History as an Antidote to Folly

Age of Folly

Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy by Lewis Lapham

Kurt Vonnegut has called him America’s greatest satirist, while others suggest he was born of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.  Lewis Lapham—editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, and the object of those accolades—is a writer of great eloquence and “lethal wit.”  I was delighted to see that some of the best of Lapham’s essays from the past twenty-five years have now been collected into a new work, Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy.

This is both a wonderful and important book. Lapham surveys the past twenty-five years to make the case that America’s imperial impulses have shaken our democratic principles.  You can agree or disagree with his premise, but his arguments are lucid, thoughtful, and often challenging.

In the very first essay, from 1990, Lapham states his case succinctly and directly.

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star.  It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends.  What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Lapham also explores the change in our concepts of public and private and its affect on our society, noting that “the familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told”  but that

“…it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words ‘public’ and ‘private.’  In the 1950s the word ‘public’ connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); ‘private’ was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs).  The connotations traded places in the 1980s. ‘Private’ now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), ‘public’ becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).”

This book was published prior to Donald Trump’s election as president, but Lapham sees it coming and is not surprised.

There are many themes addressed throughout Age of Folly.  But to make his overall case, Lapham turns to history, calling it an “antidote to folly.”

That theme runs throughout the book, but is summed up in the final essay, dating from 2014 and entitled “The World in Time.”  This essay begins with a quote from Cicero—“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child”—and then discusses Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s last word on the reading and writing of history.  “It is useful to remember” he quotes Schlesinger,

“…that history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.  As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been or where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”

Just as we have tried at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I work) to tell the full American story and break out of the mold of house museums preserved in amber, Lapham notes that history is “constant writing and rewriting, as opposed to a museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble….History is not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago; it is a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago.  The stories change, as do the sight lines available to the tellers of the tales.”  In this particular essay, Lapham looks at the writings of Tom Paine, one of two founding fathers he especially admires (the other being Roger Williams), because Paine’s writings are “like the sound of water in the desert” in these days. They speak not to the rich and privileged, but to the common man.  Paine uses memorable aphorisms such as “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark” and “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Lapham closes this essay, and this book, by noting that “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born.”  History is made every day.  Our country changes.  It always has.  It always will.

“Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible…the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine.  My guess is that they are looking in the wrong direction.  An acquaintance with history doesn’t pay the rent or predict the outcome of a November election, but it is the fund of energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton once called ‘the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’”

History as an antidote to folly.  As we challenge ourselves to hear, understand, and honor the full American story, this rings true.

Highly recommended.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination

Clayborn Temple

Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Steve Jones)

Last week I had the privilege of launching the National Trust’s National Treasure campaign for Clayborn Temple, a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights movement.  It was here where Memphis sanitation workers gathered in 1968 and decided to go on strike, marching with their “I Am a Man” signs that became a potent symbol for all that is at stake in the fight for equal justice.  Clayborn Temple was where the leadership of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue, effectively tying the sanitation workers’ cause with the national issues of economic justice and racism. It was to Memphis and Clayborn Temple that Dr. King was returning when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

To be in that sacred space with more than 150 Memphis residents, young African American poets and musicians, revered spiritual leaders who walked with the sanitation workers, preservationists of all ages, and current members of the workers’ union was an honor and a reminder of how the story of Clayborn Temple could be ripped from this weekend’s headlines.  We are still addressing the issues those sanitation workers and their supporters faced almost fifty years ago.  Preservation, remember, is not only about the past, but is also about today and the future.

It just so happened that I was reading a new book while traveling to and from Memphis.  Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly:  America Abandons Its Democracy, covering America from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2016 election, has much to digest and ponder.  I’ll return to it more fully at some point in the future to explore Lapham’s contention that an acquaintance with history can serve as folly’s antidote.  But one of the opening essays related so closely to what had happened at Clayborn Temple that I quoted from it while in Memphis.

This 1992 essay is entitled Who and What Is American?  In response to the false construction that the American people share a common code of moral behavior and subscribe to identical theories of the true, the good, and the beautiful, Lapham writes,

The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens.  If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

I Am a Man.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.  My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product.  Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument.  The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….

If we indulge ourselves with evasions and the pleasures of telling lies, we speak to our fears and our weaknesses instead of to our courage and our strength.  We can speak plainly about our differences only if we know and value what we hold in common. (Emphasis mine)

I Am A Man

Sanitation Workers in March 1968 outside Clayborn Temple (photo credit: Ernest C. Withers/Withers Family Trust)

So much of the story at Clayborn Temple points to what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.  When we were there to celebrate that space and its rebirth last week, I felt we were doing the “shared work of the imagination” that is required if we are to ensure that our faith in the republic does not—to use another of Lapham’s memorable phrases—“degenerate from the strength of a conviction into the weakness of a sentiment.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB