Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Media criticism.
Sept. 15 2004 7:06 PM

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

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Harper's Editor Lewis H. Lapham aims to raise a ruckus with "Tentacles of Rage," his 7,700-word contribution to the magazine's September issue. Pouring purple into every paragraph, Lapham writes in a controlled panic about the right-wing "self-mythologizing millionaires" who have turned this once-liberal country to the reactionary right over the past three decades. Donating $3 billion to various Republican "propaganda mills"—think tanks, foundations, research groups, magazines, authors, and academic programs—the millionaires have drowned the former liberal consensus with their "prolonged siege of words."

Lapham got his ruckus, all right, but not the one he expected, as when Reason's Hit and Run blog (Aug. 23) caught him describing events from this year's Republican National Convention before it convened (Aug. 30). Lapham writes:

The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer—and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn't stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?

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Lapham responded to the press cackling with an explanation, written in the purest Clintonese, which he posted on the Harper's Web site. He both apologized for the fictionalizing, calling it a "mistake … a serious one" and a "mix up," and defended it as "rhetorical invention" and "poetic license."

Every overtaxed journalist phones it in from time to time, but few dare make the call from a parallel universe, as Lapham did, and then step forward to rationalize it. This moxie runs through the whole essay and all too often informs whole issues of Harper's, which has grown increasingly pompous and predictable in recent years.

Lapham concedes early in "Tentacles of Rage"—an agitprop headline that conjures Thomas Nastian plutocrats on PCP—that his essay is not based on original reporting. The inspiration came prefab in the form of a 38-deck PowerPoint presentation by Democratic Party operative Rob Stein titled "The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix." Stein has pitched his PowerPoint to party insiders, journalists, and others who will help recruit liberal millionaires to fund a Democratic propaganda mill to counter the Republican one. Lapham got his peek at the deck with a "small group of Democratic activists meeting in New York City in late February."

Lapham acknowledges that Stein's findings aren't novel—anybody who has followed politics for the past 30 years knows about the cadre- and institution-building of the Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors), Richard Mellon Scaife's foundations, the Koch family foundations, and the rest. As early as 1981, the Washington Post was on the right-wing money story with a Page One piece about the rise of the Heritage Foundation. Almost 10 years ago in Harper's (March 1995), Lapham himself devoted part of an essay to "reactionary chic," decrying the deleterious effect of the right-wing foundations and their media megaphones. People for the American Way shouted fire on the subject in 1996, with its "Buying a Movement" monograph.

Lapham promotes the tract because, he writes, it helps him "fully appreciate the nature and extent of the re-education program" of the right, words that elicit an image of American political prisoners force-fed the American Spectator, Heritage Foundation monographs, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Judith Regan's books, right-wing talk radio, and the Fox News Channel until they surrender their political will.

All Power to the PowerPoint!

Having not viewed the PowerPoint presentation (which Stein has given only a few people), I can only guess at its slipperiness. Lapham makes it sound like a merger of the paranoid right tendencies ( None Dare Call It Conspiracy) and the reductionist thinking of the new left ( Trilateralism). Stein is one of those thinkers who would rather ape Foucault, breaking ideas down into structures of power—flow charts and interlocking directorates—than consider the ideas on their own merits.

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