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Waiting for the Barbarians A review of Lewis Lapham's Book

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"Waiting for the Barbarians," by Lewis Lapham, is a book of scatological profundities about contemporary circumstances in post-modern America. They are told so eloquently and so exquisitely that it seems to do harm just trying to summarize them. Lamphan, one of our foremost man of letters, and long-time editor of Harper magazine, has given us twenty-six essays on the state of the American Empire as it lies gasping for breath on its death bed awaiting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Although they were written during the Clinton-Dole campaign, they are still so trenchantly relevant today that they qualify as being timeless. Here are my summaries of the high points of nineteen chapters.

Introduction

--The wisdom of the streets suggests that politics is the provence of small minds, small time crooks, demagogues, well-paid lobbyists, deadbeat liberals, and angry conservatives with a perfect ideological propensity for the kind of selfishness and greed that causes them to willingly sacrifice their own political interests on the altar of a pipe dream of all becoming as rich as the Rockefellers themselves.

--Although our founding fathers thought it noble and proper to engage in politics, they also saw it as a tiresome chore better left to the hired help, such as the speech writers, the bagmen, ad men, the media consultants, and the lawyers. But most importantly, and most tragically, they thought that the "wonders of money" could be substituted for the work of politics.

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--President Ronald Reagan did away with the word "public," substituting in its place the word "private," as in private property, private Clubs, private schools, private police, private hospitals, private planes, and private swimming pools. And ever since, the idea of a common good has been seen as a vulgar subversive idea. "Public" by definition means being on the dole, waiting for others to carry your load, redistributing the wealth from those who worked hard for it, to those who are waiting for a hand out. Except that is when the rich is on the receiving end. Then hand-outs and entitlement such as tax-breaks and farm subsidies become economic stimulus for the "job creators."

--America has become a "theme park Republic" owing as much to the fact that metaphors and facts are interchanged to describe its political reality, as to the fact that reality itself is composed most of imagery and symbols that lack any intrinsic meaning or have any intrinsic value.

Chapter I: Pax Economica
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"If some great catastrophe is not announced every morning, we feel a certain void. Nothing in the paper today, we sigh." (Paul Valery)

This chapter begins with two simulated games of international economics. One is conducted by the innovative genius, Buckminister Fuller, who uses a new set of rules of economic engagement in which players beginning play with the objective of increasing the common global economic good, negotiate and barter to make it happen. Predictably, it ends in a win-win for all players with the "common good" being expanded to the whole world where it continues to increase without bounds.

The second game is conducted by Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutris-Boutris Ghali, who simulates the global economy using the existing rules of economic engagement, in which accumulation of wealth is stacked against poor peoples of the Third World. And as could be expected, the rich continue to get smaller but richer, while the poor get larger and poorer. Plus, the stability of the globe and problems of the world increase exponentially.

Chapter II: The Washington Rain Dance

"A party which is not afraid of letting culture, business, and welfare go to ruin completely can be omnipotent for a while." (Jakob Burckhardt)

This chapter deals with the mechanics of political responsibility and risk in Washington, DC. The best metaphor for understanding the way responsibility is shirked, and risk avoided, according to the author is by establishing a new law of the "conservation of political risk and responsibility." Like its physical counterpart, the law of the conservation of energy, they too cannot be either created or destroyed. However, like the ace of spades hidden under a cup in a game of "three card monty:" (now you see them, now you don't);" in Washington D.C., risks and responsibility too keep getting moved around from one cup to another, but they never go away. Just as elusive, is the fact that one can never pin either risks or responsibility on to a given politician in Washington. The only difference is that in Washington, the game is call CYA. In order to be a good bureaucrat, one must know how to play the game of risk avoidance and responsibility avoidance, a variant of three-card Monty, well.

Chapter IV: Bomb-a-gram

"A country is not only what it does, it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates." (Kurt Tucholsky)

Increasingly, communicating through America's primary language of action, violence, is the only form of interacting America's own passive-aggressive malcontents know how to use. This language, once again is ratcheted-up to a qualitatively higher level with the home-made bombs of Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, Ted Kacznyski, and those who exploded them in the cargo bays of TWA 800 and the Lockerbie bound aircrafts. All apparently thought they were sending the same message to a willfully tone-dead US. government, whose announced policy is, to not under any circumstances, ever negotiate with terrorists. However, as the author notes here, when the shoe is on the other foot and the USG is acting as an international terrorist itself, then the expectation of the use of the language of violence is quite another matter.

