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Issues

The spine of the international liberal order is the global supply chain, a magical formulation that is meant to make us believe capitalism has an organized nervous system we can study. The supply chain is written about and thought about as an organic structure shaped by the markets and supported by reasonable states and leaders who appreciate the balance between competition and cooperation. In recent years, much of the content of liberal newspapers like the Financial Times has been devoted to news and analysis and commentary that implicitly calls for the maintenance of the supply chain and its tributaries through investment and multilateral agreements. The promise of Biden is a return to the efficient production and distribution of goods and services along this chain, and so to the jaunt of progress. It’s not so much that the supply chain isn’t real—it’s just the aggregate processes of production throughout the world. The problem is that Covid-19 should have wrecked this myth for anyone who still believed in it. The uneven distribution of Covid death among the poor and the marginal in these countries, far from explaining this away, merely proves that the smoothest operators of global capitalism are nations with rotten underbellies—those that have found a way to hide the violence that surfaces against workers at the nodes of global production. This month, a joint study from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the excessive Covid-19 mortality rate in the United States “may have been a result of several factors, including weak public health infrastructure and a decentralized, inconsistent US response to the pandemic.” The “inconsistent response” could be chalked up to malfeasance on the part of the Trump administration, but decentralization is largely about the unmapped and unregulated U.S. supply chain and the ideological unwillingness of those in power to use it to save lives. It’s a position that is every bit as liberal as it is Trumpian. The essays in this issue of The Baffler, which we’re calling “ReGlobalization,” are not set moralistically against American domestic controversies of the sort weirdly churned out during presidential elections. But taken together, they do acknowledge, as David Bromwich argues in Writing Politics, that “the idea of a good or tolerable society now encompasses relations between people at the widest imaginable distance apart.” And their response, if we may speak for them, is “no shit.”

Art for no. 54—ReGlobalization.
 November 2020

The barely distinguishable personalities who explain the meaning of every event are growing ever chattier—about wars and mobs. Their rhetorical sleights, which tactically defer arguments made by the powerless, unmoneyed, or truly dead, are hallmarks of the media-size filter bubble we call, in Baffler no. 53, the Consensusphere. In the opening essay, James Pogue finds in the unfortunate Harper’s letter the same strategy of “mob” containment used by the propertied class in advance of the American Revolution. And Thomas Geoghegan, in “Abolish the Senate,” likewise looks back at American history to show how the Constitution and the U.S. Senate obstruct the representative power of the people. They should now be done away with, he argues, in a series of considered steps. Maybe it’s all this confusion about American foundations that led us to build and tolerate Confederate monuments while forgetting our literature. Terrance Hayes, on that note, has thankfully corrected literary history, or what’s left of it, with a selection of writings and drawings recovering black poets. Delving into another corner of foolishly overlooked writing, Michael Hofmann muses on his “discrete and, on the face of it, unlikely interest in the work of the old, or very old.” Elsewhere in the culture spheroid, our film critic A.S. Hamrah registers his untimely selection of the best films from the year 2000, while Stephen Kearse looks at how ratings systems, a relic of 1920s and 30s movie studio censorship, now permeate streaming media. On another surprisingly placid front of the culture war, Andrew Marzoni dives into Sarah Milov’s history of the cigarette and posits that “on both sides of the aisle, the twenty-first-century smoker cuts a transgressive figure, as was the case prior to World War I, when cigarettes became a mechanism of American expansion, a slicker instrument of chemical warfare than mustard gas.” Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, but remember that you’ve already been relegated to the dregs of history. With their penchant for broad strokes of child scrawl, members of the Consensusphere prefer to crowd out historical nuance or committed research. In “The House That Queer Theory Built,” Matt Brim takes a hard look at what he calls the discipline’s class problem, and suggests that queer scholars have “the chance to recognize class warfare in the university as a largely unspoken but field-defining trouble of its own.” Elsewhere in the academy, Bruce Robbins finds in Fredric Jameson’s Allegory and Ideology a continuation of the critic’s pursuit of a politics rooted in “a single great collective story.” In Maia Hibbett’s “Who Keeps Us Safe?” a retributive streak crops up in recent #MeToo activism, which retains mainstream feminism’s historical preference for the harsh penalties of the punitive state. Perhaps this is why, as Tracy O’Neill writes in “Outside the Man Box,” research on the rehabilitation of domestic violence offenders is disturbingly underfunded and unheeded. This violent American program, ranging from the systemic to the intimate, continues to play out all over the world without much effective dissent among our top dogs and talking heads. In her dispatch on a year of violence and calamity In Iran, journalist Habibe Jafarian writes, Angling to pilot this same destructive foreign policy juggernaut is the weatherproof corpse of Joe Biden, perpetually if haltingly animated by browbeaten Democratic consensus. Is there any light outside of this tunnel-vision?

