Don’t look now. Contemporary liberals are summoning an omnium gatherum of dead words and outdated textbooks, dredging up confused accounts of Enlightenment rationality that tend to mutate into smug but underfunded mandates to “believe in science!” and calling everything from Bernie Sanders’s speeches to January’s Capitol riot to the global profusion of Black Lives Matter protests “illiberal,” an insult so circular it’s almost vicious.
With the election of Joe Biden, this liberal consensus found its politics ascendant—we’re a long way away from the illiberal summer of 2020. But what to do with all this power so over-theorized and underused by the solutions-free left? By this time they’d lost sight of, or confusedly tried to befriend, their enemies on the right, though the latter continued to grow less and less subtle, as we see in the Trumpification, even now, of liberal pets like J.D. Vance. No, at the climax, liberals got sweaty and confused, “trapped at the stage of analysis,” as David Berman once wrote, “unable to perform some simple task,” like canceling student loan debt. By its own diagnosis, liberalism was ill. It needed to be “rehabilitated.”
In issue no. 59 of The Baffler, “ILL LIBERALISM,” we’ll not do that. Instead we anatomize liberalism’s self-diagnosed illnesses, from its preoccupation with the post-Enlightenment idea that “history will judge us,” a way of deflecting responsibility for real-time justice in the case of atrocity; to the way it twists international consensus on nuclear deterrence, leaving nations saddled with terrifying weapons that have been used “repeatedly across the years to threaten and to dominate, though not always successfully”—and one expert’s prescription for “possibly the only non-destructive way out of the double bind of arms races.”
Then there’s the nearly forgotten history of “corporate liberalism,” which might help explain why liberals today love to align themselves with progressive causes in order to latch onto and temper the forces of populism, democratic socialism, and antitrust policy, among others. Liberalism has always been, we argue, the politics of business—all the way back to slavery. And the business of liberalism is making everyone, including liberals, sick.
Last year we learned that an unspecified number of computer networks affiliated with the American government were compromised—maybe still are—by Russian actors. Not long ago, an oil pipeline supplying the East Coast was successfully targeted in a ransomware scheme. Earlier this week the New York Times posted a test article that described watermelons found on Mars; this non-news was an echo of real news we heard last year about possible microbes living in the clouds of Venus.
On Earth, too, the epistemic weather is inclement. Possibly the most storm-damaged truth claim of all is the one that promises market exchange can provide a stable foundation for democratic life. It’s this dying rumor of liberalism that Tope Folarin considers in “Masters of Reality,” the opening essay of this fifty-eighth issue of the magazine, where the childhood memory of a transaction gone wrong hints at the white arrangement of truth. In very much the same spirit, Tarence Ray’s “United in Rage” has in its sights the web of myths that’s pushed the opioid crisis in eastern Kentucky, a region plagued by the kind of transactional logic that has offered the poor not the truth but rather another means to die. Their mortal remains are often subject to yet more bureaucratic dealing, as we hear in Wendy Selene Pérez’s “Letter From Texas,” a story of migration, debt, and a family’s struggle to repatriate a loved one’s ashes to Mexico at the pandemic’s height. Mohammad Ali, meanwhile, writes of his experience reporting on Hindu vigilantes in Modi’s India, where a “fringe” ideology has now become a constant threat to the country’s Muslim population and journalism’s “conventions of self-effacement and objectivity” are little match for the grief and fear endured by Muslim reporters.
Famous men, in these conditions, act mysteriously, or much worse. In Hussein Omar’s survey of Edward Said’s career, we see how a charismatic public intellectual can easily become a cipher for a biographer’s ideas about what matters. New York mayoral also-ran Andrew Yang, in Matthew Shen Goodman’s analysis, likewise loses himself to competing truths, in this case about the political market-value of Asian American life. Madison Mainwaring dissects the horrors of ongoing sexual abuse in elite French cultural institutions, where men become rumors to evade detection, responsibility, and prosecution.
We don’t know how to cut through this electrofog—to find what David Hume called “the secret connexion” that explains why one event follows another. But we suspect whatever works will keep to the light of Jess McAllen’s “The Anti-Antidepressant Syndicate,” which uncovers Marxists and Scientologists alike in its effort to get to the bottom (or the top) of the anti-psychiatry debate. Or Evan Malmgren’s strange trip into the Quiet Zone of those living in fear of 5G. Or Marlowe Granados’s defense of the bimbo—a figure in pop culture who is always beset by nasty rumors. Or J.W. McCormack and John Semley’s inquiries into the fiction of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, respectively, or new fiction from Alexandra Kleeman—all consulted or presented here, but never made into an instrument, a smokescreen, or even a rumor.
