by Lewis H. Lapham
May 24, 2003
The following commentary is excerpted from the commencement address delivered on May 11, 2003 at St. John's College.
Most of the political arguments going forward in the world at the present moment are the same ones that enlivened the scaffolds of Renaissance Italy annals of Imperial Rome -- the old and bitter quarrel between time past and time future, between the inertia of things as they are and the energy inherent in the hope of things as they might become.
The former and more portly faction invariably commands the popular majority. It is the party of military parades and Late Night with David Letterman, of Time magazine, Steven Spielberg movies, and the oil company lobbyists working the halls of Congress.
All of you belong, by definition if not by choice, to the party of things-as-they-might-become. Don't underestimate the guile of your enemies. The servants of the status quo like to say that nothing is seriously amiss, that this is the best of all possible worlds, that the wisdom in office, whether at the White House or on the set of Nightline, brooks neither impertinence nor contradiction.
The authorities rest the case for their assurance on two lines of false reasoning. First, that the future is so dangerous that only football captains need apply, that everything is very difficult, very complicated and very far beyond the grasp of mere mortals who never have sailed up the Nile with Henry Kissinger. Second, that because this is the best of all possible worlds, nothing important remains to be said or discovered. The media have a hand in both of these deceptions, and I speak from some experience when I say that the fear of the future sells newspapers and bids up the market for cheap miracles and expensive cosmetics.
The enormous acquisitions and disseminations of knowledge over the past 20 years (about nuclear physics, cancer cells, the history of Germany, terrorism and the chemistry of bats) have brought forth corresponding gains in the levels of anxiety. Hardly a day passes without somebody naming yet another substance (previously thought to be harmless) that can kill or maim everybody in downtown Los Angeles. The evil omens decorate the seven-o'clock news, and every self-respecting newsletter announces the depletion of the reserves of deutschemarks, sunlight and conscience. The seers who look into the abyss of the millennium predict catastrophes appropriate to the fears of the audiences they have been paid to alarm. During the span of a single week at Harper's Magazine I once received the galley-proofs of three new books entitled, in order of their arrival, The End of Nature, The End of Science and The End of History.
The rumors are as exaggerated as the ones about Saddam Hussein's inventory of nuclear weapons. It is the business of the future to be dangerous, and most of the people who magnify its risks do so for reasons of their own. Jealous of a future apt to render them ridiculous or irrelevant, they bear comparison to the French noblewoman, a duchess in her 80s, who, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier's balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. "Oh yes," she said, "Now it's certain. One day they'll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead."
To disprove the second proposition, you have only to consult the listings in any newspaper -- any week, any edition -- to know that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still at large on five continents and seven oceans. The headlines give the lie to the assertion that the servants of the status quo know why the word wags, and who or what wags it. Quite clearly, almost everything remains to be done, said or discovered; also quite clearly, the world stands in need of as much help as it can get, and if it doesn't get that help from people like yourselves, then in whom does it place the hope of a new answer, or even better, a new question.
As a student at Yale in the 1950s I was taught to think of the 20th Century as the miraculous and happy ending of the story of human progress; I now think of it as a still primitive beginning. From the perspective of the 30th Century, I expect the historians to look back upon the works of our modern world as if upon sand castles built by surprisingly gifted children.
When I was your age I made the mistake of imagining the future as a destination -- like Paris or Baltimore or the Gobi Desert, and I thought that in the so-called real world the people who ran the place were made of Greek marble or Gothic stone. As I grew older I began to notice, first to my surprise, and then to my alarm, that the more loudly the Wizards of Oz claimed to know all the answers the less likely that they knew even a few of the questions. The walls of the establishment are made of paper, as often as not the fortress manned by soldiers already dead, propped like sandbags on the parapets of office. The party of things-as-they-are stages a great show of its magnificence in order to conceal its weakness and fear, and it makes small complaint if all the voters in California, New York and Michigan wander through their lives in a passive stupor. As a nation we now spend upwards of $500 billion a year on liquor, pornography and drugs, and the Cold War against the American intellect constitutes a more profitable business than the old arrangement with the Russians or the new arrangement with the viceroys of terrorist Jihad....
Democracy allies itself with change and proceeds under the assumption that nobody knows enough, that nothing is final, that the old order (whether of men and women or institutions) will be carried off-stage every 20 years. The plurality of democratic voices and forms assumes a ceaseless making and re-making -- of laws and customs as well as of fortunes and matinee idols. Democratic government is a purpose held in common, and if it can be understood as a set of temporary coalitions among people of different interests, skills and generations, then everybody has need of everybody else. To the extent that a democratic society gives its citizens the chance to chase its own dreams, it gives itself the chance not only of discovering its multiple glories and triumphs, but also of surviving its multiple follies and crimes.
No matter what the season's top billings in the American political circus, the argument between the past and future tense falls along the division between the people who would continue the democratic experiment and those who think that the experiment has gone far enough. The freedom of thought and expression presents society with the unwelcome news that it is in trouble, but because all societies, like most individuals, are always in some kind of trouble, the news doesn't cause them to perish. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to make time stand still. Liberty has ambitious enemies, but the survival of the American democracy depends less on the size of its armies than on the capacity of its individual citizens to think for themselves.
Tyranny never has much trouble drumming up the smiles of prompt agreement, but a democracy stands in need of as many questions as it can ask of its own stupidity and fear. Idealism rescues cynicism, and the continued comfort of the party of things-as-they-are depends on the doubts placed under their pillows by the party of things-as-they-might-become. The future turns out to be something that you make instead of find. It isn't waiting for your arrival, either with an arrest warrant or a band, nor is it any further away than the next sentence, the next best guess, the next sketch for the painting of a life portrait that might become a masterpiece. The future is an empty canvas or a blank sheet of paper, and if you have the courage of your own thought and your own observation you can make of it what you will.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Harper's Magazine and author of Theater of War, Money and Class in America, Imperial Masquerade, The Wish for Kings, Hotel America, and Waiting for the Barbarians. This speech first appeared in TomPaine.com (www.tompaine.com)