November 25, 2002

Island of Integrity

Harper's is one magazine that hasn't sold out to the corporate spin

Though I've let most of my magazine subscriptions lapse there is one that I will renew and that is my subscription to Harper's. This is one magazine that has managed to stay above the corporate sellout, and still projects a strong, hopeful, humane vision of the future, of an America that I don't feel ashamed to say I am a citizen of.

Harper's has a Web site ( but most of the content is available only by buying the magazine. The newsstand price is $4.95, but you can get it for much less if you buy a subscription. It's an institution worth supporting, it really improves the cultural landscape to have it around.

It does have advertising, but it's moderate. It doesn't gush out of the book and make it hard to find the articles, or even the table of contents, the way it does in Vanity Fair, for example. In the December issue, there are five full-page ads between the cover and the table of contents. And the ads are tasteful. They aren't garish, manipulative, or overblown. They are modest, seeming to hearken back to an earlier time when advertising stood in a better balance with editorial content in magazines.

But of course it's the editorial content that makes Harper's so valuable. It maintains a solid, knowing point of view, promoting intelligent, progressive positions. I might even say "liberal," if I may dare to use the word that has been so thoroughly discredited in the public dialogue dominated by the corporate media.

This week I have solid support for use that word because I can refer anyone to the headline article in Harper's December issue, "The Case for Liberalism: A defense of the future against the past" by George McGovern for a statement of what liberalism is.

McGovern goes back to Webster's dictionary for the basic definition of liberalism: "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for protection of political and civil liberties."

McGovern calls liberalism the tradition of Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and says he believes that many, if not most, Americans are liberals "or at least have some liberal impulses...

"From the beginning, Americans have believed that the condition of their lives could and would be improved; that is, they have believed in progress," McGovern says. "One cannot conceive of a nation dedicated to democracy that does not rest on faith in 'the essential goodness of man.' It would seem even more likely that in a democratic society most of the citizenry would accept the importance of personal freedom -- 'the autonomy of the individual' -- as well as the need to protect that freedom...

"Almost every working journalist, nurse, and flight attendant leans toward liberalism; nearly every teacher, scientist, clergyman, and child-care worker is a liberal..."

McGovern says that liberalism is the most "practical and hopeful compass by which to guide the ship of state," and supports the contention by saying, "Virtually every step forward in our history has been a liberal initiative taken over conservative opposition: civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, rural electrification, the establishment of a minimum wage, collective bargaining, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and federal aid to education, including the land-grant colleges, to name just a few."

On the other hand conservatism, as defined by William Buckley in his book Up From Liberalism, is "the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before."

Perhaps the two tendencies are merely the yin and yang of the movement of history, both sides essential to maintaining balance. There are aspects of both views that are true, and interpretations of both points of view that are misguided and poisonous.

McGovern speaks in clear and bold terms about Bush's outrageous distortions and manipulations. "Over the years I have developed some skill in telling the difference between, as Lyndon Johnson put it, 'chicken salad and chicken shit,'" he says. "We are not at war, and the President should quit saying we are. Is there any evidence at all that Iraq wants to go to war with us?"

McGovern also calls the Bushites for abandoning principles of international order and returning the world to a system in which might-makes-right. The US should be trying to lead the world in a cooperative world system based on principle, not trying to be the dictator of the world.

As a military pilot during World War II who flew many bombing missions over Germany, McGovern speaks about war with authority. " man who has had these experiences will ever again speak carelessly about war..." he says. "When I listen to the bombastic rhetoric of Messrs. Bush and Cheney and the war cries of Ms. Rice, I know that I'm hearing from people who've never been near a battlefield."

There is a great deal more in the December Harper's, though this essay is worth the price of the magazine. Every issue begins with the Notebook of Harper's editor Lewis Lapham. Each one is an eloquent and principled statement of the current state of affairs. Lapham does not cower and does not compromise to conform to the discussion as defined by the corporate media. It's a tremendous relief to read him.

In this issues entry "Hail Caesar," Lapham assails the cowardice of most members of Congress in going meekly along with Bush's resolution to give him a free hand to attack Iraq.

"The question is why," he said. "Why the lack of courage on the part of our elected representatives, and why the hurry, as Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, put it on Meet the Press on October 6, "to move on"? Move on to where? President Bush had served Congress with notice of its irrelevance, and who would want to annoy the man by making a rude noise? Not Senator Daschle, not any loyal and patriotic public servant glad to escape the unpleasantness of speaking truth to power."

Speculating on the reason for "the silence of the lambs," Lapham suggests it is "possibly because the Congress represents the constituency of the frightened rich -- not the will or the spirit of what was once a democratic republic but the interest of a scared and selfish oligarchy anxious to preserve its comforts in the impregnable vaults of military empire. The grotesque maldistribution of the country's wealth over the last thirty years has brought forth a class system fully outfitted with the traditional accessories of complacence, stupidity, and pride. 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 -- 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."

The issue also includes a powerful memoir of the Gulf War by a Marine who participated, and a fascinating reading called "The Course of Empire" on how the US under Bush is following a course that has been taken by many nations in the past, with predictably bad ends.

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