Observations about America by Lewis Lapham

Here are some excerpts from Money and Class in America by Lewis H. Lapham (1988).  He expands on a major theme of this site, how we have come to see America as a ship in which we sail as passgengers — entitled to complain about the decore and service, but about which we feel no responsibility.  This is a commonplace in the brief history of democracies, usually found near the end (such as late Republican Rome).  It is a reaction to the burden of self-government seen as too heavy for the people.  Some helpful person — Caesar, Napoleon, or a lesser version of this type — always comes along to take over the burden.  To applause and cheers.

Laptham describes America as a hotel with a rich (we we are in our world) and demanding clientele.

A wonderful view of America’s view of itself in the world (pp 13-14)

I came to imagine that I was born to ride in triumph and that others, apparently less fortunate and more numerous, were born to stand smiling in the streets and wave their hats.

… The accident of being born American (the world’s equestrian class) has obvious advantages, but it also has disadvantages that are not so obvious. Children encouraged to believe themselves either beautiful or rich assume that nothing further will be required of them, and they revert to the condition of aquatic plants drifting in the shallows. The lack of oxygen in the atmosphere makes them giddy with ruinous fantasy.

About America’s institutions (page 15)

Similar attitudes of invulnerable privilege were characteristic not only of the students at Hotchkiss and Yale but also of most of the people whom I later came to know in the expensive American professions. Within the labyrinths of the big-time media, in the corridors of Washington law firms and Wall Street brokerage houses, within the honeycombs of most institutions large enough and rich enough to afford their own hermetic models of reality (e.g., the State Department, the Mobil Oil Corporation, Time Inc) I found myself in the familiar atmospheres of reverie and dream.

About politics reform movements (page 37)

Every now and then the country’s politics seem to fall into the hands of reformers eager to violate the protocols of wealth and bring down the wall of established privilege. But when these high-minded gentlemen manage to win an election and capture the insignia of office, their noble intentions somehow remain embalmed in the tombs of rhetoric. Their supposed enemies (“vicious profiteers,” “oppressors of the common man”, etc) somehow end up, much to everybody’s wonder and surprise, with an ever larger percentage of the spoils.

… During the bleak interlude of the Great Depression the protocols of wealth were called severely in doubt, but FDR’s New Deal, denounced by a generation of Republicans as the prelude to the end of the world, proved to be the salvation of state capitalism.

The current state of the American project (page 51)

The protocols of wealth dictate the language of elections and define the nation’s political ideal. All the candidates profess their heartfelt belief in what might be described as Hotel America — that is, the earthly paradise that certainly would arise from the ashes of a corrupt society if all their promises could be redeemed and all their good intentions changed into the currency of law.

Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, insurgent or incumbent, the candidates offer all but identical blueprints of the great, good American Place. No matter what the differences in their policy positions (on foreign and economic affairs, racial prejudice, education, weapons, the deficit, etc) the assumptions implicit in their texts reveal a uniform conception not only of the state but also of what is meant by the pursuit of happiness.

The narrowness of their collective political imagination leads them to conceive of the Republic as something very much like a resort hotel, in which the citizens receive the comforts owned to them by virtue of their status as America’s guests. The subsidiary ideological arguments amount to little more than complaints about the number, quality, and cost of the available services. Listed under the rubric of a travel advertisement, the principal characteristics of Hotel America might be described as follows.

1.  the Electorate

Another name for the clientele.  The guests expect a good time, and they prefer to leave the making of a moral effort at home with the laundry and the children.  Recognizing the popular vote as the personification of will and appetite, even the youngest candidates avoid the mistake of addressing their remarks to the nobler impulses in the crowd.  To do so would require tiresome explanation s as well as annoying exhortations to sacrifice, renunciation and self-restraint.

2. The State

The hotel management, deserving of respect in the exact degree to which it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the public expectation of convenience and style at a fair price.  The candidates never speak of the state as if it were a cherished ideal embodying the history of the people.

The guests have no obligation to the state except to pay their bills, preferably with a credit card and, if possible, under the heading of a tax-deductible business expense.  This commercial definition of the state (as object rather than subject, as inanimate machinery instead of living organism) would have frightened both Aristotle and Machiavelli.  It differs only slightly from the Mafia’s designation of itself as Cosa Nostra, our thing.

3.  The laws

The rules of the hotel, subject to seasonal changes in the weather of the presence of trade conventions.  The candidates construe the laws not as the permanent ethical code of the society but rather as tools with which to harvest the crops of wealth.  it is assumed by all parties that the laws can be written or rewritten as easily as computer programs and that they serve at the pleasure of whatever transient majorities of special interests make the most rouble or pay the luxury rates.

