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“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.
 September 2018
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.
 March 2018
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.
The prospect of bringing human history in for a top-down rehab has always been irresistible to earnestly striving Americans. What is it about the project of dramatically upgrading the quality of our species-being that is so quintessentially American—and why is it so reliably doomed to the most disastrous kind of failure in the execution stage? From Eli Whitney to Elon Musk, Americans have envisioned history as merely the raw material that our restlessly tinkering visionaries employ to deliver the same basic goods in faster, cheaper, more streamlined fashion. In Baffler No. 36, “A Crack in Everything,” we take a more sober look at this amnesiac, binge-drinking approach to social improvement as we imagine it to be foreordained in these United States. Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan explore how all the many worst-case scenarios associated with drastic climate change have poisoned our ability to experience our own humanity as anything other than grim folly. Yasha Levine has an edifying scoop on the ever-widening reach of our surveillance state. What’s more, the traditional American salves of manic self-renovation are coming up empty. Emmett Rensin canvases the new landscape of resistance-themed political consultancy, and finds little more than vacuous sloganeering and New Age flapdoodle—all for a low, low five-figure fee. And Laurie Penny puts her finger on the anxious pulse of the gigged out, debt-ridden, catastrophe-prone twenty-first century, coming away with a sound prescription of prolonged bed rest. For all this abundantly justified pessimism of the intellect, though, your Baffler correspondents share a robust optimism of the will. Zachary Roth has delivered a bracing account of how New Hampshire is now in the vanguard of the right-wing crusade to suppress ballot access among our poorer and more transient populations. Angela Nagle descries the deeper roots of the Trumpist putsch in a revolt against democratic manners—and suggests, in turn, that a recovery of the deeper cultural commitments informing those manners can afford a productive way out of our grim political impasse. It’s true that these might seem, at first glance, like meager foundations for a less toxic American tradition. But it’s also true that you’ve got to start somewhere.
In The Baffler’s frisky nineties youth, we’d designate the liberationist delusions of consumer capitalism under the running designation “New Bad Things.” This casual filing system seemed well suited to an age that was tricked out in every conceivable sort of lifestyle novelty. But the New Bad things have lately mutated out of control. In a few short political generations, Lyndon Johnson’s bold vision of the Great Society has ceded the field to its photographic negative; we are now marooned in the sprawling wasteland of the Bad Society. How did we get here, exactly? That’s what this thirty-fifth Baffler is determined to explain. Starting with our rancid head of state, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw dissects the racist logic behind Donald Trump’s rise to power—a tale in which liberal fables of “colorblindness” play no small part. Adele Stan takes a close look at the networks of private capital that allow our Trumpian overlords to ransack the public weal with impunity. James Livingston chronicles the way that American culture has yoked itself to the work ethic, even at the moment when all the basic conditions of industrial-age labor are obsolescing before our eyes. Perhaps, then, we are at last free to pursue glorious, self-determined leisure of the kind that Marx and Engels extolled in The German Ideology? No such luck, Miya Tokumitsu reports: the American romance with leisure is a rote and joyless affair, resembling nothing so much as the drudgery of the shop floor. Our cinemas and streaming set-top boxes offer no relief, notes Tom Carson: the superhero sagas now stoking the culture industries are studies in social fatalism. And as Ann Friedman reminds us, blue-state secession efforts are only cruel delusions. What, then, is to be done? Far be it from Team Baffler to prescribe a reformist blueprint, but if we were to make a start, we could do worse than to build on the researches of our contributors by resisting the various best-case scenarists still contaminating our civitas. Heed our own chastened editorial history, and remember that bad things can always get worse.
This isn’t shaping up to be the millennium we were promised. The data-bedazzled twenty-first century was to be a time of painlessly enhanced social justice and seamless market accommodation. The arc of history bent unmistakably toward a bigger, shinier Information Age. Instead, America slouches toward this century’s second decade with a lunatic bigot directing our national politics. Fascism is on the march in these United States, and the painful truth is that it’s been feeding on all the social forces we’d naively entrusted to a feckless expert class. In recognition of this dramatically altered status quo, The Baffler gives you Issue 34, “The Snare of Preparation.” Mystified by the counsel of economists who’ve made a punitive fetish of the idea of austerity? Dean Baker dismantles all the errors that make up this profession-wide delusion. Still flummoxed by how fundamentally worthless the polling industry proved to be over the course of Election ’16? Worry not: Sam Kriss has identified the ancient superstitions that explain the follies of political soothsaying in our high-tech civitas. Thomas Frank pierces the dark heart of the liberal cult of curation, while Yasha Levine ventures into the wild frontiers of Russian cyberhacking—and finds that here, too, a body of self-anointed experts is foisting a self-interested boondoggle on our credulous press and battered sense of procedural fair play. If all that hasn’t left you scandalized enough, check out Carey Dunne’s account of the ghastly posture fad known as the Mensendieck System, or Brandon Garrett’s report on the abuses packaged under the professional imprimatur of courtroom forensic science. Meanwhile, Rick Perlstein lays out, in sobering detail, the empty presumptions that inform the cult of smartness across yon political spectrum. How, in the age of Trump, can we begin to reverse the march of credentialed folly? Fortunately, the Baffler business model forbids the publication of anything resembling “solutions journalism.” But even so, Alexander Zaitchik has returned from the occupation at Standing Rock with news of a principled left protest that actually worked—at least until our Orange Mussolini reopened the Dakota Access Pipeline with an executive order. Hey, the only person to tell you any of this might be easy would be a stupid fucking expert.
