Monday, March 13, 2006

Adieu, Lewis Lapham

One thing we're missing nowadays is muckrakers -- the Progressive-era journalists who combined truthful, fact-based reporting with a powerful predilection for social justice. The muckrakers didn't pretend to be "fair and balanced"; instead, they thought the way to be fair was to be truthful, and that the best way to be balanced was to serve justice, which tends to equalize all things. When they saw wrong occurring -- such as the unsafe and unhealthy meat-processing plant practices Upton Sinclair wrote about in "The Jungle" -- they investigated and reported on them, in the public interest, without giving the industrialists' P.R. flacks equal time.

I consider Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine and a fine writer in his own right, to be one of the last heirs of the muckraker tradition. He's liberal -- unabashedly so. He's also honest (intellectually and factually) and straightforward and "fair" in the real, not Fox, sense of the word. His writings have covered the waterfront and often turned subjects that most people would find obscure and irrelevant into biting, topical, informative explanations of broader issues; for example, when John Kerry announced his support for a filibuster this year from Davos, Switzerland, nearly all conservative commentators referred to the "ski slopes" and derided Kerry for being a Swissified recreational elitist. But if they had read The Agony of Mammon, Lapham's short journal of the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, they not only would have understood why Kerry (and other senators, of both parties) were there and why that was important, but they likely wouldn't be such staunch defenders of neoliberal (which, I learned from Lapham, really means neoconservative) trade policies. The WEF in Davos is a window into everything that's at risk in the world economy today and into America's precarious position in it. Lapham is one of the few people who could not only recognize, but write compellingly, about obscure things like that.

The new issue of Harper's is Lapham's last as Editor in Chief, and suitably, he leaves it in a turmoil, publishing a controversial story (excerpts of story here) that few people will agree with but that will make readers shout, argue, challenge and think for a long time. Which was his job, and is the job of everyone else in journamalism, even if they don't remember that anymore. I hope, and challenge, new Editor Roger Hodge to live up Lapham's grand example.

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