K AT H E R I N E S T R E E T E R
C O M I N G T H I S FA L L “Every age has a magazine that matters.
For our age, it’s The Baffler. Feeling left behind? Here’s your chance to catch up.” —Andrew J. Bacevich
he Baffler “T
embodies, with its internationalist outlook, the most vital tradition of American dissent.” —Pankaj Mishra
“This book will fuck you up and,
for the most part, with good purpose.”
the baff ler.com
The jour nal that blunts the cutting edge
The journal that blunts the cutting edge
E DI T OR I N C H I E F
John Summers 9
F OU N DI N G E DI T OR
S E N IOR E DI T OR
DE SIG N A N D A R T DI R E C T ION
The Flynstitute 9
M A N AGI N G E DI T OR
W E B E DI T OR
L I T E R A RY E DI T OR
S PE C I A L PROJ E C T S
C ON T R I B U T I N G E DI T OR S
Barbara Ehrenreich Susan Faludi David Graeber Rhian Sasseen George Scialabba Aaron Swartz (1986~2013) Astra Taylor Catherine Tumber Eugenia Williamson 9
MARK S . FISHER
Kind thanks to Kelly Burdick, Elizabeth Butters, Chris Carlsson, Dave Denison, Christian Engley, Edwin Frank, Laura Hanna, Erica Lagalisse, Lewis Lapham, Carolyn Oliver, David Rose, Ida Rothschild, and Lisa Weidenfeld for their suggestions, many and varied. Thanks also to the editors of Mediapart, who let us translate their conversation with David Graeber and Thomas Piketty (“Soak the Rich,” pp. 148–154). With friends like these, we made issue number 25. We’re sad to report the passing of our friend and contributor David McLimans on March 20 in Madison, Wisconsin. But we’ve selected some of David’s more arresting images for your viewing pleasure. See Dave, on pages 166–171, and say a prayer for the imagination.
F OU N DE R S
Thomas Frank Keith White
PA S T P U B L I S H E R
Greg Lane, 1993~2007 9 No interns were used in the making of this Baffler.
2 1 The Baffler [no.25]
The Baffler, P.O. Box 390049, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139 USA | thebaff ler.com © 2014 The Baffler Foundation, Inc. No part of this magazine may be republished in print or electronically without the written permission of The Baffler Foundation. That means you!
E x h i bi t A
BR AD HOLL AND
Baffler [no.25] ! 3
Con t e n t s : The Baffler, no. 25 Isolatoes
Friends in Low Places . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Veiled Pensioners of the Mystic Sofa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Brown Noser . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Zapped by the Invisible World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Dreams Incorporated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Earth Liberation Stunt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
MARK DANCE Y
Thomas Fr ank
Natasha Vargas-Cooper Barbar a Ehrenreich
Living the delayed life with Amway Matt Roth
Hugh McGr aw
Photo Graphic BR AD HOLL AND
Sizing Up . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Politics by Other Memes
World Processor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Noise from Nowhere . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Tip and Gip Sip and Quip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Jacob Silver man
The cable news jihad against human intelligence Jason Linkins LILY PADUL A
The politics of never Chris Br ay
The None and the Many
Dallas Killers Club . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Looks Like a Duck, Quacks Like Reality TV . . . . . . . . . . .
The Jim Crow Soft-Shoe Segregationists of St. George . . .
How JFK got shot Nicholson Baker STEPHEN KRONINGER
Todd VanDerWerff Tom Gogola
The Dollar Debauch
Brothers from Another Planet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4 1 The Baffler [no.25]
JebFest: The Education Miracle That Isnâ€™t . . . . . . . . . . .
The Business of America is Dirty Tricks . . . . . . . . . . . . .
MICHAEL DUFF Y
Jennifer C. Berkshire
Meet the United States Chamber of Commerce Lee Fang
The None and the Many Hope and Ka-ching . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Slumming It . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Workers of the world, apply here Astr a Taylor
The gospel of wealth comes for Dharavi Daniel Brook
Among Friends . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ludmilla Petrushevsk aya
Solitude . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Melina K ameriÄ‡
from Book of Conceptual Anarchy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Route 202 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Maybe Next Time Around . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Edwin Fr ank
To Be Rid of a Rival . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Placard at the Los Angeles Excavation Site, 5002 A.D. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pistols for Two
Soak the Rich . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . An exchange on capital, debt, and the future D avid Gr aeber and Thomas Piketty
City of Blight
Break on Through, Abbot Kinney . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Venice, California Helaine Olen
Seen Dave? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Patrick JB Flynn
R ANDALL ENOS
LISA HANE Y
3 73 Henrik Drescher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85 Briony Morrow-Cribbs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107 Lewis Koch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115 Walter S. H. Hamady . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165 Baff lomathy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172
Br ad Holland . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Chris Labrooy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
HAZEL LEE SANTINO
Baffler [no.25] ! 5
Isol atoe s P R E PA R E D R E M A R K S
Friends in Low Places “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
his 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 6 1 The Baffler [no.25]
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 neoGilded 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!