In fact the author sees a grotesque kind of symmetry between the message McNamara sent with 600,000 tons of bombs that killed 10,000 Vietnamese when Nixon and Kissinger were negotiating for "peace with honor," and the 4800 gallons of gasoline Timothy McVeigh "backed" into the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City killing 167, or that sent by Eric Rudolph acting to eliminate abortion rights by killing of two in Atlanta's Olympic Park. In each case, the respective terrorists all apparently were "suing for peace with honor" on their own respective terms, and according to their own respective definitions of "peace" and "honor." No matter who is labelled terrorist, all messages were communicated in the same way: Boom!! (Can you hear me now?)

Chapter V: Elfland


"Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it." (Max Frisch).

The author sees Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," a jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg-like contraption, as just such empty technology: an amulet, as it were, fashioned by stringing together long strains of random pieces of magical sounding but unintelligible patriotic debris, whose very existence, no matter how senselessly arranged, is supposed to serve to exorcise all anti-democratic evil spirits.

What happened to the world governed by the telling of a consistent non-contradictory and intelligent sovereign story? Gingrich's "Magic Kingdom" fashioned of random word strings, is the same dreamlike images that float to the surface of MTV, with the same intrinsic value: none.

If only we could get Newt's word salads in the right order, they surely somehow would yield the gift of meaning, or surely we would find signs of settled beliefs, no? Newt's technopornographication of history and moral responsibility is America's newest pseudo-patriotic salvation, a last resort attempt to resurrect and purify the dead American soul.

Chapter VI: Eye Brow Pencil

"If one really wishes to understand the power of the press, then one must pay attention not to what it says, but the way in which it is listened to. ... It only cries so loud because its audience is becoming deaf." (Alexis de Tocqueville).

The late John F Kennedy Jr's magazine "George" was a political magazine advertised as being without politics. General Colin Powell, the black Ike, was a "political general," whose political opinions were neutered. Both operated out of a distant global Feudal City-State run by IBM, BP, and Citi Bank. Rumor has it that this City-State has been turned into a giant puppet show called America?

Chapter VII:Christmas Carol

"You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements." (Norman Douglas)

Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich, Gordon Gecko, and Ebenezer Scrooge, together placed the Republican Party's "Contract with American" under the Christmas tree. It said: "A Christmas Greeting to all: Greed is good; honest work and charity are dumb; watering the flowers in the garden of ones own stock portfolio must be done carefully in the Spring, if we want to keep the global economy alive and well. Amen

Chapter VIII: Time Lines

"Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards."
(Soren Kierkegaard)

The U.S. defines itself as a hypothesis and constitutes itself as an argument. Other nations make do with bloodlines, a common store of language, inherited portfolios of ancestral myths, reaching back in time to the first Irishman or Korean, but we only have the dialectic in which we try to frame the opposing principles of liberty and equality into a political architecture that best supports the cause of freedom. The theory seems to work in principle, but the practice? Well, 250 years as told us that that requires moral courage and bravery, something that apparently was not handed down to us from the founding generation.

Chapter IX: Sacred Scroll

"What we wanted, we did not know; what we knew, we did not want." (Ernst von Salomon)

This is an ode to the metaphysical piece of parchment held in the national Archives called the U.S. Constitution:

It is a document that produced a government weak enough to preserve slavery and rigid enough to resist social change forever. It made sure that "private property" was just another name for the "public good," and it established a machinery of divided government that dispersed even a semblance of responsibility into a haze of impotent recriminations.

Because the Constitution allowed us to build a society without a plan, and then gummed-up its own machinery so that a plan could never be devised after the fact, it should not be surprising that there is little enthusiasm now for building a new society. For we were consigned at birth to become what we have become: A permanently divided and unstable society.

We are the only state in the known universe that has 310 million guns, enough for nearly every man woman and child in the nation. As a direct result, we have become one of the most violent societies in the world, with the most brutal police forces, the harshest system of criminal justice, a fourth of the world's prisoners, among the most repressed drug laws in the world, a lazy and sycophantic press, and a racially segregated society with grotesquely gerrymandered Congressional Districts.

The same U.S. Constitution that we thought was intended to make us a nation ruled by law instead of by men, has done just the opposite: made us a nation of men, who tailor the laws to suit their own politics and personal greed.

