'Harper's' Editor Lewis Lapham Looks Back In the first of a series called "The Long View, Steve Inskeep talks to Lewis Lapham, outgoing editor of Harper's Magazine. Lapham has been at the helm of the magazine for almost 30 years and gives his perspective on U.S. culture and politics today.
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'Harper's' Editor Lewis Lapham Looks Back

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'Harper's' Editor Lewis Lapham Looks Back

'Harper's' Editor Lewis Lapham Looks Back

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During this final week of the year, here's how we're marking the passage of time. We have a series of conversations we call the Long View. People of long experience can help us look back and, often enough, see ahead. We'll start with Lewis Lapham, who is stepping down as editor of Harper's. That magazine has been around long enough that it once featured detailed reporting on the Civil War. This fall, one issue featured detailed reporting from Iraq. After three decades as editor, Lewis Lapham is moving on to take a very long view. He is starting a magazine on history.

Mr. LEWIS LAPHAM (Outgoing Editor, Harper's Magazine): I'm 70 years old and if I'm going to start something new, I'd better get on with it.

INSKEEP: What kind of history are you going to be exploring?

Mr. LAPHAM: Well, what I will do is I will take a topic that's in the news and then run out an anthology of texts right on that theme, beginning wherever, with Herodotus or Seneca. And it's to bring the great books to bear on the moment.

INSKEEP: You've written for decades a column that comes at the front of Harper's Magazine. It focuses...

Mr. LAPHAM: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...generally on politics and on changes in the culture. When I've read your column, I've sometimes gotten a sense of someone that is outraged, outraged by the world, outraged by almost everything that's happening.

Mr. LAPHAM: Well, I think the--our political discourse is in a pretty sorry state. I think we have an administration that's criminal. I think the war in Iraq was unnecessary. I think it was undertaken for a domestic political purpose, for the election of the Republican majority in 2002. To me, these are--this is very bad news. And I do get angry.

INSKEEP: The writer Kurt Andersen, who's been a magazine editor himself, noted your departure from the editorship in New York Magazine and wrote the following. He said that he felt that your column week after week was pretty much the same message, which he summarized this way: `The powers that be are craven and monstrous, American culture is vulgar and depraved, the US is like imperial Rome, our democracy is dying or dead.' Andersen said you could make an argument for all of that, but went on to say that he wished that you would show a shred of uncertainty or maybe struggle with an idea from time to time.

Mr. LAPHAM: I do struggle with that idea. Mr. Andersen doesn't really read the column. So the column has a lot of humor in it and a lot of struggle in it.

INSKEEP: What's something you've struggled with recently?

Mr. LAPHAM: I'm struggling today--let's see, what am I writing about today? The--I've just come back from Amsterdam, where I was at a documentary film festival. And there must have been 800 films made by people from all over the world. And what struck me as interesting was of these 800 films, almost none of them will be shown in the United States. So I began to think about the American media. And I think of the American media as a kind of great big dome placed over the United States and in the inside of the dome is mirrors. We don't look out. We look at ourselves. But the rest of the world can see us. There's a column, an interesting column in The New York Times by Maureen Dowd who's talking about the bubble that Mr. Bush inhabits, occupies.

INSKEEP: Any occupant of the White House is said to be in a bubble. It's hard to be in touch with reality, yeah.

Mr. LAPHAM: But I think our culture is in a similar kind of bubble, which is provided by the house of mirrors that our `infantainment' media presents us. And...

INSKEEP: Did you say `infotainment' or `infantainment'?

Mr. LAPHAM: Well, both. Much of our media is geared to the attention and interests of 12-year-olds.

INSKEEP: You told Kurt Andersen that you're writing about `the twilight of the American idea.'

Mr. LAPHAM: I think that's true, I do. I think that the democratic idea is not strongly held or felt. I think--I...

INSKEEP: In this country?

Mr. LAPHAM: Yeah, this country. I do. I mean, there are not very many people that even know who their representatives are. Democracy requires participation and it requires a literate, engaged citizenry. And I don't think we have that.

INSKEEP: When you use this analogy of this giant house of mirrors...

Mr. LAPHAM: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...or domed stadium where Americans just look at themselves and don't look at other people around the world...

Mr. LAPHAM: Right.

INSKEEP: ...do you think that also applies to the political debate within the United States? People on the left will only listen to people who agree with them and people on the right, same thing, only listening to people who agree with themselves?

Mr. LAPHAM: Yeah, that's something that's happened over the last 20 years. There isn't really, I don't think, any such thing as American public opinion. There are a lot of different American publics and they recede from one another almost at the speed of light. Democracy is about argument face to face. It's people that come from different parts of the society and have different interests, points of view, and confront one another. But we've been losing that over the last 20 years. You're right. The left tends to talk to the left, the right to the right.

INSKEEP: Have you tried to keep that from happening to yourself and to your magazine?

Mr. LAPHAM: Yes, I have. I mean--and the way I do that is to get writers who are willing to go out and report and see things, and there's very little policy argument in the magazine. There's a good--there's a great deal of narrative reporting, as well as short stories.

INSKEEP: Are you publishing fewer conservative writers than you once did?

Mr. LAPHAM: I would think so, yes, but again, they now only like to speak to themselves. I mean, the--there was in the '70s--I was publishing a number of conservative writers. They had very interesting things to say, particularly because the liberal doctrinaire positions of the '60s had become a little bit stale.

INSKEEP: Is there a conservative that you've read recently who had something to say that made you think?

Mr. LAPHAM: Cicero.

INSKEEP: What is something that Cicero, the great Roman orator and legislator and politician, had to say that feels like it's fresh today to you?

Mr. LAPHAM: Well, he said that not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.

INSKEEP: Well, Lewis Lapham, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. LAPHAM: OK, thank you.

INSKEEP: Lewis Lapham is stepping down as editor of Harper's, but will keep his column and start a magazine on history. We're taking the Long View all week long, and tomorrow we will discuss decades of mystery novels with P.D. James.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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