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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.


--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.

--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 stimuli 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

"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 then 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 called CYA. In order to be a good bureaucrat, one must know how to play well the game of risk avoidance and responsibility avoidance called CYA, a variant of three-card Monty.

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.

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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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