Art for no. 53—The Consensusphere.
 September 2020

Never in our lifetimes has it been more obvious that politics, as we’ve shaped it, involves the administration of life, sickness, and the end of life. This realization, new to some who have never had to worry about health care, cuts against a longstanding media narrative about politics “as usual,” or politics as something that happens in the capitol, or even the idea that a political representative could be an outsider: there is no outside to the administration of death, and so there is nothing that can reasonably be said to be outside of politics. It’s an epiphany worthy of a global crisis, and as Asad Haider reminds us in the opening essay of Issue 52, the word crisis has, in part, a medical origin, meaning “both the condition itself and a judgment on a patient’s fate.” It’s up to us, Haider argues, to determine who makes the judgment, and whether we avoid “epochal failure.” Though this crisis is global, it is not universal. “Like cholera and poverty,” Ann Neumann writes, “Covid-19 is not the crisis; it’s a disease that feeds on our racialized inequalities.” The lifetime of our country, its pretenses to democracy, liberalism itself: all of these are premised on the administration of death to black and brown people. That is the root of the American crisis. And so appeals to liberalism and to its supposed “illiberal” opposite begin to sound curiously similar. “The absence of a coherent response to the public health crisis is an inevitable outcome of the bipartisan commitment to neoliberal governance and the maintenance of U.S. empire,” Brendan O’Connor asserts in his anatomy of the contemporary right. “Protect private property, the fascist says. The liberal and conservative nod in agreement. Which rightly belongs to white men, the fascist adds. The liberal stammers; the conservative pretends not to hear.” Nick Estes explores the colonial myths that leave Indigenous people and lands more vulnerable to the ravages of disease, incarceration, and war. And Alexander Clapp reports from North Kosovo, where after decades of ethnic conflict, “all it’s taken for Serb and Albanian politicians to finally put aside their ancient resentments is the prospect of getting rich.” Of course, high-tech predation like this abounds the world over, and Patrick McGinty takes on driverless car industry, whose head honchos are “laughably, embarrassingly, nowhere close to delivering on the pie-in-the-sky promises they began making years ago,” and the cottage industry of authors who refuse to expose these snake oil salesmen. Admittedly, The Baffler is not especially disposed to offering cures, but, hey, some would argue that we’re living in a state of exception. In this spirit, Adam Gaffney, a doctor, proposes that we overhaul the medical system to achieve the “full public financing of hospitals, not as commodity-producing factories, but as social institutions” without preference for a medical-technological supremacy reserved for the rich and the white. And Dave Denison peeks under the hood of Modern Monetary Theory, which offers an antidote to the bullshit of Federal Reserve policy that “relies on human suffering to fight inflation,” in the words of MMT evangelist Stephanie Kelton. As Denison reminds us, “The decisions we make as a nation about who prospers and who fails do not derive from some immutable economic law. There is, of course, no economic theory that can justify a federal response to rescue a banking behemoth, but not a group of rural hospitals.” “Cinema does not currently exist, or if it does exist, it’s in the form of videos from the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, shot on smartphones and put on Twitter, which viewers can watch from anywhere,” writes film critic A.S. Hamrah. “These videos, hundreds of them from all over the United States, record rioting police officers dressed in warzone military gear lashing out at peaceful protesters, beating them with batons, shooting them with rubber bullets, firing tear gas canisters in their faces, and plowing into them with police cars and trucks.” And in the end, there is no political cure more powerful than an intervention in the police order, a crisis of its own visited on the bureaucrats of death. Elias Rodriques, in an act of militant nostalgia, recalls the Black Power movements “that worked to free incarcerated people where governments will not, even as local police respond to nationwide protests against their brutality by incarcerating demonstrators in jails made even more lethal by Covid-19.” These initiatives, he writes, remind us that “when governments neglect or purposefully persecute their people’s welfare, local organizing may be the most viable means of survival.” It is only because of these revolutionary protests that we might find a paradise in place of a ghastly prison or begin to recognize the promised world.

