AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
A Conversation with Revolutionary Writer & Editor LEWIS LAPHAM
By Tyler Malone
George Orwell once wrote: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Yes, quite often the most revolutionary act is to speak the truth when no one else can or will. That is what drew me to Lewis Lapham so many years ago when he was the Editor of Harper’s. It was the fact that his voice not only seemed honest, sane and smart, but also–and it’s a shame the bar must sometimes be set so low–he seemed to be the only major media figure in the aftermath of 9/11 who wasn’t running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
I decided to speak with writer and editor Lewis Lapham in the wake of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, because, in the planning of our Revolutionary Issue, I remembered how revolutionary the words of Lapham felt at the time of those attacks. Amid the monolithic madness that seemed to come from every sector of American life–the drums of war drowning out our country’s barely audible heartbeat that even I, at just eighteen years of age, could see had already grown too faint to register any sign of life–Lewis Lapham’s voice was calmly nuanced, intellectually emotive, and singularly sane. As I read his piece in Harper’s that came out in November 2001, exactly ten years ago, “Drums along the Potomac,” I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with a man who was saying exactly what I wanted to, albeit in a much more eloquent way than I could have expressed it at the time. It felt good to hear a voice that wasn’t losing its cool, that didn’t seem scared shitless, and that knew, as I knew, that where our country was about to go wasn’t where we should be going. If there was any fear in Lapham’s voice at the time, it was fear of what we were going to do, rather than what was going to be done to us.
I was only eighteen; I hadn’t even been able to vote in the election the year prior that saw an inarticulate cowboy take the reigns of this country. As soon as those attacks happened on 9/11, that cowboy got his chance to do everything he and his rodeo clowns wanted to do from day one but didn’t have the reason or authority to do so. The destruction of those two towers gave the Bush Administration carte blanche to do whatever it damned well pleased.
America was in shock, and thus easily taken advantage of, but the question must be asked: Why the shock? As Lewis Lapham explained when I spoke with him, “We could have seen it coming had we only bothered to look.” And that is what separates Lapham from a great many people–he always bothers to look. He examines, he explores, he reflects. The more nuanced the issue, the more taboo the topic, the more Lapham is interested in delving into it.
That is what his newest venture Lapham’s Quarterly is all about. It is a dream of a magazine for someone like me–somebody a little encyclopedia-obsessed, history-curious and never satisfied with just knowing the basics without delving a little deeper. Four times a year, the folks over at Lapham’s Quarterly release an issue that explores one specific topic, and looks at it from every angle imaginable, all orchestrated by Lapham himself.
“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” Lapham said when discussing how many great books are out there in the world to read, and the same can be said for each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The magazine truly is an embarrassment of riches, with great insight from throughout the ages at every turn of the page. Their current issue, The Future issue, for example, includes various writings about the future from Aeschylus to Philip K. Dick. The breadth of insight is almost unfathomable.
I spoke with Lewis Lapham, who is an embarrassment of riches himself in his encyclopedic knowledge and astute observations, just a few days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
TM: I wanted to start with 9/11. We just had the opening of the 9/11 memorial on the ten year anniversary of that day. And this was what gave me the idea to interview you for our Revolutionary Issue because in my formative years, at the end of my teens, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, and as the war in Iraq was looming, your voice was that revolutionary voice I needed. It was the voice saying what I felt inside but wasn’t eloquent enough to express myself. It was the nagging feeling within me that was saying, “Are these people all fucking insane?” Your voice in Harper’s was really one of the few voices that went against the grain, that spoke out against our government’s and our media’s and our citizenry’s misguided monolithic reaction to the events. So I’m wondering how you feel about all that, and the repercussions of it all, looking back from ten years on?
LL: Well, I can understand why, but I think we–that is to say the United States government and our political classes–overreacted to it. First of all, we shouldn’t have been that surprised. I don’t mean to say that we brought it on ourselves, I’m not making that argument. But I am saying that we hadn’t been paying very close attention to what was going on in the world, and specifically in how the idea of the American Empire was being perceived and interpreted in large parts of the globe, notably in the Middle East. It was as if we were surprised because we hadn’t bothered to look.
It so happened that the weekend before 9/11, I had been at the Council on Foreign Relations where the members were being given an early preview of the Band of Brothers, the Spielberg interpretation of the Ambrose book. If you’ll understand the Council on Foreign Relations, it is staffed by government officials, New York lawyers, policy planners, important journalists, and so on, in other words, the cream of the crop, the top of the American foreign policy and banking elite. It was a hard evening to bear because of the sense of self-congratulation on the part of all present. It was a demonstration of what the ancient Greeks would have called hubris.
