September 24, 2006


Taking Aim: a review of PRETENSIONS TO EMPIRE: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration By Lewis H. Lapham (JENNIFER SENIOR, 9/24/06, NY Times Book Review)

[Lewis Lapham, t]he editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine and its Notebook columnist for more than 25 years, Lapham compares the Bush administration to a “criminal syndicate” and Condoleezza Rice to a “capo.” He likens the United States to “a well-ordered police state” and the policies of its Air Force to those of Torquemada and Osama bin Laden. He calls Bush “a liar,” “a televangelist,” “a wastrel” and (ultimately) “a criminal — known to be armed and shown to be dangerous.”

Well. At least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent — and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis in support of these claims — you may feel less inclined to throttle Lapham’s targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham: the breathtaking lyricism of his voice, the breadth of his remarkable erudition. He goes across the street and around the corner to confirm the worst stereotypes about liberals — that they’re condescending, twee, surpassingly smug. “What I find surprising is the lack of objection,” he writes of the misguided American public. “The opinion polls show four of every five respondents saying that they gladly would give up as many of their civil rights and liberties as might be needed to pay the ransom for their illusory safety.” Wouldn’t Lapham be a more interesting columnist if he took this finding seriously? And analyzed it, perhaps, giving it its due? (Though later he generously allows that not every Idahoan and Nebraskan “is as dumb as Donald Rumsfeld,” based on his “reading of the national character in the library of American history and biography and a fairly extensive acquaintance with the novels of Melville, Twain, Howells, James, Wharton, Dreiser, Faulkner, Cather, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Hara and Roth.” Idahoans and Nebraskans, rejoice.)

People who are serious about politics don’t just preen. They report, explain, explore contradictions, struggle with ideas, maybe even propose suggestions. If they do none of these things, they’re simply heckling, and if the best Lapham can do is come up with 50 inventive new ways to call Bush an imbecilic oligarch, that’s all he’s doing: heckling. Like his worst counterparts on the right, he compares those he doesn’t like to fanatics, as when he refers to David Frum and Richard Perle as “Mufti Frum” and “Mullah Perle,” adding, “Provide them with a beard, a turban and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldn’t have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News.” Possibly, but provide Lapham with a blond wig, stiletto pumps and a copy of “The Fountainhead,” and I suspect he wouldn’t look much different from Ann Coulter. He’s just another talk-radio host, really — only this time by way of Yale and Mensa.

There’s one column that’s conspicuously absent from this collection, and that’s the one from September 2004, which included a brief account of the Republican National Convention. Lapham wrote it as if the convention had already happened, ruefully reflecting on the content and sharing with readers a question that occurred to him as he listened; unfortunately, the magazine arrived on subscribers’ doorsteps before the convention had even taken place, forcing Lapham to admit that the scene was a fiction. He apologized, but pointed out that political conventions are drearily scripted anyway — he basically knew what was going to be said. By this logic, though, I could have chosen not to read “Pretensions to Empire” before reviewing it, since I already knew Lapham’s sensibility, just as he claims to know the Republicans’. But I dutifully read the whole book. And I discovered, with some ironic poignancy, that Lapham did have a point: some people never acquire any more nuance as they go.

The sad thing is that even when more nuanced critics actually report from Red America their analyses aren't much better.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2006 10:41 AM

I bet the comments section on that review are getting ugly fast. I read the piece yesterday, and there'd only been one comment savaging Miss/Mrs. Senior, but I bet that set the tone. There's nothing a lunatic likes less than being called on their lunacy.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 24, 2006 11:00 AM

Ths nut graph of Senoir's review falls under the "All humor is conservative" category. Odds are a lot of Times readers are going to have no sense of humor at all about it, though to be fair, some of the folks at also had no sense of humor about the review, and assumed that just because it's in the Times, it must be from a sympathetic liberal viewpoint. But since Book Review section author Sam Tanenhaus is both a liberal and someone who wrote an extremely sympathetic biograpgy of Whitaker Chambers, the Book Reivew section also tends to surprise at times with its reviews (making it just about the only section of the Times that has moved to the right in the past 30 or so years, since the reign of John Leonard).

Posted by: John at September 24, 2006 11:09 AM

Great, gutsy piece.

Posted by: Peter B at September 24, 2006 7:44 PM