Lewis Lapham on the Apocalyptic Mentality and Historic Amnesia

I’m reading an article in Harper’s that was written by Lewis L. Lapham, the magazine’s editor emeritus who is now in his late seventies.

How well he writes, people! Why don’t we see this kind of amazing journalism more often? I could read Lapham day and night, yet all we see in today’s journalism is an army of semi-literate Douthats who are proud of their extreme ignorance.

Here is a quote from Lapham’s article “Ignorance of Things Past”: “It is the ignorance of the past that invites the despairing of the present, which in turn leads to the marketing of dead-end politics with ad campaigns for a lost golden age. As often as not the nostalgic sales pitch os the contrivance of a reactionary status quo floating the speculation on a redeeming tomorrow with subprime borrowings from an imaginary yesterday.”

Not only is the article beautifully written, it also transmits a message we all need to hear: the apocalyptic whinings about how everything has gone to the dogs and how today is so much worse than some completely fictitious moment in the past only serve the goals of the most reactionary forces in our society.

These images of the prelapsarian eden of our past do not reflect anything but our fantasies about what the past should have been like: “As with the snapshots sent home to Mom and Dad from a winter vacation in Hawaii, the postcards from an illusory American past – the innocent Arcadia over the rainbow of the mid-XIXth-century Western frontier, the classless society that is the root of fair-minded free enterprise and all things innovative and entrepreneurial – don’t mention any unpleasantness or inconvenience.”

This reminds me of the egregiously annoying opening sequence from Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism: The Love Story. As a progressive activist, Moore should be aware of how bad the 1950s were for women and the minorities. Yet, he paints a picture of an idyllic decade where everything was perfect because each worker of a GM factory could afford a trip to Washington and an eager-to-please housewife with a robotic smile.

Lapham points out that the current outrage of many over the supposedly recent division of the US into a fiercely class-based society is completely misplaced. There were always economic and social classes in American society. As this brilliant journalist aptly puts it: “At no point in its history has this country not been nailed to a cross of gold.”

The blindness to history that so many of us willingly practice makes it next to impossible to articulate serious political goals that consist of anything better than pining for the Norman Rockwell images of an America that never even existed. Just last weekend, there was a long discussion on my blog where good, intelligent, progressive people seriously advocated the return to the economy of the 1950s because, for them, the fact that women did not share in the distribution of wealth at all somehow fell completely outside the realm of the economy.

There is a lot (and, I mean, a real lot) more to Lapham’s brilliant article. I highly recommend it to people who are fed up with the shoddy journalism of today that attempts to hide the grievous ignorance of intellectually impotent authors behind the endless “as everybody knows” and “most people realize.”

4 thoughts on “Lewis Lapham on the Apocalyptic Mentality and Historic Amnesia

  1. I was one of the people discussing the economy of the 1950’s last week. I think much was good about the functioning of the economy of that time. It proves beyond reasonable doubt that higher taxes are consistent with prosperity. But I certainly would not want to return to the 1950’s, for the reasons you mentioned, and others.


  2. Where are the heirs to Laptham? Last week I made a comment on the Newsweek cover story where the journalist had obviously only read stats from another magazine article which only based on a research abstract in a journal. It took me about 20 mins. to read the original research text and find most of the illogical analysis which led to misleading conclusions. Thus bad research produces false received wisdom. I can only assume that these folks start with a pitch and look for material to shore up their preconceived notions.


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