This has to rank as one of the greatest pieces of political writing ever penned. I don’t say that lightly.
George Orwell once stated that one of the main goals he was striving for in his work, was to elevate political writing into an art form unto itself. Lewis Lapham has achieved this, being one of the master practitioners of the form for some time. His latest piece, published in Lapham’s Quaterly, with an online version presented on HereTomDispatch.com, qualifies as one of his greatest works from his half-century long career.
Adding to the value of this piece is Lapham’s repeated references to Thomas Paine. This is no real surprise, as Lapham has long been an admirer of Paine’s. It was his brilliant piece, “Uncommon Sense,” unleashed in a propitiously timely manner, during the run up to the Bush/Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq in March o f 2003, for which I credit the renewal of my own interest in Paine a decade ago (and which helped inspire the creation of the UnCommon Sense TV Media project).
Good intentions, like mother’s milk, are a perishable commodity. As wealth accumulates, men decay, and sooner or later an aristocracy that once might have aspired to an ideal of wisdom and virtue goes rancid in the sun, becomes an oligarchy distinguished by a character that Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” — its members so besotted by their faith in money that “they therefore imagine there is nothing that it cannot buy.”
Troubled op-ed columnists sometimes refer to the embarrassing paradox implicit in the waging of secret and undeclared war under the banners of a free, open, and democratic society. They don’t proceed to the further observation that the nation’s foreign policy is cut from the same criminal cloth as its domestic economic policy. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the predatory business dealing that engendered the Wall Street collapse in 2008 both enjoyed the full faith and backing of a government that sets itself above the law.
The upper servants of the oligarchy, among them most of the members of Congress and the majority of the news media’s talking heads, receive their economic freedoms by way of compensation for the loss of their political liberties. The right to freely purchase in exchange for the right to freely speak. If they wish to hold a public office or command attention as upholders of the truth, they can’t afford to fool around with any new, possibly subversive ideas.
Paine had in mind a representative assembly that asked as many questions as possible from as many different sorts of people as possible. The ensuing debate was expected to be loud, forthright, and informative. James Fenimore Cooper seconded the motion in 1838, arguing that the strength of the American democracy rests on the capacity of its citizens to speak and think without cant. “By candor we are not to understand trifling and uncalled-for expositions of truth… but a sentiment that proves the conviction of the necessity of speaking truth, when speaking at all; a contempt for all designing evasions of our real opinions. In all the general concerns, the public has a right to be treated with candor. Without this manly and truly republican quality… the institutions are converted into a stupendous fraud.”
The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.
When intended to draw blood instead of laughs, speaking truth to power doesn’t lead to a secure retirement on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard. Paine was the most famous political thinker of his day, his books in the late eighteenth century selling more copies than the Bible, but after the Americans had won their War of Independence, his notions of democracy were deemed unsuitable to the work of dividing up the spoils. The proprietors of their newfound estate claimed the privilege of apportioning its freedoms, and they remembered that Paine opposed the holding of slaves and the denial to women of the same sort of rights awarded to men. A man too much given to plain speaking, on too familiar terms with the lower orders of society, and therefore not to be trusted.
Paine’s misfortunes speak to the difference between politics as a passing around of handsome platitudes and politics as a sowing of the bitter seeds of social change. The speaking of truth to power when the doing so threatens to lend to words the force of deeds is as rare as it is brave. The signers of the Declaration of Independence accepted the prospect of being hanged in the event that America lost the war.
Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production — the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons — reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.
Read the complete text of this magnificent work Here