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.
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.
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.”
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 tokids 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.”
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.
“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.
What’s to blame for our disgraceful turn toward fascism? “The scourge of populism,” your Ivy-educated tutor answers confidently. But the liberal framing of populism as an uprising of unruly rednecks in MAGA gear, writes founding editor Thomas Frank in his introduction to Issue no. 42, is a betrayal of “the faith in ‘the people’ that built unions and fought World War II.” He recalls producing The Baffler’s first populism issue in 1999, when the right’s coopting of the term “was a historical mystery that needed to be unraveled and understood.” Now, of course, analysts across the political spectrum take right-wing populism for granted, accepting it as gospel rather than a dangerous perversion of the populist ideal. Editor in chief Chris Lehmann corrects these liberal policy mavens and pseudo-intellectuals and restores populism to its historical roots.
Kathryn Olmsted takes a fresh look at Richard Hofstadter’s old idea of the “paranoid style” in American politics, and Liza Featherstone exposes a culture of consultancy that discourages political participation outside of the voting booth. Speaking of election time, J.W. McCormack explores the bizarre history of the U.S. campaign song, warning ominously that “we will all grow old watching campaigns lay their withered hands on The Cure, Belle and Sebastian, and the Butthole Surfers as they upgrade their inventory, but, in the end, the song remains the same.”
Hope springs eternal, however, and in Detroit we find Anne Elizabeth Moore uncovering the vast fundraising operations of the so-called “Pink Wave,” a new crop of women candidates without much new messaging to offer. Sean Patrick Cooper spills the beans about his stint as a ghostwriter of memoirs for the uber-rich. John Ganz also finds himself in the recovered-memory business, recounting how the paleoconservatives of the nineties found an avatar in David Duke and laid the groundwork for our current political nightmare.
In the arts, where we can count on a watery gruel of “poptimism” being served up day after day, things aren’t looking much better. Jennifer Piejko surveys the landscape of contemporary public art in “The Duckie and the Anal Plug.” Tom Carson looks back at a classic film that seems, at first glance, to explain Donald Trump’s rise and finds only more liberal smugness. Kyle Paoletta lambastes what passes for criticism in the saturated era of “Peak TV.” Chris Reitz assesses the state of country music today and finds a lamentable crassness in the way its artists write about wealth and class. Where prior generations sang wistfully about longing to escape poverty and the corrosive effects of wealth, today’s country song narratives have a clear aim: hit the lotto and buy a boat (not to mention a $300 Yeti cooler).
Nearly two years out from our nation’s most recent collective psychotic break, we asked Baffler contributors to reflect on the various therapies, cures, and psychological fixes available in our spiritually and financially bankrupt age. And so in Baffler no. 41, Miya Tokumitsu tracks the neoliberal rhetoric of self-care, which has “steadily eradicated the language of solidarity and class consciousness, honed through collective struggle, and replaced it with exhortations to ‘do what you love’ and ‘live your best life.’” Gary Greenberg recounts his travails as a psychotherapist in the wake of the 2016 election, and Becca Rothfeld anatomizes the particularly American cult of self-help from its eighteenth-century roots to its present-day iterations, offering a defense of the much-maligned “unhappy woman.”
And what about better living through chemistry? Jessa Crispin takes a look under the hood of Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal snake oil factory, and dissects its appeal for women patients used to neglect, scorn, and routine misdiagnosis at the hands of a patriarchal medical establishment. For her part, Rebekah Frumkin unpacks the history of LSD as a tool of social control, from early CIA experiments to the current vogue for microdosing, learning how “a linchpin of the 1960s hippie rebellion is now being used to promote productivity among the ruling class.”
While we’re telling ourselves stories, Merve Emre recounts the attempts to subject Hitler to the kind of personality testing now popular on corporate retreats, and Jessica Loudis examines the rise of “corporate storytelling.” Adolph Reed looks at recent narratives of black uplift, most auspiciously in Black Panther and Selma, and finds something missing. Russell Jacoby suggests that there’s more to the ideology of diversity than the pale imitation offered by neoliberal politics. And Nathaniel Friedman challenges liberal America’s fetish for the “imperfect” politician, a supposedly pragmatic hero who upholds the status quo at all costs. Rafia Zakaria reports on the untold stories of women and children victimized by foreign aid workers, asking why international aid work attracts sexual abusers—and how a postcolonial system provides cover for continued wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, many basement-dwellers have found solace in the entertainment of videogames, which is why we sent J.C. Hallman to thwart their aspirations to mindlessness by way of his quest to determine whether these violent trifles could ever achieve the status of art. Finally, Lauren Oyler mines the depressions of social media and expounds on the deleterious effects of her own Twitter addiction. It’s an experiment, to be sure, and a trial. We just wish we could promise you therapeutic relief.
In Baffler no. 40, our contributors sift through the various late-capitalist invasions of our privacy in the era of hyper-targeted advertising, social media exhibitionism, and never-ending surveillance.
In the world of technology, Yasha Levine explores Silicon Valley’s calculated campaign to keep our data out of the hands of governments and in the hands of corporations. Joanne McNeil considers the dystopian implications of facial recognition software. There is no limit to the dehumanizing terrors of the internet, and as Molly Crabapple demonstrates in the case of Nina Droz Franco, social media can turn a private citizen into a public figurehead nearly overnight.
Like everything else in our land of opportunity, privacy remains a right only for those who can afford it. Aaron Timms dives into the world of Manhattan’s “supertalls,” towering residences that guard the privacy of the super-rich, while Kim Phillips-Fein documents the panopticon that traps the poor in a net of government and for-profit surveillance. Jim Sleeper outlines the distorted view of free speech propagated by conservatives after Citizens United. M. H. Miller brings us a Kafkaesque story of a family facing down massive student debt in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the monolithic multinational banks that ignore their plight, and the trendy online refinancing company that offers dubious salvation.
