Friends in Low Places

Introduction to The Baffler number 25, published in July 2014.

“They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.”

—Herman Melville

This magazine comes packaged with no official doctrine, no fancy method to optimize reality, no sponsored content, nor any foundation support. Lacking the usual excuses, we improvise.

So Thomas Frank whiled away an afternoon at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. As it happened, he ended up staring at a vinyl sofa. There, it seems, sat the crowning achievement of all those Masons, Oddfellows, and Rotarians whose emollient entertainments once supplied our nation of joiners with something to do. Helaine Olen touched down in the sunnier and more, uh, vibrant locale of Venice, California, which is a bit like Masonic lore—since it’s a city that’s modeled on a vanished American life that was itself modeled on a vanished Italian life. In Chicago, Astra Taylor visited with members of the New Era Windows Cooperative. They occupied their boss’s factory in 2008 and demanded better conditions through mutual aid, direct action, and personal responsibility.

Way down South, Tom Gogola’s case study of Baton Rouge politics shows how appeals to “personal responsibility” can mutate into whistling atavism: a secessionist movement, he reports, has sent an aggrieved group of wealthy people into action, and they ain’t takin’ it no more. Louisiana likewise furnishes the setting for the Duck Dynasty franchise and its costumed backwoods stars. Todd VanDerWerff has their story, and those of other culture workers improvising their lifestyles on reality TV.

Okay, so we roamed a bit among the mise-en-scènes of postapocalyptic America. Suddenly, though, Nicholson Baker materialized with an arresting theory of the Kennedy assassinations. Barbara Ehrenreich unveiled a harrowing mystical experience, while David Graeber and Thomas Piketty bantered about capital, debt, and our ghostlike future. Somehow, we wound up at a Cape Cod IHOP talking with the copywriter who dreamed up the famous “Crying Indian” public service ad.

Back at Baffler HQ, it’s not until closing time, when the bottles are empty and there’s hell to pay, that we lift our heads from our desks and observe the alchemy of such various parts gleaming in our bloodshot eyes. Hence The Baffler no. 25: The None and the Many.

Yes, we eventually arrived at the nub of the matter. Our previous issue examined the freedom of play and dared science to disassociate from the grim rationality of neo-Gilded Age economics. Here, through the lens of friendship, we’ve tried to imagine another set of terms for the recovery of the person in contemporary thought—another counterpoint to the market fundamentalism that relentlessly grinds social relations into dust and makes isolatoes of us, one and all.

So Jacob Silverman excavates Processed World magazine, observing a circle of friends in the cause of early Information Age subversion. And Chris Lehmann remembers that fraternité, like liberty and equality, once inspired the French Revolution. By the time the brotherhood of man took up residence in the Soviet Union, according to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, it resembled a pack of wolves. To every generation of comrades, though, a new beginning is due.

That’s why we didn’t forget to flog the policymakers holed up in D.C., or to poke fun at the airlessly amiable hosts of the news and opinion broadcasts in New York, or to expose the consultants and experts traveling the conference circuit. They too get theirs in this Baffler. Jason Linkins binge-watched MSNBC. Chris Bray read a book about Ronald Reagan written by the host of Hardball with Chris Matthews. Jennifer Berkshire sat through the annual JebFest education reform summit at the Boston Sheraton. Lee Fang dug into the United States Chamber of Commerce and found a bag of dirty tricks. And from Daniel Brook, well, we learn how their gospel of wealth howls through this postcritical dead-end discourse all the way to Dharavi, India’s largest slum. Sorry! America today, alas, can seem less like a country bound by elective affinities and dignified by our famously gregarious spirit, and more like a collection of debtors and creditors uneasily awaiting the next wreck of dogma. Consider this issue an interim accounting. Because when it happens, you can bet we’ll all find out who our true friends are.