One hundred years ago, in the wake of England’s ruinous victory in the Boer War, a young Liberal politician excoriated the ruling Conservative Party and its imperial scam: “A party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad…sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public house, dear food for the millions, cheap labor for the millionaire.” As Lewis Lapham points out in Gag Rule, where this and a great many other nuggets of historically apposite and rhetorically scintillating prose are marshaled, these words of Winston Churchill fairly describe the Bush II Administration as well. (Substitute “church” for “public house,” of course.) If only a few Democratic voices could find the young Churchill’s register.
Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, stands ready to help. His monthly columns and half dozen previous books regularly strike this same (early-)Churchillian note of indignant scorn for the plutocracy and its government servants. Lapham is particularly offended by one of the most egregious developments in recent American history: the erosion of republican institutions by Republican administrations. In the 1970s and ’80s he sponsored many memorable essays by the great critic Walter Karp, above all “Liberty Under Siege” (Harper’s, November 1985), a definitive chronicle of the Reagan Administration’s “unflagging campaign to exalt the power of the presidency and to undermine the power of the law, the courts, the Congress, and the people.” Since then, the courts and the Congress have joined the attack on democratic accountability and popular sovereignty. Executive-branch decision-making is increasingly insulated from public scrutiny and comment; more and more important documents are unavailable or unaffordable; the prerogatives of law-enforcement agencies are steadily expanded in the national-security area, though narrowed in respect of tax and securities fraud, air and water pollution, violations of labor law and occupational safety rules, and other constraints on profitability. Harper’s has done stellar work in showing how the claims of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions to “get government off the backs of the American people” merely camouflaged their sustained effort to keep the American people off the backs of the government and its corporate principals.
Gag Rule is not quite stellar. The balance between eloquence and substance is off; the book is declaimed rather than written. War imperils independent thought and speech; governments often invoke patriotism to enforce conformity. This is Lapham’s brief, and although familiar, it is always worth bringing up to date. He calls an impressive parade of witnesses. For freedom: Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Lincoln, Fenimore Cooper, Teddy Roosevelt, Learned Hand, Will Durant, Archibald MacLeish. Against: the bad-school-spirit-hunting American Council of Trustees and Alumni (Lynne Cheney, Kristol, Bennett, Peretz et al.); the post-9/11 pack of bloodthirsty columnists and editorialists; various Congressional and Administration bozos. He cites the historical precedents: the abuse of dissenters during the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the cold war. So far, so good. But his oratory gets out of hand. Too thunderous an eloquence makes the ears ache. I am always ready to answer Lapham’s clarion calls, but where exactly am I being summoned by a sentence like this?
By discounting what the brokers classify as “nonmarket values,” we downgrade our faith in the republic from the strength of a conviction to the weakness of a sentiment, and we’re left with a body politic defined not as the union of its collective energies and hopes but as an aggregate of loosely affiliated interests (ethnic, regional, commercial, sexual) each armed with its own manifesto, loyal to its own agenda, secure in the compound of its own jargon–democracy understood as a fancy Greek name for the American Express card, the government seen as a Florida resort hotel, its assortment of goods and services deserving of respect in the exact degree to which it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the expectations of comfort and style at both the discount and holiday rates.