Breaking the Culture Trust

In a new anthology, The Baffler continues its siege on the infotainment state. Now can they champion labor with the same sincerity?

Yet what transpired in issues six and after might be termed a shift in narrative perspective. Gone, for the most part, was the anti-generational generational manifesto laid out in "Twenty-Nothing" with its (overeager?) second-person rhetorical flourish: "Your best and brightest want nothing to do with you. We were too cynical too young about your motives, your TV, your bad rock 'n' roll." By the end of the cities issue (number seven), and Kim Phillips's acute dissection of the Illinois lottery, The Baffler's primary opposition was one of class, not age. (For those keeping score at home: Gender remains the dark continent for the publication, with roughly one piece in five authored by a woman; race is almost off the map.)

Tom Frank's titular essay in issue eight, "The Cultural Miracle," brings us back to the Wall Street Journal and the unassailability of the unfettered marketplace. As Frank puts it, Vox Mercatus, Vox Dei. "The market is eternal," he writes, "the market is unchanging, the market is all-solving, the market is all-seeing, the market is everywhere." Unless, of course, CBS (or any other put-out transnational corporation) tinkers with the market by refusing an advertisement that questions its infallibility. For, in Frank's words, "the market is a fantastically jealous god, deeply offended by the puny efforts of mere mortals to improve on its creations with governments, tariffs, unions, or culture."

Were that the story ended there. Instead, we jump forward to a Sunday-night meeting a few weeks ago in a bar in Northeast Minneapolis for the ninth stop on The Baffler's "Business and the American Mind" speaking tour, and a dialogue that ranged from the disappointing to the disillusioning--the recounting of which I have found myself postponing and deferring and postponing some more, but is now offered in brief for whatever small value it might have.

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To cut through the tortured syntax: I have met The Baffler and wish that I had not.

But then, what can I really say about The Baffler, Live!--editor in chief Tom Frank, publisher Greg Lane, managing editor Matt Weiland, and senior editor Dave Mulcahey? Should I recall how Lane demonstrated a mastery of middle-school French by seizing on a menu item that offered a roast beef sandwich "with au jus"--and derisively pointed out the extra preposition to the late-shift waitress? Is it important that Frank, as the center of attention, will regale a group with a long, slurred account of his honeymoon on the battlefields of Verdun--but in smaller company would rather withdraw to watch Xena, Warrior Princess? Does it matter that over the course of two evenings, this clannish crew proved themselves temperamentally incapable of being even moderately pleasant to a waitress?

Maybe not. But I must here concede that this sour encounter made it difficult to listen to Tom Frank champion his solidarity with the working people of Decatur, Illinois. "You can't have a bowling league, or a little-league team," Frank said of the workers' life-depleting 12-hour rotating shifts--though he sounded wooden, as if reciting a PTA party line.

Questions about the demographics of their readership were answered first with hostility, then evasion: The Baffler, you see, does not do market research, and any perception that its readership looked...well, something like its staff--young, college-educated, white--was a simple matter of "distribution." Raising the topic, in fact, became their example of my own disregard for the intellect of the proletariat. And The Baffler, I heard, will soon reach these people four times a year in increasing print runs, and it will speak to their concerns.

"Give me a million dollars," Frank said in a rare animated moment, "and I'll pull a William Randolph Hearst on you."

And as memory of The Baffler boys begins to fade into the sum of their bylines, I find myself hoping, wishing, that Frank succeeds.

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