December 22, 2001

I just can't deal with Harper's Magazine anymore. It used to be a magazine I looked forward to getting every month, filled with long, interesting articles (the David Foster Wallace travelogues come to mind, as well as a great article about the World Series of Poker) about a huge range of subjects. However, for the past year, and especially the past few months, it's just become this tiresome, poorly written, doctrinaire newsletter, with recycled and discredited anti-war and anti-Israel rants. Lewis Lapham, who might be the dullest, most impenetrable writer I've ever come across, has been writing even more lately. Here's the first paragraph from his editor's note in the December issue.

American Jihad: by Lewis Lapham
Three months ago I'd thought we'd been given a chance for a conversation about the future of the American political idea, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center providing an impressive occasion for timely remarks on the topics of our foreign and domestic policy as well as an opportunity to ask what we mean by the phrases "public service,' "common good," "civic interest."


I mean....who could think, forget write a lead like that? Is there a single actual human who could refer to September 11 as "an impressive occasion for timely remarks" without a trace of irony?

But that's just a small irritant compared to what I discovered as I was writing this piece. When I read the the lead "Reading" in the magazine I figured that the "Stumbling into Battle" speech by Sir Michael Howard was just another piece from some professor exasperated at just how stupid we Americans have been since September 11. The speech is largely about the "terrible and irrevocable error" that was committed when we "declared war" or terrorism. The following paragraph .

"Could it have been avoided? Certainly, rather than what President Bush so unfortunately termed 'a crusade against evil', that is, a military campaign conducted by an alliance dominated by the United States, many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations on behalf of the international community as a whole, against an criminal conspiracy; whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, awarded an appropriate sentence. In an ideal world that is no doubt what would have happened."

I’m guessing that the “many people” referenced above would include Al-Qaeda. Now, of course, Howard never mentions how exactly this “police operation” would have been conducted, and why the Taliban would have allowed it to take place in Afghanistan. Not to mention what the appropriate sentence would be, and how this would stop future attacks from taking place. Anyway, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before, and I just marked it down to my continuing dislike of the magazine.

However, when I went to find an online version of the speech to avoid retyping the whole thing, I noticed something disturbing. In its complete online transcript form, the paragraph from above is followed by this:

"But we do not live in an ideal world. The destruction of the twin towers and the massacre of several thousand innocent New York office-workers was not seen in the United States as a crime against 'the international community' to be appropriately dealt with by the United Nations; a body for which Americans have little respect when they have heard of it at all. For them it was an outrage against the people of America, one far surpassing in infamy even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such an insult to their honor was not to be dealt with by a long and meticulous police investigation conducted by international authorities, culminating in an even longer court case in some foreign capital, with sentences that would then no doubt be suspended to allow for further appeals. It cried for immediate and spectacular vengeance to be inflicted by their own armed forces.

"And who can blame them? In their position we would have felt exactly the same. The courage and wisdom of President Bush in resisting the call for a strategy of vendetta has been admirable, but the pressure is still there, both within and beyond the Administration. It is a demand that can be satisfied only by military action -- if possible rapid and decisive military action. There must be catharsis: the blood of five thousand innocent civilians demands it.

"Again, President Bush deserves enormous credit for his attempt to implement the alternative paradigm. He has abjured unilateral action. He has sought, and received, a United Nations mandate. He has built up an amazingly wide-ranging coalition that truly does embody 'the international community' so far as such an entity exists.

"Within a matter of days, almost, the United States has turned its back on the unilateralism and isolationism towards which it seemed to be steering, and resumed its former position as leader of a world community far more extensive than the so-called 'free world' of the old Cold War. Almost equally important, the President and his colleagues have done their best to explain to the American people that this will be a war unlike any other, and they must adjust their expectations accordingly. But it is still a war. The 'w' word has been used, and now cannot be withdrawn; and its use has brought inevitable and irresistible pressure to use military force as soon, and as decisively as possible."


I still disagree with the overall message of the piece but it seemed a bit more balanced than it did when I first read it. When I returned to the magazine, I saw why my perception had changed; in the magazine, the above section appears like this:

Could it have been avoided? Certainly, rather than what President Bush so unfortunately termed 'a crusade against evil', that is, a military campaign conducted by an alliance dominated by the United States, many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations on behalf of the international community as a whole, against an criminal conspiracy; whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, awarded an appropriate sentence. In an ideal world that is no doubt what would have happened.

"But we do not live in an ideal world. The 'w' word has been used, and now cannot be withdrawn; and its use has brought inevitable and irresistible pressure to use military force as soon, and as decisively as possible.


Without any indication that this wasn't his true speech (no brackets or ellipses or spaces), Professor Howard’s comments regarding “[t]he courage and wisdom of President Bush,” who “deserves enormous credit,” have disappeared, not to mention the references to the United States as the “leader of a world community far more extensive than the so-called 'free world' of the old Cold War.” Any mitigating comments or circumstances that paint the U.S. as anything other than bloodthirsty idiots hellbent on revenge and destruction are excised. Of course, one can only wonder what else Lapham and his editors have decided I didn’t need to know. I'll be canceling my subscription, of course.

(Update to the above: Rather than canceling my subscription, I will instead be trading magazine subscriptions with my friend Mike: his Atlantic for my Harper's.)

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