Tag Archives: lewis lapham

Lewis Lapham explains why America needs a Third Republic

Summary:  Not all the attackers of the Constitution are enemies of the people, or even of the Republic.  After 200 years, some believe the Constitution has outlived its usefulness, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths.  The rotten boroughs of the Senate, the perhaps unlimited growth of the Executive power, the too-vague limits on judicial authority — perhaps these signal the necessity of radical reform.  Here Lewis H. Lapham and Daniel Lazare make their case.

Today we  have a brief excerpt from Lewis H. Lapham’s insightful book Waiting for the Barbarians (1997).  In this chapter he discusses The Frozen Republic:  How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy by Daniel Lazare (1996).  Click here to see articles by Daniel Lazare published in The Nation.  At the end are links to other posts on this topic.

Chapter IX – Sacred Scroll

Over the course of a presidential election year I expect the books published on political themes to read like the speeches at a Fourth of July picnic – heartwarming cant as plentiful as the beer and as empty as the balloons – but six weeks before the New Hampshire primaries, I discovered The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy, by Daniel Lazare, to be the exception that proves the rule.

In the sanctuary of the American civil religion nothing except a private fortune in excess of $5 billion is more precious than the four pages of parchment brought forth by the corporate sponsors of liberty in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Lazare, an accomplished iconoclast, manages within the space of a few hundred pages to assign them to the realm of magical objects in which a museum of natural history also might place the totem poles, the scraps of sacred moleskin, and the bones of a departed saint.

. . .I was glad to encounter a writer willing to suggest that only by reconfiguring our system of government (i.e., by rewriting the Constitution) can we address what by now have become the all too obvious consequences of our political weakness and stupidity. . . . The proposition seems to me to stand as proven in any morning’s newspaper.

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Clay Shirky is brilliant and American – hence often delusionally flattering

America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop (aka OODA loop; see Wikipedia for details) affects us all, distorting our ability to see even simple things.  It’s most clearly seen in experts writing about their own fields.  Today’s example is Clay Shirky, one of America’s top writers about the evolution of the news media.  See his Wikipedia entry and bio about his background (that’s an important part of this story).

Much of Shirky’s writing is brilliant.  In this post we see him writing about what he knows best, something that concerns him most — and the result is almost delusional.  But not randomly so.  Profitably so, flattering so — esp to his media-centric audience.  (This is a tiny part of his speech, which is worthwhile reading)

Excerpt from Shirky’s speech at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, 22 September 2009 (transcript by Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, posted at their website) — Red emphasis added. 

There is an unbroken line from the Globe’s publication of that article to the worldwide pressure of the Catholic Church is now under, to both account for its past and alter its behavior in the future. Which, by way of introduction, makes it clear what’s at stake with what Professor Jones calls accountability journalism. This is a classic example of, again quoting from Losing the News, of the iron core of journalism and in particular the investigative journalism category, where 3 reporters are dispatched for a long period on a story that may or may not pan out.

… None of those 3 things -– overpaying, underserving, and the incoherence of the print bundle in a web of content — will be altered by reversing the revenue trend.

… Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … So the restructuring that environment, even for those newspapers that survive, will mean that newspapers play a less significant role in accountability journalism in the future then they have the past

Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And the nightmare scenario that I’ve been spinning at for the last couple years has been:  Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes 5% off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.

This is nuts on several levels, and probably results from a someone writing about the news media who never worked the city desk at a local paper — or anything remotely like this.  It’s fantasy.  The commonplace delusions which prevent us from understanding our situation, and result in America majestically drifting onto the rocks.

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A phrasebook for translating Washington into English

Here’s a helpful guide for American’s reading the latest news from Washington, provide by Lewis Lapham in his book Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001) — a book I strongly recommend every American read.  Although written many years ago, it’s still current because nothing significant has changed.

These things are important to understand.  As accurate diagnosis must precede a cure, understanding must preceed action.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 — A Washington Phrase Book

The oldest, wisest politician grows not more human so, but is merely a gray wharf rat at last.
— Henry David Thoreau

Last year’s presidential campaign raised the hope of moving the national government in some sort of new direction, and if none of the candidates could fix the precise compass bearing, at least they were sure that it pointed away from politics as usual, away from the mindless extravagance of a feckless and spendthrift Congress. The motion was approved and seconded by the public-opinion polls (almost all of which indicated profound disgust with the status quo in Washington), but apparently it was meant to be seen and not heard.

As I listened to this summer’s debate about President Clinton’s budget — its virtue and presumed benevolence, its theory of deficit reduction, its taking from the rich and giving to the poor — I wondered what had become of all the navigational charts and maps. The election had come and gone, and the new direction was the old direction. Here were the same feckless and spendthrift politicians, not yet 6 months in office, demanding even more money (approximately $241 billion in additional tax revenues) in return for the same dubious promises to restrain their expenditures over the next 5 years by the sum of $255 billion.

Their specious accounting was as familiar as their smiling sophism, and although I could admire their gall, I found it hard to imagine the audience that they had in mind. Were they talking only to themselves, or did they seriously believe that the American people were likely to grant them immunity from the laws of cause and effect? Maybe they thought that the language spoken in Washington was so heavily encrusted with euphemism that it defied translation into the vulgar dialects spoken elsewhere in the country.