Art for no. 52—Children of Paradise.

At the beginning of 2020, we asked our far-flung disaffiliates to consider networks of care, those unholy alliances between government and private industry which continue to fail us and the informal systems we’ve created to take care of one another, come what may. By the time we had gathered their dispatches and begun to produce the magazine, the novel coronavirus had taken hold in the United States and we had shut our offices down in compliance with state and city advisories against using public transit. In the final days of assembling the issue, we wondered whether it would still be possible or sane to print and mail it to our subscribers, as the president began the ghoulish daily press briefings in which he weighs the safety of the populace against the success of the markets in which his friends trade. In his introduction to Issue 51, “The Saving Power,” editor in chief Jonathon Sturgeon reminds us that “the virus and its stimulus have only made plainer what has been true for decades: the supply chain delivers oxygen to the global economy, and it must be handled delicately and protected violently, at specific costs.” Seeking out alternative models, Jasper Craven reports on a veterans’ anti-war group applying their considerable organizing chops to reforming the ailing VA health system. And Ann Neumann interviews Ai Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, about “the workers who scrub our toilets, fold our laundry, and care for our children and aging parents,” proposing that “the challenge is two-fold: we have to help families pay for their care and we have to support the workforce with sustainable jobs that offer fair wages.” Of course, many of our other domestic arrangements are in need of pretty serious reform. To this end, Suraj Yengde offers a polemic against arranged marriage and “the brutal social reality that sits uncomfortably at the center of all romantic and marital relations in India: caste.” Katherine Rowland paints a compelling portrait of doomsday preppers looking for love in all the web’s strangest places. And Jennifer Schaffer explores the phenomenon of household technology that seeks to replace what we’ve traditionally called “the wife”: “someone to think ahead about our needs; someone to make our homes and our lives orderly; someone to tend to our emotions when they’re raw and sore. Someone to track and manage the infinite details of living; someone to be responsible for our moods; someone to balance the books. We all want someone who knows us so intimately they can predict what we’ll want.” Now, thank goodness, there’s an app for that. Yes, the divisions that work against a culture fundamentally rooted in care and mutual aid are many and deep. In a profoundly humane essay, Clare Morgana Gillis considers the loss of a dear friend, beheaded by ISIS, and the popular narratives around such killings, finding “even as the image of beheadings seeped into our culture and art, it only misled us; its brutality fed into an American willingness to see themselves only as innocent victims, and to tune out the words of protest about our bombings, and to ignore visual clues, such as the orange jumpsuits, about their historical grievances.” Emily Cataneo delves into the long history of fugitives finding sanctuary in churches, from medieval Europe to the present-day United States, and interviews some of the immigrants currently taking shelter against their deportation orders. And Ajay Singh Chaudhary reminds us that, much as we might like to believe that the science is both neutral and irrefutable, there is no universal politics of climate change. In a spate of recent films, A.S. Hamrah finds “the sick wreck of capitalism” on full display in our new regime of confinement and Netflix binging. “The movies now refer to another life,” he writes, “the one from before.” Preserving the memory of another epidemic, Dale Peck looks back on the AIDS years through Hervé Guibert’s memoir, To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, and reflects on Susan Sontag’s writings on “those two kingdoms, of the well and the sick”—a division on full display as governors across the nation push to reopen state economies at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. In this dark time, we find our hope lies simply, as Sturgeon writes, in “other people who care.”

Art for no. 51—The Saving Power.