merica 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.t —John Summers The
Baffler [no.25] ! 7
Isol atoe s PA N C A K E B R E A K FA S T
Veiled Pensioners of the Mystic Sofa The George Washington They haunted me as I toured Once upon a time, however, Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, is a towering structure, a replica of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt—or, at least, a replica of what people used to think the ancient lighthouse looked like. It features a colossal statue of the first president, monster columns made of granite, and enormous murals depicting significant moments in the life of George Washington, Freemason. The visitor can gaze upon a trowel Washington used when he was laying the cornerstone of the Capitol building, a lock of Washington’s hair, a clock that was stopped at the moment of Washington’s death, an exact replica of the Masonic lodge where Washington attended meetings, and a Masonic apron that belonged to one of his successors, president James K. Polk. But what really hooked me during my visit to this magnificent treasure-house was a pair of blue, vinyl sofas in one of the building’s lodge rooms, sofas done in the unmistakable fake-leather style of the 1970s, and yet preserved so perfectly they might have been manufactured yesterday. What was it about those tawdry, little-used sofas?
8 1 The Baffler [no.25]
the building, gazing upon display cases filled with photographs of crew-cut men in suits, aprons, and Shriner fezzes, captured for eternity in faded color snapshots from the 1960s. Finally it hit me: this is supposed to be a museum of George Washington, but in fact it is a museum of the recent past, a spooky reminder of those years in the middle of the twentieth century when organizations like the Shriners still made cultural sense. They certainly don’t any longer. I don’t know a single person of my generation who has thought to become a Shriner. I don’t know any Knights of Pythias, either, or any Oddfellows, or any Elks, or even any Rotarians. The Freemasons themselves, the oldest and the largest of the fraternal orders, are fading fast. A chart in the museum I visited shows the flagging membership, and a recent story in the Wall Street Journal describes the group’s efforts to reverse its decline. There is even a campaign under way on the Internet to persuade people to join the Shriners— BeAShrinerNow.com—which depicts that fraternity as a kind of Boy Scouts for grownups.
Americans signed up for these organizations in great ecstatic waves. Mere fraternal orders weren’t enough for joiners of a century ago; they had to have affiliated organizations with grand costumes and elite groups within elite groups. The made-up rituals, the bankerly bonhomie, the small-time exclusiveness—oh, it was like the most fun ever. They raised huge sums for charity. They built fantastic limestone meetinghouses in cities across the land, Greek temples stacked on Romanesque blocks, named (just for good measure) after some favorite episode from Romantic literature. A well-known conspiracy theory about the Masons has it that they were somehow responsible for the English Peasants’ Revolt of the 1380s. That’s the kind of origin story that I personally would go for, were it held up as a guiding myth by some fraternal club, with costumes and allegories and cryptic reenactments and all the rest of it. But that kind of plebian stuff isn’t on official offer. If, however, you are the kind of joiner who hankers for fake aristocratic Arabism, the America of a hundred years ago spoiled you with choices.
M A R K DA N C E Y
I don’t know a single person of my generation who has thought to become a Shriner.
9 There was the “Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm,” which took its name from a character in a now-forgotten nineteenthcentury poem. There was the “Dramatic Order of the Knights of Khorassan.” The “Tall Cedars of Lebanon.”
The “Pilgrim Knights of Oriental Splendor.” Sometimes this exoticism would cross the battlefield to dwell on romantic, doomed crusaders, as in the Masons’ fascination with the Knights Templar. It even wandered north to bring us outfits such as the “Impe-
rial Order of Muscovites,” which was organized into “Kremlins” and presided over by “Czars.” It would probably require an advanced degree in what conspiracy-novelist Dan Brown calls “symbology” to chase down and explain The
Baffler [no.25] ! 9
all this half-forgotten lore. Unfortunately, Brown’s novel about the subject, 2009 mega-seller The Lost Symbol, doesn’t delve into the fascinating matter of moribund middle-class ritual. Instead it takes us in the other direction, imagining that Freemasonry is still electric with significant activity and that advanced Masons are men of great spiritual accomplishment with access to “the lost wisdom of the ages.” What happens, in Brown’s exciting account, is that the Masons
are infiltrated by a bad guy who uses murder and kidnapping to figure out the complicated puzzles the Order possesses in such abundance. It is strongly suggested that if this villain manages to solve these brainteasers, terrible consequences for humanity, and even for “national security,” will result. In the end, though, it turns out that the only real danger is that the evildoer might post a video on the Internet showing important men performing embarrass-
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881.
