Lights, Camera, Democracy! and Untruth

By Lewis Lapham
By Robert J. Samuelson

According to Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham the “McLuhan dialectic” between print and electronic media results in “civilization” being turned into “barbarism,” “achievement” into “celebrity,” “history” into “legend,” and “literature” into “journalism.”

Journalism best suits the spirit of the age, providing the public with reading material that is brief, topical, and (usually somewhat) informative. It is literature that doesn’t waste our time. And for people who either want a little more, or who only want to see their own opinions reflected back at them in print, there are a variety of op-ed columnists available to choose from. Cynical types might choose to read Lapham himself, while Newsweek’s Robert J. Samuelson reassures those readers who like things just as they are. Both have collected some of their best essays into these two new collections, originally published in electronic form under the atRandom imprint but now available in paperback.

The contrast between the two columnists is most evident in their attitude toward class and privilege. For Lapham privilege is the grease that makes the world go round, with everyone who is anyone aspiring to become a celebrity or member of the “equestrian class.” Lapham’s America is one where powerful business interests buy and sell politicians, who are then serviced by a court of obsequious media fops. But for Samuelson things are not so bad. Samuelson is there to let us know that the game “is not rigged, at least not in America.”

Samuelson sees himself as setting the voice of common sense against the conventional wisdom. But his own positions are entirely conventional. What he wants everyone to do, black and white, Democrat and Republican, is just get along. On the question of class, for example, he disposes of “faddish attacks on the meritocracy” (read: inequality) by reassuring us that “the success of the people at the top does not cause the poverty of the people at the bottom.” But how true is this? What about corporate executives whose stock options skyrocket with every round of lay-offs (and this is only an example of direct cause-and-effect)? Is what Samuelson saying common sense? Or is his version of the conventional wisdom also wrong?

For Lewis Lapham cynicism and common sense are one and the same. Beneath the elegant surface of the late American Empire lies a dark and unwholesome reality.

But while Lapham’s big theme is that the electronic media help maintain the Empire’s false surface by promoting style over substance, something very similar could be said about his own prose. Though a more entertaining and stylish writer than Samuelson, capable of marvelous riffs and biting aphorisms (“Education is a commodity, like avocado soup or alligator shoes, and freedom of mind is a privilege available only to those who can afford it”), what he actually says is often crude and inaccurate. In ridiculing Ronald Reagan’s memoirs, for example, he sarcastically suggests that it is impossible to imagine Reagan writing anything, even “a simple declarative sentence.” It’s quite a put-down, but the fact is Reagan wrote a lot.

But by far the most annoying thing about Lapham’s cynical attitude is that he only affects to despise the targets of his scorn. It’s a kind of disingenuousness that has become common among the scribes of envy in the pseudo-left. Lapham resents privilege, power and celebrity not because they are wrong in themselves, but because he feels excluded in some way.

There is no question that he feels ill-used. You can see his resentment bubbling to the surface when he tells us what’s wrong with the Public Broadcasting Service (answer: they didn’t do enough to support his show), and when he recalls (in two different essays) how the Washington press corps denied him the privilege of a long-term press pass, thus forcing him to apply at the gate and go through a half-hour security drill every day for three months.

It’s an experience that still rankles, and in his attacks upon the servile Washington media we can hear something of the frustrated player in the background, some echo of the young Thomas Sutpen being told to never come to the front door again but to go around to the back.

Lapham is entirely correct when he says that liberal media bias is a myth. Unfortunately, it is a point he makes against himself. Samuelson is a content, Lapham a bitter conservative. Perhaps some of what they share is common sense.

Review first published May 12, 2001.


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