In this, The Baffler’s fiftieth issue, our contributors profile “The New Booboisie”: a cohort of nudgers and mulcters and logrollers with a propensity for power and greed that usually propels them to the top of the American pileup—or close enough. Take the goons of private equity, who, Whitney Wimbish writes, have concocted a financial racket “so hidden . . . that it’s practically impossible to know for certain whether private equity isn’t just one giant pyramid scheme.” Or the Ricketts family, billionaire owners of the Chicago Cubs, here censured by David Roth for their “tacky rich person shit,” from tax dodging, shell companies, and strategic bankruptcy to sports mismanagement. And still more nefarious, it could be argued, is the feckless billionaire Leon Cooperman, whose relentless interventions on behalf of the indecently rich—in the form of stupid letters and TV appearances—have led Dave Denison to write his own open letter rebuking the old bastard for his top-down class war. The political realm is governed by the same bleeding-edge folly. Matt Hanson looks back at the career of Oliver North, prototype for the conservative heroes “who keep failing upward.” And Joshua Leifer writes of how American Jewish groups have shifted right in recent years, becoming a vanguard of mere survivalism. There’s also what passes, Jess Bergman observes, as the front line of literary production, a set of novels featuring women protagonists who are superficially blank and inert, the product of writers unencumbered by the wisdom of solidarity. And in her takedown of mainstream art pretending to represent the flyover states, Jessa Crispin reminds us that “cultural production, criticism, and programming are now governed, in their totality, by indoctrinated middlebrow assholes.” Of course, abject philistinism is also a hallmark of the booboisie, old or new. To combat this, we’ve called on Mary South, whose “The Promised Hostel” marks the return of fiction to our pages. Yes, in every far-flung corner of the culture industry the boobs are ascendant. Andrew Marzoni takes a look at a generation of academics driven by a desperate job market to “go public,” finding that “the rules are different online, primarily because there are none.” Kyle Paoletta identifies a faux-populist trend in elite restaurant reviewing, “wherein the critic celebrates extravagantly priced food even as they crack woke about the oligarchs it’s being served to.” Legacy media gets it, too, when Ross Barkan asks what happened to the news and political coverage on offer from the New York Times, which has “clung to a horse race model of coverage that should have been discredited decades ago.” While its readers know better, the Times, like the rest of the booboisie, cling to a darkly Platonic arrangement wherein a class of elites with diminishing value is propped up as skillful and professional while other workers are made expendable. Thankfully, Lizzie O’Shea undermines this shallow myth in “We Keep You Alive,” which attacks the notion that any labor is unskilled. There’s nothing more monstrous, it turns out, than the truly stupid.

Art for no. 50—The New Booboisie.

Do we begin with infrastructural or cultural, environmental or psychological breakdown? It’s a case of reader’s choice: Issue 49 finds The Baffler “. . . in Ruins,” surveying the wreck both head-on and slant. Emily Harnett makes a painstaking study of Centralia, Pennsylvania, “the site of a disaster that sounds too stupid to be real, a trash fire that will inherit the earth.” Conversely, in Houston, Jake Bittle takes stock of the federal buyouts of property flooded by Hurricane Harvey, much of which lies in a hundred-year floodplain. Michael Malloy visits the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, where copper mining promises to contaminate the area for generations—he likens this gaping, poisonous hole to an abyss at the end of the world. With these cities and others in mind, Kate Wagner argues that by considering “ruin porn” in images of industrial architectural decay we might overcome our grief and “begin to judge ourselves more harshly.” Looking back to a time lived in the human scale, George Scialabba considers a new two-volume collection of the essays of Wendell Berry, who eloquently rails against modernism on behalf of the Kentucky farmland he loves. “Like most antimodernists,” George writes, “Berry is very good at reminding us what we have sacrificed by embracing modernity. One such sacrifice is a sense of place.” In Berry’s own words, “it is only in the place one belongs to, intimate and familiar, long watched over, that the details rise up out of the whole and become visible.” It’s fitting, then, in his tale of returning home to his native Indiana in the wake of the financial crisis, that editor Jonathon Sturgeon found “the same subprime manipulations, the same moral hazard disguised as honorable lending, carried out by a family of pawnbrokers who professed to hate the bankers most of all. There is no cultural divide between the coastal financial elite and the petty usurers in flyover states; there is only the capitalism of small differences, the scalability of exploitation. The operations are the same.” Meanwhile, Evan Malmgren travels the nation’s tattered highways and byways in a GMC Savana, attempting to evade the flash-crash of journalism by resorting to #vanlife. Instead, he discovers a more insistently networked existence devoid of temporal sanity. M. H. Miller hits the couch for a thorough examination of TV’s The Bachelor, or what he calls “the moon landing of trash,” and surmises that our “stupidest achievements” reflect upon us as much as our most glorious cultural monuments. Rachel Wetzler excavates the wastebasket of cable TV for “The Fox News Theory of Art,” which may convince you we’ve reached the sad endpoint of aesthetic history. And James Pogue decries the degradation of longform nonfiction writing, which is too often commissioned, written, and edited as “intellectual property” for Netflix and Hollywood. “We have a perfectly good word for the kind of writing and reporting this encourages,” Pogue writes: “trash.” Thomas Geoghegan sees a ray of hope for an elitist Democratic Party and a failing democracy in the idea of compulsory voting, which offers representation to the working class, whether squeamish liberals like it or not. But for now, proud America emerges as a grandly toxic Superfund site, a landscape of slag and gob. Slip on your whole-body decontamination gear, we’ve drawn you a map.