10 1 The Baffler [no.25]
ing Masonic rituals (hightech CIA magic is used to prevent him from posting it, whew!) and that the lost wisdom of the ages is found in . . . the Bible. Oh well. Brown will have to come up with something better than that for his novel about the Oddfellows, which I can only assume is forthcoming, or it’s all over between us. Unfortunately, the great mystery of Freemasonry—and of all these other slowly expiring fraternal societies—is not the profundity they convey across the centuries, but the way they slam together the sacred and the profane in a train wreck of confused symbolism. I refer to that off-putting moment, familiar to any resident of a big American city in the sixties or seventies, in which you saw the leading businessmen of your burg don silly hats and zoom around in tiny cars, having organized themselves into a group bearing the highflown name of the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.” It was potent stuff once, this urge to veil averageness in exoticism, to dress up boring middle-class lives with bogus history and phony aristocracy. But today it is all growing dim, becoming as mysterious to us as the obscure symbolism of Masonry itself. R.I.P.t —Thomas Frank
Isol atoe s OVA L O R I F I C E
Amid all the renewed at-
tention that Monica Lewinsky has won from a pundit class unable to wean itself off the lubricious soap-saga of the Clinton years, a weird, um, lacuna in the record has escaped notice. According to Lewinsky’s 1998 deposition, she orally “stimulated” the president’s “anus.” It’s odd that, for all the commentators who ginned up no end of forensic titillation from the cigar-in-the-vagina details of the Starr Report back in the day, this graphic moment of intern-to-commander-in-chief sex play got no real traction in the mediasphere. Maybe that’s because you have to piece together the story from a redacted record, and who wants to go there? Or maybe it’s because it literalizes the clichéd idea of ass-kissing, which is, after all, the dominant mode of career advancement in D.C. Even so, the silence stretches way beyond the anxieties of influence. If you have ever been on either side of this transaction during straight sex, then you know you have to be either 1) extremely trusting of your partner because assplay is ultimately a byproduct of love and intimacy; or 2) so high. On the latter front, I’m not
simply referencing narcotics—though they help! No, I’m talking about a towering, ego-inflating high, one that makes you swirl around inside a feeding-frenzy state, convinced that your body and mind are elevated beyond taboo stuff. In that state, you’re like, “FUCK YEAH, PUT YOUR TONGUE HERE!! I’M GOING TO LIVE FOREVER!!” So we know what turns Clinton’s crank. I think many other men, married men, men who’d been sworn into office by the Supreme Court, would maybe have lost their boners when sending troops to Bosnia. But not Bill Clinton. That dude was down—and down to do a lot more than fuck! Maybe Monica really
wanted to eat out his ass. Still, how do you even let things get to the ass-to-mouth level if you are the married president of the United States, with a teenage daughter in the wings?
his epic scandal went, uh, down, when I was fourteen, closer to Chelsea’s age than Monica’s. At the time, my eighth-grade psyche considered twenty-two-year-old women, like Monica, to be fully formed, worldly masters of their emotional and sexual universes. Now that I’m thirty, I think how young some girls are at twenty-two. Being among women in their early twenties makes me a tad uneasy, because I know how fucking dumb they can be The
Baffler [no.25] ! 11
and how much they are going to hurt themselves in the coming years. That’s an instinct I think most adults have: either to mentor, protect, or stay the hell away from the bright young things and not have your asshole licked by them. But not president Bill Clinton! He arranges for a rimjob in his private West Wing bathroom. Is it puritanical to think about it all this way? Maybe! Many people my age have engaged in a threesome or seven. But sex-crazed millennial that I am, I still find it creepy in the extreme that the man in position of maximum American power was doing butt stuff with a young woman most decidedly not in a position of power while in the Oval Office.
Of far greater, and possibly related, import is what the 1992 election meant for the rest of us shit-eating saps. Remember then: America had suffered twelve years of Republican rule in the White House, and more than fortyfour million people voted to put Bill Clinton in office. I imagine that a well-adjusted psyche—one that didn’t swell to elevated states of arousal around a young White House intern—would have felt the weight of those forty-four million votes, and that weight might have produced a voluntary moratorium on certain bodily impulses and an effort to meet the expectations of the body politic with due dignity. Even after you factor out all the Hillary ’16 speculation—another level of nausea
entirely—you’re still left with the grimmest legacies of Bill’s fun-loving policy heyday: the NAFTA sellout of American workers; the rampant deregulation of the financial sector, leading directly to the 2008 meltdown; the 1992 electrocution of Ricky Ray Rector as the most immoral sort of Hunger Games–style political theater. Oh yes, those were the years. And now that New Democrat hustler pulls down seven-figure speaker fees and captains his very own charitable foundation. I guess the only way to coax a moral from this sordid nexus of policy and predatory alpha-male foreplay is to coin a redemptive slogan: Monica Lewinsky kissed his ass, so we don’t have to!t —Natasha Vargas-Cooper
12 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Isol atoe s P E E K-A- B O O
Zapped by the Invisible World
At some point in my
predawn walk—not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I stopped at some point in front of a secondhand store, transfixed by the blinding glow of the most mundane objects, teacups and toasters. I could not contain it, this onrush. Nothing could contain it. Everywhere, “inside” and out, the only condition was overflow. “Ecstasy” would be the word for this, but only if
you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence. At no time did I lose physical control of myself. I may have leaned against a building at some point, but I never fell down. Whatever else was going on— whatever cyclones raged in my brain—the neuromuscular system remained functional throughout. Then the mundane was back to its old business of turning out copies of itself— one moment pretty much like the one before it—but anyone could see that the effort was hopeless, that the clunky old
reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened and poured into me, and I into them, but there was no way to describe it, even to myself. As for trying to tell anyone else, should anyone ask where I had disappeared to at dawn—what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angels—lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?t —Barbara Ehrenreich, from Living with a Wild God (2014), describing a mysterious encounter in Lone Pine, California, in May 1959. The
Baffler [no.25] ! 13
FROM THE ARCHIVE
| The Baffler no. 10 (1997)
Dreams Incorporated Living the delayed life with Amway
What is your dream?
