Voicing Dissent: A Conversation with Lewis Lapham


I heard a podcast recently of AlecBaldwin interviewing Lewis Lapham.  Ifyou aren’t familiar with his writing, Lapham is arguable the country’s finestcontemporary essayist.  Editor emeritusof Harper’s Magazine, and the founderand editor of Lapham’s Quarterly,Lapham writes essays that are often lyrical and frequently satirical, weavingliterary and historical references into biting political and cultural critiquesthat challenge conventional wisdom.
Laphamhas also led a remarkably iconic twentieth century life, something that theinterview with Baldwin captured well. What was missing, though, was Lapham’s usual stinging critique. Thus, Iam pulling out of the vaults an interview I did with Lapham in 2004, when hewas still editor of Harper’s.
Granted,Lapham is not your traditional anthropological subject.  He wears a finely cut, if slightly crumpled,suit instead of exotic dress.  In placeof a foreign tongue he speaks the sort of standard English that reveals anexpensive education.  Yet, as a culturalanthropologist, I was drawn to Harper’s lower Broadway offices in Manhattan tointerview Lapham because of his very anthropological take on the decline ofdissent in our country.
Whilesome might argue that his writing is too erudite for mass consumption, Laphamconsistently sullies ivory tower presumptions with the gritty concerns of dailylife, revealing the inequalities hidden in hegemonic ideologies not through pristinetheory but, to borrow a phrase from Michael Taussig (1987:288), by looking “inthe sweaty, warm space between the arse of him who rides the back of him whocarries.”  Lapham is of the dominantclass but openly subverts its pretensions.
Lapham grew up in San Francisco,the great grandson of a minor robber baron and the grandson of a spendthriftwho blew through his share of the family fortune.  Little Lewis listened to the stories ofone-great wealth as a child, having been raised with “some of the attitudesassociated with being born within the compound” but without the money to gowith it.  Still, his education was of aparticular sort: prep school at Hotchkiss, college at Yale, and further studiesat Cambridge.
When I met him, Lapham was aslender, distinguished looking man in his late 60s.  His comfortable self-assurance andchain-smoking manner suggest a college professor more than a mediaexecutive.  He had just published acollection of essays, The Gag Rule (2004), in which he looks at how dissent is mutedin modern society.  He shows that thenature of big media concerns, the emergence of new communication technologies,and the state of public education have converged to form the perfect hegemonicstorm in the United States.  Rather thanstirring up public discontent, this tempest acts to mute discontent, andbrilliantly does so in the guise of greater freedom of choice. 
EFF:    In your new book you write about what youterm “the mute button.”  What is it?
LL:      The obstacles standing in the way ofdissent, candor, and honest sharp-edged, open public argument.  James Fenimore Cooper, in the book TheAmerican Democrat, makes the point that of all the American politicalvirtues, candor is the most necessary. Cooper’s point is that the democratic idea means that we try to telleach other the truth.  Somehow, if we dothat, even though both of us may be wrong, we manage to correct our errors andtherefore plot a course that neither one of us could have done alone but thatwill see us safely through to the future. Or to Oregon, as the case may be. So dissent is the collective expression of candid opinion.  In the definition of Archibald MacLeish, dissent is nothing more thanthose indications when people think for themselves and do not simply mouth theconventional wisdom.  The mute button iswhat stands in the way of candor in our modern times. 
EFF:    How does the mute button work?
LL:      There are several elements to the mutebutton.  First is the nature of the largenews the media, which in my view is better associated with the characters ofRosencrantz and Guildenstern than it is with the lonely voice of thewhistleblower or truth teller on the ramparts of freedom.  This is because so much of the large media isdependent upon access to power.  When onebecomes accustomed to accepting handouts (literally, as that is the term usedby the media: the “press handout”), the journalist more often than not is thefigure on bended knee who accepts this gift with gratitude.  There is wonderful image of it in the panicof 1894: the stock market fell to pieces, many were unemployed, fortunes werelost, and the press went down to Wall Street to get a statement from eitherE.H. Harryman or J.P. Morgan.  They satin the anteroom of the great banker’s office for four hours, with their hats ontheir knees, and finally a secretary appeared and handed them a piece of paperon which was typed “The United States of America is a great and growingcountry” and, in parentheses, that “this is not for attribution.”  That was the sum of the statement theyreceived, but they were grateful for it, bowed, and brought back the great newsto the New York world.
EFF:    The mute button also calls to mind theremote control and the multitude of channels that we have these days watched bymultitudes of passive viewers.
LL:      This is the second element of the mutebutton: the nature of the electronic media, with the sheer white noise of somany channels and so much available on the internet.  There is so much white noise that it is hardto make a clear statement.  Anddissent–which implies thought, which implies argument–does not lend itself totelevision because television is sound-bites, television is emotion, not rationalthought. 
