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Lewis Lapham, the legendary former editor of Harper's, who, beginning in the 1970s, helped change the face of American nonfiction, has a new mission: taking on the Great Paradox of the digital age. (Neville Elder / Corbis)

Lewis Lapham’s Antidote to the Age of BuzzFeed

With his erudite Quarterly, the legendary Harper’s editor aims for an antidote to digital-age ignorance

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Perhaps the best indication of his self-identification as an American revolutionary comes in his introduction to the “Politics” issue. After scornfully dismissing pay-for-play politicians of all stripes and all eras—“the making of American politics over the last 236 years can be said to consist of the attempt to ward off, or at least postpone, the feast of fools”—there is one figure he singles out for praise. One figure in American history who fearlessly told the truth, Lapham says, and paid the price for it.

He’s speaking of Thomas Paine, whose ardent 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” sold half a million copies and, Lapham reminds us, “served as the founding document of the American Revolution.”

Nonetheless, after he was charged with seditious libel in England for challenging monarchy in “The Rights of Man,” was sentenced to death in France, and managed to offend the pious everywhere with his critique of religion, “The Age of Reason,” Paine returned home, a lonely but heroic dissident, to die in poverty, not celebrated the way the “patrician landlords”—as Lapham calls the sanctified founding fathers—are. Because, Lapham says, Paine refused to stop “sowing the bitter seeds of social change.”

Bitter to the fools at the feast at least.

The Irving Street irregulars fight on.

Ron Rosenbaum's books include, Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and most recently, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.

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