demanded a booming voice. The ballroom went dark and the audience settled in for a fifteen-minute video catalog of the stuff dreams are made of: a blur of luxury cars, sprawling mansions, frolicking children, pristine beaches, hot-dogging jet-skiers, private helipads, and zooming jets—all set to caffeinated, John Tesh-y instrumental music. The voice returned: “It’s about family!” (A shot of kids collapsing on an oceanic lawn, love-tackled by Dad.) “It’s about security!” (A shot of a palatial house.) “It’s about you!” (A close-up of toes, gently lapped by the incoming tide, wriggling in white sand.) This was Dream Night, and it was about Amway. There are some 1.25 million Amway members in the United States, roughly one for every two hundred of the rest of us, all of them eager to spread the gospel of salvation-through-sellingAmway-products. Considering Amwayers’ penchant for compiling long lists of names, accosting strangers, and generally striving to collapse the degrees of separation between them and other humans, the chances of an American being asked 14 1 The Baffler [no.25]
to an Amway meeting are quite good—somewhere between having a condom break during sex and being dealt a straight in a hand of poker. For a certain segment of the struggling middle class, where there’s a magic mixture of disposable income and status insecurity, the odds are nearer those of catching a cold. And for someone like me, a post-collegiate pre-professional with a solid future in temping, Amway is more or less a mandatory rite of passage.
he Amway Corporation was founded in 1959, ostensibly as a small-scale manufacturer of “biodegradable” detergents (beginning with Liquid Organic Cleaner, the patent for which Amway acquired from a struggling Detroit scientist). It has since grown into a $6 billiona-year consumer-products behemoth selling everything from groceries to lingerie to water filtration systems. These products aren’t available in stores, though. The key to Amway’s success is its curious distribution system: instead of using retail outlets and mass-media advertising, Amway licenses individual “distributors” to sell
its goods from their homes. The distributors are independent franchisees; they buy products from Amway at wholesale and resell them at the “suggested retail” price, pocketing the difference as profit. But the detail that distinguishes Amway’s “multilevel marketing” scheme is that it rewards distributors for bringing new recruits into the sales force. Distributors get a cut not only of their own sales revenues, but of sales made by their recruits, their recruits’ recruits and their recruits’ recruits’ recruits, a branching pyramid of lineally descended Amwayers known as a distributor’s “downline.”
I had doubts about the
business of The Business. Amway products didn’t seem to be winging off the shelves. Sherri, who was recruiting me, complained that she couldn’t even get her own family to buy from her business: her mother preferred to go to the local Costco. (“A communist store! Gee thanks, Mom!”) Relying on intimates wouldn’t be enough, she explained; the real way to build The Business was to “make casual acquaintances out of strangers.” The techniques for doing this, which often resembled pick-
LI SA H A N E Y
up lines, were an important part of the Dreambuilders’ curriculum. Josh, another recruiter, spoke of his admiration for Diamond Distributor Randy Sears, who had come up with all sorts of “ice-breakers”: He’d pretend to know someone, for instance, and they’d often pretend to know him right back. Or he’d walk right up to somebody and say, “I like your belt!”
hat desire propelled people into Amway? Greed and power-lust, to be sure. But also something larger, more desperate. Americans have, after all, worked progressively longer hours since the Vietnam War, and job insecurity
is a hallmark of our future. Amway promises to transcend the excesses of capitalism by wholeheartedly indulging them. At a time when realistic, collective solutions are off the docket, it’s no surprise that people are turning to miracles. In this way, Amway is not so different from other mutations of the American Dream: the notion that grassroots entrepreneurs will save the urban poor, that the stock market will save Social Security, that casinos will fund our schools. All of these schemes offer salvation while preserving a core myth of capitalism: that the instruments for distributing wealth are also responsible for creating it.
ream Night brought all the questions back to the surface: If Amway isn’t a scam, why did it seem so much like one? It may win heaps of praise nowadays, but Amway doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. Perhaps what’s changed is us. While Amway is the same as it ever was, the rest of us have made peace with commercial insanity. Maybe capitalism has finally reached the stage of self-parody, unblushingly celebrating a house-of-cards as its highest achievement. And maybe Dream Night, instead of being the ritual of a fringe cult, is the vanguard of the future.t —Matt Roth The
Baffler [no.25] ! 15
Isol atoe s T H E C U LT U R A L U R N
Earth Liberation Stunt “The Crying Indian” (1971) was one of the first television commercials to forge the link between advertising and authenticity. Toss a Styrofoam cup out of your car as you speed down the interstate, and you will make an Indian cry. Only he’s not crying, and he’s not an Indian (he was Sicilian, actually), a term that owes its origin to Columbus’s misapprehension about where he landed, the idiot. But don’t tell that to Hugh McGraw, who claims the title of copywriter on the iconic ad, part of an Earth Day PSA campaign.
