The Baffler,  December 31, 2019

A Most Baffling Year

So long, 2019!

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We’ve reached the end of another low, dishonest decade. The last year of the 2010s began inauspiciously: in the midst of a government shutdown over the Democrats’ refusal, during an uncharacteristic showing of spine, to approve $5.6 billion in funding for Donald Trump’s border wall. They won the standoff, not that it counted for much: in February, Trump declared the “invasion” at the border a national emergency to get his money and has since vetoed two attempts to end it. Meanwhile, the UN reported in August that 514 migrants had died in the Americas since January, nearly half at the U.S.-Mexico border. Eight people died in ICE custody in fiscal year 2019. And the Trump administration has doubled down on their efforts to criminalize humanitarian aid in the borderlands . . . while a bipartisan consensus begins to crystallize around the quasi-eugenic concept of a “smart wall.”

Imminent ecological collapse is proving to be even more imminent than predicted: Greenland’s ice is melting seven times faster than in the 1990s, which will put 400 million people at risk of flooding—every year—by 2100. A million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, and that’s not counting the ones we’ve already lost: the blue pike, the California grizzly bear, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Eastern elk, the heath hen, the New Mexico sharp-tailed grouse, the Pasadena freshwater shrimp, the passenger pigeon, the Rocky Mountain locust, the silver trout, and the Southern California kit fox among them. But hey, for those with the means to reign over the coming water wars, at least there’s now a flashy vehicle suited to our apocalyptic times: the Tesla Cybertruck. Hopefully Elon Musk will have time to work out the kinks in those “bulletproof” windows, lest the unruly masses get any funny ideas before they’re swallowed by the sea.

For now, the rich and powerful can content themselves with lording over the rest of us the old-fashioned way: tax evasion. While audit rates on the wealthy have decreased dramatically, last year the four hundred richest Americans paid a lower total tax rate than any other income group. No wonder billionaires have been kicking and screaming since phrases like “top marginal tax rate” reentered the public consciousness with a vengeance. More than a year into the bloodless cage match for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have emerged as the candidates most likely to give oligarchs the vapors, though a clown car’s worth of contenders continue to vie for the top spot, dragging contentless presidential tomes behind them. Have we mentioned there’s still another month until the Iowa caucuses? 

If 2019 began with a hollow, symbolic victory for “shade queen” Nancy Pelosi, it ended with another: the impeachment of Donald Trump. (Surprise! His approval ratings increased during the proceedings.) The same week, Congress gave our cruel and parasitic health care system—that drains the life savings of half of all new cancer patients in—an end-of-year treat in the form of billions of dollars in tax breaks. Thank goodness we have some great art to see us through all this darkness: Baby Yoda, the split-pea-colored fetal appendage of Disney’s hundred-billion-dollar entertainment monopoly, has just been declared the future of Hollywood!

If all of the above makes you want to lie down in front of the next possibly fatal gender reveal—reader, you aren’t alone. While we can’t stop the ceaseless march of time, we’ll do our best to keep dressing down the bullshit. For now, here’s a selection of some of 2019’s most exacting salvos, outbursts, essays, and reviews. Never say we didn’t warn you.

 

The Whitest News You Know

By Aaron Miguel Cantú, Issue No. 43

We need a far more profound conception of white supremacy and how the mainstream press has always been complicit in its maintenance.

 

In the Shadow of Lincoln Yards

By Martha Bayne, January 23

A $5 billion development threatens one of Chicago’s most beloved DIY venues—and much more.

 

404 Page Not Found

By Kate Wagner, Issue No. 43

The internet is perhaps the most potent and active delivery system in history for the thesis “capitalism will obliterate everything you know and love”—online it happens in real time.

 

The Puppet Master

By B.D. McClay, February 22

In the novels of John Williams, everything happens suddenly and signifies nothing.

 

I Saw Satan

By Andrew Marzoni, Issue No. 44

How did a conceptual artist who spent the 1960s hobnobbing with the Beatles end up, in the 1970s, speaking in tongues on a farm in rural Iowa?

 

Close Encounters of the Digital Kind

By Emily Harnett, March 8

UFOs have always promised a bigger and fuller world, the possibility that something strange, transformative, and possibly sexual can happen to you in the sky. 

 

The Magic Kingdom

By Sarah Marshall, Issue No. 45

The dark side of the Disney dream.

 

The Abominations of Congress

By Dave Denison, April 16

Most people are aware that Congress is perennially in the grip of the high-paid influencers who haunt its marbled lobbies and fund congressional campaigns.

 

Plight of the Squeegee Kids

By Kaila Philo, Issue No. 46

How Baltimore’s youth became pawns in a racist culture war.

 

Big Mood Machine

By Liz Pelly, June 10

Spotify pursues emotional surveillance for global profit.

 

The Women Who Knew Too Much

By Niela Orr, Issue No. 46

When it comes to the punishment of black women in horror cinema, all roads lead to Elvira Stitt, the hero of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

 

I Feel Better Now

By Jake Bittle, July 11

Depressed by the burden of life under capitalism? There’s an app for that!

 

Hollowed Out

By Tarence Ray, Issue No. 47

Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.

 

Saviors, Killers, Profiteers

By Ann Neumann, August 6

The Congolese know that, century after century, Western involvement brings death and destruction for the sake of profit.

 

Land Without Bread

By Catherine Tumber, Issue No. 47

The loosely defined proposal for a Green New Deal hits the panic button, American-style, but it does not exactly lay a cornerstone.

 

All Right Already

By Jacob Silverman, October 28

If it’s not clear already, then it must be said: Facebook is a right-wing company.

 

The Humanoid Stain

By Barbara Ehrenreich, Issue No. 48

Cave art suggests that humans once had better ways to spend their time.

 

The Leftovers

By John Semley, December 10

Old fashioned racketeering is downright homey compared to corporatized forms of exploitation practiced by the modern capitalist-as-gangster.

 

R.I.P., Kill Your TV

By Alexander Zaitchik, Issue No. 48

By escaping its box and slipping into every crevice of our lives, television has performed the devil’s trick of making us believe it doesn’t exist.

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