A Story from America’s Literary Underground

This lecture took place at the City Club of San Diego on January 18, 2016.

I wish to begin by denying that I’m any kind of disreputable, died-in-the-wool East Coast liberal or leftist with an allergy to conservatism. I can’t let you believe it. Because then you wouldn’t know a surprising fact about The Baffler.

It’s true I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I work with my colleagues in New York. But I am not native to what Ted Cruz calls “New York values.” I was born in rural Adams County, Pennsylvania, and grew up there in Gettysburg amid an agricultural conservatism that you could credibly call deep-hewn. My father enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corp after graduating high school and, at 19, was fighting communists in Vietnam when I was born. My mother was a housewife and a secretary while I was in high school. My friends, my peer group, were the sons and daughters of plumbers, farmers, truck drivers, and soldiers.

For some reason, I went to college—and then kept going. College in Virginia turned me from a Republican to a Democrat; then a master’s degree in history at another Virginia college made my situation even worse, as I learned about the history of labor unions—a verboten topic back home—and the collective existence of African Americans in this country. I helped produce the first U.S. history textbook on CD-ROM at precisely the moment the Internet made CD-ROMs obsolete. Failing upward, in the American fashion I was now getting the hang of, I went on to the university of Rochester to study for a doctorate in history. More new worlds opened up. In 2000, a fluke happened. I landed a toe-hold at Harvard as a half-time lecturer. This persuaded my family that something must be going right. But little did they know. The bottom fell out of my academic career right around 2008.

But the unexpected always turns up. Two years later, after it had become became painfully clear that my failure as a college professor was likely to be permanent, that the aristocrats of mind had successfully repelled this particular incursion from the provinces, I received a very surprising phone call. It was The Baffler magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, Tom Frank, on the line from his home near Washington DC. I had heard from Tom a few weeks before, because I’d written an essay for The Baffler, and he had called to inform me that at a Labor Day conclave the publisher and financier had made manifest his intention to withdraw, and divert his resources to other pursuits. Tom could not publish my essay or anyone else’s. Oh well, that’s awful, I remember responding. How many times do you hear that a beloved magazine is so imperiled.

On this new call, though, Tom wondered whether I might be interested to give the magazine a go. That you don’t hear very much. I had never worked on a magazine before, much less run one. At this point—this was the fall of 2010—I was a ‘visiting assistant professor of history’ at Boston College, teaching a low-level survey course, making one third of what I’d made at Harvard, without benefits. I knew where this story was headed.

Tom was writing a column in the Wall Street Journal, where he was the editorial board’s token liberal. He had taken unholy delight in an essay that I had written about my unlikely stint teaching at Harvard. Writing that essay, “All the Privileged Must Have Prizes” in 2008 had pretty much cooked my goose in the academy. In the meritocracy way of life there is really nowhere to go after you violate the charmed circle. And you can’t do it twice, or else you permanently remove the outside possibility that, hey, maybe you just made a gauche offense, that you don’t really and truly think Harvard is a hedge fund that also happens to have a few classrooms attached.

My family members had been puzzled at my education, and now my professors were puzzled at my anti-education. The Baffler, clearly, was the only place for me—the only magazine in the country for which an essay titled ‘All the Privileged Must Have Prizes’ would be a point in my favor. To Tom’s question I heard myself saying yes, definitely. I hung up, stood up, walked down the hall to see my department chair, and quit. And since then, along with dozens of wonderful people also enthusiastic for this rare opportunity, we began trying to figure out how to marry an eighteenth-century idea—the general interest literary periodical—to twenty-first century technologies, in order to create space for independent thought, to beat the privileged academics at their own game. And lo and behold, I’m here today, four years later, to attest that The Baffler’s magazine’s second act has become a source of regeneration, a major and fast-growing repository of democratic values, wholly enmeshed in the new culture, thanks to a whole community, in fact, born afresh in its pages.

What is The Baffler? You could say we are a loosely formulated, tightly run, independent-minded collective of disaffiliated journalists and poets, under-paid artists and illustrators, closet utopians, ex-professors, and partially disenfranchised philosophers. The basement of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square serves as our editorial headquarters. From there, and in league with our publishing office in New York, we produce The Baffler as a quarterly magazine in print and digital editions, speak up online every day, and throw raucous parties around the country. From time to time we have the honor and pleasure of speaking to assemblies such as this one.

Our editorial program is a concatenation of social analysis, political observation, poems, stories, illustrations, jokes, prayers, and aphorisms. We don’t maintain anything as fancy as a mission statement. But ever since Tom Frank and his crew founded the magazine in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1988, its motto has been “the journal that blunts the cutting edge”—and that prompts us to jab at the zeitgeist, the pop icons and pet ideologies that keep Americans, well, you know, paralyzed, paranoid, halfway hysterical, and otherwise schizoid.