The name of the company
was Marsteller. The old man who ran it—I imagine he had some connection to the socalled Keep America Beautiful committee, which was a bunch of packaging people, mostly. Makers of cans, bottles, plastic bags, all the crap that was appearing in litter. And it was giving them a bad name. So they came to the agency and said, “We’d like to do something to stop littering.” I got the assignment, I who, as a child, always dressed up as an Indian, and in fact preferred to be an Indian. Which is a natural childish thing to do, right? I mean, they look like they’re
16 1 The Baffler [no.25]
living in nature, in good nature, and all that stuff. Every Halloween I was an Indian. I went in my office, with a lined yellow pad, and I just envisioned: What would a Native American from five hundred years ago think if he could walk in this industrialized horror? I put him in the canoe, and he passed through time. He came out of the 1400s or 1500s or whatever you want to make it. They were here, what, ten thousand years? There were some people who came up from South America, across the Aleutians, forty thousand years ago. That’s the last I heard. So I thought that would be an interesting way to do it. Paddle down the river and you begin to see civilization. And smokestacks. The agency looked at it, approved, and said, “Yeah, it’s interesting, it’s good. Let’s present it.” So we had a presentation with the Keep America Beautiful committee, which was a boardroom with fifteen, twenty guys sitting around, all in suits. And the commercial was described, and there was dead silence. After that, one committee guy said, “There’s something that bothers me about the commercial.” One of our suits
was quick enough to say, “Oh yeah? What is that?” The committee guy said, “Indians don’t cry.” And I looked at my art director and said, “There it goes. It’s gone.” But our suit says, without missing a beat, “That’s exactly the point.” And it was only then that I realized what the point was, because I had just written the commercial, you know. And I knew it was right, but I hadn’t thought it through. The way the commercial turned out, it ended with him walking up to the apron of the highway, and he’s standing there, and someone throws a bag of shit out of their car, and it lands at his feet. And the camera pans, and there’s a glycerin drop coming out of his eye. Then they turned around and put that piece of shit at the end of it that says, “People start pollution; people can stop it.” I couldn’t control that. The actor, we thought he was Hungarian. We didn’t know. It didn’t matter.t —Hugh McGraw, August 2013 This interview was recorded at a Cape Cod IHOP over morning eggs, and has been compressed.
J OS E P H C IA R D I E L LO
Baffler [no.25] ! 17
* Photo gr a ph i c
Sizing Up 3 M ichael Northrup
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Baffler [no. 25] ! 19
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s
World Processor 3 Jacob Silverman
onsider the plight of the office drone: more gadgeted-out than ever, but still facing the same struggle for essential benefits, wages, and dignity that workers have for generations. Utopian reveries spill forth almost daily from the oracles of progress, forecasting a transformation of Information Age labor into irrepressible acts of impassioned fun. But we know all too well the painful truth about today’s ordinary work routines: they have become more, not less, routinized, soul-killing, and laden with drudgery. The contrast between the glum reality of cubicle labor and the captivating rhetoric of Internet liberation, which once seemed daft and risible, doesn’t anymore; now it’s only galling. In recent years, for instance, the term “creative” has been captured by advertising agencies, who’ve bestowed on it a capital C and made it into a noun, a coveted job title meant to signify Mad Men–style braggadocio. But all this businesscard-ready term usually denotes is someone who writes copy for Google AdWords or applies Photoshop filters to an image of an anatomically impossible woman in carnal embrace with a bottle of vodka. Even software programmers, once the Brahmins of the new economy, must contend with diminished status. The costs of launching a company have declined, so everyone is doing it. Direct your thanks to the glut of cheap engineering talent in Russia and India and the boom market in cloud computing, where a half-dozen companies control the digital infrastructure of hundreds of others, including Snapchat, Netflix, and the CIA. Please donate to your neighbor’s Kickstarter on your way out, and don’t mind the venture 20 1 The Baffler [no.25]
capitalists lazing nearby—they’ll still manage to get theirs, as bankers usually do. Every city hungry to attract high-spending digital workers, from Austin to New York to Chattanooga, now lays claim to its own Silicon district, and lavishes potential corporate recruits with tax breaks and face time with the mayor. But the cyber touts in city government suffer their own version of the digital workplace’s bait and switch. In place of, say, a stream of tax revenues to revive decrepit public transport, they’ll end up with a smartphone app that links commuters with gray-market taxi drivers. At the same time, disconsolate holders of humanities degrees, who once may have caught on in a human resources, customer service, or speechwriting department, have found their jobs outsourced or automated. A glut of digital labor markets—oDesk, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit—lets companies summon pliable workforces on demand (a postindustrial reserve army, you might say) and deploy them at the stroke of a cursor to perform tasks that in better days would have gone to full-time employees: checking on store displays, organizing documents, performing transcription, writing newsletters. Even translation has become digitized and highly distributed; users of the Duolingo language-learning app are unwittingly translating articles—gratis—for BuzzFeed, CNN, and other media giants. Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software. Without Gchat, Twitter, and Face-
What happened to the dream of the creative workplace? Was it really a nightmare all along?
