Lapham, the social critic and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, spoke Oct. 16 at Point Park University. It was a wide-ranging talk about politics, the media and the financial crisis, but the most interesting thing he said was in response to a question about the presidential race. Someone in the crowd of a couple hundred (mostly students) asked his preference; Lapham said Obama, principally because he's "a student" with the ability to learn what he needs to know in office, while McCain thinks he already knows all the answers.
Then Lapham added this: Obama was peculiarly "constrained" as a campaigner because he could never be seen to show anger. To do so, Lapham said, would be to cast himself as "the angry black man," the electoral kiss of death.
I'll cop to being a partisan here (I'm an Obama volunteer), but it's surely true that while McCain is practically expected to be crotchety and bumptious, Obama's almost preternatural cool and calm is as necessary to his chances as it is seemingly genuine. Lapham's comment reminded me of another, young (and white) social critic, Tim Wise, and his explorations of "white privilege," which is the social and economic advantage held even by whites who aren't themselves racist. The idea is beautifully expressed elsewhere by the poet Tim Seibles, whose "The Case" begins:
White people don't know they're white
and continues: "Sometimes, though, if you're not white / and a lot of other people are -- / but they don't know it: // Well, it can make you feel like you need to be somewhere / very far away."
Lapham, a bit stooped but still patrician at 73, spoke slowly and deliberately, but his wit rewarded one's patience. On the financial bailout: "You can look at this as, 'We've pulled one off on the world'" because the Chinese and Saudis hold so many of our devalued dollars. The only thing our financial overlords seem to know, the founder of Lapham's Quarterly noted, is that "money is good for rich people, because it ennobles them, and it's bad for poor people, because it makes them lazy and shiftless." Oligarchies are like cheese, he quipped, and America's has gone rancid.
But the near-aside about Obama and anger was what stuck with me. We congratulate ourselves, perhaps deservingly, about a major party nominating a black man for president. But it's clear we haven't come as far as we'd like to think.
[For more on Lapham, see CP editor Chris Potter's recent interview with him in the Book section of this Web site.]