Friday, April 15, 2005


Crossing the Pond

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, grew up on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from me, in what I often call the city of refugees--San Francisco. In fact, at the time of the gathering there of the delegations to form the UN shortly after World War II, his grandfather was Mayor of San Francisco, and frequently played host to the numerous dignitaries assembled across the street from city hall in the opera house. As I recall, Lapham--then in elementary school--often tagged along with his grandfather to watch as the war-weary countries of the world crafted such noteworthy documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Knowing this little bit of history, when walking through UN Plaza on my way to the San Francisco Public Library, I sometimes stop to read the inlaid granite monuments to their noble aspirations, and try to imagine those days when Lapham rubbed elbows with those ambassadors of peace. I have also read all the books by Lapham's long-departed friend Walter Karp, and try not to miss any of Lapham's thoughtful columns in Harper's.

In the current issue, Lapham writes about his trip to attend the opening sessions of this year's European Parliament, and compares their practice of democratic government with what he'd seen a month earlier on Capitol Hill. Probably the most striking difference between the European Parliament and the American Congress, was, as he said, "Only once in three days did I hear anybody mention the word terrorism." And that was only a commentary on the American fear of the future.

In his column, Lapham also observed the diverse character of the 732 members--30% of whom are women-- (including journalists, musicians, and scholars) representing Conservative, Socialist, Green, Liberal Democratic, and Communist voting blocs, elected in their own countries to represent an intellectual rather than a regional or economic interest.

What I found most interesting were what Lapham called the statistics that establish the exchange rate between the currencies of the private and the public good--

one American adult in every five living in a state of poverty, as opposed to one in every fifteen in Italy; the quality of America's health-care services ranked thirty-seventh among the world's industrial nations; the disparity in the incomes of a CEO and a common laborer standing at a ratio of 475 to 1 in America, 15 to 1 in France, 13 to 1 in Sweden.

As Lapham notes, "Europe in the twentieth century had twice attempted suicide, and nobody was eager to repeat the performance." The most telling phrase in his comparison, though, was his confession that he took heart from Europe's willingness to learn from experience, to find its security in the health, courage, and intelligence of its citizens.


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