9 Was the noble dream really a nightmare all along? This latter option seems the likeliest. After all, the dramatic downturn in the quality of white-collar labor hasn’t come about due to any slough in the core project of boosting worker productivity. Quite the opposite. As technology has advanced, so has productivity, just as the sunniest macroeconomic forecasters would expect. But the workers most responsible for carrying out improved routines of proLINDA WIENS | PROCESSED WORLD NO. 1 ductivity are reaping none of the gains. book—the great release valves of workaday It’s not just that technological innovaennui—the roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers tion has failed to bring about a more equitable, would surely be filled with pallid young faces, less labor-intensive society, contrary to the wondering about the quickest way down. predictions of our daring prophets of leisured abundance from the 1950s onward. It’s also The Theory of that the lords of capital have used the very the Sub-leisured Class promise of technological revolution to extract So what has happened, exactly, to the noble ever more value from workers. Stock indices dream of the creative workplace? Is it simply and corporate profits hover near all-time highs that the giddy, VC-fueled idealism of the first precisely because in the last forty years, most wave of web startups was always destined to Americans’ wages have barely kept up with income crashing down into the pinched, clockflation, much less increased in proportion with watching rounds of glorified make-work that their output. have long bloated the days of insurance clerks Technology, from an Excel spreadsheet to and budget auditors? Or is there some more an assembly-line robot, may make aspects of revealing and insidious dynamic at play here? our jobs easier. But that’s at most a collateral The
Baffler [no.25] ! 21
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s aim; the real point of technological improvement in the office has always been to make us more productive. The “Great Speedup,” as this phenomenon has been called, involves us working harder and longer, even when we’re not in the office, than we ever have before. With history in mind, one can say that the introduction of new workplace technologies has been more about increasing profits for corporations and less about addressing the problems of workers or rewarding them for their feverish output. There’s no indication that this pattern is set to change. To grasp how deeply such patterns are rooted within the twenty-first century workplace, it’s important not to look forward, as the hucksters of digital capitalism are forever urging us to. (Stare long enough at the futurist mirage and you might forget that you blew your department’s slush fund on a Jeff Jarvis lecture.) Instead, let us travel backward in time, to the very cusp of the Information Revolution. Amid the first stirrings of dissent in Northern California, long before tech moguls were granted the dubious prestige of celebrity, a leaderless collective of disenchanted office workers put out a subversive periodical—a magazine called Processed World. First published in San Francisco in April 1981, the magazine now serves as an invaluable repository of all the mistaken, venal, and authoritarian guiding assumptions of the great digital reorganization of work. The brain trust behind Processed World was composed of people— many of them steeped in radical causes, environmental activism, and Situationist-type affairs—who began to identify the features of today’s high-productivity, low-content corporate workplace. Standing on the frontier of the new Information Economy, they took stock of their working lives and despaired at what they saw—and they made special, mordant note of
the new technologies that didn’t make their work lives any easier or more meaningful. These would-be revolutionaries were eager to see the automated world’s long-promised bounty of self-determined leisure bear fruit at last. They had plenty of marketable skills, but what most of them really wanted was time—to write and paint and act and organize. Some of them didn’t want to work at all. Others preferred not to give themselves over to big corporations and bureaucracies that offered them little in return for their labor. Most of all, they wanted their lives to be their own. Still animated by the antiwar radicalism of the previous decade, they were also bruised by the failures of 1968. Consequently, the magazine, if not its contributors, adopted no official ideology. They knew what they were against: wage labor, authoritarianism, war, nationalism, and the state itself. But they weren’t always sure what they wanted in its place. Figuring that out would be a challenge; it would also be the great project of the next fourteen years, during which Processed World would publish thirty-two issues (give or take),* participate in numerous acts of protest, street theater, and sabotage, and launch a range of other initiatives, from Critical Mass, the cycling event now held in hundreds of cities worldwide, to the preservation of some of San Francisco’s history in what may have been the last era a poor person could move to the Bay Area and still manage to get by. Though its circulation peaked somewhere around four thousand copies, Processed World found an eager audience. Beginning with the second issue, the pages filled up with letters praising the magazine for finally talking about work and its discontents. Readers shared stories of corrupt unions, malignant bosses, profound existential boredom, and the recovery of some of their dignity through
* Thirty-two issues appeared in the magazine’s initial run. An abbreviated issue, referred to as number 33 1/3, appeared in the spring of ’95, with others following in 2001 and 2005.