Chapter X: Capitalist Tool

"In democracies, nothing is greater or more brilliant than commerce. It attracts the attention of the public and fills the imagination of the multitudes." (Alexis de Tocqueville).

As the author notes: The complex mechanisms of politics in the modern world depend as certainly on the faith in money as the structures in the medieval world depended on the faith in God.

The entrance onto the national political stage of so many wealthy amateurs suggests that holding elected office has become largely ceremonial -- a matter of knowing when to smile, how to read a script from a teleprompter and where to stand to take photo ops.

Chapter XI: Balzac's Garret

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, yet soft pipes, play on." (John Keats, An Ode to a Grecian Urn).

Americans are a people that can hear music in the air, but are tone-deaf to every sound but their own self-promoting jingle. America is an MTV video of itself trapped in Disneyland, and by its own standards, Michael Jackson should be added to Mount Rushmore as one of its postmodern founders. MJ had all of the attributes of a latter day founding father: filthy rich, grabbing at every worthless and meaningless object, self-absorbed and lost in a world of too much money that he and the next ten generations could never spend.

Put simply Americans are a people captured by the power and romance of symbol and metaphor over substance. We are forever seeking the invisible through the imagery of the visible. We grab on to everything but hold on to nothing because we are still too busy grasping for the next item in the riot to the sales table. This in part explains why the American dream was always intended as a symbolic asymptote, never to actually be reached but to be pointed to forever as a possibility that would elude most of us.

The point of the shared American melodrama is to serve as a sacred vehicle into which we can then stuff all our troubling moral conflicts. There, tucked safely away from the threat of ever becoming real, they can be played out as a mind game where America always comes out the winner in the same way that Scarlett O'Hara's dreams reversed the outcomes of the Civil War, or Disneyland brings alive and to a resounding victory, all of our imaginary heroes.

This drama of make-believe, so vital to maintaining the American mind in a steady-state, has been coordinated with three generations of TV ads that bombard the subliminal mind 24/7, leaving no room for uncluttered thought or free intellectual interchange. It is a technological "mind-swamp" meant to seem self-imposed, but which, in fact, in every way possible is "state sanctioned and carefully staged-managed state mind control."

But the role of TV ads do not end there, they are the "mirror, mirror on the wall" that still keeps telling us that we are the "fairest of them all:" the richest, the most democratic, the most beautiful; that we are hated for our freedoms, that guns don't kill people, people do, that man was derived from the clay in God's hand, that the white man discovered America, and that having the most weapons makes us still the world's number one.

But there is proof everywhere that the mirror we see through the TV ads are all lies: They lie to us when they try to sell us immortality in a Botox bottle, in designer labels, celebrity endorsement, ad infinitum ...All we need do to see the ugly truth, is turn the TV off.

Higher up the chain of abstraction, the symbols become more confusing, more intrusive, and ever more interchangeable: At this level, symbols and words need not refer to concrete things at all, but only to themselves. In that way, we get adulterous affairs that now occur in cyberspace; and the nearest "little prostitute house" is just a 900 number away on the telephone? The televangelist, the retailer, the politician, the policemen and the mafiosi, are morally indistinguishable.

Given the very likely possibility of a "hook-up" between the increasing transcendental nature of the American mind and the genius of modern communications, I suppose we can soon look forward to arranging the world so that we will not have to experience it at all.

It has always been easier to deliver the image of the thing rather than the thing itself. Soon, life itself will be like calling a play from a footballer's play book. That way all of life can be reduced to the wine and crackers used at Communion, which embodies the blood and body of Christ.

Could there be a better patriotic symbol to a dying and spiritually empty republic than Michael Jackson? I say no, so let us also have a Michael Jackson holiday. Amen.

Chapter XII: Citizen Dole

"New ideas are like bad sixpences, and we spend all our lives trying to pass them off on one another." (Samuel Butler)

The packaging of presidential candidates is the art of trolling for votes while at the same time begging for scraps of campaign money from the table of the corporate big wheels: the capitalist "movers and shakers." It is a game of how to buy and sell this year's principles and last year's friends at the highest price. It is a Homecoming parade in which the candidates wear whatever false face the corporations tell them to wear. They speak in a voice bought and paid for by the same corporate interests. Their scripts are pre-arranged in this market place of pseudo-patriotic bombast and amounts to "cleared" pseudo-moral talking points.