Art for no. 49 . . . In Ruins.
 January 2020

Our incumbent regime of eugenic wellness leaves little room for flights of fancy, at least for the sick: it’s hard to spur and bridle the imagination when they’ve run you ragged around the track. Winner, as usual, takes almost everything; last across the finish line gets employer health insurance and a five-hour energy drink. Against the odds, through chronic pain and brain fog, the sick will have to dream for everyone else. “When the sick rule the world,” Dodie Bellamy once wrote, “the well will be servants.” Under the authority of the unwell, she continues, the fittest will have their limbs hacked off and sold for profit. This political fantasy is all the more compelling for the cold shoulder it offers to a well-ordered society, where the sick might do as they’re told and accelerate their own elimination. Such a society is bad and it needs to be vaxxed. It’s in this meager and anemic spirit that we present Baffler No. 48, “Body Shots,” which aims its syringe at wellness and jabs repeatedly. Bookending the set of clinical observations contained here are Barbara Ehrenreich’s paean to the cave art that documents the birth of human culture (think gorgeous, funny, and even dirty representations of the world and its creatures, not Paleolithic selfies) and Kristen Martin’s poignant report from New York City’s Hart Island, where inmates and prison staff are responsible for the quiet burial of more than a million poor and neglected residents. Anya Ventura examines the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the chain of for-profit hospitals founded by Tea Party millionaire Richard Stephenson. There she discovers the desperate archetype of the “good patient,” a “brave citizen of science” who refuses to die. Dying, after all, would amount to “a lack of ambition, an ugly failure of will”—not to mention a blow to profits. Of course, plenty of other sick logics of supply and demand pervade the American landscape. Jeffrey Arlo Brown and Baynard Woods hit the pavement to profile the fat cats of the legal weed business and the working stiffs of the gay porn industry. Liz Pelly diagnoses the brand power infecting the DIY music scene and Alexander Zaitchik traces the demise of anti-television sentiment. Lucy Ives and Ann Neumann call into question the prevailing logics of fertility and menopause, respectively: Ives outlines the pernicious rise of a repressive “sexual risk avoidance” regime, one that has given way to Christian pregnancy centers and menstrual-cycle tracking apps. “Whether you see fertility as a problem or opportunity is up to you,” she writes. “All the same, you will be informed of it.” And Neumann writes to upend culture’s ideal of “the reproductive woman,” a universal symbol—“youthful, sexy, ready to command a household and bear children”—that we’d do better to hastily abandon. Barry Yeoman looks at crackpot cures for his own stuttering condition and arrives at a question: “Might the real problem lie in a society that, in its quest for order and efficiency, makes no accommodation for people who speak differently?” Jasper Craven targets the paragon of such sinister orderliness in his searching inspection of the American military, which has routinely subjected its soldiers and veterans to experimental drug testing. Examining the rise and fall of the cyberpunk genre, where an increasingly corporate future demands all kinds of high-tech augmentations to the human form, John Semley reminds us that “outside this hallucination, bodies still persist.” “Can we stop believing that the problem lives inside our bodies?” Yeoman asks, not without exasperation. It’s true that the problem lives elsewhere, not in the bodies of the sick but in the limbs of the well.