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Let’s travel back in time, to the very cusp of the Information Revolution.
9 workers. In the writing—essays, poetry, reportage, fantastical short stories about rebellious paper-pushers taking over San Francisco’s financial district, only to be brutally put down by government soldiers—one can also find the beginnings of today’s revolt against Silicon Valley and its pernicious mix of libertarian economics, techno-utopianism, and the deracinated remains of the sixties counterculture. As Processed World veteran Dennis Hayes explained it to me, “We were really examining social history. We were ANNE K . | PROCESSED WORLD NO. 2 asking questions that went unasked. protest and mischief. They also argued with We were asking, ‘What’s the value of a job Processed World’s writers, who were only too that creates no value? Or that simply creates happy to return the volleys. Many of the letter more work?’” writers simply offered thanks. As one reader Speed Up, Power Down marveled in the July 1981 issue, “THERE’S INTELLIGENT LIFE OUT THERE!! WE In an Information Age “largely mute about the ARE AT YOUR SERVICE.” experience of work—its meaning, its purpose, But Processed World did much more than who decides what should get done, by whom, supply to depressed office proles a therapeutic and how”—Processed World was talking about litoutlet. The magazine also managed to diagtle else. The magazine’s twentieth-anniversary nose some of the issues that still animate radiissue, published in 2001, surveyed our blasted cals today: housework, sex work, and other landscape of false hopes for a simpler, leisureunacknowledged forms of labor; unionization enhanced American working life. An essay by and its limits; income inequality; the precarHayes, “Farce or Figleaf: The Promise of Leiity of the typical worker; corporate power; sure in the Computer Age,” traced how comthe state of exception that comes with perputerization of the workplace has coincided manent warfare (embodied then by the Cold with the Great Speedup. As Americans work War and later by the first Gulf War); and the more hours than ever, Hayes noted, the former ways in which the computerization of society utopian promises of automation have given way was changing work, often to the detriment of to the added burdens of computerization; we The
Baffler [no.25] ! 23
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s now work more not only at our own jobs, but also at learning to manage the ever-changing digital infrastructure of our lives. We don’t work with computers; we work to keep up with them. (No wonder our smartphones “push” notifications at us.) What Thorstein Veblen knew in 1904 bears repeating: “Wherever the machine process extends, it sets the pace for the workmen, great and small.” “For most,” Hayes wrote, “overwork is not elective, it is part of a new social contract.” Just as temporary, freelance, and other “gig” work was supposed to be liberating in the 1980s—a fallacy that the earliest Processed World issues joyfully skewered—computers and information technologies were supposed to make work more efficient, more creative, and less onerous. Instead, we spend more time on more tasks, whether in the office, on the road, or at home, tethered to what Hayes calls “a mobile and instantly interruptible workplace.” The too-frequent introductions of new software only increase the pace of the upgrade cycle, leading to boom times for manufacturers and support staff, while “those of us who work with computers now have a second job: keeping them patched and upgraded and responding to their intricate cues, messages and glitches.” That is in addition to the many other unacknowledged jobs we have—email being among the biggest time-sinks—all part of a phenomenon that the computer scientist Ian Bogost recently labeled “hyperemployment.” By the time Hayes wrote “Farce or Figleaf,” the dotcom bubble had already burst. The magazine had essentially disbanded, and the issue was a valedictory one—an anniversary celebration and an opportunity for Processed World writers to return and see just how completely their grim prophecies about the direction of the information workplace two decades earlier had come to pass. Hayes chose a fitting epigraph: an outlandishly optimistic forecast from Popular Front playwright Archibald MacLeish, who in 1933 looked for24 1 The Baffler [no.25]
ward to “a civilization in which all men would work less and enjoy more.” It was this ability—to take stock of the hidden history of the degradation of the infoworkplace while also reclaiming the promise of greater leisure for America’s workforce— that set Processed World apart from the bulk of Reagan-era ventures in radical publishing. Where other outlets of critical thought took reliable aim at the (ample) cast of historical villains who made up the Reagan revolution’s vanguard, the keepers of Processed World kept their gaze fixed on history’s longer vectors of resistance and (eventual) social change. One example: Members of the Processed World collective were instrumental in starting the Critical Mass bike ride in 1992; they also published an article about a 1896 San Francisco bicycle protest in which riders, by rallying for betterpaved roads, not only anticipated the protest tactics that would be deployed by Critical Mass a century later, but also paved the way, quite literally, for “the car culture that contemporary bicyclists” now hope to undo. The Processed World crowd knew from whence they came. But where exactly was that? And what can Processed World teach us about today’s radical press, the organs now trying to lead the vanguard against the world’s bullshit jobs (as David Graeber has memorably dubbed them) and technological determinism?
