A Conversation with Lewis Lapham

Kevin Canfield

At his office in Lower Manhattan, Lewis Lapham, the editor of 'Harper's Magazine', took time this week to discuss the nation's reaction to September 11, his problems with the current caretakers of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and the onslaught of media coverage that threatens to obscure the real truths of 9/11.

For the past year Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine since 1976, has used his monthly column to bloody the nose of the man he calls "the wooden figurehead of President George Bush."

With perhaps a few exceptions, no one has been a more thoughtful or more consistent critic of this White House. Lapham's essays, collected in the new book "Theater of War" (The New Press, $22.95), should be required reading for those on the left and the right.

At his office in Lower Manhattan, Lapham took time this week to discuss the nation's reaction to September 11, his problems with the current caretakers of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and the onslaught of media coverage that threatens to obscure the real truths of 9/11.

PopMatters: Where were you a year ago, on September 11?
Lewis Lapham: Right here, writing a piece. I was writing a piece about the Council on Foreign Relations. September 11 was a Tuesday. The prior Thursday I'd been at the Council on Foreign Relations and saw the American mandarinate or oligarchy or ruling class -- however you want to describe it -- at their most complacent. It was a screening of Steven Spielberg's HBO film, "Band of Brothers." And there must have been 200 people there, all congratulating one another about what a mighty empire was America -- without peer, without rival, no power on earth since Rome, that sort of conversation. Here was the Spielberg movie to prove it to them. I didn't like the Spielberg movie particularly. It seemed to me like an ad for the Gap or Ralph Lauren, with combat footage.

So I was writing a column about that, my normal monthly column. And then I heard an explosion and thought nothing of it because the World Trade Center is on the opposite side of the building. I thought, ok, it's something in Brooklyn. It was not enough to alarm me. Then I heard a lot of sirens and I knew it couldn't be in Brooklyn.

PM: You've chosen almost exclusively since September of last year to write your column about September 11, the after-effects and the way our government has dealt with it. Why?
LL: I thought this would be a chance for a wakeup call, a chance for the United States, the government, the foreign policy people, to open their eyes and to think: how did we get to this point? I'm not blaming the United States, but this doesn't happen without a reason.

So I hoped that there would be a serious conversation about what kind of country did we wish to become? What kind of foreign policy would we have? What are our objectives in the world? How much money do we spend on weapons, the military, as opposed to what we spend on domestic infrastructure? If it is an empire, what are the benefits to the citizens of that empire? If I had a son of draft age, how would I explain his going off to Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan?

In other words, I thought that the events of September 11 were sufficiently dramatic to awaken a conversation about the nature, purpose, meaning, of the United States' foreign policy. I have been addressing those questions from various angles for the last year. To my disappointment I don't see enough of this conversation being carried on in the Congress or in the major news media.

There are 150 books in the bookstores; every television network is going to run many hours of special programming. There's so much of it, but the coverage is about everything and nothing. It almost guarantees that nobody will say anything worth remembering.

The other thing that strikes me as depressing is this notion of United States as victim. It is as if we cast ourselves as innocents who have been unfairly preyed upon by the world's scoundrels, by pollutants in the atmosphere, by terrorists, by unforeseen events - that we don't somehow deserve this because we are good and obedient children. But think, for example, of the number of people killed in the London Blitz in 1940 - the number was something like 40,000 dead in the first nine months. Think of the number of people that die every year in the world as a consequence of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The number is 50 million. As many people died in the World Trade Center die every hour somewhere in the world. So something is wrong with the proportion, I think.

I myself am going to be in Paris on September 11, and I'll be glad I'm not in New York because the hype, the mawkishness, the lack of meaning - it would be almost unbearable.

PM: Is it a planned holiday - to be away from America?
LL: No, the book, "Theater of War," is coming out in America on September 11 and in France it's coming out on the same day. So I'm going over to France for the publication of that book, which was on the cards before I knew what the festivities that are going to take place in New York would be. It's a coincidence. But I do know a lot of people who are looking forward to September 11 with dread, because of the hyperbole.

PM: I don't see a computer. Do you write longhand?
LL: Yeah, in ballpoint pen. I write it on those yellow sheets, then I dictate it, give it to my secretary, and she gives me back a draft. I'm waiting for the computer that you can talk to.

PM: How do you think the magazine has responded to September 11?
LL: I think it's responded very well, because our circulation, our normal newsstand [sales] was about 30,000 a month. And it is now 40,000 a month. And the mail has been very strongly supportive of the criticism, or the questioning, of the war on terror. I think there are a lot more people in this country that are skeptical and unimpressed by the rhetoric of the Bush administration than one would be given to think by listening to the network news and reading the mainline newspapers.

PM: I wonder if you could talk about some of the challenges of editing the magazine over the past year.
LL: Well, why bother reading Harper's if you've already read the story in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Vanity Fair and so on? So you have to find people who will find things worth reading. If I assign you to a piece today and you did it almost as fast as you can do it, it's three months before I get it into print. So we have to think of something today that is worth reading three months from now. That's the trick. It's always the trick, but it's more of a trick when events are moving as fast as they've been seeming to move over the last year.

PM: Has it been an exhilarating year?
LL: Oh yeah. There's so much to write about. It's been very exciting. A great deal of grist for the mill.

* * * *

Kevin Canfield is a writer in Connecticut.

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