" that doesn't mean ANYTHING - the Left walks in ideological lock-step, never do they even attempt to PROVE what they claim to be so with arguments. Try being "free-thinking" on a college campus sometime - if the left is in charge and you beg to differ with them, they use sheer power to crush and then punish your speech. Not so on the right.

"Worship of death": the left is in favor of abortion, embryo killing research, infanticide, and forced euthanasia for 'people whose quality of life is not up to OUR standards'... THEY are the ones claiming there's too many people on earth!  

By Blogger nyradical, at Fri Oct 13, 12:51:00 PM:

Actually, I'm not convinced Ms. Senior even read Lapham's book. That "one column that's conspicuously absent from this collection" is the prologue, albeit edited to correct the errors. That's a terrible overlook/not-read on her part.  

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