A Winter Morning and A Historian on Public Radio

Today is the last working day of 2007. It started to rain in SF around 1am.

The last couple of days have been so cold, that walking on the street of San francisco, under an overcast sky, and in the cold air reminded me of Beijing’s winter. Just a hint of it because Beijing is far colder right now. Beijing’s winter has always seemed romantic in my mind. The cold clear air was translucent, like ice cubes. The darkened northern sky, people bundled up in their long down coat, the white mist people breath out, and the warm interior of restaurants and bars with piles of coats that customer shed as they came in, and fogged up windows; all added to the romance of a northern city. Desolated landscape versus over heated social life indoors.

Driving to work in the late morning, I caught a pre-recorded session of “Your Call” from a local public radio station. The former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham was interviewed about his view of today’s politics and the importance of history.

Lapham(72 years old) sounded like an interesting character. He was born into a shipping family in San Francisco. His grandfather was mayor of San Francisco in early 1940’s. He went to Yale and wanted to become a history professor but changed his mind after one year in Cambridge. He started his journalist career in San Francisco Chronicles copy room, then Examiner, then New York Herald Tribune. Later, he was the editor of Harpers for thirty years (1976-2006). Now he started his own magazine called Lapham’s QuarterlyThe journal that enlists the counsel of the dead. The first issue was just released this month.

His advocating of history being the guide for presence agrees with my point of view. His comment on Bush Administration also seems quite to the point: “The lack of curiosity is fatal.”

I dug up a few of his interviews, and also looked over his new magazine. He also wrote for a documentary that sounded strangely interesting. The American Ruling Class. There are not may reviews of this strange little movie. Even though i haven’t watched the movie, this review struck a cord in my mind, because it expressed the same impression I have of Lapham, so far. A bit on the cynical side, but i have to admit it rings true.

…those who like their left-wing politics muddled with avant-garde artistic pretensions.

Despite his “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, I actually agree with lots of his views. I wonder if that means I’m fond of “avant-garde artistic pretensions”, too. Probably.

Among the interviews i read of Lapham, i really like this one done by progressive.org May 2006. Lewis Lapham Interview, By Ruth Conniff.

Lapham: …I graduated from Yale in the 1950s, and the word “public” was still a good word. Public meant public health, public service, public school, commonwealth. And “private” suggested greed, selfishness, and so on. Those words have been turned around. That was the great triumph of the Reagan Revolution. By the time we hit the end of the Reagan Administration, “public” had become a dirty word, a synonym for slum, poor school, incompetent government, all things destructive. And “private” had become glorious: private club, private trout stream, private airplane.

Q: You say you recognize the particular kind of venality of this Administration because of your background. Can you explain what you mean?

Lapham: I know the ethos of the American oligarchy of which young Bush is a servant. It was a tempting subject for discussion and commentary. He’s an agent of the selfish greed that usually overtakes a fat and stupid oligarchy. Aristotle makes this point in his Politics. He has a circle. At one point you have an oligarchy, and it becomes rancid with its own wealth and stupidity. That in turn gives way to tyranny. Then, after a period of time, tyranny turns into anarchy, and out of that comes some form of democracy, which then deteriorates into oligarchy, and you go around the circle again.

I like to read history. I wouldn’t know how to make sense of the newspapers unless I had a sense of history, a sense of context. Let us say that all of us are embarked on the human story that starts however many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. And here we are in Chapter 498, and unless we know what happened in the first 497 chapters, we are at a loss. We then become subject to magical thinking.

You see that in the Bush Administration. This is a form of magical thinking: the idea that you can transform the Middle East and make the deserts of Iraq bloom with small New England towns built on the model of Greenwich, Connecticut. Anyone with a sense of history knows that was unlikely.

Q: We on the left have been admonished that Bush is not stupid, just intellectually incurious.

Lapham: Bush is clever, I assume, in a somewhat limited way. I mean he’s incompetent in a way that a lot of corporate CEOs are incompetent. You could put him in a class with Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay. But he makes a virtue of his ignorance: Don’t confuse me with qualms or history; I have the will to change the world.

He wants power. Whereas somebody like Kerry doesn’t want power and wouldn’t know what to do with it if he got it. And Kerry does not have the strength of his own supposed convictions. That’s why Bush got elected. I knew a lot of people who disagreed with him but who voted for him. They said, “at least the man knows what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to act.” Whereas Kerry, who knows what he thinks? He’s somewhere on a surfboard in a plastic suit.

Lapham: Well, the true idea of democracy is that we learn from people with whom we don’t agree. Societies perish when they become afraid of differences of opinion. So it’s not personal with me. I’m perfectly happy to sit down at breakfast with Newt Gingrich and listen to him present himself as a teacher of civilization.

Q: You write a lot about class.

Lapham: America is about class. To pretend that it isn’t is very ignorant. No society has ever existed without some kind of a ruling class. I don’t care whether you’re in Athens in 400 BC or in France in the 1770s or in America in the 1920s. At Yale for 100 years the class rankings were based on the wealth of the student; the richest kid in the class was the first student in the class.

Q: Whom do you admire?

Lapham: I admire Ralph Nader. I wish in 2004 he had run for the Senate. His Presidential campaign was mistimed. But I admire almost anybody that tries to speak up for himself or herself. I admire writers.

Any political regeneration comes out of a better concern for the language. This is Orwell’s point in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He says it is the foolish and awful and thoughtless use of language that allows us to not think. And unless we pay attention to the meaning of words, we are subject to dealers in quack religion and political chicane.

A few essays written by Lapham on Harper’s Magazine:
Drums along the Potomac, November 2001
Res republica, November 2001
The Road to Babylon, October 2002

I like his writing and his lucidity. Two months after 911! That’s admirable.