In addition to landing productively unproductive jabs on the quivering chin of the conventional wisdom—embodied, let’s say, by the Washington Consensus [World Bank, US Treasury Department, IMF, economic policy prescriptions for crisis-wracked nations]—we enjoy kicking back and mulling over problematiques of more mythological proportions: sex and power, work and play, friendship and politics, fashion and health, family and war. We’re generalists. We have no specialty, no niche. There is no subject we’re afraid of; and we abide no sacred cows.

As small d democrats in politics as well as in mind, we keep a close eye on the money-power—not only how it tends toward concentration, but also the way it talks to itself, explains itself, justifies itself. To be in magazine publishing now, at a time when the art of public argument has collapsed and the mainstream media has shrunk, is among other things to seek a fresh, direct vocabulary, one that’s capable of examining reigning prejudices and assumptions, of providing relief from management gibberish, of shaping and influencing public opinion, of gaining the trust of readers by refusing to talk down to them.

Think about what a rare and precious gift it is to work on this magazine. Born in 1988, at the dawn of an Information-age Economy that supposedly ended the modern age of ideological argument—when visions of human flourishing guided social change—The Baffler was then reborn in the middle of a global recession. What does that tell you? All along, the people who have edited and written the magazine have been passionately devoted to it, together in thrall to a conviction that keeps it evergreen. We are doing this because we believe in the value of free expression in a democracy, the history-making power of the word, the contest between truth and bullshit. The Baffler, as I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, is a playfully ironic title for a magazine. No, we do not aim to baffle you. Every time you read one of our essays, we are aiming to persuade you.

Now, if you’ve encountered magazines that offer commentary on current affairs, you know they appeal to your reason, or they invoke your conscience, and sometimes they do seem that they are trying either to frighten or guilt-trip you into paying attention. We believe that literary journalism needn’t be boring and shouldn’t be joyless, that a public prose engaged with collective values can at least occasionally rise to the level of discourse known as satire.

It’s true the heavy use of irony in our essays can produce an acerbic tone, one that can come off as cynical. I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Producing The Baffler is at once a mark of confidence and a leap of faith, a nod to the “as-if” attitude handed down by our pragmatic ancestors. It goes like this. Act “as if” today’s America is a time and place where an independent magazine can directly change minds, and you help make it so. The as-if attitude is dangerous. It requires you to discern hope from fantasy. But it’s more satisfying than pessimism and a more responsible than passivity.  

And it’s working. 2015 marked the year we opened a publishing office in New York, boosted our staff, tore down the paywall on our website, and fine-tuned our digital frequency, ringing up blog posts and daily bafflements. We published 160 web-only essays, including an especially popular one about the crossbreeding of Labrador retrievers and poodles (called, yes, “The Labradoodle Racket”). Okay, but we’re not totally immune from publishing animal photos on the Internet. But as the year wore on and Trumpism seized everyone’s attention, we were busy producing the largest three issues in The Baffler’s quarter-century history—one each on the rule of fashion (Venus in Furs), the dance of violence and empathy (Battle Hymns), and the family unit as a fulcrum for furthering economic inequality (The Family That Preys Together). That’s 624 handsomely appointed printed pages, evidence of art and criticism with a spine, at a time when no such thing is supposed to be possible. But it is. This year, we are upping the ante, moving the magazine to a quarterly publication schedule for the first time in The Baffler’s history and adding a new slate of web columnists.

Now, since our story is pretty much the polar opposite of what you normally hear happening to idealistic enterprises, some of you must be wondering how in this world this particular idealistic enterprise gets funded at all. Maybe you’ll be curious once I tell you how stubborn and principled we are. Unlike most literary magazines, The Baffler is not the plaything of a wealthy benefactor; nor is it the tool of a university writing program. Unlike most online magazines and blogs, we pay our contributors. And unlike most every content provider, we don’t take ads, use interns, give prizes, or accept government grants. We are independent.

As a 501c3, tax-deductible foundation, we do depend on a heterogeneous circle of people to sustain our work; among these supporters are actors, comedians, film producers, videogame designers, playwrights, a smattering of professors, lawyers, and tech entrepreneurs. The members of our circle, which I hope you will consider joining, share an understanding of the intangible value of un-bought writing and opinion. They feel the power of education and information in a democracy. They see that in the market culture, financial transactions, including, increasingly, those in higher education and philanthropy, are caught up in the grasping language of investment. Equity is called ‘stake-holding.’ Impact must be measured in the short term.