The Baffler No. 48 - Body Shots
 November 2019

With all the reneging and withdrawing by President Interruptus and his international band of outsider-insiders, we’re no longer certain the global markets will hold. No deal, it turns out, is artful enough to stay dealt, whether climate accord, regional trade partnership, Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty, or European Union. For the rest of us, down below, the contracts and agreements are tinier but binding: the yes click, the microprinted transaction, the illicit Venmo handshake, the verbal confirmation of student loan repayment schedule. For all its indifference, the world system is curiously up in our business, so in Baffler no. 47 we’ve dispatched our contributors to subject it to humiliating counter-scrutiny. Why is it, Kim Kelly asks, that departing CEOs are outfitted with golden parachutes while workers’ severance agreements are loaded with opportunity-crushing non-compete and non-disparagement clauses? As a countermeasure against such double standards, Corey Atad makes the case for why cable news pundits have an ethical obligation to disclose their personal wealth. Kate Wagner examines the rarified world of classical music, where “despite its reputation as being a pastime of the rich and cultured elite, classical musicianship is better understood as a job, a shitty job.” In the seemingly distant world of Big Tech, Lizzie O’Shea dissects the industry’s recent bids to skirt regulation, in part by making paltry concessions to workers. But, she argues, it’s organized labor that has the power to demand real reform, moving beyond the social poverty of the profit motive. Our webwork of crap agreements would surely shameface philosophers of the social contract of any era, not in the least because it makes an embarrassing substitute for a safety net. In telling the long, sick history of vaccination skepticism, Ann Neumann indicts a society that has been reduced to the false promise of “freedom from coercion” against freedoms from want or bigotry. Tarence Ray catalogues the failures of Obama-era technocratic initiatives to retrain Appalachian workers that have left the region high and dry. Whitney Curry Wimbish eyes the nation’s fervor for privatization, which “has found its most obvious champion in Donald Trump, a man operating under the delusion that a nation can and should be run as a business.” And in his anatomy of NATO, Ed Burmila dares the left to imagine a robust foreign policy that upholds standards of economic equality and anti-interventionism without reacting to the follies of resurgent Cold War liberalism or right-wing geopolitical mania. Looking to the digital reality that subsumes more and more of our daily activity, Jessa Crispin plumbs the online genre of money diaries, in which millennials document their personal finances and delight in criticizing one another’s spending habits; Kyle Paoletta looks despairingly at the rise of the fandom press; and Frank Guan finds a perverse kind of hope in the Twitter ratio. Finally, there’s the matter of our contract with survival. Catherine Tumber scours the Green New Deal and finds it wanting in at least one respect: amid “the American-style panic” caused by climate change, she writes, we’ve failed to bulwark ourselves against the land-grabbers, whose fervor for sprawl will leave us nowhere to grow food. And in reckoning with a new report on mass extinction, Roy Scranton invites us to enter a contract with oblivion. The planet will survive, but we’re set to eliminate all that keeps us alive. If you’re feeling nervous, just sign on the bottom line.

The Baffler No. 47 - The Contract State
 September 2019

Over the last several decades, the American capitalist consensus, a joint project of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, has realized its dream of a racist, entrenched, and bureaucratic police state. Baffler No. 46, “Down by Law,” takes aim at this ever more carceral reality and ultimately sets its sights on the punished and excluded. To that end, Marie Gottschalk shines a light on Texas, a state that “today incarcerates nearly one-quarter of a million people in its jails and prisons—more than the total number of prisoners in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom combined.” Kaila Philo recounts the history of Baltimore’s “squeegee kids,” who have long been punished for trying to earn a little cash by washing car windows. Emma Whitford interviews the New York sex workers caught in a thorny legal and ideological battle over the push to decriminalize of their work. And Brendan O’Connor explores how the lives of immigrants at America’s southern border are made expendable and invisible, visiting a commercial trade show for the hyper-violent border security industry. The unholy alliance of our neoliberal and neoconservative overlords has even managed to export its system of punishment around the world, as Steven Cohen demonstrates in the case of Colombia’s coca farmers, caught in the snare of the global drug wars. For a bird’s eye view, George Scialabba takes stock of three new books that plumb the dark recesses of the twenty-first century’s global marketplace, from the smuggling of rhino horns, to trippy, revenue-generating children’s YouTube videos, to the dark money pooling in the corners of our nation’s trading floors. This police logic extends even to matters of culture, art, and entertainment. To survey the damage, Niela Orr mines the annals of horror cinema, finding common ground with the black women characters who are persistently killed off because of their curiosity. Rachel Wetzler hops a train to a Cato Institute-funded art exhibition to find out what libertarian art looks like, and Andrew Marzoni excavates the story of the queer intellectual who took Michel Foucault on the desert drug trip of a lifetime—and who ultimately found himself forced from the academy for daring to challenge a conservative university system. Searching for a common-sense way out of our punitive predicament, John Pfaff interrogates some of the mostly widely held assumptions of criminal justice reform, including reformers’ focus on private prisons, arguing that “it ultimately is the public sector, not the private, that is at the heart of mass incarceration.” And Ross Barkan examines the idea of the progressive prosecutor—touted by some liberals as the surest way to a kinder, gentler justice system—reminding us that “reform movements are confined by institutions until they seek to topple them altogether.” 