It was the sense that America was invincible and indomitable. It was the kind of thing that the Neo-Conservatives were writing in the policy papers of the time. I believe Charles Krauthammer that same year in Time Magazine had gone to the trouble of saying that America doesn’t simply adjust itself to what happens in the world, but that America creates reality. In other words, we are the dominant power and we can do with the world as we wish. And this was a major part of the Bush Administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive strike, which is on the books before 9/11. It was this sense that nothing like the destruction of the World Trade towers could possibly happen that was the prevalent attitude. So when it does happen, there’s a sense of shock, and you have many people in the press demanding an immediate atomic bombing of Afghanistan. You know, immediately, war has been declared. Within a month Bush was saying that this was a war between good and evil, which was really escalating it into the level of a Crusade–and that was, in my opinion, a bit of an overreaction.
TM: You think? Hah! [We both laugh.]
LL: Declaring a war on terror is like declaring a war on drugs or a war on poverty or a war on crime. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s declaring war on an unknown enemy and an abstract noun.
TM: Right. I actually have that down to ask you. I know you’ve said that line a few times before, and I wanted to ask you about that in relation to the new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. In the new issue, the Future Issue, you say that the Bush Administration’s war on terror was “lost the day it was declared,” and I was wondering if you would expound upon that for our readers?
LL: Yes. Well, it was lost the day it was declared because the Bush Administration’s principal policy was to instill fear in the American people. We are under constant attack, we have to be crouching down and hiding from terrorists, and so we put into effect the security system at the airport which is an absurdity and an enormous waste of money, as far as I can see. But it’s purpose, I think, is to get the American people used to emptying their pockets, taking their shoes off, holding their hands up in the air, standing in front of the x-ray machine–in other words to breed in the American populace the attitudes of obedience. This of course was the stated purpose and policy of the Bush Administration.
And, when you look at the whole policy of “regime change,” their real goal was a regime change in the United States. In other words, the Neo-Conservative reactionary faction is essentially afraid of the American people. You now see a further manifestation of that in the line being taken by the Tea Party and by the Republicans in Congress. There was a column this morning by Krugman in the Times referring to Ron Paul suggesting that the best way to handle impoverished people needing medical care was to let them die. Although that’s not exactly what he said, the suggestion that that could happen, that that was the proper way to look at these things, was met with loud applause. To me, it’s a further manifestation, an extension, of attitudes that are already in the minds of the American oligarchy, handsomely represented by the Bush and Cheney Administration. It is essentially contempt for the American people. It’s another function or facet of the great separation of wealth between the country’s rich and the country’s poor that has been widening for the last thirty years and continues to do so at an ever-increasing rate.
But, looking back at 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center was essentially a propaganda stunt, beautifully pulled off by Bin Laden and those others who arranged it. The common thing at the time was to denounce these people as cowards, but that’s simply not true. It takes some kind of courage to commit suicide by flying an airliner into an office tower.
TM: Right. It’s a lot of things, but it’s certainly not cowardly.
LL: No, it’s not cowardly, and it was propaganda. It was symbolic. On a somewhat larger scale, it was like the terrorist attacks by the anarchists in the last fifteen years of the 19th century. Between 1880 and 1914, you have something like 6 or 7 heads of state who are assassinated by bearded Serbians or Italians throwing bombs into open cars or into the Paris opera. These are expressions of anger and revolt against a status quo that is perceived to be oppressive. These are criminal acts, of course, but it wasn’t war. There was never a massive host of infidel Arabs riding camels, somewhere basking in the desert in the Middle East waiting to attack. Nevertheless, that is the kind of image that the Bush Administration wished to plant into the mind of the American electorate, and it was picked up unexpurgated by the American media.
People wonder why there haven’t been any attacks since 2001, and I’m sure our security agencies have choked off some murderous attacks before they made their way into the public theater, but it’s also because there never was this organized Arab host. The enemy was in large part invisible, and, one could say, in large part nonexistent (at least in the dimensions that were given to it by the American media).
So I say we lost the war the day it was declared because we proclaimed a war that wasn’t a war and managed mostly to terrify our own people. We certainly haven’t managed to terrify the Arabs in the Middle East.
TM: It ended up much more of a war on us, on our own populace.
LL: And it was supposed to be a demonstration effect. We were going to invade Iraq and induce shock and awe. We were supposedly going to show these people that we can’t be messed with. What we’ve done instead is shown our weakness. We’ve shown the very clear limits of American power. We have not managed to achieve much. I mean we’re still fighting the War in Afghanistan, which I don’t think we’re going to win. And I don’t think we won the War in Iraq. What we’ve managed to do is to put into power people who do not wish us well. We have a Shiite government and majority now in Iraq, which is now more closely drawn into alliance with Iran.
This has cost us a great deal of our international prestige. Conceivably we could have intimidated the world in 2000 by the very presence of America’s military. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor once said that a nation remains a great power as long as it doesn’t try to use it. [Lapham lets out a bellowing laugh, and I follow suit.]
