Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2016: Spies

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[All pictures are from L.Q. Winter 2016]


Lewis, Lewis, Lewis.  (Lapham of course.)  Reviewing your paltry (smiley here) literary and history journal is like listening to a broken record.  (If the reader is not familiar with the wax/vinyl recorded platter it will give you something to research in the Vatican library if they ever open it.  Or just use Wikipedia.  (You do donate to Wiki don’t you?))

“It’s good… (ssshtickskip) It’s good… (ssshtickskip) It’s good… (ssshtickskip).”

Except that it is usually much better than good.  SPIES is no different.  Informative, educational, entertaining, all of the above.

In my L.Q. Fall 2015: Fashion review I mentioned that editor Lewis Lapham had a rapier (thrusting sword) wit.  In his preamble for Spies he surgically slashes his way through 20th/21st century U.S. ‘intelligence’ services with a much sharper blade, perhaps a samurai Katana.  Figuratively speaking of course.

His preambles are almost always notable for three things:
1. His affluent and effluent command of English vocabulary, in the nicest sense of the words.
2. An autobiographical aspect of his life that relates to the subject.  In Spies he accounts how in 1957 he was interviewed for a position with the CIA but left dismayed by the inane questions he was asked.  He did not pursue employment any further.
3. An intelligent rant against some aspect of the theme as it relates to modern day America.  We just never get it right.  He is usually right about that.  What a mess of a constitutional republic are we.

His opening salvo is incisive:

“By now it goes without saying or objection in most quarters of a once freedom-loving and democratic society that our lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness are closely monitored by a paranoid surveillance apparatus possessed of the fond hopes and great expectations embedded in the fifteenth-century Spanish Inquisition.” (p. 13) (Emphasis mine -JH.)

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He briefly outlines some of the content:

“This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly looks for the when and why did the lout’s game of espionage become the saving grace that makes cowards of us all.” (p. 14)

He proceeds to rail against espionage and U.S. nation-building.

He starts with Woodrow Wilson’s divinely guided (in Wilson’s mind) protection of America and young J. Edgar Hoover’s assistance under him in rounding up 10,000 ‘subversives’.  Lapham really gets into it with Allen Dulles’ tenure as CIA director from the early coup in Iran through the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion.

He saves most of his vitriol for George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and their retaliations in Iraq after the World Trade Center destructions.  Usually fair and balanced, it appears Barack Obama gets a pass this time, though I would say ‘intelligence’ services did not advise Barry well of the consequences (ISIS) of the void left by American troop withdrawal.

I’m afraid I can’t argue with Mr. Lapham’s assertions.  Hindsight is the proverbial twenty-twenty vision and no one can predict the future but there is definitely a disconnect between what we as a country perceive we should do at a point in time and what the result is later.  It seems we have created more messes than successes.

The preamble is available free online at

L.Q. describes itself much better than I:
“Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of literature and history, edited by Lewis Lapham. Four times a year we collect fiction, non-fiction, poems, and essays from over four thousand years of recorded time, all gathered around a single theme.”

The three sections of this issue are Intelligence, Covert Ops, and Secret Lives.  The issue could have been as easily titled Privacy as Spies.  Perhaps L.Q. is saving that but seemingly one cannot spy without invading privacy.

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Of the large number of valuable gems in this issue one wants to run through the fingers of his mind there are 3 extracts that stood out to me as representative of the theme.

First is the very first extract (p. 25) from a 2012 Wired Magazine article my secret advisor, he-who-shall-not-be-named, tipped me about when it was published.  If the sight of the NSA headquarters monolith in Maryland (Google) doesn’t arouse your suspicions about secret services then this mega-capacity data center in Utah should do so.  I’ve read there are more than a half-dozen other NSA data centers in existence or under construction.  It’s a good thing the government isn’t collecting our phone data anymore.  (I think.  Are they?) If this issue doesn’t sate your interest in spies it appears the author James Bamford is a bit of an expert by now.

[To add to the mix my Feb. 2016 copy of Consumer Reports just arrived with an article on how facial recognition is being used to track people in stores or scan for perpetrators. Sounds like The Next Big Thing.]

The second (p. 75) is the exhortation from the intelligence officer assigned to digest the mega-quantity of reports sifted from the near-yottabytes (see Bamford’s piece) of information collected.  When all the data is sorted, sifted, and disseminated what human can digest it?  Eventually someone must throw a dart at the stack and say ‘this is important’.  At least they think it’s important.

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Thirdly the extended essay in Further Remarks (p. 187) titled Under Watchful Eyes by Amanda Power convincingly portrays how ‘Gawd’ (GOD, god, any god, all gods) has always threatened our behavior by ‘watching’ us.  Talk about ‘Under My Thumb’, the Rolling Stones song recently protested at a Best Buy store for being insensitive to the abuse of women.  GAWD has us under his thumb.  Well and good that humans since cavemen communalized for the benefit of their individual survival, but this propensity for relinquishing self-responsibility to a ‘higher power’ in which you must have FAITH and FEAR.  We fell for that one en masse, albeit under different banners.