But we’re not selling stakes. We’re a part of a gift economy. Equality, not equity, fires us up. Appreciation, recognition, and trust, rather than immediate return on investment, form the nimbus of our community. What’s it worth to stop a cliché in its tracks? If you’ve gaped at the numbing parade of scandals on your screens, or wondered why “innovation” is the word of the day, every day, or tried to guess what “open source software” actually means, or grew annoyed the 500th time you’ve read or heard a mayor praising the “vibrancy” of a neighborhood, we’re here for you. We’ve looked into it.

How do you measure the impact of a free-ranging, independent sensibility? That’s a hard question. Let’s consider a counter-example: a sensibility manufactured for the narrow purpose of obfuscation, at the expense of public enlightenment. It’s surely one of recent history’s richest ironies that the conservative businessmen who live and breath the jargon of dividends have gamed the nonprofit sector in which we now work, and learned how to work here, outside the market economy, to advance their interests.

Much is made of Donald Trump’s wizardry in producing new political realities, but Trump is only an especially gaseous product of the donor-funded convergence of power and intellectual capital that’s invigilated conservatism since before Ronald Reagan. “It’s a war of ideas,” they cried, while handily building an arsenal of magazines, publishers, radio and television shows, speaking bureaus, websites, think tanks, and an all-star team of public intellectuals, featuring brand names from William F. Buckley Jr. to Ann Coulter.

All Trump himself has done is take the logic of donor-driven content to its next step by personally mugging the media. The ultimate aim of the new conservative ideology all along has been to rewrite the rules by which American popular thought is judged, to produce a world in which democratic alternatives to the money-power do not seem possible because its major premises appear natural, unquestioningly legitimate. Most of us know what ‘the rat race’ means. But the official word from economists is that the hypercompetitive style of life and its many miseries and inequalities are glitches, temporary abnormalities in an otherwise sound system, or pathologies originating from within the maladjusted individual. The heavenly market, they all agree, offers the best possible mechanism for distributing profits justly and efficiently, for separating the winners from the losers, just as the three parts of government check the concentration of power.

Overturning these fairy tales was the breakthrough of Progressive social thought and the predicate for the New Deal and the Great Society. Liberals and progressives entered modern political life by discovering “society” as a realm of obligation bridging economics and politics, and “the market” as a component of institutions that could be democratically controlled to enhance the life chances of all society’s members.

For more than half a century since then, plutocrats have showered Babylonian sums on nonprofit institutions whose mission is attacking democratic forms of control over the prerogatives of big business. This revolution in reverse of the postwar liberal consensus could never have won an open competition of ideas without Pete Peterson (whose foundations worked to transform ‘social insurance’ into ‘entitlements’), and Sheldon Adelson (who harasses and sabotages journalists when he’s not secretly purchasing newspapers), and Charles and David Koch, whose armies of hacks and hirelings suborn science in Washington, and whose father, we’ve recently learned, built an oil refinery for the Nazis. That’s impact—with both feet on the gas, you might say.

It took the idea of social insurance for the old and the weak more than 40 years after it was first formulated at the University of Wisconsin to be realized in New Deal legislation, only to be rebranded today as an “entitlement.” African Americans who marched on Washington in 1941 waited 25 more years for the Voting Rights Act. It’s taken the Supreme Court a few short years to eviscerate. Impact. Something always turns up. The only question, meanwhile, is what are you doing about it now, which of your values are you willing to put on the line, what are you willing to fight for, which side are you on, as people like us used to say. The Baffler is this conversation.

I’ve often felt a profound sense of gratitude for having the choice to make. A magazine like ours is an infinitely adaptable instrument for absorbing the superfluous ones, like me, those searching for a reflection of their values and a direction for their intuitions. Ask yourself, how often is a writer able to speak in a direct, honest, and conversational voice while also attempting to rise above personal experience to get at something larger in the culture, taking the time to consider and re-consider, to rework and revise? Sometimes I think that any magazine still exists for this purpose must result from a mysterious intercession, some equivalent to the “invisible hand” causing the universe to change its mind, to allow for an exception.

But maybe the conventional notion of the ‘career’—that strange amalgamation of compromises and skills that once stood for a stable job in a middle-class society—is what’s become superfluous. Maybe instead of “career” and “profession” we should employ radically conservative words like “calling” and “vocation,” which unite our passions with our interests. Sensibility. Maybe instead of whining about our alienation, shaking our fists at the pundits, as if we’re knocking about for the master key of history, we should embrace the entrepreneur’s faith in the ambiguities of the future. Something always turns up.

Just under the scaly surface of our official culture, I see a coming renaissance in independent thought. I say ignore the pessimists, and assess the trend-spotters of our decline at a heavy discount when they assert that Americans are too stupid for democracy, that they don’t read, that they don’t care, that they don’t know what’s going on. They do. They read The Baffler. I hope you do too.