TM: Yeah, and not just our prestige–though that’s important–but it has obviously also cost us an enormous amount of money.
LL: Well, yes, the expense of the war is certainly one of the reasons for our current problems with our economy. I mean to invest in the military is not a good use of money. It doesn’t really build anything useful. It’s mostly just making things to bury in the ground, or to watch over until they grow obsolete. It provides a lot of contracts for military contractors. It does provide employment along those lines, but it doesn’t build the country’s infrastructure. It’s such a misappropriation of the national energy and money in these two wars, as well as it’s giving the state a reason to seize more and more power with regard to the individual liberties of the citizenry.
And we brought upon ourselves a good deal of moral and political confusion.
TM: Agreed. And thank you for taking a walk down political memory lane with me. Okay, veering a way from the political, I wanted to make sure I got to ask you about Lapham’s Quarterly, which has become my favorite magazine–something I guess I shouldn’t say since I’m working for a magazine while interviewing you…
LL: Yeah, I suppose not.
TM: But I think it’s okay, because they are of a completely different ilk. How did Lapham’s Quarterly come about? How did the idea come to you? And was it before you left Harper’s? Or…
LL: Yeah, it came to me before I left Harper’s. I had the idea in 1999 and I approached the History Book Club. I did a prototype of it at the turn of the millennium. It was printed as a high quality paperback book called The End of the World. It was a collection of texts, and there was a lot of talk about the end of the world at the time.
TM: Right, Y2K and all that ridiculousness.
LL: It was the same methodology of Lapham’s Quarterly–well, not quite, because I did it in a chronological order, rather than what I think is the better sequence, the one the Quarterly uses, of thematic progression. But the purpose was to use history and the voices in time to bring some perspective to current affairs. It was more or less a prototype.
So this was an idea I had for years before I left Harper’s. I had actually tried to talk Harper’s into doing it as an ancillary publication, and maybe as a second stream of revenue. They weren’t interested. I then decided that I was getting older, and if I was ever going to do this, I had better get out and do it. So in 2006, I was 71, and I started to raise money for it. And then we came out with the first issue in 2008.
TM: My friends and I call it the magazine that we never knew we always wanted because it’s become sort of the be all and end all of each topic you decide to cover. It’s this encyclopedic look at one specific issue that gives you a whole different perspective, by giving you many, many perspectives, on that one topic. Obviously, the main concept is that the reader is going to hear from voices throughout the ages, but I think one of my favorite features is your introduction to every issue. I’m curious, do you choose the issue based on something you want to write about? Or is that completely separate and comes later? Or how do you decide on the topics?
LL: I generally go for whatever is in the news. For example, this issue is focused on The Future. The Future is a subject that is on everyone’s minds as we speak, right? I mean, where is the country going? What is the future? That is the question being asked in the financial markets, etc. There’s a lot of fear of the future in the American consciousness and conversation. Food, another of our recent issues, is always a timely topic. The issue in the Spring was on Work, which was timed with the problem of our unemployment. So I try to think of a subject with some currency.
I write the essay usually after the pieces are assembled. It takes a couple of months. We have a couple of meetings. I have a wonderful board of editorial advisers; they’re scholars, journalists. You can see all their names on the masthead. These are wonderfully well-informed people. Some of them are experts on Islam, others on China, etc. They’re well-read scholars and historians. They’re the kind of people who say: “Well, we can’t possibly do this without reading Procopius.” Or: “You’ve got to remember that wonderful passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.” They’re like the best teachers you ever had. They have all these texts in their heads. In order to get the 70-odd texts that we put in any issue, we read probably 400. So I get the idea for the introduction from reading these. It’s really just to set up the issue, and it’s written with that purpose in mind. So I have a couple of months to think about it. So I let it all sit with me, and then I’m able to draw on the wisdom of the past, and it’s extensive.
TM: Ha! It certainly is. So some of my friends and colleagues and I have brainstormed ideas of what we would consider our ideal issue of Lapham’s, coming up with ideas that haven’t been done yet, like Death or Time. The favorite that I came up with was doing one on Uncertainty. But I was wondering if there’s any theme or topic that you haven’t done yet, but that you know you want to do–one that’s on the backburner, but just hasn’t been made yet.
LL: Well, Death is certainly one of them. Death is at the top of the list. Next year, the first one is Family, the next one is Media/Communication, the one after that will be Magic or Magical Thinking or the Supernatural, and the one after that will be Government. But that still leaves at least ten I’d like to do. I’d like to do one on Death, I’d like to do one on Justice, one on Fashion, Science and Technology. I’d like to go back to Natural Resources. We did one on Nature, but that’s such a big subject.
TM: Interesting. I was going to ask you that too. Are there any issues you’d want to revisit?
