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Harper’s Magazine has been around for a long time, and was once a respected presence on the American literary and journalistic scene. For a good many years, however, its editor has been Lewis H. Lapham, and its principal editorial feature has been an essay by him in each monthly issue, printed up front and titled, “Notebook.”
“Notebook” comments on the passing scene, which (as observed by Lapham) consists of little but a series of political outrages perpetrated by conservative villains of various stripes. It seems somehow pitifully inadequate to describe his viewpoint as “liberal,” but that is the only word that will serve. Careful students of Lapham tell me he has come into considerable wealth, and that his stentorian liberalism is his way of expiating the sins, real and imaginary, that this money finances. But I have no personal knowledge of the facts, and merely report the speculation.
For at least six months preceding the presidential election, Lapham devoted himself to denouncing George W. Bush. At least, if he discussed any other topic, I missed it. I was, therefore, interested to see how he would react to the election’s result. The answer awaited me in Harper’s January issue.
I should warn you that Lapham, though his prose is lapidary, doesn’t achieve his effects by understatement. Here is how he describes the dilemma of honest liberals in the wake of George W. Bush’s re-election: Who, he demands, “could fail to see President George W. Bush as a dishonest and self-glorifying braggart lost in the fog of a quack religion.” Swiftly, “the tale of the Democratic Defeat was packaged in both an authorized and an unauthorized version. The mainstream print and broadcast media reported an election decided on ‘the moral issues’; the Internet blogosphere brought word of an election stolen by God-fearing thieves.”
Lapham then goes on to quote various liberals who subscribe to the authorized version, but dismisses that explanation brusquely: “Why is it moral to deny medical care to 40 million people who can’t pay the loan-shark prices demanded by the insurance companies but to allow 12 million American families to go hungry in the winter? What is moral about an administration that never goes before a microphone to which it doesn’t tell a lie?”
As for the “flotsam” on the Internet, on the other hand, it was admittedly “hard to know who or what was telling the truth,” but “a good deal of it bore the stamp of reliable witness and incontrovertible fact.” After citing various examples (“In 10 of the 11 swing states the final result differed from the predicted result, and in each instance the shift added votes for Bush”), Lapham opts for their credibility because “If we know nothing else about the government now returning to office in Washington, we know that it doesn’t hesitate to cheat and steal and lie … [A]n administration capable of perpetrating the murderous fraud of Operation Iraqi Freedom almost certainly would count it as a loss of face if it couldn’t further serve God’s will by fixing a presidential election.”
So Lewis H. Lapham concludes that “of the two best-selling fictions explaining the Democratic Defeat, I found myself more at home in the one about the robbery. Although not without its flaws, at least it was consistent with what I know of the country in which I was born … If the Democrats don’t spoil it with a Bible and a flag, maybe they can regain the courage, traditional and culturally conservative, to steal the next election.”
The robbery theory is also, you will note, the less painful of the two explanations Lapham felt forced to choose between. If he had opted for the other (or for any of the many other explanations on offer after Nov. 2), he would have to admit that his many demented denunciations of Bush failed to serve their purpose. Instead, he can console himself that he was merely cheated of a victory that was rightfully his.