Harper's Magazine
December 2001

Res publica
by Lewis Lapham

There is nothing stable in the world; uproar's your only music.
--John Keats

Throughout the month of October the fire continued to bum in the ruin of lower Manhattan, and the numerous politicians who came to look upon the face of apocalyptic destruction never failed to see, somewhere behind the veil of rancid and still-drift, ing smoke, an American phoenix rising from the ashes. None of them pretended to a close acquaintance with the miraculous bird, but the metaphor was never far from their thought when they spoke of a renewed sense of national unity and purpose, of democracy regained and liberty reborn, of the American spirit, eagle-feathered and indomitable, shining with the promise of a new day's dawn.

Given the ground on which the speakers stood (a makeshift cemetery in which 5,000 of their fellow citizens lay buried under 1.2 million tons of fallen concrete and twisted steel), it was impossible to doubt the truth of their emotion or the honesty of their intent. What was more difficult to judge was the portrait of the future they had in mind. Almost as soon as they had said that America never again would be the same, they began to talk about the restoration of the familiar and heroic past, making good the losses of September 11 with quicker-- witted intelligence agents, heavier artillery, more patriotic displays of consumer confidence in all the nation's better stores. If the fine words didn't amount to much when weighed for the content of their thought or meaning, possibly it was because the destruction of the World Trade Center also obliterated most of the supporting theory that for the last twenty years had buttressed the American claim to an advanced state of economic and political enlightenment. As construed by the household sophists in the Reagan Administration and endorsed by their successors in the Bush and Clinton administrations, the intellectual foundation for the country's wealth and happiness rested on four pillars of imperishable wisdom:

1. Big government is by inclination Marxist, by definition wasteful and incompetent, a conspiracy of fools indifferent to the welfare of the common man. The best government is no government. The agencies of big government stand as acronyms for overbearing bureaucracy, as synonyms for poverty, indolence, and disease.

2. Global capitalism is the eighth wonder of the world, a light unto the nations and the answer to everybody's prayers. Nothing must interfere with its sacred mysteries and omniscient judgment.

3. The art of politics (embarrassingly human and therefore corrupt) is subordinate to the science of economics (reassuringly abstract and therefore perfect). What need of political principle or philosophy when it is the money markets that set policy, pay the troops, distribute alms? What need of statesmen, much less politicians, when it isn't really necessary to know their names or remember what they say?

4. History is at an end. The new world economic order vanquished the last of the skeptics by refuting the fallacy of Soviet Communism. Having reached the final stopping place on the road to ideological perfection, mankind no longer need trouble itself with any new political ideas. Francis Fukuyama, an author much admired by the Wall Street Journal, summed up the proposition in a sentence deemed sublime, "For our purposes, it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso...."

All four pillars of imperishable wisdom perished on the morning of September 11, reduced within an hour to the incoherence of the rubble in Liberty Street. By noon even the truest of true believers knew that they had been telling themselves a fairy tale. If not to big government, then where else did the friends of laissez-faire economics look for the rescue of their finances and the saving of their lives; if not the agencies of big government, who then brought the ambulances from as far away as Albany or sent the firemen into the doomed buildings with no promise of a finder's fee? It wasn't the free market that hijacked the airplanes and cross,promoted them into bombs, or Adam Smith's invisible hand that cut the throats of the pilots on what they thought was a flight to Los Angeles. History apparently was still a work in progress, the strange thoughts grown in the basements of Tirana possibly closer to the geopolitical spirit of the times than the familiar platitudes handed around the conference tables at the American Enterprise Institute.

By nightfall the revelation was complete, and during the weeks since September 11 the rush into the shelters of big government has come to resemble the crowding of sinners into the tent of a prairie evangelist. The corporate lobbyists make daily pilgrimages to Washington in search of federal subsidy; the Air Force bombs Afghanistan; the White House and the State Department revise the terms of our diplomacy with Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and China; the FBI sets up our defenses against the airborne spores of anthrax, and the once-gaudy advertisements for what was variously billed as the globalist hegemony and the new world economic order begin to look like faded circus posters peeling from a roadside billboard in eastern Tennessee. Every morning's paper and every evening's television broadcast punch a new hole in the old story, and it turns out that public service on behalf of the common good (as recently as last August thought no longer fashionable or pertinent) retains at least the memory of an honorable meaning. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York gives voice to the city's courage, and among an electorate formerly presumed decadent the discovery of such a thing as an American commonwealth finds expression not only in the show of flags but also in the myriad voluntary acts of citizenship-unpaid rescue workers clearing the wreckage in lower Manhattan, $850 million in emergency funds contributed by individuals as well as corporations, the news media accepting substantial loss of advertising revenue in order to provide more time and space for the discovery of maybe necessary information, a generous upwelling of tolerance and compassion among people of different colors, their regard for one another grounded in the recognition that the modifying adjectives (black, gay, white, native, etc.) matter less than the noun American.

By the end of October it had been generally understood that America no longer enjoyed a special arrangement with Providence, preserved by the virtue of its inhabitants and the grace of its geography from the provocations of death, chance, kings, and desperate men. Confronted with determined enemies (many of them still unknown, some of them armed with appalling weapons) the nation stood exposed, like other nations, to the insults of outrageous fortune. The awareness of the predicament (on the part of both the politicians at the microphones and the voters in the streets) conceivably could lead to a reconstitution of the American idea, but the finding of the phoenix in the ashes presupposes a debate rising from an intellectual structure a good deal sturdier than the one lost in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I imagine the argument falling along the division between the people who would continue the American experiment and those who think that the experiment has gone far enough, and if I can't frame all the questions that might well be asked, I can think of at least a few:

How high a price do we set on the head of freedom? If we delete another few paragraphs from the Bill of Rights (for our own protection, of course, in the interest of peace, prosperity, and carefree summer vacations), what do we ask of the state in return for our silence in court? Do we wish to remain citizens of a republic, or do we prefer the forms of participatory fascism in which the genial man on horseback assures us that repression is good for the soul? With what secular faith do we match the zeal of militant Islam and combat the enmity of the impoverished peoples of the earth to whom the choice between war and peace presents itself as a choice of no significance? How define the American democracy as a res publica for which we might willingly give up our lives? Our own lives, not the lives of foreign legions. And of what does the res publica consist?