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Another look in the mirror at America

Today’s reading explains the origins of American’s dysfunctional public policy, from Lewis Lapham’s Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001), a book I strongly recommend every American read.  He paints portraits of us.  Insightful, although they’re seldom pretty.   Let’s hope they’ll help shock us back to consciousness.

Excerpt from Chapter One – Versailles on the Potomac

Every administration has no choice but to confront the world’s violence and disorder, but the doctrines of American grace oblige it to do so under the banners of righteousness and in the name of one or another of the fanciful pretexts —

  • “democracy,”
  • “civilization,”
  • “humanity,”
  • “the people”

that preserve the conscience of the American television audience. The electorate expects its presidential candidates to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores, to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows who know nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice, or greed. The pose of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food, but it gets confused with the dream of power, and pretty soon, usually within a week of the inaugural address, a new president discovers that the American political system embraces both a permanent and a provisional government.

The permanent government —

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Lewis Lapham holds a mirror so that America can see itself

Here are few of the many insights given in Lights, Camera, Democracy! by Lewis Lapham (2001), a book I strongly recommend every American read.  He paints portraits of us, and they’re seldom pretty.   I hope they’ll help shock us back to consciousness.

Observations in the preface about the Presidential election of 2000

What was wanted was a figurehead comfortingly impotent, and the requirement favored the qualities of Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore — two easily recognizable brand names, neither of them likely to deviate from the prepared scripts, each of them capable of serving as the corporate spokesman for America the Beautiful. Before the election fell afoul of events in Florida on the morning of November 8, both candidates obligingly displayed their talents as character actors in the various personae of visiting clergyman, bedside companion, late-night talk-show clown. Always glad to pose for Kodak moments on an aircraft carrier or a kindergarten chair, resolute in their opposition to breast cancer, forthright in their commitment to dignity and leadership, uncompromising in their support for better days, bluer skies, and a secure retirement, the vice president and the governor cheerfully avoided most of the topics apt to excite controversy, and with regard to the standard operating procedures of the oil, banking, and telecommunications monopolies they were as silent as the ball washers at a country club golf tournament.

… Few of the people at MSNBC or CNN were old enough to remember ever having seen such a thing as democracy — the living organism, as opposed to the old painting and the marble statues — and judging by the startled expressions on their faces, they didn’t like the look of it. It hadn’t been circumcised, and probably it was criminal.

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About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process

The news media proclaim continuous change — each chapter equally surprising — in the American political soap opera.  The real story is one of continuity, like the changing of the seasons.  Campaigns reflect in magnified form the irrational concerns of the alarmed cattle that the American people have become.

About American political campaigns, an excerpt from “Social Hygiene”,  Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham (1988).

Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of the American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.

No candidate can say, with Talleyrand, that he is in it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies — to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows (not too dissimilar from high school football coaches) who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. But the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.

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The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world

Summary:  This post examines our broken mainstream media, a vital component of America’s observation-orientation-decision-action loop (the OODA loop).  Mark Steyn provides a a current illustration; Lewis Lapham shows that this results from a long period of decay.  At the end are links to other articles on this subject.

The apparatus by which America sees the world, the news feeds of the mainstream media, are broken.  Both its business model and its ability to function (in terms of meeting our needs).  These problems re-enforce one another.

A note about solutions

We can adapt to these, but it takes work.  Via the Internet one can access foreign news, such as the excellent range of British papers and English-editions of foreign press (e.g., Der Spiegel).  Most important, using the Internetone can read the works of those withdifferent opinions.   Or your can rely on comfortable sources, where seldom you’ll hear a disturbing word.  I suggest that the former will work better for you than the latter.

Or you can just read Fred Reed.  Such as his latest analysis of the current big news of the world:  “The Whole World Sucks, and Everybody Thinks its Gravity“.


(1)  Monday, the President ate a burger“, Mark Steyn, op-ed in Maclean’s, 21 May 2009 — “Maybe if they’d covered the love child instead of a fast food foray, papers wouldn’t be dying.”  I recommend reading it in full.  Excerpt:

John Edwards’ adultery was back in the news last week. Well, okay, “back” is probably not le mot juste, given that the former presidential candidate’s mistress cum campaign videographer wasn’t exactly front-page news even in the days when he was coming a strong second in the Iowa caucuses or being tipped as a possible vice-presidential nominee. Every editor knew the “rumours” (i.e., plausible scenario with mountains of circumstantial evidence), but, unlike, say, Sarah Palin’s daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s mother’s drug bust, this wasn’t one of those stories you need to drop everything for.

Only when the hard-working lads at the National Enquirer doorstepped Senator Edwards in the basement stairwell of the Beverly Hilton after a post-midnight visit to his newborn love child and forced him to take cover in the men’s room did the Los Angeles Times swing into action. Alas, it was to instruct its writers to make no comment on a story happening right under their own sniffy noses.

… The one-term southern senator was running on biography — son of a mill worker, happily married, stood devotedly by his wife during her cancer — and, although the press were aware the biography was false, they decided their readers didn’t need to know that. It’s not an Edwards scandal, it’s a media scandal.

… Edwards is history now, and Obama is President. And the other day he and Joe Biden visited a hamburger restaurant. In the Clinton years, the 8 a.m. news bulletin on National Public Radio would invariably begin: “The President travels today to [insert state here] to unveil his proposals on [insert issue here].”  If you’ve read A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Courtby Mark Twain, you’ll recall that Hank Morgan, the eponymous time-travelling New Englander, was much taken by the Court Circular published each week in Camelot:

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