The candidate's entire stack of moral and intellectual scruples are offered up at discount prices but at sufficient distance that the fine-print cannot be read clearly. His views are sanitized in multiple ways: they are color-coded, focus-tested, sand-blasted, rotated to suit the direction of the prevailing political winds, and sliced-and-diced so that what remains is denuded of any meaningful content.

Always, we are left with the least objectionable empty suit, standing before us for the better part of a year mouthing empty slogans repeatedly like a wind-up doll. This is called "staying on message." "Staying on message requires repeating ad nausea slogans like: "We can do better;" "our future is ahead of us;" "dwelling on the past is divisive; "we must always support our troops;" "together we can turn over a new leaf and turn this country around;" and everyone's favorite: "America is still the greatest country in the world."

Since by common agreement nobody discusses any serious issues, and the amoral and sycophantic press allows them to get away with it, we are essentially voting for the best TV ad.

In such a political system, that the author calls "Democracyland," what we need is not a president, but a "facilities manager" for Disney World -- a technocrat like Barack Obama, who is like a lion when he faces his base, but like a jellyfish when he faces the opposition. But I digress...

All we really need as President is someone who can give us an accurate count of the vote, make speeches, and make a good show of the flag on special Holidays.

Chapter XIII: Lights Camera, Democracy!

"The poor have been rebels but they never have been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government; the poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't because he can always sail away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." (G.K. Chesterton)

Every four years, we have "The America is a Democracy Pageant" to reaffirm the fact that we are in fact still a democracy, and to select the "facilities managers" for the two parallel governments of "Democracyland," for the next four years.

On the one hand, there is the "permanent government" that believes in giving the illusion of self-government -- the illusion that government is fair, justice and equal. It does this in an effort to maintain public order at all costs. For it knows that a lost of faith in the symbols of democracy might lead to rioting in the streets.

The permanent government consists of the Fortune 500 companies, lobbyists, the media/entertainment syndicate, the military/intelligence complex, the prison/medical/drug complex, the research universities and law firms, plus their subjects among the voting populations who have been hoodwinked into thinking that the principles upon which the "permanent government" stand are meant to serve their needs as well. The permanent government, leases the presidency for its term of office through its campaign contributions. It sets the terms of the contract between the government and private citizens. It underwrites their liberty, and brackets what they can consider as the proper pursuit of their happiness.

The "provisional government," on the other hand, is the spiritual, emotional and symbolic part of "Democracyland." It oversees the production of the "America is a Democracy" Pageant. It exemplifies the nation's highest moral aspirations, protects the citizenry from unholy thoughts and actions, and devotes itself to the mending up of wounds to the nation's soul. It also maintains the sanctity of the nations symbols.

The problems that animate the provisional government such as the widening gap in income and wealth between the rich and the poor, or restoring Glass-Steagall, or helping build a new infrastructure, or increasing taxes on the rich, or providing healthcare for everyone, are off the table for the permanent government. Therefore the candidates ignore them, or at best, as Mr. Obama has done, wave a symbolic hand in their direction. The things that the permanent government worry about are always front and center. Things such as more relaxed regulations, justification of the next war, balancing the budget without cutting subsidies to the rich or raising taxes on them; cutting entitlements to the poor and raising taxes on the middle-class.

Chapter XIV: Back to School

"Ambition has no mean, it is either up on all fours or upon tiptoes." (Marques of Halifax)

American education has become a course of study that defines the terms of our existence as courtiers to the corporate elite. To wit: Lawyers like journalists or actors, are hired to arrange the truth in its most flattering and convenient poses, a smiling and accommodating person loyal to power under whatever name it presents itself, constructing the edifice of a brilliant career by saying to a succession of masters: Make of me what you want; I am what you want me to be.

This attitude, that the corporations expect of their junior executives, or campaign managers, or women is the same attitude they expect of their dogs. Well aware that they have little choice but to become dependent upon a corporate overlord, not only for their wages, but also for their very identity and thus the very terms of their existence -- how could young college students not want to learn the ways and means of keeping their places in the sun?

After four years in the academic limelight, how could the typical college graduate not imagine himself on tiptoes, or more likely on all fours addressing a business convention, developing projects for PBS, or lecturing at the Kennedy School of Government?

Chapter XV: Oklahoma Lobster?

