From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 4  March 1993

Bafflers Behind Bars

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The adventures of our editorial staff since the last issue.

As most of our readers who live in Chicago know by now, three of the Baffler editors (Greg Lane, “Diamonds” Dave Mulcahey, and me) were arrested the night before Columbus Day and held in one of the city’s grottiest jails for 12 to 18 hours. Our offense? We were accused or putting up flyers to promote an evening of readings at the Hot House, the well-known Wicker Park performance space. Obviously being imprisoned was unpleasant, what with the bologna sandwiches sans mayonnaise and the urine-stained concrete, but the most compelling aspect of the incident was the way it immediately drew the attention of a heretofore uninterested press.

Believing as we do that The Baffler has important ideas to introduce into the national discourse, we have tried for some time to get this magazine reviewed, mentioned, or discussed by the mainstream press, with very little success. Traditional methods of spreading the word (i.e., sending out copies to reviewers) failed utterly: evidently we are just too academic-sounding, or too serious, or too unserious, or too unslick, to be bothered with.

And then everything changed thanks to the Chicago police. Suddenly we slid perfectly into a favorite stereotype of the artistic lifestyle: the persecuted artists; the clear-eyed youths imprisoned for their beliefs; the daring avant-garde magazine whose ideas so shock the bourgeoisie that its editors have to be silenced by force. This time the response of the media was quick and sympathetic. We appeared soon after the arrest on a popular radio show covering the art scene, and an art-lifestyle paper ran an article (with photo) detailing our delicious detention. We had a new and marketable image: we were outlaws, rebels, the incarnation of the pose.

But unfortunately for our own myth, we were arrested by mistake. The authorities were hardly interested in persecuting The Baffler: they simply thought we were agitators posting anti-Columbus Day flyers along the next day’s parade route. Men as hardened as the Chicago Police know that literature is harmless, that clean-cut white boys like us are almost never a threat to property or the stability of the state. Nonetheless our flyers, which read “SUB VER SIVE” and “IRRI TAT ING” in 200–point type, were enough to convince them that we were out to disrupt the next day’s civic festivities. As several of the officers told us (and subsequently denied) while we were being booked, they had special orders that evening to prevent a radical group from “tagging” the loop area. That we were in fact postering for so innocuous an event as a poetry reading was cause for great amusement among our captors, once they had figured out who we actually were. They became quite pleasant and several of them even took copies of our “YOUR LIFESTYLE SUCKS” flyer to post in their offices. For all our calculated abrasiveness, the cops weren’t offended or uptight or abusive or stodgy. They just matter-of-factly locked us in a very small barred room and forgot about us for twelve hours.

It’s difficult for us to wax ironic or clever or outraged about all this, since the whole scenario was obvious to us as soon as the plainclothes lawmen pulled up and, spouting outraged pieties about private property, began going uninvited through our pockets. As one friend later commented, “tangible suppression” of this kind is something “most people just dream about.” With the handcuffs came visions of TV appearances and favorable reviews. The oppressiveness of our tiny cell (#6 on the 11th floor of the Municipal lockup at 11th and State, in case you ever wind up there) was relieved by the certainty of our impending fame. We emerged chastened and ready to assume our new role as photogenic Victims of State Persecution.

Who Reads The Baffler?

Of course we can’t be sure, but when, shortly after we purchased an ad in that esteemed publication, Spy magazine ran an article called “Everyone’s a Rebel” accompanied by a cover illustration that mirrored ours, we knew that our “American Nonconformist” article (Baffler #3) had had some effects on the upper echelons of the postmodern high command. Whether Spy just outright stole the idea or independently came up with an article based on the very same themes we described in our ad will remain forever a mystery. One thing is certain, however: this idea is gaining ever-wider circulation, will soon be commonplace, and The Baffler will never receive any credit for having first proposed it.

We were convinced even more of the article’s influence by the ever-increasing deluge of ads utilizing the Frank principles. Here’s a typical one, which promotes “Fila” brand athletic shoes in certain college-audience publications: in the upper left corner is a black and white snapshot (complete with old-fashioned white borders and other signifiers of age) of three basketball players, two of whom are glaringly white, from some benighted period in the distant, pre-MTV past. They are all three wearing crew-cuts, clunky black-framed glasses and standard basketball-team outfits, sitting passively on a bench with their arms folded, the ball resting flatly on the floor before them.

Consumers! the ad screams, Here is the Enemy, bereft of brand names or hip signifiers of any kind, the all-too-easy target of our unending disdain. And, sure enough, right next to them on the page is the single word sentence of damnation to which we condemn all things so vaguely but convincingly ‘old’: “CONFORMIST.” Ugh!

But immediately below lies our salvation. A large color picture of a young man of color, “RADICAL” (as his caption reads) in every way: he wears dreadlocks, an earring, and a most unconventional basketball suit; he spreads his legs wide and screams with consumer abandon as he stuffs the ball into the hoop; and of course all his clothing is marked prominently with brand names. He is different! He is new! And as the copy tells us, he is a rebel, “improving” his “attack” and “resisting” the pressure to “be one of the crowd.” Yow!

Whoever does Fila’s advertising certainly learned the lessons of Baffler #3. If you haven’t already, if you’re still fancying yourself a radical nonconformist because of your Alice in Chains records, your books by Lyotard, or some stuff you bought at Benetton or the Gap, make a REAL rebel purchase by sending us $5 and getting yourself a truly hip signifier. It comes in bright pink with blue letters, can be displayed easily from coat pockets, and packs a hundred-page pseudo-intellectual wallop that is sure to impress your friends.

To our regular readers we say: find this ad. Tear it out. Frame it or preserve it in a scrapbook. The Baffler guarantees it will be cause for much amusement not too rnany years hence, like Partridge Farnily lunchboxes are now and like the mid–80s Busch Beer fratboy with Ray-Bans, “duster,” bandanna, and “Busch”–embossed electric guitar will be by next fall. And whatever you do, don’t buy these shoes.    —Tom Frank

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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