Age of Folly

In trying to make sense of our current political situation, I recently read Lewis Lapham’s Age of Folly, released last month (and currently 50% off print and digital versions at Verso). Broadly speaking, the book claims to examine the last 25 years of America’s “imperial adventure.” Narrowly speaking, it’s 400+ pages of Lapham waxing poetic about our looming dystopia, namedropping politicians and WASPs, and peppering in the occasional lucid profundity. Here are a few:

  • “The settled peoples of the earth seldom recognize the American as both a chronic revolutionary and a born pilgrim. The American is always on the way to someplace else (i.e., toward some undetermined future in which all will be well), and when he meets a stranger on the road he begins at once to recite the summary of the story so far—his youth and early sorrows, the sequence of his exits and entrances, his last divorce and his next marriage, the point of his financial departure and the estimated time of his spiritual arrival, the bad news noted and accounted for, the good news still to come. Invariably it is a pilgrim’s tale, and the narrator, being American, assumes that he is addressing a fellow pilgrim. He means to exchange notes and compare maps. His newfound companion might be bound toward a completely different dream of Eden (a boat marina in Naples, Florida, instead of a garden in Vermont; a career as a Broadway dancer as opposed to the vice presidency of the Wells Fargo bank), but the destination doesn’t matter as much as the common hope of coming safely home to the land of the heart’s desire. For the time being, and until something better turns up, we find ourselves embarked on the same voyage, gazing west into the same blue distance.”

  • “Among all the nations of the earth, America is the one that has come most triumphantly to terms with the mixtures of blood and caste, and maybe it is another of history’s ironic jokes that we should wish to repudiate our talent for assimilation at precisely the moment in time when so many other nations in the world […] look to the promise of the American example.”
  • “War is easier than peace”
  • “Louis XIV couldn’t impose a military conscription, and he always had considerable trouble with the levying of taxes. The king’s interest was clearly his own. But a democracy claims to serve the interest of the sovereign people, and so the officials who write and administer the laws can claim to act on behalf of anything that they can classify as the common good. The presumption allows for a more expansive abrogation of power than the divine right of kings, and because the figure of the prince in a democracy appears in so many different forms and disguises—as politician, network executive, corporate chairman, town clerk, foundation hierarch, and Washington columnist—the anxious sycophant is constantly bowing and smiling in eight or nine directions, forever turning, like a compass needle or a weather vane, into the glare of new money.”
  • “People supported by incomes of $10 or $15 million a year not only mount a different style of living than those available to an income of $50,000 or even $150,000 a year, they acquire different habits of mind. They are reluctant to think for themselves, afraid of the future, careful to expatriate their profits in offshore tax havens, disinclined to trust a new hairdresser or a new idea, grateful for the security of gated residential protectorates, reassured by reactionary political theorists who say that history is at an end and that if events should threaten to prove otherwise (angry mobs rising in Third World slums to beg a chance at freedom or demand a piece of the action) America will send an army to exterminate the brutes.

    Not an inspiring set of attitudes, but representative of the social class that owns our news media, staffs the White House, and pays for our elections. If neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have stumbled upon a forceful or generous political idea since 1968, it’s because the widening distance between the American citizenry and the American elites obliges the candidates of both parties to go for money to the same body of comfortable opinion (the few hundred thousand individuals, interest groups, or corporations that contribute more than $1,000 to any single campaign) content to think that the idealism implicit in what Benjamin Franklin recognized as the American experiment has run its course, served its purpose, gone far enough.”

  • “The plutocracy is a nonpartisan equal opportunity employer of folk festival talent, and during the late winter and early spring would-be presidents of the United States parade like runway models for the buyers of political product placement.”
  • “None of us dies in the country in which he or she was born”

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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