By Scott London
Americans are "constantly excited by two conflicting passions," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830. "They want to be led and they wish to remain free." Since they can't seem to reconcile these contradictory desires, he added, "they strive to satisfy them both at once."
The result is what Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, calls "the wish for kings" — the desire for strong, paternal leaders on white horses to ride in and save the day. Since "the tedious business of self-government" is simply "too hard, too boring, and too complicated," we need kings who can rescue us from the rude business of democratic decision-making.
The pathetic figure of 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot is, according to Lapham, the perfect embodiment of the wish for kings. Here was a Texas billionaire "adopting the unlikely pose of a rural populist," seizing the "role of the man on the white horse." But in spite of the many contradictions inherent in Perot the man, Perot the candidate, and Perot "the savior," (such as his well-documented authoritarian temper, for instance) none of them "dissuaded his admirers from the hope that he represented the country's only chance at democratic change."
Perot's political triumphs say a great deal about "the exalted place of money in the American imagination," according to Lapham. "In a society that makes a god of wealth, the rich man inherits the majesty of king."
Regular readers of Harper's will no doubt recognize the general tone of the argument thus far. Each issue of the magazine opens with one of Lapham's unremittingly dour "Notebook" essays on the waning of the democratic spirit in America. For Lapham, there is always something to complain about, whether it's the fawning Washington press corps (the "news media possess the instincts of an English butler"), or the decrepid state of higher education ("the range of acceptable opinion" at a faculty lunch at one of America's better universities "bears comparison with the wingspan of a bumblebee"), or the failures of public television ("PBS inhabits a world according to Alistair Cooke").
When confronted some years ago by an interviewer about his incurable pessimism, he shrugged and, searching for the right words the way a photographer might search for just the right angle, finally responded after a long puff on his cigarette: "the negative is the first half of the positive" and "the major is implicit in the minor."
This remark perfectly captures the tension in Lapham's writing between its offhand grace and its intellectual snobbery. He seems to walk a fine line between gravity and even well-tempered outrage on the one hand, and acerbic wit and even bawdy humor on the other. He's been compared more than once to Gore Vidal, in fact, and the comparison is apt.
Anyway, the basic argument in The Wish for Kings can be summed up in the quote, "Most of the country's present trouble follows from the blind arrogance of too many people in power and the apathy and lack of objection on the part of too many people out of power." The United States, accurately described, has become an oligarchy — "a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich" — over a brutalized public yearning to be ruled and increasingly fixated on politicians as celebrities.
Lapham describes this ruling oligarchy as a throwback to the court of Versailles under Louis XIV. With obvious relish, he portrays the ridiculous mannerisms of Washington's royalty and the throng of favor-seeking courtiers yearning to win the favor of the king. Bill Clinton is presented as a man possessed of an "insatiable ... lust for center stage" coupled with a perfect "instinct for oligarchy." Judge Clarence Thomas, a "third-rate jurist" who obvioulsy "despises the theory as well as the practice of democratic government" has all the "manners of an outraged British duke." Former secretary of state James Baker is a "shabby impostor" who is "as far behind the times as the old baseball glove that President Bush brought with him from the playing fields at Yale." General Norman Schwarzkopf — "by no means a brilliant commander" — is characterized as a glorified "traffic manager." Saul Bellow and Barbara Walters are pictured, in passing, as "self-important figures at court" who speak "adoringly" of themselves.
As these quotes suggest, Lapham is not afraid to point fingers and name names. And needless to say, that is a rare thing these days. But it gets tiresome after a while and one begins to wonder what Lapham is so fussy about. About halfway through the book, amusement begins to give way to the suspicion that he is overcompensating for a weak argument. His pose as a dogged defender of democracy finally reveals itself as the rhetoric of a cranky aristocrat. "Although I have spent the better part of 20 years in and around the New York lierary bazaars," he sniffs, "I have come across only a small number of people who can talk about any particular book at convincing length." As one unimpressed reviewer noted, Lapham is about as convincing as "Jeremiah as played by David Niven in a black tie."
The Wish for Kings is no doubt one of the more entertaining accounts of our democratic malaise I've read in quite awhile. But, in the final analysis, this book reminds me of something Camus once said: eloquence, like sheer silk, too often hides excema.
I think that down deep Lapham wishes he were a king — a philosopher-king. The idea of the philosopher-king dates back to Plato who believed that a few wise men (and he meant men) should be in charge of sorting true opinions from false ones for the greater good of society. Since the masses cannot be trusted to tell right from wrong, philosophers should be appointed to the task. In this regard, Plato was the prototypical elitist, and all authoritarian attempts to censor free speech or curb free thought date back to his Republic.
This point is brilliantly argued in a new book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, by Washington journalist Jonathan Rauch. "Plato believed what so many of us instinctively believe," he observes, "that the way to produce knowledge is to sit down in a quiet spot and think clearly. The best knowledge comes to him who thinks best."
But in a democracy such as ours where everyone claims to know what is right and wrong for everybody else, there must be some principle for raising and settling defferences of opinion. The democratic way is to subject all inquiries to the test of public debate. How should we spend our tax dollars? What should be the role of American foreign policy? How shall we settle the abortion dilemma? This public dialogue is, in other words, critical to the functioning of a free society.
But according to Rauch, this dialogue of democracy is being fiercely assailed from several directions, most notably the new movement to prevent "verbal harassment" and the desire to let in the excluded. Rauch carefully avoids the tag "political correctness," but, for all intents and purposes, that is what he means.
"Self-esteem, sensitivity, respect for others' beliefs, renunciations of prejudice are all good as far as they go," he argues, "but as primary social goals they are incompatible with the peaceful and productive advancement of human knowledge. To advance knowledge, we must all sometimes suffer."
His argument is airtight. Crackdowns on offensive opinions, whether on egalitarian or humanitarian grounds, constitute a threat to free speech and therefore to the spirit of liberal inquiry. Hurtful words and criticism are not the same as actual violence and should not be treated as such. In fact, the "doctrine of Never Offend" renders all criticism "morally hazardous" and even makes joking impossible. It would also raise the old dilemma of who is to decide who is allowed to upset whom. According to Rauch, the only answer is a "centralized political authority" that would inevitably act on behalf of the politically powerful.
"No social principle in the world is more foolish and dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence or torture (e.g., "harassment") and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly," Rauch argues. "The notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it. The new sensitivity is the old authoritarianism in disguise, and it is just as noxious."
Kindly Inquisitors has become something of a publishing sensation. The title seems to crop up in conversations everywhere like some literary shorthand for the terrors of the new censorship. One columnist stated bluntly that Rauch's book was a clear signal that the "Politically Correct reign of terror" had now come to an end.
This little book hardly needs my approval, in other words. I want to recommend it all the same, for two special reasons neither of which I have heard mentioned in the flurry of praise surrounding it: it is beautifully bound and printed, and the concluding pages reveal the author's deeply personal reasons why these arguments are important. Rauch succeeds where the vast majority of non-fiction authors fail dismally: he manages to say, in effect, "this, dear reader, is strictly between the two of us." And at that level ideological blinders simply fall away.
This column appeared in the Dayton Voice, January 9, 1994
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.