4.  Politics

A Greek word for the printed forms on which the guests can “take a few minutes” to jot down their complaints or suggestions.  Every two years the hotel collects these memoranda about the freshness of the orange juice, the enthusiasm of the staff and the placement of the tennis courts.  After submitting the results to the media and the opinion polls, maybe the management decides to replace the wine steward or change the furniture on the sun deck.

5.  The Good Life

On sale 24 hours a day in the dining room and the lounge as well as in the international shops located in the mezzanine arcade.  The management takes pride in its ability to maintain an Old World atmosphere that reflects a state of being rather than a state of becoming.  The latter condition implies movement, which requires change, which creates friction, which causes pain, which is unconstitutional.

6.  Freedom

Invariably celebrated as the supreme good and almost always confused with the license to exploit.  The candidates never mention the use of freedom to create a higher order of responsibility or love.  Every guest enjoys the inalienable right to indulge his or her holiday lust for goods and experience.  The guarantee of happiness is included the the price of a room.  Soon after their arrival, guests receive different grades of accommodations (first-class, economy, immigrant, etc), but these may be revised upon payment of an appropriate fee.

To the extent that these assumptions underlie the political discourse, the vote-getting images of Hotel America bears an unhappy resemblance to the Marxist advertisement for a worers’ resort on the shores of the Black Sea.

About the author

From Wikipedia:  Lewis Lapham (born January 8, 1935) is an American writer. He was the editor of the American monthly Harper’s Magazine from 1976 until 1981, and from 1983 until 2006.[1] He also is the founder of publication about history and literature entitled Lapham’s Quarterly. He has written numerous books on politics and current affairs.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts listed in section 2 of this reference page,  about the  American spirit, the American soul:

  1. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy, 1 March 2006
  2. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  3. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  4. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  5. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  6. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  7. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  8. This crisis will prove that Americans are not sheep (unless we are), 8 January 2008
  9. About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep, 25 January 2009

6 thoughts on “Observations about America by Lewis Lapham”

  1. Oh man. I have to get a copy of this book. Some of the lines you quote are awesome. “A Greek word for the printed forms on which the guests can “take a few minutes” to jot down their complaints or suggestions.” That’s perfect.

  2. On the “hotel” metaphor: recently spouse and self saw Frank Capra’s movie “Lost Horizon”. When the Westerners arived at Shangri-La, they were put up in luxury-hotel surroundings, and there was never any sense that being treated this way (while the happy peasants carry on with their usual activities) was in any way remarkable. This was of a piece with the remarkable euro-centrism of Shangri-La’s utopian society having been founded by a Catholic priest.

    Lapham spoke at a panel on “The U.S. War on Terrorism: Myths and Realities” in November 2002. He referred to the meeting between Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, and a fuller account of the friendly interaction between the young imperialist and the aging anti-imperialist (they were both born on November 30, 39 years apart) can be found here. The New York Times said then:

    “Mr. Clemens, introducing the speaker, said Mr. Churchill knew all about war and nothing about peace. War might be very interesting to persons who like that sort of entertainment, but he had never enjoyed it himself.

    “During the civil war he remembered visiting a battlefield once, but he had never felt comfortable there. One cannot carry an umbrella when it rains, for when shells are flying they might get tangled up with the umbrella.

    “Personally he disapproved of the war in South Africa, and he thought England sinned when she interfered with the Boers, as the United States is sinning in meddling in the affairs of the Filipinos. England and America were kin in almost everything; now they are kin in sin.”

  3. Back to the question: is the United States of America an umbrella political mechanism, or a culture?

    Multiculturalists claim the former choice and try to subvert any nationalism or “white Anglo-Saxon” morality. Seems to me that cohesive culture makes our political system work as well as it does. Lapham uses the cultural model as his basis and indicts those who ignore his moral bearings. Of course, he’s always been a raver.

  4. Fun read! I’m surprised this post didn’t inspire a whole bunch of comments. It seems to me that Obama’s preferred rhetoric broke several of Lapham’s cardinal rules as stated here. Namely:
    * “The candidates never mention the use of freedom to create a higher order of responsibility or love.”
    * “The candidates never speak of the state as if it were a cherished ideal embodying the history of the people.”
    * “Even the youngest candidates avoid the mistake of addressing their remarks to the nobler impulses in the crowd.”

    Besides being a master orator, perhaps Obama was able to capitalize on this type of risky rhetoric because the country is in horrible distress. Maybe Americans are feeling a bit more responsible than usual as a result, even if they don’t know what being responsible really means. Certainly folks like Rush Limbaugh can’t understand what responsibility means.

    Perhaps it is only when the hotel starts crumbling before people would take notice.

  5. “the increasingly insane proposals to prop up home prices”

    This results from the fantasy – and fallacy – that has been in American culture since the 1970s: that a house is primarily an investment and not primarily a place to live. It would help the economy tremendously if Americans would view real estate as primarily a commodity and not primarily an investment.

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