The litany of invasions and abuses rolls on in dispatches from Alec MacGillis on the fracking of southwestern Pennsylvania and from Quinn Slobodian and Stuart Schrader on Charles Murray’s formative years in Thailand, where the bigoted philosophy famously displayed in The Bell Curve first blossomed.
On the culture front, Rochelle Gurstein wonders at the moral and spiritual injuries of our age of exposure, Nick Pinkerton offers a capsule history of surveillance cinema, novelist Amitava Kumar explores the writer’s power to upend his own privacy for the good of his readers, and Hanson O’Haver finds the paranoid style alive and well in the world of skateboarding. Happy reading, and remember: Big Brother is watching.
Henry Adams defined politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.” Behold Baffler no. 39, wherein our contributors plumb the depths of the ever-destabilizing, digitally deranged neoliberal order. Jonathon Sturgeon examines how civil wars have spread across the globe right under the noses of cultural arbiters celebrating our “long peace.” Scott Beauchamp explores how the development of video games has mirrored the imperatives—and drawn directly on the funding and expertise—of the Pentagon.
In the sphere of cultural confrontation, Andrew Hartman surveys the changing face of the culture wars in the political moment of #MeToo and the Parkland student protests, while Maximillian Alvarez ponders the future of generational conflict in an era of seemingly permanent austerity. Barbara Ehrenreich asks whether we’ve been misapprehending the motives of patriarchal predators, and Robin West looks at how harassment law has perversely codified certain kinds of unwelcome sexual attention as a cultural norm.
Meanwhile, Lucy Ives and Yasmin Nair consider the language tossed about in the hallowed halls of our corporatized universities. Lauren Oyler examines the barren landscape of contemporary fiction and the strange career of Helen DeWitt, one of America’s great living novelists. Jacob Siegel tells the strange tale of crypto-anarchist gun merchant Cody Wilson. And Jason Linkins revisits the truth-averse efforts of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as the origin of many of the worst features of the Trumpian propaganda machine. The unilateral disarmament of the liberal mind before such challenges functions as the great enabler of our new millennial age of hatred.
Baffler no. 38 presents an eclectic array of musings on the cults, sects, and holy orders populating the cybernated badlands and civic swamps of our accursed epoch. From Barbara Ehrenreich on the agonizing postmodern asceticism that is fitness culture, to Ann Neumann on the Mexican folk idol who’s been conscripted into the drug wars, we’re tipping the innumerable, and often unchallenged, sacred cows of the Trump era. Jessica Loudis travels all the way to Georgia to investigate a new wave of Stalin nostalgia, while Bruce Bartlett pines for a Republican Party actually invested in economics. Eugene McCarraher scrutinizes the deranged doctrines of Ayn Rand, chief theologian of the neoliberal church of capital, and Jeff Hauser takes on a cult of fundamentalist political scientists bent on predicting us into oblivion.
Lest we forget the shibboleths of tech: there’s Corey Pein’s exploration of the impending call-system apocalypse, David Golumbia’s salvo on the overeager proponents of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and Aaron Timms’s deep dive down the capital-flush halls of the predictive data industry. Even the world of entertainment—where yesterday’s cult film fandoms united loners and weirdos in the pursuit of truly subversive art—is now the hallowed ground of streaming-service movie buffs and chino-clad yuppies seeking obscure films without the IRL community they once offered, according to Judy Berman. It’s enough to make even the most stalwart among us don our tin foil hats and settle in for whatever apocalyptic vision is on offer.
Throughout history, corruption was always held to be the great downfall of Western republics. It signaled the telltale, inevitable moment when public virtues succumbed to rampaging private vices. As institutional rot, avarice, and dishonor continued to spread through the upper reaches of governance, the social order at large would descend into squalor. Keen to embrace any faint semblance of order on the brink of the abyss, citizens would relinquish the hard-won principles of self-rule and rally to strongmen figures—caesars, absolute monarchs, and fascists of all description.
In civic-republican thought, the glumly predicable endpoint of this devolution was empire. But since the United States was founded as an imperial republic, the basic terms of this classic diagnosis were hopelessly confounded from the get-go. The American nation was conceived as a territorial empire and a formal democracy, a solemn exercise in Protestant salvation and a raw descent into the capitalist carnivalesque, a slaveholding, native-slaying theater of Anglo race war and a cradle of individual liberty.
It’ll take a lot more than hashtag activism and hypocrisy callouts to displace our Gollum-in-Chief, and all he represents, from his bully pulpit. So behold Baffler No. 37, “Power, Corruption, and Lies,” which seeks to lay bare the corrupt forces that simultaneously imbue and make a systematic mockery of the American experiment. Andrew Hartman plumbs the antidemocratic dogma of public-choice theory, as it was bred in the privileged white sanctums of the American right. Adele Stan gives us a glimpse of the Sinclair Group’s monopolistic bid to strip mine the local TV news ecosystem and carpet-bomb it with advertorial content in the MAGA vein. Jason Linkins offers a bracing intellectual portrait of James Bennet, the man who fills the New York Times op-ed section with zombie delusions of sweet neoliberal reason. Meagan Day chronicles the great rolling grift of payday lending, while Ben Davis shows how the art world serves as an obliging front for Trump-era money-laundering scams. Other modes of cultural expression are likewise descending into ossified, moneyed formalism—from the Spotified-and-abandoned music scene, as anatomized in separate accounts by Liz Pelly and Rhett Miller, to the surveillance-addled state of our movie screens and TV streams, per Tom Carson’s suitably rattled survey.