Television is aworld in which there is no cause and effect: It is an eternal present, aneternal now.  There is no past, there isno future, and nothing necessarily follows anything else.  All the world’s sorrow, joy, tragedy, horrorhas to be condensed into however many minutes there are betweencommercials.  Given the way thattechnology is now working (with the hundreds of channels and Direct TV andsatellite) you can literally sit there with a remote control and find the worldin whatever mirror flatters your own sense of yourself.  At any one time, if you have enough channels,you could find the person of the president of United States presented asRichard Nixon himself, as Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, as Morgan Freeman,as Harrison Ford, as John Kennedy himself. It goes on and on.   At the verysame time, you can then go directly to a pornographic channel and from there toa sporting event in Peru and then to a ship lost at sea and then to an episodeof some police drama or reality t.v. 
In other words,there is no sequence, there is no coherence with television as there is on theprinted page.  The printed page isstraight lines, more or less, like roads or the plot in a Jane Austinnovel.  This is not true on television—itis circular instead of linear.  And thatsensibility is tuned to improvisation as opposed to argument, to emotioninstead of thought, and is not conducive to the expression of dissent becausethe sharp-edged argument on television would seem impolite, rude, and out ofplace.  The character that works ontelevision is bland and one on which images can be imposed, not an image orpersonality that is so sharply defined as to discourage its occupation by theviewer.        
EFF:    The the real the insidiousness of all thesetelevision channels, of the modern media as compared to 100 years ago, is thatwe have an image of so much dissent and diversity on television and yetit is just an image . . .
LL:      Yes, it is an image, and it is oftenpresented simply as entertainment.  
EFF:    This would also apply to the trend inAmerican schools toward edu-tainment—the idea that learning must be fun andentertaining.
LL:      This is the third element of the mutebutton, the state of American education.  Critical thinking is not uppermost in the minds of most of the nation’sschoolmasters.  There is a set of correctof answers and if you know them you get an “A,” but doubt, argument, criticalthinking–to question the wisdoms in office, whether they are literary orpolitical—is lacking.  There is not muchof American history either.  It’s hard todissent unless you have some knowledge, it cannot be done ex nihilo.  We don’t teach the story of American historyvery well in our schools, and that’s true for private schools I think as wellas the public schools, and the universities as well as grammar schools. 
Woodrow Wilsonsaid, addressing the High School Teachers Association in 1909 when he was thepresident of Princeton, that we want two classes of persons in the UnitedStates: one very small class to whom we will grant the privileges of a liberaleducation and one–a much larger class–of mechanics who will be consigned tothe dreary, menial tasks required of an industrialized society (and there is nopoint in teaching them too much or encouraging them to think for themselves).  The notion of a dissenting, actively thinkingcitizenry is not good for the advertising business. What we want is the easilyabused consumer, not the critical, thoughtful citizen.  We don’t teach citizenship, we teachmarketing.
EFF:    How, then, do these forces come together tomove individuals to act against their own self-interests?
LL:      Allied to the elements of the mute is ahappy return to religious superstition and to magical thinking, which isovercoming not only the news media but large segments of the population.  This is encouraged by television.  Television is a form of magicalthinking.   It has more to do with ritualand is passive rather than active.  Sothat you have the phenomenon of somebody who sees perfectly clearly that theBush administration made a mess of our “liberation” of Iraq and yet ignores theevidence and chooses to believe that President Bush is a man of great characterand integrity.    
We set aside theempirical evidence in favor of the preferred, magical, superstitiousbelief.  Somebody once said that“incompetent armies deify the commander.” And there we are.  Or you have thephenomenon of the person who lives in the rustbelt, in Ohio or in a state thathas lost fifty thousand jobs or maybe two hundred thousand jobs in the lastfour years, and here is the person who is making a salary of $40,000 ayear.  Every political and economicself-interest—you would think—would encourage this person to vote against theBush administration.  But not so: theyshift.  It is a bait and switch.  Rather than political and economic questionsabout justice, we have moral questions about character.  
EFF:    And this moves us away from theenlightenment ideals of reason upon which the country was founded?
LL:      That is the title of Henry Commager’sgreat book The Empire of Reason, which was about formation andformulation of the United States as the practical, political working out of theenlightenment idea: European theory, American practice.  But it appears that idea has run its course,at least in the United States.  It is 200years later and with what do we replace it? We seem to be replacing it with a return to superstition, a movebackward.  The hard question is how wereplace it with something that carries us forward towards a better place forlarger numbers of people.  I don’t knowwho is going to formulate that or on what basis or how one would give it thestrength of religion.  It is much more difficultto sell a secular idea of paradise (either here or there) than it is to sell itwith a miracle and faith.  Theexistential proposition is a very frightening one: most people are scared offreedom. There is a great speech in Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitorthat says the only thing that people really want is magic, mystery, andauthority and as soon as they are free they become terrified.  This is Aldous Huxley’s point, this isOrwell’s point—the distopias all take this into account.  So did the Third Reich.  This is the question–and I don’t have anyanswer to it–that we should be addressing and that the Democratic party shouldhave been addressing and trying to give that set of notions a politicalstructure. They haven’t done that.
