Empire of the Senseless

Lewis Lapham
Waiting for the Barbarians

LEWIS LAPHAM DOESN'T know how to make coffee. His assistant, bless her soul, refuses to make it for him. So a visitor to Harper's Magazine's New York office can be treated to the sight of its editor, cigarette in one hand, empty coffee mug dangling from the other, wearing his customary well-appointed blue pinstripe suit with no socks (utterly baffling--in the deadest of winters the man wears no socks), wandering the halls and muttering to himself, waiting for one of the young editors in his employ to happen upon the empty coffee pot and put on a new one. He will then casually drop by the fresh pot, replenish his cup, and return to his office to address to his tape recorder the clever observations on the inveterate stupidity of both the masses and the elite in our decaying society that will become his monthly "Notebook" column. His assistant, bless her soul, transcribes the tapes. A thorough search of his office will yield no typewriter, no computer, and no writing instrument aside from a pen, used primarily to affix his signature to the reams of correspondence that his assistant, thrice-blessed, types up and proffers for inspection.

In other words, Lewis Lapham is not like you and me. We suffer, day in and day out, the indignity of soiling our hands with coffee grounds and typewriter keys. Lapham, on the other hand, studied under C.S. Lewis and E.M. Forster at Cambridge, and his grandfather was mayor of San Francisco. He is revered by tens of thousands of readers, from old lefties to enlightened new lefties to the self-flagellating rich to Canadians (in droves; Canadians love the man!), all of whom delight at being let in on the news that our culture is adrift, listing dangerously rightward, and may go down any minute. He almost single-handedly rescued Harper's from the shoals of irrelevancy and transformed it into what is arguably the finest monthly magazine in America. He's a latter-day Mencken or Twain, our last best hope for literary journalism, or any kind of journalism that isn't lazy and shamelessly reverential of money.

All the same, Lapham's latest collection of his monthly columns, Waiting for the Barbarians, is a tiresome read, not for lack of finely wrought prose, or moments of wicked humor (attempting to read Newt Gingrich's To Renew America, Lapham realizes that so vapid a tome could not be intended for reading, and so finds himself turning the book over in his hands, looking for a hidden electrical plug or the "on" button), but because it is an endless and bleak parade of the stupidity, willful ignorance, greed, sloth, pride, and self-satisfied complacency that afflicts our affluent society. The usual suspects are rounded up: journalists, celebrities, mass murderers, investors, Republicans, George magazine. Lapham's favorite trick is to dress them up as Elizabethan courtiers, medieval priests, or tribal shamans. It's a nice gag, and makes a nice point: An extended jag in which he writes a Victorian-style guide to court protocol for those who would buy off a politician (let a check cure for three or four days in a canvas mailbag and it will lose "the stench of a rich man's hand") serves as an excellent reminder that, in service of money, the fashions change but little else does.

In all the book, Lapham finds exactly three people worthy of praise: Two are dead--Mencken and former Harper's and The Journals of Lewis and Clark editor Bernard De Voto, both of whom appear primarily to introduce a lament that our age could never produce men of their stature--and the other, Daniel Lazare, is a writer who believes we should scrap the Constitution and start over. His book to that effect, The Frozen Constitution, whips Lapham into such a frenzy of radical democratic action that he slips up and actually advocates positive change. But his brief turn as a policy wonk is an embarrassing failure: Change the undemocratic way we elect the Senate, he tells us, and do away with that troublesome practice of judicial review. The former argument, it would seem, is innocuous if slightly silly, while the latter betrays a dangerous ignorance of fundamental principles of governance and rule of law.

But throughout the rest of the book, Lapham remains on safer ground, never deigning to risk saying something stupid by entertaining possible solutions to the ills that plague us; they are, after all, the same ills that brought down Greece, Rome, the British Empire, you name it. The barbarians may be wearing pelts in one age, wing tips in the next, but they are always on the way. For all his witty invective about the laziness of journalists who copyedit press releases from IBM or the World Bank and paste them on the front page, one can't help but notice how much easier it is to confront the world's misery and injustice with a sneer than with thoughts on how things could be different. Lapham might as well be making fun of Jimmy Carter.

His critique seems, at bottom, not a moral but an aesthetic one. There is little talk of justice in this book; the policies that upset Lapham are skewered not for the substantive harm they do or the inequality they engender, but because, in the social circles Lapham travels in, gentlemen simply do not kick the poor off welfare. Or bribe electoral candidates. Or, for that matter, make coffee for themselves. Some things are simply not done.

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