Sunday, July 24, 2005

Letter to the Editor

To: Lewis Lapham, Editor, Harper's Magazine
Subject: Awakening the Rip Man

Dear Mr. Lapham:

I should start by saying that I'm a great admirer of yours. I've subscribed to your magazine for virtually as long as you've been its editor, and it's been a great ride.

Harper's has enjoyed a renaissance under your guiding hand as editor. The brightest lights of American literature appear in Harper's: fiction writers like Mark Slouka and Joyce Carol Oates; artists of non-fiction like Bill McKibben and yourself; and many of the most articulate political writers of our era. I usually read every issue cover to cover, and I never miss your "Notebook" essay at the beginning of every issue, just before the famous "Harper's Index".

Sometimes, it must be admitted, I don't understand what you're trying to say, as in this month's piece ("Moving On", August, 2005), where you write, "The sensibility adrift in cyberspace responds to the images of celebrity in the same way that the sea dances with the light of the moon." It seems as if you're pointing out a flaw in that sentence (though again, I can't be sure); with an image that I found rather attractive. I wish more of us here in cyberspace moved in our expression to the flow of events with the same objectivity and constancy as the sea's reflection of moonlight.

But further along in the same essay I found a statement that did not mystify me. In fact, I found it rather appalling. It was in the context of your complaint of our once-free press being trapped in a zombie-like state of deep sleep in a time where an Empire is being built right under their noses, in what used to be a democratic nation (thus the Rip van Winkle tie-in from the essay's epigraph):

Who can follow a story to the end of the week, much less over the distance of thirty-three years? Nothing necessarily follows from anything else, and the constant viewer is free to shop around for a reality matched to taste, to make use of the advice imparted by a wise old Jedi knight to the young Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, "Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts."
Joseph Goebbels aboard the Death Star that was Nazi Germany taught the same lesson in what we've since come to know and love under the headings of aggressive marketing and corporate knowledge management. The propaganda minister understood that arguments must be crude and emotional, instinctual rather than intellectual, endlessly repeated.

I'm really sorry, sir, but there is so much distortion and misperception in that paragraph that I really don't know where to begin. For a man who has dedicated his life to the correct use of language—and done more to further that end than all but a few others in our era—the seeming malignancy of your metaphors is nearly overwhelming. That's why I suspect that you simply got tangled up in terms, because the bulk of your essay reflects the same unflinching clarity that I've come to expect from your work.

A hundred years after the rise of Freudianism, we still live under its ideological shroud; it sticks to us like motor oil on white slacks, like a morning gloom on Monday. We still imagine that instincts are dark, boiling, bubbling currents of raw appetite—violent, lascivious, and destructive—and that this is the way of Nature. We still view feeling with a combination of suspicion and embarrassed self-consciousness, as if it were akin to a fart in church or laughter at a funeral. Feeling and instinct seem to take us out of the group, away from the normal, off the beaten path of intellect and its formulaic, reliable monotony.

What if it weren't so? What if Freud was wrong (as most scientists in the field of psychology now actually believe)? What if we took another look at instinct and feeling—redefined them and reexperienced them, in the context of a whole-person and whole-personality view of the self? What if we finally stopped shoving Intellect out naked and alone onto the stage of Life (and of politics, government, and journalism), and instead invited it back into a collegial relationship with feeling and instinct? What if we re-discovered our animal nature, which science insists is our phylogenetic endowment? And what if we viewed that animal nature as the gift that it truly is, rather than a burden to be carried and perpetually compromised or repressed?

I don't think that Joseph Goebbels would have agreed at all with the old Jedi knight who asked us to live in the moment and to trust our feelings. I suspect he would have put that Jedi on the first train to Auschwitz; because he would have recognized that people who trust their feelings, who allow their instincts some play in life, are not plotters, Empire-builders, and power-brokers; nor are they likely to be submissive to those who are.

But you know that already, Mr. Lapham: I know you know it. You work with people every day who are deeply in touch with their feelings, their instincts—indeed, those natural gifts are their bread and butter as creative artists. They understand the difference between feeling and emotion; they know that feeling is information from the invisible realm that leads the intellect into the verdant inner places where insight blooms into expression.

But you got confused about it, and made a grave error. Again, you know better than most that this is not a quibble over semantics—that's the kind of vapid rationalization that you were attempting to expose in your essay about the Bush Empire and its patsy media horde. Another election was probably rigged; and on the heels of that offense came even viler crimes against both democracy and humanity. These are the crimes that your magazine, its writers and journalists, work to reveal; these are the crimes that are confidentially smothered into ignorance by the mass media Corporate Estate.

So I would suggest that you have another look at that essay and—dare I suggest it—consult your feelings, and maybe even your instincts, to see what they may have to tell you (indeed, what they have told you before) about the true relationship between the human heart, the creative impulse, and the mission of exposing the depredations of Empire. I can assure you that those crimes of corporate government have more to do with the plotting, scheming calculations of a lonely and power-drunk Intellect than with the natural pulse of our animal phylogeny.

I think if you try that simple exercise, you will find that Nazism, and all forms of tyranny and Empire-building, are about the dogmatic manipulation and misshaping of human feeling. They survive and persist in their oppressions not through appealing to people's instincts, but rather by numbing our capacity to sense the currents of our true nature. To follow the metaphor of your essay, Mr. Lapham, I would add that the sleep in which we are now trapped as a culture is the sleep of a cold and hypnotic calculation that pushes and inflames human instincts until, like soldiers at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, they have mutated into the ego-emotions that turn a democractic society into a brutal sink of corruption where, as you point out, "all questions of truth are converted into questions of power."

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