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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