Review of Hotel America: Scenes in the Lobby of the Fin-de-Siecle, by Lewis Lapham (Verso, 1996)

The United States at the end of the century is like a top-flight hotel from the Gilded Age turned transient flop-house. The service is slipping, the management ignores the repair calls and the menial help doesn’t even speak English. Enter the lobby, though, and a picture of embalmed opulence presents itself, as if to make up for all the problems with nice floral arrangements and classical Muzak.
In a recent interview, Harper’s editor Lewis H. Lapham explained his vision of a country slouching toward the millennium: “Americans want to identify with somebody in the elevator of the Four Seasons, not people cleaning up garbage in the alley.” According to Lapham’s new collection of editorial “Notebooks,” most Americans remain lost in the lobby despite dreams of elevation, wandering a post-Cold War terrain of confusion and diminished opportunity.
Lapham threads the theme of confusion through essays touching on issues and events from 1989 to the present, pinpointing how the promises of democracy run thin on the reality of oligarchy: “The United States by 1989 had so arranged its financial affairs that 10 percent of the population held at least 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, and 5 percent…owned all the nations capital assets.” Expanding on this fact, Lapham shreds conventional political wisdom with acerbic and incisively crafted prose, exploding the official fictions of foreign policy (“What Washington has always wanted in Panama is not a democratic government but a gamekeeper who could be trusted to manage the rabbits”) and domestic intrigue (“What is wanted in Washington is the illusion of reform, not the thing itself”).
But while Lapham succesfully picks apart the official story like a scab on the country’s underbelly, he fails to deliver sustained proposals for reform. A recurring disclaimer: “I’ve never been very adept in the arts of practical advice.”
—by Benjamin Ortiz
NewCity 25 January 1996

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