October 1, 2002
Hunger For War Criticism?
right, it was San Francisco, which is not exactly the heartland.
But the reception last Tuesday for Harper’s magazine editor
Lewis Lapham and a panel of four other journalists (including yours
truly) willing to criticize the new permanent condition of war was
heartening and heartwarming. It was as if most of those people (there
were a few dour faces in the audience) were almost thrilled to be
in the same room with people speaking critically of the rush to
forum was put on by the Independent
Institute in Oakland, a libertarian-oriented think tank. I had
the opportunity to talk at some length with David Theroux, the institute’s
president, about the response to the program. (The Independent Institute,
remember, put on a forum last April with Gore Vidal as main speaker
and Lewis Lapham as a commentator and received extensive criticism
from neocon and even some libertarian quarters for playing nice
with anti-American leftists. But when the issue is as serious as
war and peace, I’ll take my allies where I find them—and I’ll try
to remember those who seem eager for war, for whatever tiny bit
of good such remembrance might do.)
room the institute booked at the upscale Hotel Nikko in San Francisco
held 900 people. But by the end of the week before last that room
was sold out at $20 a person, so they had to offer another room
with closed-circuit TV coverage of the program. The 250 seats in
that room quickly sold out as well. So 1,150 people in San Francisco
actually paid money to hear the war machine criticized, and I talked
to a number of friends and acquaintances in the area who had wanted
to come but couldn’t make it that night.
I’ve admired Lewis Lapham’s writing (without necessarily always
agreeing with it) for some time, I wasn’t sure whether I would actually
like him or not. He is a denizen of the upper crust, after all –
his grandfather was mayor of San Francisco and his great grandfather
was a founder of Texaco – and I’m not. But he turned out to be friendly,
accessible and down-to-earth, although he is still more erudite
than any random half-dozen people you might meet.
of his purpose in traveling to his native environs and other parts
of the West Coast was to promote his new book, Theater
of War, published by The New Press. It’s a collection of
columns he has written for Harper’s since September 11, with
a new introduction and other material. It’s worthwhile reading and
I hope it sells a zillion.
Lapham noted that while it’s virtually conventional wisdom to believe
that the country is united around President Bush and his war plans
(and polling figures do suggest this), Harper’s has been
critical of the war since last September and its circulation is
up. He thinks there’s a growing distance between the foreign policy
elites in Washington and the "American street."
response in San Francisco (which, to be sure is probably not coterminous
with the "American street") suggests at least a groundswell
of criticism if not outright opposition. Al Gore chose San Francisco
to offer as close to cogent criticism of war plans as he is capable
of the night before our event. Most of those who attended were buzzing
about that as well.
Lapham, ever the provocateur, asserted that the elites around Bush
had to view the attack, as destructive and harmful as it was, as
something of a blessing. As he put it in his book and paraphrased
it that evening, a year ago "we were looking at a man so obviously
in the service of the plutocracy that he could have been mistaken
for a lawn jockey in the parking lot of a Houston golf club ...On
September 11, like Pinocchio brushed with the good fairy’s wand
on old Gepetto’s shelf of toys, the wooden figure turned into flesh
and blood. A great leader had been born, within a month compared
(by David Broder in the Washington Post) to Abraham Lincoln"
and Winston Churchill.
attack was a blessing to the U.S. military, which despite the short-lived
memory of success in the last Gulf War, has been casting about for
an acceptable enemy since the Soviet Union died. Of course it’s
"an unknown enemy and an abstract noun" rather than a
nation-state, but it will serve, and perhaps better than a concrete
enemy. Like the war on drugs or the war on poverty, a war on terrorism
can never be won but can be fought for decades and decades. It can
offer justification for the enhanced secrecy and security the warhawks
crave, and provide more reasons to grow the state.
is especially distasteful to a thoughtful person like Lewis Lapham
is President Bush’s insistence on casting the war on terrorism (and,
one supposes, eventually on Iraq) as a moral crusade, "rather
like a medieval Pope calling on the faithful to wipe out the infidel."
He is also distressed at the contempt people like Cheney and Rumsfeld
show for the intelligence of the American people. Rumsfeld, remember,
famously proclaimed, in reference to nukes and other weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq, that "the absence of evidence is
not the evidence of absence."
Lewis Lapham sees in the constant emphasis on war that has marked
all of our lifetimes, is no less than the decay of the American
republic and the rise of a New American Empire. Although our masters
in Washington try to avoid the I-word, various court intellectuals
are not so shy. Believing that anything America touches she makes
holy, they reflect what Lapham calls "hubris to a tragic point."
Paine, the great pamphleteer of the American revolution, who later
found himself reviled in the country he helped to shape, would have
recognized the kind of ambition and power-lust that drives so many
today. The problem for the American people is that the presence
of war and preparation for war leads to a widespread mistrust of
freedom and traditional American individualism.
on the program with Mr. Lapham were Jonathan Marshall, former Editorial
Page Editor of the Oakland Tribune, Seth Rosenfeld, staff
writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Paul Weaver,
former Fortune magazine Washington Bureau Chief.
Marshall talked about how the emerging Bush paradigm of permanent
war for permanent peace was launched some years ago by neocon intellectuals
like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. He was impolite enough to remind
the audience not only that the U.S. had backed Saddam Hussein during
his war against Iran in the 1980s – a bit of history many have noted
– but that the CIA had a good deal to do with bringing Saddam Hussein
coups in Iraq in 1963 and 1968, which led to the consolidation of
power by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, were heavily subsidized by
the CIA. Americans thought back then that they could manage regime-change
so that it would serve the interests of the United States – and
of regional stability, of course. But then there was an Islamic
revolution in Iran – a reaction in part to a previous U.S.-engineered
exercise in regime-change – and that led to the U.S. supplying Saddam
with various awful weapons and turning a blind eye while he used
them on Kurds and Iranians.
now they think they know how to engineer yet another regime-change
without having any dire effects. Truly the hubris involved is a
marvelous thing to behold.
Rosenfeld fought a 17-year battle to force the FBI to release some
200,000 pages of documents covering its activities from the 1940s
through the 1970s, including a covert campaign to get the University
of California to fire then-president Clark Kerr. He noted that while
the CIA and FBI are essential in some form or another, since 9/11
the impulse for secrecy has been enhanced and the notion of accountability
has virtually disappeared. Despite evidence of massive failure and
a long history of previous abuse of power, both the CIA and the
FBI have seen their powers enhanced.
caused U.S. intelligence agencies to miss so many clues leading
to 9/11 were failures of intelligent analysis rather than any lack
of access to information or power to gather information. Since then
nobody has been criticized for failures of analysis and no heads
have rolled – so there’s not much incentive to improve analysis.
But the power to gather more information, to penetrate more private
places and harass more ordinary Americans, has been enhanced.
is not intelligent reform.
Weaver offered an appreciation of Lewis Lapham as a unique editor
and commentator, as valuable to America in this latter day as Mark
Twain was in his day. The author of a couple of books on the media
and an upcoming book on the United Airlines debacle, Weaver is an
especially acute observer of American journalism and the occasional
practitioners who make it tolerable to sift through the dreck.
good editor like Lewis Lapham knows deep down that the world is
in need of his tutelage, but he is able to present his observations
in a light, tasty form that is almost soufflé-like. Erudite
yet committed to looking at the world from the viewpoint of the
ordinary, amateur citizen, he is a constant foe of pretense and
untruth. Get his book and read it. You’ll like it. Perhaps you’ll
even take heart a bit.
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