Harper's Editor Warns of Fascist Danger

Lewis Lapham's Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy

Revolution #031, January 22, 2006, posted at

Dear Revolution:

Someone recently emailed me a set of quotes from a new book, The Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy, by Lewis Lapham. Those selections from the book, which is described as a "new polemic about the strangling of meaningful dissent" in the United States, contain an urgent message about the danger posed, not just by fascism, but by way in which many people in this country have not fully grasped the threat and the danger.

Lapham is the editor of Harper’s magazine and has written many popular books criticizing the bourgeois media and the war in Iraq, among other topics. He is a firm believer in bourgeois democracy, which he calls "a system that "allies itself with change and proceeds from the assumption that … the old order (whether of men or institutions) will be dragged offstage when its prescriptions no longer fit the facts. " And he is arguing strongly that this system is in danger of being replaced by fascism: "… the argument now going forward in the United States is the same argument that put an end to the Roman and Weimar Republics, built the scaffolds of the Spanish Inquisition, gave rise to the American Revolution."

Lapham joins the ranks of Harold Pinter and other prominent writers in making a direct analogy between Bush and Hitler, and between the U.S. at the present time and the Weimar Republic of 1920s Germany, before Hitler ascended to power in 1933. He polemicizes that "it is not the law that takes freedom from us but the laziness of our own minds, the unwillingness to think for ourselves and so resign, even momentarily, from the herd."

Lapham writes that Nazi Germany is the example "that comes most readily to mind when talking with people in New York about the Justice Department's newly acquired weapons of mass investigation, I listen to them compare intrusive intelligence gathering to state-of-the-art weather forecasting -- a routine and necessary precaution, annoying and possibly unconstitutional but entirely appropriate in time of trouble." He quotes at length from They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945by Milton Mayer:

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret, to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.... I do not speak of your "little men," your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about-we were decent people-and kept us so busy with continuous changes and "crises" and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the "national enemies," without and within, that we had no time to think about those dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

Through this quote and others, Lapham warns that fascism is allowed to rise largely unopposed where people are "[unwilling] to think for ourselves and so resign, even momentarily, from the herd". He directly speaks to those who assure themselves that "it couldn't happen here", warning of "the paralysis that accompanies the wish to believe that only the wicked perish." And, through quoting Mayer, he addresses the fact that many people -- including those who call themselves "learned men" have been kept from having the kind of understanding that it would take to see such developments.

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it-please try to believe me-unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

-- a regular reader of Revolution newspaper

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