EFF:    You write that the dumbing down of schoolsis no accident, that it is by design . . .
LL:      It’s by design, that’s true.
EFF:    But isn’t that too conspiratorial?  Is there some cabal of big media andgovernment and academic leaders plotting the demise of our schools? 
LL:      No, it’s not that way.  I made that argument as an inference.  I started out by saying that we are a countryof very intelligent people with enormous resources—in other words we have themoney and the brains to build a truly first-rate school system.  We once had that in this country.  The public schools in California in 1930s and1940s were truly good, as were many of the city colleges in New York.  We have let that deteriorate: collectively,we don’t put that much value on first-rate schools because (and it’s not aconspiracy) one does not want to have troublesome students asking too manyquestions for which there are no answers. Or for which the answers are hard to arrive at.  So it is not a conspiracy, it is a kind ofconsensual response to a world that suddenly becomes much more frightening withthe invention of the hydrogen bomb.  Weare now in the shadow of our own powers of Armageddon.
Then there is theenormous expansion of knowledge. In the 19th century it was stillpossible for men to believe that they could know all that was to be known—lookat the Encyclopediasts in France. By 1960, if you graduated in physics, tenyears later everything that you knew would be obsolete.  Knowledge was expanding at light speed in somany different fields that it encouraged a response of “we can’t know.”  And if we can’t know, then everything ismatter a rumor and faith.  What you knowis just as true as what I know and history is simply a costume trunk from whichwe can dress up in merchant ivory in any way we choose.  It all becomes magic, we go back to thefirelight in the cave and those are the images on television 24/7.  We begin to believe in Scientology.  Look at the advertising for drugs ontelevision now—what are they advertising? A whole parade of new drugs, and many of them don’t even tell you whatthey are supposed to cure.  It’s justlong life.  It’s just a blue pill–andthey never tell you why or what its about. It’s like a fountain of youth. The other thing they advertise is Viagra (three or four forms ofit).  We are back to primitive rituals,people dancing around maypoles, bacchanalia and ritual that become increasinglyprimitive.
This is a visionthat the future that can be bought instead of earned.  It is as if excellence were some form of verygood suit or well engineered SUV, whereas the existential situation is lonely,full of doubt and not likely to lead to riches or worldly success.  You could say that in the world of theprinter, in the world of the 18th century, in the world of theEnlightenment, it was “truth as passion.”  In the word of the media it is “passion astruth.”  That is a much moreprimitive formulation, it is ritual and Viagra and the magic pill. 
EFF:    So do we need a revolution to set thecountry on the right course?
LL:      Probably. Or we need some form of secular awakening, some understanding that wemake our freedom with politics–something made by men for other men in theworld of time.  We have to recover thatsense of the Enlightenment, reverse the American retreat from the faith inreason to the comfort of religious certainty and superstition, which of courseis very close to George Orwell’s notion that ignorance is strength.  For 200 years much of the rest of the worldhas looked towards America as the light of the future and the hope of mankind,and I don’t think that’s the case now. The rest of the world still looks to America as a market, a place to getrich and sell their goods, but I don’t think it looks to America as a politicalideal.  We are not setting a very goodexample.  From what I know of them (and Iam sure they have their flaws), European societies–France or Germany, evenItaly and certainly the Scandinavian countries–seem to me closer to the ideaof a just society. 
It is no accidentthat we rate so low in infant mortality, longevity, quality of life, cost ofmedicine, degrees of education.  We don’tstand very well on those lists and it is because we have translated the notionof the American dream into enlightened selfishness.  And that is not a dream that is very well suitedto the circumstances of the 21st century.  Maybe it was a consummation greatly to bewished in the 19th century and the 20th century when theabundance of our resources was such that we could afford to ravage the land andthen move on across the next set of mountains and plunder the next valley, whenthere seem to be no end to water and pasture and so the American dream became akind of nomadic browsing of the country’s natural resources.  But now that isn’t going to work so well aswhen we thought we were protected by the two oceans, inhabiting a city on thehill in an Arcadian world out of time. That doesn’t work in a world that has become, as we never tire ofsaying, interdependent, when disease can cross frontiers as easily as debt andwhen of none of the major problems in the world are available to solutions byany single nation.  If we are talkingabout the environment, climate, disease, war, terrorism–all of these thingsare contagious and spread very easily across borders.  Thus, the notion of “everything for me andnothing for anybody else (or as little for anybody else as possible)” is simplynot tenable except by increasing demonstrations of force.