The Baffler Issue 46 cover
 July 2019

In Baffler No. 45, our stalwart contributors puzzled over the state of American adolescence and our collective fascination with coming-of-age tales. In an eclectic set of nostalgia trips, fact-finding missions, and theoretical explorations, these crack investigators uncovered a nation in a pervasive state of arrested development. Alex Pareene studies MAGA teens and their adult advocates, who bend over backwards in order to defend not just their prep school princelings, but the entire social order that conflates goodness with status. After all, innocence is the exclusive province of those who can afford it, as Sarah Marshall makes clear in her essay on the darker side of Disney’s dream empire. Bryan Armen Graham offers a dispatch from the Daytona 500, where NASCAR is making a last-ditch bid to win over a younger, broader audience. He finds that “these efforts, while admirable, lay bare the uneasy push-pull underlying the sport’s overture to minority customers: can the black and Hispanic fans that NASCAR desires feel welcome in an infield festooned with symbols like Confederate flags and MAGA banners that create an unwelcome environment?” Of course, our arts and letters are littered with adolescent notions and notions of the adolescent. Frank Guan and Rod Davis take on the literary figure of the teen in wide-ranging essays that take on Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent and Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. Tom Carson explores the connection between the famous (and infamous) teenagers of American literature and the battered shibboleth of American exceptionalism and ultimately comes up with a pretty good thesis: let’s just blame Mark Twain for everything. Elsewhere, J.W. McCormack dips a toe into the world of “Christploitation” movies, “a world saturated by Duck Dynasty, Mike Huckabee, and Fox News,” and Erik Hoel casts a wary eye on Netflix, whose CEO once said the company’s number one competition was sleep. Miya Tokumitsu remembers My So-Called Life, the nineties show whose middle-class, high-school slacker heroine, Angela Chase, represented a version of adolescence that “seeks out a coherent cultural identity after the end of history, when all that seemed left to do was wait around for it to start again.” Of course, few of today’s teens feel free to wait around, pressured instead to become mini-moguls and would-be world changers. Liz Pelly analyzes Teen Boss, “a magazine that doesn’t so much market to kids but rather convinces them to become marketers themselves.” Owen Davis anatomizes the cottage industry of high-priced college admissions consulting and Britta Lokting dives into the Instagram-centric world of teenage activists. So to the teens and tweens of all ages chorusing “I don’t wanna grow up” from the various corners of American culture, we’re happy to present our latest issue,  “Chronic Youth.”

The Baffler Issue No. 45

In No. 44, we put The Baffler’s own Ministry of Truth to work routing out the premier propagandists of our contemporary hellscape and all their proselytizing progenitors. Kristen Ghodsee looks back at the anticommunist broadcasts of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty networks, comparing Russian meddling in recent U.S. elections to “the history of the United States’ own efforts to confuse, manipulate, or otherwise influence foreign populations in Russia and Eastern Europe throughout the forty-five-year history of the Cold War.” Ed Burmila mines the history of the U.S. census from the antebellum debates over enslaved and free black populations to the current right-wing push to add a citizenship question to the national nosecount. The story of the census, he finds, “has always been one of outright manipulation, politicization, marginalization, partisan gamesmanship, and hostility to minority groups.” Turning toward the Trumpian propaganda wars of the present day, Joe Kennedy describes and decries the now-common practice of plutocrats and parliamentarians donning phony badges of blue-collar authenticity. John Patrick Leary explains the rise of that favorite Baffler bugbear, innovation, and John Lorinc delineates its deleterious effect on the Toronto waterfront district that Google’s “smart cities” project, Sidewalk Labs, has turned into “a giant real-world Petri dish in which the company can work out glitches and concoct a new business model.” Liz Franczak recounts the story of Edward Bernays, who “pioneered the field of modern public relations after serving under Woodrow Wilson during World War I, overseeing propaganda initiatives aimed at selling the war to the public and maximizing recruiting efforts.” Yasmin Nair tracks that grift into the present age of woke-minded ad campaigns, “in which commercials have begun to sound like nonprofit fundraising pitches,” while Matt Hanson chronicles his time in the trenches and on the phonelines of the political telemarketing industry. Try as they might, our crack investigators find little chance of salvation from spin. Tom Whyman explains how the professionalization of philosophy created a new class of propagandists posing as independent thinkers. Andrew Marzoni looks under the hood of the Christian cult of his youth, whose Boomer following are “the same people who dodged the draft, hitchhiked to Woodstock, burned their bras, received the first legal abortions [and] eventually elected a president who fucks porn stars, openly refers to himself as a “nationalist,” and appointed a pro-life rapist to the Supreme Court.” Lucy Ives offers a glimmer of hope, though, when she charts a potential future for the social novel, wherein we might yet create some great literature in these dark times, and maybe even learn a little something about ourselves in the process.