The desired to punish foreign thugs can be emotionally overpowering, especially to Americans living in the richer zip codes. The difficulty however is locating them properly along our color and religiously coded sociological grid. Whenever someone is difficult to locate on the American sociological grid, we tend to find a place for them by conflating them, not necessarily with the nearest, but with next most "comforting" category.

For instance, coming from California, Ronald Reagan helped blur the distinction between poverty, crime and global terrorists. While "foreign terrorists" are nearest America's own home-grown terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski or Eric Rudolph, since they are white, locating them next to foreign terrorists becomes problematic, or more accurately, a bit too close for comfort in the American mind.

Following Mr. Reagan's lead, foreign terrorists thus, more often than not, are conflated with being poor, or just being common ordinary criminals, or worse yet, with being just other illegal immigrants. As a result, voters in the richer zip codes tended to associate Arabs carrying suitcases of plastic explosives with their normal everyday enemies: unmarried black mothers carrying babies, or illegal Mexicans carrying rakes and hoes, rather with the Symbionese Liberation Army, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, or Ted Kaczynski.

Oddly, this also makes them easier to torture, for it harks back to a time when the demand for live bodies to torture was as brisk as the market for Maine lobsters. Those perceived to be internal enemies could be placed on the rack in the public square, or burned at the stake, or much more likely, strung up on a tree in the middle of a Sunday afternoon picnic in any typical city south of the Mason-Dixon Line after the Civil war. Then public punishment and cutting off toes or ears as souvenirs was seen as character building.

Chapter XVI: Painted Fire

"Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all." (Mark Twain)

The job of the satirist used to be that of an arsonist: to set fire to the hospitality tent of those spewing pompous self-righteous cant. Now it has been usurped by TV and neutered into gridiron dinners and celebrity roasts, and their extension, SNL.

H.L. Mencken once said that a society based on cash, self-interest and greed is not a society at all but a state of war. His comments certainly gives new meaning to the phrase "war on poverty, doesn't it?

Chapter XVII: Dies Irae

"Our ignorance of history makes us vilify our own era." (Gustave Flaubert)

Judge Bork is the original "angry white male." But somehow we can understand the source of Bork's rage: No one is listening to him. Why? Because they are all busy listening to Madonna and Dennis Rodman, Howard Stern, Louis Farrakhan and Snoop Doggy Dog. [It is just another case of Bork being "Borked" all over again!]

According to Judge Bork's reasoning, maybe like the Taliban, we just need to put a stop to all of this nonsense called liberty and equality?

Chapter XVIII: La Vie Boheme

"Most artists are sincere and most art is bad, and some insincere art (sincerely insincere) can be quite good." (Igor Stravinsky)

Most stars are not born but made, made in America the old fashion way: by turning "subjects" into "objects" for profit -- the very definition of success in American business. In fact, even death can be marketed as entertainment, and the funereal turned into a charity fund-raiser. And believe it or not, its all legal and tax-deductible. What a country!

Chapter XIX:Economic Correctness

"What I want above all else is to see that this remains a country where someone can always get rich." (Ronald Reagan).

What "Ronnie" does not say is that the new global economy is just a new "Thrift store" for today's global labor pool. And if a few discounted presidents just happen to get thrown into the mix, who is going to get upset? After all, under the new economic rules of engagement, national sovereignty and the common good both have been so reduced in value that they are now the equivalent of a scenic travel brochure, the trailer of a new Hollywood movie, or the menu at a trendy restaurant.

Since everything of value in America has been "up for grabs" and thus already auctioned-off to the lowest bidder, there is nothing left but America's newest tourist attraction: the dying suburban strip mall and a few old oddball Senators from Idaho and Arizona.

As a result, how can anyone get upset when the office of the presidency itself has also been put on the auction block at a severely discounted price? Its not like its a real presidency up for sale any more anyway, is it? We are talking about an office that has been so diminished since the global economy took shape, and after what the Republicans did to Barack Obama, that it now is little more than a ceremonial appointment engineered by global moneyed interest.

The primary job of the presidency now is that of "water boy" for "Wall Street" and his "Big Dog" campaign donors. Among those duties he is required to: oversee the layoff of American workers; make sure taxes are as low as possible for those who sell-off U.S. seed corn. After that, his job is to try to look as busy as he can without really doing anything. This includes such tasks as ringing the liberty bell on appropriate holidays, cutting ribbons for the building that our new foreign landlords have erected, and giving one last "shout out" to our troops before he turns the light out on what was once the American empire.

 

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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