It may be puckish, or indeed perverse, to invoke the specter of opportunistic virtue at the dawn of the Trump age. In another sense, though, it seems entirely apt to do so. Virtue might be its own reward, but in the grand bazaar of the American business republic, it’s just another biddable brand, subject to all the familiar races to the bottom that have long debauched our public life. Every market-savvy extoller of the American historical mission has a virtue spiel ready to slap onto the urgent cause of the moment, from the privatized schoolroom to our drone-and-data-powered empire. Policy big thinkers, military strategists, and neoliberal nudgers have appointed themselves the permanent guardians of moral uplift and the public good. Squinting through our shot glasses, your despondent Baffler brain trust beheld this uniquely squalid corps and dubbed it “The Virtue Cartel.” Who has produced the Virtue Cartel, and what does it want from us? To find out, we dispatched our crack Baffler team of virtue trackers. Suzy Hansen, our correspondent in Istanbul, peers into the lethal abyss known as the American imperial mission. Yasmin Nair parses the disingenuous rights rhetoric of our neoliberal policy elite, and David V. Johnson plumbs the bottomless self-regard of the omni-explaining journalists at Tim Shorrock dissects the fatal misappraisals of the counterinsurgency establishment, while Gary Greenberg gives a new account of how we have backed our way into a second generation of tail-chasing conflicts over the alleged scourge of political correctness. Yet virtue, properly construed, is much more than a racket for the plugged-in, behavior-monitoring plutocracy. The real tragedy of the Virtue Cartel is that its architects have arrogated to themselves the power to enliven the dry bones of the Federalist-era conception of virtue with their own market-anointed panaceas and snake-oil cures. As Robert Westbrook argues, the tradition of (small-r) republican virtue is our lost civic birthright and might serve as the skeleton key to a broader democratic awakening. In the aftermath of the soul-crushing civic spectacle known as Campaign 2016, this is an oddly uplifting moral to wrest from the ruination of the American polis.
 December 2016
Rare it is that the careworn American public casts its collective gaze heavenward—unless in desperate prayer for debt relief, affordable housing, non-extortionate college instruction, or any of the other fugitive comforts that our grand neoliberal consensus has catapulted into the unreachable empyrean. In the hushed and reverent darkness of the Baffler observatory, however, we hew closely to the counsel of that great socialist bon vivant Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” But what is it we see, exactly, when we take the measure of the cosmic vastness that engulfs us? Baffler 32, “Muzak of the Spheres,” is a mystic portal, yielding many strange paeans to unknown worlds. In “Material Issue,” Jackson Lears peers deeply into the Western metaphysical past and rescues a neglected tradition of animistic materialism—an account of physical being that bristles with new possibilities of life and profound implications for how we think about our planet and our pinched allotment of mortal time upon it. Barbara Ehrenreich, in “Displaced Deities,” supplies a puckish headcount of the many gods—greater and lesser—sent rudely packing by the unwavering certainties of scientific consensus. Sam Kriss takes deadly aim at the allied brittle dogmas of the New Atheist set, while Jonathon Sturgeon stalks the wild transcendentalist American raconteur who is forever trying to eat the universe. Astra Taylor delves into the untamed properties of nonhuman personhood, animal, vegetable, and corporate. You’ll even find your humble head Baffler pondering the spick-and-span household gods that lord over the surprisingly totemistic cult of domestic order. Truly, we live in an epoch, and a New World, of many fearful signs and wonders. As R. W. B. Lewis famously wrote in the middle of the last century, “the American myth saw. . . a divinely granted second chance for the human race, after the first one had been so disastrously fumbled in the darkening Old World.” At the same time, the dismal specter of Trumpism is poised to swallow the fragile civic-republican myth of the New World’s promise whole, with corruption, vice, and reality-TV hucksterism spitting out only the rancid poison of Old World imperial decay. For the beckoning American cosmos to translate into anything resembling a usable past, we must resist all manner of authoritarian certainty, from truth-averse Trumpery to the feckless and arrogant bromides of scientism. And that’s why, in very diverse registers of historical argument, Rick Perlstein, Ann Neumann, and Jessa Crispin have all tendered invaluable cautions against the enormous condescension of posterity, be it the present, Trump-inflected quest for an eternally recurring modern political past or the sanitized vision of a predestined American empire. So join us, fearlessly Baffled fellow adventurers, as we stir groggily up from the gutters and scan the ever-shifting scene overhead, wondering all the while at the strange new worlds beneath our feet. Occasionally, we encounter readers keen to acquire actual ink-and-paper copies of our publication. Subscribe before October 25 and your subscription will begin with a copy of “Muzak of the Spheres.”