LL: These topics are so big that they can’t really be covered completely in any one of our issues. You make such a big target that it’s hard to miss. [We both chuckle.] But there are other ways of getting at these things. There’s always more material. So yes, we have to go back. We have to think of other ways to go through the topic of the Environment. And we’ll do that.
To me, it’s endless fun. I have only one criterion–you can’t possibly be comprehensive or definitive–so my one guiding principal is that the writing is good.
TM: I think that’s a pretty good principle.
LL: Yeah, that is a good principle. Lapham’s Quarterly is meant to be a pleasure to read. It’s meant to be fun reading.
Every time I read an issue though, I think of all the things we left out. But we’ll get back to them. And we’re going to develop the website in such a way that we can add afterthoughts.
TM: Yeah, I do enjoy your website, by the way. It’s great.
LL: Well, we can make it better too.
TM: But going back to the pleasure aspect. I think that is where the magazine really succeeds because though I called it encyclopedic earlier, it obviously isn’t really. As you say, there’s no way to create a magazine issue that can act as a comprehensive look at one topic. And a truly encyclopedic look at a topic would surely be as informational as the Quarterly, but it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling a read. Each issue of the Quarterly is bound to be a compelling read. It’s a joy to consume all each issue has to offer.
LL: It’s a constant sense of discovery. Yes, okay, Thucydides might not be new, but if you haven’t read it, it’s new to you. [Once again, we bust out laughing.]
TM: I’m wondering who are some of your favorite writers?
LL: Well, I have lots, of course. Let’s see. You’re going to know all these names anyways. Among the novelists: there’s the Russians, there’s Dostoevsky, there’s Tolstoy, there’s Chekhov. There’s Dickens of the English. There’s Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln. Carlyle. Gibbon. Laurence Sterne. Balzac. I could keep going…
[I remain silent so that he will keep going...]
There’s Lytton Stratchy’s book on Elizabeth, which is excellent. There’s the novelist Ford Madox Ford. There’s Thucydides. There’s the Roman poet Juvenal. We go back to Boccaccio from time to time. Shakespeare makes it in almost every issue. [His voice takes on a Dustin Hoffman quality in its comedic timing as he says:] If not…I think…we’ve done something wrong. [He chuckles.]
But then there’s also Ben Jonson and Marlowe and Philip Sidney and John Donne. I admire many writers. And also there are a lot of moderns that I like.
I also do a weekly podcast for Bloomberg on history called The World in Time, which uses the same idea. I take a topic that’s in the news, and find a historian that’s written a book that pulls in the backstory, and I talk to them for a half an hour. There’s a new book by Stephen Greenblatt called The Swerve–it’s wonderful, it’s coming out soon. There’s a book by Nick Bunker with a somewhat different version of the founding of the Plymouth colony, a beautifully written book. And the list goes on. It’s an excitement. There’s a new book coming out by a guy named Peter Englund called The Beauty and the Sorrow. It’s an intimate book about World War I, and again he’s a very fine writer. Adam Goodheart wrote a book on the opening year of the Civil War, 1861. It’s a brilliant book. These people write well. I don’t know how well these books sell. They deserve to sell.
Ultimately, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m never going to run out of contributors, and I’m never going to run out of angles of approach.
TM: Right. I think that’s the great thing about the Quarterly, that everything is in its purview in a sense. I mean, as long as it is intelligent and well-written, then it is in its purview.
LL: Yes! Exactly. That’s it.
TM: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. It was an absolute delight.
LL: Thank you for taking the trouble.
Lewis Lapham was the Editor at Harper’s for years. He then went on to become the Editor of a new magazine he founded called Lapham’s Quarterly.
Lewis Lapham interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Patrick McMullan & Co. for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Jillian Mercado
Lewis Lapham, SUPER BOWL Party, The Oak Room, The Plaza Hotel, NYC, February 01, 2009, Photography by NICHOLAS RICHER for Patrick McMullan.com
Morgan Entrekin & Lewis Lapham, PARIS REVIEW BOARD OF DIRECTORS REVEL 2010, Cipriani, 42nd Street, NYC, April 13, 2010, Photography by PATRICK MCMULLAN for Patrick McMullan.com
Winston Lapham & Lewis Lapham, SUPER BOWL Party, The Oak Room, The Plaza Hotel, NYC, February 01, 2009, Photography by PATRICK MCMULLAN for Patrick McMullan.com
Lewis Lapham, ACCOMPANIED LITERARY SOCIETY Presents readings of LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY: About Money hosted by DAVID CHU BESPOKE, 25 E 22nd St, NYC, April 15, 2008, Photography by PATRICK MCMULLAN & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com
Brooke Geahan & Lewis Lapham, ACCOMPANIED LITERARY SOCIETY Presents readings of LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY: About Money hosted by DAVID CHU BESPOKE, 25 E 22nd St, NYC, April 15, 2008, Photography by PATRICK MCMULLAN & Co. for Patrick McMullan.com