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The Know-Nothing Lefty

Since September 11, the intellectual left hasn't distinguished itself. Now, in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky, comes Lewis Lapham.

11:01 PM, Dec 19, 2001 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE LEAD STORY in the November issue of Harper's was an essay by its editor Lewis Lapham. He'd been, before September 11, to a screening of "Band of Brothers," the Steven Spielberg-produced World War II series on HBO. And he didn't like the experience, not one bit. "Agitprop," he called the show. And the air at the screening was thick with self-congratulation. Greatest Generation corporate types swarmed around patting each other on the back. The place stank of patriotism.

And then September 11 happened. For Lapham it was like the other shoe dropping. Aha! There! Take that! "My memory of the [screening] undoubtedly has been darkened by the irony of its counterpoint to the devastation, five days later, of the Trade Center and the Pentagon, but I don't think I misrepresent the character of its easy arrogance and witless boast." Reactions to the events of September 11 have been varied, but surely no one else has taken out their anger on Steven Spielberg.

On the left, it seemed, most people found themselves in the position snappily described by comedian Janeane Garofalo: "Who would have thought that I'd be angry on behalf of my country? I'm used to being angry at my country." But not Lewis Lapham. Since September 11 his writings have highlighted one of the more interesting side effects of our recent terrorist attacks. For years now, serious people have been expected to bemoan on command the superficiality of the news media and its parade of news readers, insta pundits, and third-rate celebrities. But next to America's intellectuals the news media has looked positively brainy. And the intellectuals--Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and clearly Lewis Lapham--have appeared to be foaming idiots.

In his December column, too, it is clear that Lapham has not stopped being angry at America. He wrote: "The destruction of the World Trade Center obliterated the American claim to an advanced state of political and economic enlightenment." Of course no one believes that Lapham ever considered America very enlightened, but, still, his comment cries out for further examination. His problem with America, as near as I can tell from the straw-man he builds, is that our country harbors people who don't like government, people who do like capitalism, people who believe economics is more important than politics, and people who believe that history has come to an end.

In his mind, America is the Cato Institute drunk on '90s economic euphoria and the writings of Francis Fukuyama. The problem is that this description fits almost no one. Fukuyama's argument is far more complicated, and compelling, than Lapham lets on. The economic utopians had already been routed before September 11. And it's not like the libertarians at Cato--or anywhere else for that matter--have argued that the way to fight terrorism is through deregulation. (Okay, Harry Browne did argue that we deserved to be attacked for meddling in the Middle East, but Harry Browne is irrelevant.) So one has to ask: What in the world is Lapham talking about?

Maybe he's just become the con-man revivalist played by Steve Martin in the movie "Leap of Faith." To keep things interesting for his crew, Martin challenges them to find a phrase or thing he can't somehow work into his preaching shtick. No matter what they come up with--aluminum siding, Elton John records--the con man finds a way to reference them.

Neiman Marcus? American Express? Teenagers? Horses? Like the Martin character, Lapham can work all of them into his rap. Decrying our current politics, he says: Ours is "democracy understood as a fancy Greek name for the American Express card and the Neiman Marcus catalog." Talking about the anti-terrorism bill, Lapham asks if "we prefer the . . . fascism in which the genial man on horseback assures us that repression is good for the soul?" Which leaves teenagers: "If we mean to project abroad the force of res publica made glorious by the death of American teenagers and Muslim holy men . . ."

Lapham's anger is of long standing. "For the last twenty years we've let fall into disrepair nearly all [repeat: nearly all] of the public infrastructure--roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals, [and] broadcast frequencies." And that's America he's talking about, not Afghanistan. Furthermore, his spittle-sprinkled fury does not stop with road repair. He explodes, too, over the "paragraphs" we've deleted from the Bill of Rights.