August 23, 2016

The one and only Lewis Lapham on undemocratic rule in the US

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It’s about the splendor of Washington that has been the magnificence of its marble, of its pretensions, of its bureaucratic vastness, so that it has become like a palace at Versailles. I mean, it is a court society—a world unto itself—sometimes called “inside the beltway.” And it’s grown and multiplied since the end of the Second World War, so that the expense of government, the number of functionaries, of people who serve government in its many facets—I mean, I think there’s something like now 100,000 lawyers and lobbyists who work on various degrees of regulation, and the staff of the Congress has multiplied to 35,000—and it’s this sense of a vast, Versailles-like court, a hall of mirrors in which the various servants of government flatter one another or blame one another, strike poses, issue bills, make announcements, stage pageants of one kind or another.

lewis-lapham-lavin-agency-235x132That’s the great Lewis H. Lapham, legendary editor, curator of radical reading lists, authorial career counselor, and writer, speaking in 1993 to journalist and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb about “Versailles on the Potomac,” a chapter in his then-new book The Wish for Kings. The interview is an hour of TV whose intelligence and open-spirited civic-mindedness are stunning — particularly now, as the world stands transfixed watching a hateful charlatan try to claim his place at the sumptuous tables of American power.

As his readers will expect, Lapham pulls no punches. At one point, identifying Henry Kissinger as “the perfect courtier,” he explains:

The democratic spirit is the one that simply speaks out and says whatever is in its mind — and candor is one of the great democratic political virtues. We’re democrats to the extent that we try to tell each other what we know, what we’ve seen, what we feel. We’re courtiers to the extent that we tell each other what we, each of us, want to hear…. Kissinger was a man always willing to arrange the world to fit the desire of his patron.

Speaking later about Kissinger, along with Richard Nixon, Lapham describes them as “people who were clear-eyed and saw the shape of the world — and yet, if you look back on their record… they were wrong on Vietnam, they didn’t understand the oil crisis of the early seventies, they certainly didn’t understand Iran or the Shah, they didn’t foresee the change in Russia, neither of them ever understood the economy, they didn’t understand what it mean to go off the gold standard in the early seventies. The record is based to a large extent on image, and very little on substance.”

He also compares talked-about celebrities to pets, chronicles the outrage engendered by a suggestion that representatives of the World Bank save that organization $12 million per year by traveling business class, and outlines his struggle to find a language in which compatriots can “tell each other what we want.” It’s entirely worth watching:

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