None of the questions lead to certain answers, but if we don't ask them of ourselves I don't know how we can expect to rediscover the American idea in a world unknown to Jefferson. Assume a conversation at least as long as the war that President Bush forecasts for the mountains of Afghanistan, and we might begin by strengthening the habit of dissent and improving our powers of observation. The barbarism in Washington doesn't dress itself in the costumes of the Taliban; it wears instead the smooth-shaven smile of a Senate resolution sold to the highest bidder-for the drilling of the Arctic oil fields or the lifting from the rich the burden of the capital-gains tax, for bigger defense budgets, reduced medical insurance, enhanced surveillance, grotesque monopoly. If we took more of an interest in the making of our foreign policy, usually for the profit of our corporate overlords rather than for the safety of the American people, maybe we would know why, when bringing the lamp of liberty to the darker places of the earth, the United States invariably chooses for its allies the despots who operate their countries on the model of a prison or a jail. We might even wonder why, ten years ago during the denouement of the Gulf War, George Bush the elder chose to leave an army in Saudi Arabia. Did we mean to protect our supply of cheap oil, or were we providing the Saudi ruling family with household troops to preserve them from a revolutionary uprising led by malcontents as clever as Osama bin Laden?

If we mean to project abroad the force of the res publica made glorious by the death of American teenagers and Muslim holy men, we might want to consider taking better care of our own domestic commonwealth. For the last twenty years we've let fall into disrepair nearly all of the public infrastructure-roads, water systems, schools, power plants, bridges, hospitals, broadcast frequencies-that provides the country with a foundation for its common enterprise. The privatization of the nation's public resources has enriched the investors fortunate enough to profit from the changes of venue, but at what cost to our sense of general well-being? The lopsided division of the country into the factions of the hapless many and the privileged few has allowed our faith in the republic to degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment. By discounting what the brokers classify as "non-market values," we're left with a body politic defined not as the union of its collective energies and hopes but as an aggregate of loosely affiliated selfish interests (ethnic, regional, commercial, sexual), armed with their own manifestos, loyal to their own agendas, secure in the compounds of their own languages. Democracy understood as a fancy Greek name for the American Express card and the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue, the government seen as a Florida resort hotel, its assortment of goods and services deserving of respect in the exact degree to which it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the expectations of comfort and style at both the discount and holiday rates.

As was proved by events on the morning of September 11, the laissez-faire theories of government do us an injustice. They don't speak to the best of our character; neither do they express the cherished ideal embodied in the history of a courageous people. What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, race, or ancestry but their voluntary pledge to a shared work of both the moral and political imagination. My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from pride in its armies or its fleets, and I admire the institutions of American government as useful and well-made tools (on the order of a plow, an axe, or a surveyor's plumb line) meant to support the liberties of the people, not the ambitions of the state. The Constitution serves as the premise for a narrative rather than as the design for a monument or a plan for an invasion.

Any argument about the direction of the American future becomes an argument between the past and present tense. Let us hope that it proves to be both angry and fierce. The friends of the status quo (both houses of Congress, most of the national news media, the Hollywood patriots, and a legion of corporate spokespersons) already have made it clear that they prefer as little discussion as possible. Domestic political dissent they regard as immoral and, in time of war, treasonous. They believe it their duty to invest President Bush not only with the powers of a monarch but also with the attribute of wisdom. Put out more flags, post more guards, distribute the pillows of cant.

Maybe two or three years from now, when all the terrorists have been rounded up and the Trade Center towers replaced with a golden statue of Mammon, the time will come to talk of politics. In the meanwhile, my children, while waiting for that far-off happy day, follow directions, submit to the surveillance, look at the nice pictures brought to you by the Pentagon, know that your rulers are wise.

So sayeth Trent Lott and Time magazine, and the admonition seems to me as feckless as the theory that supported last summer's pillars of imperishable wisdom. The country at the moment stands in need of as many questions as anybody can think to ask. Rightly understood, democracy is an uproar-nothing quiet, orderly, or safe-and among all the American political virtues, candor is probably the one most necessary to the success of our shared enterprise; unless we try to tell one another the truth about what we know and think and see, we might as well amuse ourselves (for as long as somebody else allows us to do so) with Steven Spielberg movies.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that it is the business of the future to be dangerous (not because the future is perverse but because it doesn't know how to be anything else), and whether we like it or not, the argument now in progress in Moscow and Jerusalem and Islamabad is the same argument that enlivened the annals of republican Rome, built the scaffolds of the Spanish Inquisition, and gave rise to the American Revolution. If we fail to engage it, we do so at our peril. The freedoms of expression present democratic societies with the unwelcome news that they are in trouble, but because all societies, like most individuals, are always in some kind of trouble, the news doesn't drive them onto the reefs of destruction. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to believe that only the wicked perish. The climate of anxiety is the cost of doing business, discomfort the state of mind in which the oyster brings forth the pearl.


©Harper's Magazine Foundation Dec 2001

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