On November 14 Lewis Lapham, who has been editor of Harper’s since 1983, announced his retirement. Lapham is the originator of the widely imitated “Harper’s Index” and the author of numerous books, including Gag Rule and, most recently, With the Beatles. He recently spoke by phone with In These Times from the Harper’s offices in New York.
What do you think is the most important issue facing our country today?
The most important issue is how we define national security. The administration likes to define national security in terms of military aircraft, troops, nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. In truth, national security rests in the strength, health and intelligence of the American people. If we can learn to define national security in those terms, we would possibly reverse the trend of our current politics.
You argue that the United States has been transformed from a democracy to a plutocracy. Could you elaborate?
First you can see the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor. In 1974 the ratio between what a factory worker earned and what a CEO of the same company earned was something in the neighborhood of 14 to one. Today it’s closer to 431 to 1. And you see there’s been enormous wealth gathered in the prosperous decades of the ’80s and ’90s, but most of that wealth has come into the hands of fewer and fewer people. The average wage of the working man has actually declined in the last 20 years, while the corporate pay scale has mounted to the heavens.
You also see it in the privatization of public infrastructure. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was still possible to associate the word “public” with the common good – public square, public school, public health and so on. And “private” tended to connote selfish greed. Now, the meanings have been reversed. Public is now a synonym for slum, incompetence, corruption and so forth, and private is the source of all things bright and beautiful – private school, private stream, private plane and so on. And so the impulse has been toward plutocracy, and it’s celebrated in all of our news media. Every week we get a picture of a new handsome, debonair, exciting CEO on the cover of Forbes, Fortune, or Business Week. They glory in the radiance of money.
You recently wrote, “It does no good to ask the weakling’s pointless question, ‘Is America a fascist state?’” How does the America of George W. Bush differ from the Italy of Mussolini or the Spain of Franco?
Well, it comes with a smiling face. We don’t yet have as many parades. I was borrowing from an essay written by Umberto Eco a number of years ago in the New York Review of Books, in which he attempted to find the common denominators in the various forms of fascism that were in place in the ’20s and ’30s in Europe. He was taking into account not only Mussolini’s Italy, but Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s Russia. Now all of those are different in very important ways, but there are certain common themes, many of which I’ve found in our own increasingly authoritarian government.
And one of those themes is the recent merging of religion and politics?
Yes, Eco refers to the religious elements in Germany, “the Volk.” It’s not necessarily Christian, but it points to a divine presence, the notion of some supreme leader and absolute truth. With religion you often run up against people who already know all the answers and don’t find any need to argue the point. This goes against the democratic ideas based on the Enlightenment notions of reason and argument. I listen to you, you listen to me, and between the two of us we maybe find a third way, as Clinton used to say. With religion there isn’t any, it’s either true and revealed, or false and heretical. That is a tone of mind that you do not want to have running your political systems.
Do you think those in power care about what dissenters such as yourself say?
They only care about it if it can take some form of political force. In other words, I think the Bush administration is beginning to care about the rising tide of criticism and the more general recognition of its dishonesty and incompetence. Observations that three or four years ago would have been considered leftist or extreme are beginning to show up in the president’s approval ratings.
Do we have any reasons to be optimistic about our country?
I think so. I have reasons in the many young people I encounter as the editor of Harper’s. More young people today are anxious to get into the political melee than, say, in the middle of the ’80s.