Baffler no. 57 takes its title, “Movements and Campaigns,” from Richard Rorty in Dissent. Is it better, his question went, to complete discrete projects in solidarity with individual interest groups, or to focus our energies on “building a movement”? In other words, how do we pick up the pieces and prevent the current global disaster from being used to further exploit us? And how do we make sure that we get what we need to survive the next one?
Looking to the last century, George Scialabba cracked open Louis Menand’s new history of art and thought during the Cold War, an important work that nonetheless misses its chance at a cohesive understanding of the era’s driving political concerns (in favor of electing Menand’s own dubious pantheon of culture-heroes). William Giraldi gets in a quick word for literary obsession. “Say what you will about obsessives,” he writes, “but they know suffering, and they know suffering because they know sacrifice, and they also know sacrifice’s confederate devotion.” Britt Stigler takes a pragmatic view of high art in her consideration of the harm done to workers in American ballet. The work, she asserts, is no less physically punishing for the devotion of its practitioners, and the way out, if there is one, is in robust support of the arts and good old-fashioned organizing. Across the world, Alizeh Kohari reports on the labor struggle of a Pakistani fishing community.
And those campaigns? Well, recently they’ve left a lot to be desired. Exhibit artist Lucas Sharp, once a member of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s design team, autopsies that ill-fated branding exercise and calls upon artists and designers to more clearly draw the line between commerce and participatory democracy. But answers to our questions aren’t much more likely be found in the larger-than-expected decaying particle lumps of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the spectacular collapse of which is covered at length in Brendan O’Connor’s “When the Party’s Over.”
More politically promising are the subjects of essays, in this issue, by Olúfęmi Táíwò on the surprising power of ostensibly failed political actions in both Kenya and Ireland; Keisha Blain on black women in the United States as “key political actors, working to obtain justice for their loved ones and also attempting to change the nature of policing in this country”; and Simon Balto on the legacy of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Taken broadly and variously, they form a spectrum of resistance—from Black Marxism (or Marxist-Leninism) to more pragmatic varieties of black activism. Just as importantly, they offer a way of thinking about the “morality of risk” that underwrites all communities that look after their weakest members. How do we get people to stick their necks out for one another, even when they don’t have to?
In the pandemic, Sarah Jaffe sees her way to a world in which that kind of care, exemplified by the black women activists of the Welfare Rights movement, is supported and compensated as all work should be. “We remain cut off from so many radical imaginings of ways we might arrange ourselves to safely share caring responsibilities,” she writes. “But this could always have been otherwise, and this moment of obvious breakdown ought to inspire us to dream differently once again.”
A public sphere drunk for years on Trumpism and anti-Trumpism has meant a lack of attention paid to everything else. In Baffler no. 56, our writers mine borderlands and boxing rings, national forests and MFA programs, to ask the questions omitted by our emaciated public sphere. For one: What about counterpublics?
Issue 56, “The Counterpublic Option,” is an alternative made up of alternatives to the berserk Trump years and the frothing liberal malaise. In “The Judgment of Paris,” Lizzie O’Shea finds, in the counterpublic principles of the Paris Commune, which she contrasts with the inegalitarian mania of Facebook, ideas and policies that may help us avoid content nausea. Barry Yeoman, in “Battle Hymns of the Old South,” visits Graham, North Carolina, where “activists of different races and generations [are] building a superstructure larger than their individual organizations” and thereby challenging the mutations of neo-Confederacy sprouting in the South. Dan Royles likewise considers an overlooked counterpublic of the American South when he recounts the life-saving AIDS activism of Black gay men in Atlanta and elsewhere.
In the same vein, exhibit artist GenderFail contributes typefaces in homage to the historic STAR and ACT UP movements and the activists of today’s “Say Their Name,” memorializing black Americans murdered by police in an act of cross-group solidarity. And Lina Mounzer, in “Going Beyond the Veil,” raises her objections against ‘aib, a Lebanese euphemism for the regime of shaming that places women in an impossible public and private bind. Looking to our shared ecological world, Sami Emory questions the fate of German forests “co-opted by artists, historians, Nazis, politicians across the spectrum, and scientists.”
