The noted contrarian takes on a presidency that seems devoted to taking the path of least resistance.
On December 6, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft had this to say to Harper’s magazine editor Lapham’s fellow antinomian types: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” Sure of the salutary power of dissent, Lapham (Lapham’s Rules of Influence, 1999, etc.) works those phantoms hard, cataloguing all the ways in which Bush and company, having donned the purple robes of empire, are busily taking new and novel views of the Constitution at the expense of our liberties. Lacking the president’s certainty that the deity endorses the government’s program, Lapham urges his readers to understand that “dissent consists of nothing else except the right to say no . . . the freedom to conceive of the future as an empty canvas or a blank page.” That empty canvas or blank page may not always deliver good news, may not always shield us from the risks that the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts are ostensibly meant to ward off; such bits of legislation, Lapham asserts, merely “aspire to a new and improved system of bureaucratic control that joins the paranoid systems of thought engendered by the Cold War with the surveillance techniques made possible by the miracles of our digitally enhanced telecommunications technology.” Not that there aren’t risks out there, Lapham acknowledges; it is simply that democracy inevitably suffers when no one steps up to defend it. But Lapham is hopeful: though self-rule is hard and autocracy the very definition of the path of least resistance, the electorate “is by no means as dumb or as disinterested as dreamed of in the philosophy of Karl Rove.” Which, of course, remains to be seen.
Literate, sophisticated, and plenty ticked-off: vintage Lapham, and a ringing endorsement of First Amendment freedoms.