Indeed. Lapham has cultivated enough of a reputation in his years as a public intellectual (or, if you prefer, public bloviator)—in his rage against the Iraq war, in his intellectual/cultural elitism, in his verbal dexterity (or, if you prefer, pomposity)—that he has become, at this point, predictable. So much so that, apparently, you don’t even have to read his journal to know exactly what it’s about. (Mari’s assessment was also, she admits, written pre-read.) It’s an understandable assumption: Lapham’s editorials throughout his years at Harper’s—most notoriously “Tentacles of Rage,” the vitriolic tirade against American conservatism that appeared in the September 2004 issue and raised questions about not only Lapham’s rhetorical ability, but his journalistic integrity—have belied Lapham’s belief that history is on his side. And with Lapham’s Quarterly, that belief has become his brand. One of Lapham’s most significant editorial decisions—one of questionable wisdom, it turns out—was to name his new journal after himself. This isn’t history for history’s sake, the journal’s own title concedes; this is history with an agenda. And that agenda, of course, is Lapham’s. And Lapham’s agenda, as The Walrus’s Ken Alexander had it, is specifically to “search the historical record for truths that will inspire the American empire to be less sure of itself.”
Take one of the most striking historical texts republished in the “States of War” issue, a proclamation to the people of Baghdad:
Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories .Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.
The kicker? The text was issued in 1917 by the commander-in-chief of British forces in Mesopotamia. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that.
The entire journal is predicated on this kind of conceit-laden Epic Irony: the failure of the Now in light of the Then. And vice versa. Puckish even in pomposity, Lapham brings a lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be sense of censure to the Quarterly’s history; smugness seeps through its pages. The inaugural issue, indeed, is less about the history of wars themselves and more, through Lapham’s curatorial posturing, about the (ironic) history of humans’ (ironic) inability to keep from fighting them. (Where, oh where, is Alanis Morissette when you need her?)
And while you can argue that there’s never a bad time to remind ourselves of war’s folly (“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought,” Lapham quotes Einstein in the issue, “but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”), there’s still a fine line between appreciating history and fetishizing it—one that Lapham is always on the verge of crossing. The history here, for all its supposed spunk, has the musty air of a textualized museum; and, like most museums, its content is often more interesting than revelatory. (We don’t need to summon The Collected Wisdom of the Ages, after all, to be convinced of man’s inhumanity to man. We need only read newspapers.) As history, Lapham’s Quarterly is little more than a textbook—a slick and spiffy one, to be sure, but a textbook nonetheless. It’s stuffy, in every sense of the word.
Where the Quarterly shines, however, is in its capacity as a work of journalism. In blending journalistic genres—one part magazine-of-ideas, one part niche journal, one part historical textbook—Lapham’s Quarterly is extending the bounds of what contemporary journalism can look like. Lapham is challenging the anti-intellectualism that the rise of to-the-minute, rapid-fire journalism has both engendered and exacerbated—one that has turned the word “academic” into, often, an insult—and extending a (perfectly manicured) middle finger toward this current of the modern media business. As Lapham told The Boston Globe:
One of the problems with contemporary media is it’s without context. In the eternal now of twenty-four-seven, there is no past and no future. The news comes in short phrases or paragraphs, and it’s without the backstory. Without that, how can you write the front story?
Lapham is using journalism to challenge an illusion that history, as Ken Alexander wrote, has already defeated:
The ignorant, dangerous, and useless conceit that everything has not already happened; that it has not already been said, written, and experienced; and that there is little to be learned by rooting around in the archaeology of mind and matter.
Whatever else might be said about Lapham’s Quarterly, that fight alone—that challenge to complacency born of arrogance—makes the publication worthwhile. Because, as Mark Twain once wrote, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
I read that in the Quarterly.