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December 13, 2005

An open letter to Lewis Lapham

East Coast elites need to travel more (inland)


[Above: Hit the road, pal.]

Last month, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham announced his retirement after nearly thirty years on the job. I’ve been an enthusiastic Harper’s subscriber for over a decade, but I’ve always found Lapham’s monthly “Notebook” column to be the most irritating part of the magazine. Pompous, frequently contemptuous, and dripping with purple overstatement, Lapham’s front-of-the book essays always spew some variation of the same, alarmist jeremiad: The powers-that-be are evil; the vulgar masses are little more than hoodwinked automatons; the end is near for anyone with the intellectual jam to recognize it as such.

These monthly screeds (which will continue, despite his retirement from other magazine duties) might be more compelling if Lapham demonstrated a shred of reportorial energy or curiosity. Instead, they bear the unmistakable stamp of the armchair essayist: Broad generalizations are presented as unquestionable fact; rhetorical nuance and uncertainty are utterly absent; Enlightenment philosophers are quoted at length. Indeed, nobody in contemporary letters has such a talent for sounding convincingly erudite and utterly clueless at the same time (a fact evidenced in 2004, when it was revealed that Lapham’s column savaging the speeches of the Republican convention was written a full two months before the convention was held).

In recent years, no individual has been the focus of Lapham’s scorn more frequently than George W. Bush — which is ironic, since the two men are practically twins: Both of them come from blue-blood and old money; both received elite preparatory schooling and graduated from Yale; both have demonstrated an inability to helm a profitable business (for much of Lapham’s tenure, Harper’s has been bailed out to the tune of $2 million each year by the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation); both profess to know what’s best for the kind of common Americans they’ve certainly never met; both display an alarming self-satisfaction and lack of curiosity for anything that falls outside of their own ideological rubric.

In fact, while Lapham’s opinions invariably carry a left-wing slant, he would seem to be a profoundly conservative thinker — someone who has never questioned the insipidity of his elite, east-coast patrician-intellectual assumptions.

This in mind, I have drafted the following letter to Mr. Lapham, in the hope that he might use his retirement to broaden his horizons.

Dear Mr. Lapham,

Congratulations on your retirement from Harper’s. You’ve had a fine tenure; your creation of the Harper’s Index was a masterstroke in and of itself. I often refer to various front-of-the-book “Readings” from Harper’s on this blog, and I’ve quoted your apt musings on media here in the past. You have plenty to feel good about from your time as an editor.

Now that you’ll have some free time, however, I have a suggestion for you: Pack your bags. Hit the road. Get lost. Do a little open-ended travel — and let it expand your worldview.

By this, I don’t mean you should head to Europe on a lecture tour with Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. This would be pleasurable for you, I’m sure, but I doubt it will do much to challenge the prejudices you have accumulated in a career that has never strayed from the most elite social settings. After all, to borrow something you once said about your own writing, travel “is about inquiry; it’s not about the promulgation of the truth, it’s about a search for the truth” — and I doubt your search will yield anything new if you confine yourself to the company of left-wing public intellectuals (and the sycophants who line up to hear them lecture).

Hence, once your bags are packed, I suggest you strike out solo for the American heartland — that gaping, dimly perceived synapse between New York and San Francisco — to meet new people and have new experiences.

I know for a fact that you are desperately under-traveled in the inner U.S., because you frequently advertise it as a sign of intellectual purity. In your May 2005 column, for example, you wrote that President Bush flaunts “his ignorance as proof of his virtue, claiming that America can rule and govern a world about which it chooses to know as little as possible.” This assertion might have carried some rhetorical weight had you not smugly boasted your own cultural-geographical ignorance earlier in the same essay (“My travels seldom took me anywhere except to California,” you quipped, “and although I heard rumors of the religious enthusiasms roaming the American plains, I chose to regard them as preposterous”).

Thus, just as I would implore President Bush (and his ilk) to humbly explore other countries until his passport is dog-eared and tattered, I encourage you to visit places that were never on your radar when Hotchkiss and Cambridge and midtown Manhattan were shaping your perception of the world. Go to places like Idaho, or Alabama, or my home state of Kansas. Drink beers with guys who weld for a living. Spend a week working (with your fellow retirees) as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Sit in with kids in classrooms where “Intelligent Design” threatens the science curriculum.

Odds are — after a few months of earnest wandering through “flyover country” — you will find a level of humanity, local wisdom and social complexity that will allow you to write your “Notebook” column with a little more nuance and a little less bombast.

Your readers, I believe, will share in the discovery as you make your world bigger.

Yours optimistically,

Rolf Potts

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