Here to add not much at all to the conversation are the renegade idiots of Silicon Valley, whose more recent intellectual pursuits have shown us, Aaron Timms writes, what happens when the counterpublic impulse goes strangely and stupidly wrong. The culture trust incubates its own particular stupidities, as Kyle Paoletta demonstrates in his essay on the craft advice of writer George Saunders, which seems “less like a creative endeavor than assembling flat-packed IKEA furniture,” and the homogeneity of contemporary MFA fiction. Meanwhile, Nathan Goldman and Cristina Rivera Garza find the counterpublic project explored and tested in the work of Guido Morselli and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Irish writer Declan Ryan writes about family, class, and boxing, a sport that has a foothold wherever deprivation can be found. Not all counterpublics, it turns out, are created with the same pretensions to equality.
Charon, the ferryman of the dead, is more like an Uber driver than a salaried employee. And his rates, in the Covid era, are surging. Now our desperate video chats with the hospitalized dying are coins in their mouths—the psychopomp’s fare. Our wits crazed with grief, we still have to find a way to survive this depression and Depression, to make ends meet. This issue of The Baffler, no. 55, has arrived too soon—it is too soon to take a full accounting of those who are gone. But the waves of the dead are arriving on the shores of the underworld, and someone has to balance the books.
We can be thankful that the dead, at times, leave instructions. In Debra Levine’s “You are Witness to a Crime,” the life of ACT UP activist and artist Ray Navarro is revisited with militancy, and his memory serves to remind us of Mark Lowe Fisher’s injunction to “bury me furiously”—to pay Charon’s fare with political might and rage aimed at those with the titles to govern but not the decency. If there are parallels and non-parallels between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19, they are to be found in Levine’s writing, as well as in the efforts of our exhibition artist and essayist Ann Cvetkovich, who gathers the life-work of gay artist Robert Lynch into what she calls an “archive of feelings.” Hai Dang Phan, meanwhile, studies the photography of An-My Lê, much of it concerned with curious American reenactments of the Vietnam War, whose history is personal for the photographer. “In Lê’s silent American scenes,” Phan discovers, “the work of mourning is ongoing—as is the work of cultivation and recreation, protest and celebration.”
Elsewhere, Bongani Kona excavates the bloody years of Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga and “the ambient, hushed-up violence that lingered on long after the war.” Ben Ehrenreich laments the death of the state of California, razed this year by fires, where the “Anglo-European settlement of the Americas came up against the hard edge of the continent. This is where the conquest ended, and where it bounces back.” Hanif Abdurraqib weighs a tentative political hope against a surfeit of grief in a year of tumultuous organizing. Emily Harnett provides an account of those who claim to have glimpsed paradise before being ferried back to this purgatorial Earth. And Jess Bergman reckons with her own experience of death in order to undermine the prevailing story about our incoming president—that in this time of Depression and mourning, he is the grief-stricken governor we need. Biden’s sophistic project, it turns out, is the opposite of ours: he intends to strip-mine Hades in order to waylay socialism in the living world.
What can we glean from a look back at America’s first Great Depression—and its last socialist putsch? The striking taxi drivers of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty might give us much to hope for and much to grieve, according to Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein’s account of workers’ perennial struggle for control of their unions. Wen Stephenson, for his part, finds a model in Stud’s Terkel’s oral history of that period, Hard Times. “No doubt the word “solidarity” has been worn out,” he writes, “overused to the point of abuse, but I don’t know a better one for what I’m seeking—and for what seems so needed now, at a time of national, global, and for so many, personal crisis. It’s hard to see a way forward without it.”
In the realm of cultural decay, A.S. Hamrah watches the documentaries he’s been saving to watch at home all through a year without movie theaters. Adrian Nathan West and Matthew McKnight offer twin essays on the American novelists Gary Indiana and Percival Everett, in whose works low, dishonest characters are subjected to the putrefying gaze of televised true-crime drama and “the churn of racialized capitalism.” The hustlers and tricksters who populate their novels can’t be blamed for trying to wriggle out of such easy judgment: “in the end, people are unscrupulous, and it is no surprise they do unscrupulous things.” On the other hand, there’s no cheating a psychopomp.
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.