From Publishers Weekly
Lapham, editor of Harper's, plays the role of a modern-day Tom Paine, propelling stinging criticisms and scathing indictments at the Bush administration and its supporters for what he claims are their bald-faced deceptions about the justifications for the war in Iraq and for establishing policies—especially the USA Patriot Act—he sees as aimed at silencing dissent about its policies and the war in Iraq. Lapham argues that the muting of dissenting voices has contributed to the erosion of democracy, because policy disagreements form the heart of a democratic republic. Most disturbing, says Lapham, is the complicity of the media in its support of the steady erosion of individual civil liberties in the name of national security. Lapham also levels forceful criticism at our educational system: "An inept and insolent bureaucracy armed with badly written textbooks instills in the class the attitudes of passivity, compliance, and boredom." This, charges Lapham (30 Satires; Theater of War; etc.), results in schools producing citizens who blindly accept the pronouncements of their leaders. The United States, he points out in a strong historical sketch, has a deep history of quashing dissent when politicians have raised alarms over perceived threats to the well-being of the country, most notably with the Sedition Act of 1798, the Espionage Act of 1917 and, he asserts, the Patriot Act. Lapham's compelling book reminds us that "democracy is an uproar, and if we mean to engage the argument about the course of the American future let us hope that it proves to be loud, disorderly, bitter and fierce."
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In four chapter-essays, Lapham returns to the large theme he has addressed throughout his long, distinguished tenure as editor of Harper's: the slow but frightening consolidation of power by an oligarchy comprising the administration in power, big business, and the mainstream media. Neither particularly rightist nor leftist--the author's essays on Bill Clinton's administration are no less withering than his essays on George W. Bush's--Lapham does express particular alarm at what he perceives as the Bush administration's sense of self-righteousness: "They bring to Washington the certain knowledge that they can do no wrong." Who is ultimately responsible for this shift? "The successful operation of a democracy relies on acts of self-government by no means easy to perform," Lapham offers, "and for the last twenty years [the American public] has been unwilling to do the work." As with Lapham's many other writings, this book presents challenges worth facing. Alan Moores
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