Ms. Power’s own opening salvo:

“Humanity, according to the most influential origin story of Western culture, was created naked, unashamed, wholly willing to submit to the scrutiny of the god who made the world and its rules. Through an act of defiance urged on humans by an enemy of their happy state, “their eyes were opened”–they realized their own nakedness and sought to hide from view. The god was so angered by this that he threw them out of paradise to suffer and die. This was the original sin, the disobedience for which humans deserved to be punished through generations, centuries, and until the world ends. It was, quite simply, the pursuit of knowledge not sanctioned by the one who ruled them, and the hunger for privacy from surveillance. Or so the ruling elite, through its rabbis and priests, has told the population for thousands of years, through the brief and vivid story of the Fall.”

To summarize: We are collecting and analyzing massive amounts of personal information, we can barely consume or make intelligent decisions on that information, and we have been watched by some authority figure or their representative since time immemorial. Privacy?  ‘We don’t need no privacy.’  I suspect we don’t need more SPIES either.

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Who else can I mention before this longread reaches the length of War and Peace?

Ruth First, whom I had never heard of, is one.  This anti-apartheid ‘revolutionary’ eloquently relates the miasma of her 1963 incarceration in Pretoria Prison.

“Beside longer experienced inquisitors, the South Africans might be amateurs just beginning to learn the methods of psychological warfare; but they are learning fast.  Give them time: they have the eagerness to outdo any Inquisition.  Because, the tell themselves, they are only doing their duty.  They all talked like little Eichmanns.  There was rarely a Security Branch detective who did not say: “It’s the law, we’re only doing our job.”  This is the danger.  Like Eichmann they will do anything in the name of their job.  They will be answerable for nothing.  Torture itself becomes no more than the pursuit of their daily routine.”  (p. 48)

Shades of The Ominous Parallels or The Milgram Experiment.  First, by the way, was assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982.  I Wiki’d her and her alleged sentencer Craig Williamson.

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I Wiki’d a lot during this issue.  Even John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who is portrayed in the artwork on p. 170.  That reminds me of the John Banville fiction piece starting on the same page.  VERY well written:

“Miss Vandeleur had taken on a gray look and was huddling rather in her chair by the fireplace “But you are cold,” I said, and despite her protests that she was perfectly comfortable I got down on one knee, which startled her and made her shrink back–she must have thought I was going to kneel before her and blurt out some ghastly, final confession and swear her to secrecy–but it was only to light the gas fire. It uttered its gratifying whumpf and did that little trick of sucking the flame from the match, then the delicate filigree of wires glowed and the ashy waffle behind them began slowly to turn blush-pink. I have a great fondness for such humble gadgets: scissors, tin openers, adjustable reading lamps, even the flush toilet. ‘Ihey are the unacknowledged props of civilization.” (p. 170)

Speaking of fiction, there is John LeCarre with Tinker, Tailor… etc., Ian Fleming and Bond, James Bond, and Poe, you know.

Morris Friedman is informative on the 1907 anti-labor Pinkerton Detective Agency. (p. 64) Jules Romains takes us on a tour of back rooms in Paris. (p. 96)  Anais Nin is A Spy In the House of Love. (p. 101)  Julio Cortazar has a clever, one-page, well-written story on p. 113. There is Hitchcock on The Macguffin. (p. 119)  William O’Neal is a mole in the Black Panthers. (p. 128) Carl Jung is excellent on group identity (groupthink it is called, post-Orwell) and individuality. (p. 139)  John Stuart Mill is superb On Liberty. (p. 178)  Ethel Rosenberg is intelligent, eloquent, and heart-wrenching in her first plea for executive clemency from the death penalty for giving nuclear secrets to Russia. (p. 179)  She fails in 1953 and her accuser recants his testimony in 2001.  Edward Snowden is present in Conversations, p. 207.

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The extended essays in the Further Remarks section are excellent.  I’ve already mentioned Amanda Power’s piece.  There is an essay on drones.  Lynn Stuart Parramore’s essay on workplace behavior surveillance is even more chilling than the facial recognition I mentioned earlier.

This is yet another great issue.  Read it and ponder.  Who is watching YOU?  I tend to think I’m not doing anything wrong so why should I care, but I think I should.  So far I’m assaulted on the internet with ads for things I’ve browsed.  I’m assaulted in mail and email for things of which I’ve inquired.  It all does not bode well.

[The now-standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered with very high quality paper throughout, richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, and exactly 221 pages up to the Sources index at the back.
2. For more details see my previous-posts link or my Goodreads site for earlier reviews of the 25+ issues I’ve read so far.  I have 6 archive issues remaining to have read them all the first time.]


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