Art for no. 44—Truth Decay.
 March 2019

“We are in thrall to the fetish of progress,” writes Ben Ehrenreich in Baffler no. 43: “the belief that history has a direction and a purpose, and that humankind is ascending a steady if circuitous route to greater perfection.” Throughout this issue, we’ve asked our merry band of malcontents to size up the shibboleth of capital-P progress. Alex Pareene examines the American Way—especially on the part of the market-mad right—of placating the working poor with an endless conveyor belt of shiny gadgets. “Still,” he finds, “despite the dirt cheap vacuums and flat-screen TVs, something seems wrong.” And in a survey of three new books on historical progress, George Scialabba tries to learn why our leading experts can’t agree on an answer to the simple question: “Are things getting better or worse?” John Tormey mines his career—from the halls of his MFA program to the tracks of the MBTA commuter rail—to debunk the myth that higher education is a path out of the working class. Aaron Miguel Cantú recounts the “feints at racial integration and cultural reinvention that have wafted in and then out of the nation’s newsrooms over the past half-century,” but his own experience shows that the American news media remains complicit in upholding the white supremacist status quo. Rounding out this romp through the professional-class quagmire of deferred progress is Leila McNeill, who reports on the dubious legacy of physicist Richard Feynman and why those at the forefront of scientific progress have lagged behind in the recent #MeToo reckonings. Audrey Watters reports on the recent ed-tech boom, where famous names and venture capital promise privatized reform of our schools with little evidence that they have any chance at success. No matter: “there’ll be an app for making the past entirely irrelevant soon enough.” These same tech “disruptors,” keen on erasing history, are slowly eroding all record of the “the anarchic, sprawling, 90s net,” in favor of boring interfaces and involuntary data mining, as Kate Wagner demonstrates in her elegy for the wild and woolly internet of her teenage years. “The persistent erasure of what are essentially frozen experiences, snapshots of our lives, nakedly demonstrates how tech monopolies value the human commonality and user experience so loftily promoted in their branding—they don’t.” And Chloe Watlington finds nothing but colonialism and disaster-profiteering in cryptocurrency tycoons’ bid to build a techno-utopia in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. When the pied pipers of tech leave us all washed up, can we find any evidence of real progress in the realm of culture? Gene Seymour offers an appreciation of the good old-fashioned western film and its surprisingly flexible politics. Astra Taylor takes a stroll through art history in an effort to find out who “the people” are in our heavily mythologized concept of democracy. “This tense and unresolved depiction of America’s mythic mass democracy,” she writes, “is perhaps most familiar to those of us who, with mounting alarm, have tried to chronicle the battered democratic polis of the Trump era—a vision of the people beset by ethnic, racial, and class conflict.” Even in the recent vogue for astrology “from alternative social media spaces and blogs, to more popular memes and viral astrology accounts, to merch at Urban Outfitters,” finds Lauren Oyler, the fault lies not in our stars but in our own “turning away from the communal experience of unstable human conditions that astrology could symbolize and into some delusional personal narrative.” Progress, not perfection, goes the old adage. In Issue 43, we’re afraid we can’t offer much of either.

Art for no. 43—Pilgrim’s Regress.