No Apologies Anarchist credentials aside, the closest thing that Processed World had to a leader must have been Chris Carlsson. A longtime San Franciscan, Carlsson claims the fistful of titles that comes from being self-employed for thirtyodd years—“writer, San Francisco historian, ‘professor,’ bicyclist, tour guide, blogger, photographer, book and magazine designer.” Carlsson has been with Critical Mass, itself a leaderless operation, since the beginning. And one of his ongoing projects is Shaping San Francisco, a Howard-Zinn-meets-Studs-
We don’t work with computers; we work to keep up with them.
9 White Night riots—the street violence that followed the manslaughter conviction of former city supervisor Dan White, who killed supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. (The rioters had been expecting White to receive a harsher sentence than he did.) Afterward, the UCC made a T-shirt featuring a burning cop car with the words “No Apologies.” As if any clarification were needed, the date and location of the riot were also included. More agitation followed. The jingoistic fervor that erupted after the seizure of U.S. hostages at the embassy in Tehran prompted UCC members to put on fake military uniforms and perform a satirical variety show in downtown San Francisco. They declared martial law, rationed food, extolled the TRYON | PROCESSED WORLD NO. 3 virtues of war, sang anthems, and manTerkel social history project, with digital araged to poke fun at some Leninist factions chives, public talks, recorded interviews, and who bore “complicity in capital’s authoritariinvitations for community contributions. anism and work fetishism.” When I reached Carlsson by phone, he The UCC soon fell apart, but street thewas on his bike, heading to a farmer’s market ater, satirical art and graphics, and a strong and then a co-op grocery store. He eventually sense of grievance would be mainstays of the pulled over in a quiet alley, and we talked about group members’ lives, and of the cultural and his life and the origins of Processed World. social life of Processed World. As Daniel Brook recounts in his book The Trap: Selling Out to Carlsson and Caitlin Manning (the two Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, Carlswould later have a daughter together) met, son and friends liked to “dress up as investalong with several other early PWers, in a ment bankers and bow in unison at the stock street-theater protest group called the Union ticker in front of the Charles Schwab buildof Concerned Commies. Founded in 1979, the ing.” Marina Lazzara, one of the magazine’s UCC opposed war, militarism, and nuclear poetry editors, recalled this period fondly. “I power. They held protests, distributed satirical miss those days,” she told me. “We were really leaflets, and published in underground newspaout in the streets.” pers. Some UCC members participated in the The
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Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s For Hayes, who would later become the magazine’s go-to source for Silicon Valley commentary, this attitude was refreshing. “There was a lot of leftist cant” in the air at the time, he said. The members of the PW collective “were actually funny—really funny. I started chatting with them. They radiated warmth, humor, and a kind of point of view that went way underneath what was going on at the time in the way of political protest.” The magazine continued to straddle the line between sarcasm and playful derision, its pages filling with parodic advertisements, gallows-humor cartoons, provocative photography, and reprinted Dadaist leaflets excoriating work. While large chunks of PW are available on its official website, processedworld.com, many of these graphical elements aren’t; fortunately, the Internet Archive has full scans of the magazine, and Verso brought out an anthology, a meaty, oversized paperback called Bad Attitude, in 1990. Processed World’s “first two issues were printed on paper unknowingly ‘donated’ by San Francisco’s major banks,” the magazine’s official history recounts. For the next five years, the magazine’s collective held collating parties with weed, booze, and potluck buffets. No one ever got paid for Processed World except the printers—a fact stated with bald pride in the magazine. It was a collective, volunteer effort, and it had the rotating cast (as many as four hundred members over the years), intermittent publication, and borrowed office space to match. The various offices that Carlsson rented for his typesetting business often served as what Lazzara called the magazine’s “clubhouse,” where members would drop in to hang out, write, and argue. “At one point, for me, it was really my social life, my politics, my creativity, muses for my own writing,” Lazzara said. “For me, it was much bigger than a publication.” A sort of communitarian anarchism suffused much of what Processed World did. But 26 1 The Baffler [no.25]
this sensibility ran alongside an angry, even militant, approach to work and corporate America. According to the December 1985 issue, “One of PW’s principal aims is to make people feel good about hating their jobs, not to mention despising the dullness and ugliness of so much of life in general.” Among the celebrated forms of rebellion were sabotage and resistance to unions—the anarchist insurgents at PW dismissed the union world of the eighties as too pro-management and hamstrung by the National Labor Relations Board, which had outlawed hallowed protest tactics like the sit-down strike decades earlier and which would only become more reactionary in the Reagan years. This kind of attitude can seem more than a little purist, or like Left Coast posturing for posturing’s sake, but it’s not much different from what runs through the activist strains of the Twittersphere or in the pages of many radical publications today. In the case of Processed World, outrage rated more highly than ideology, and so the magazine sometimes lacked the theorizing and institutional affiliations that might have earned it more attention in a culture that values credentials and easy categorization. PW also placed a premium on first-hand experience—many contributors began as letter writers or people who encountered a PWer distributing the magazine on the street—something that today’s labor press might take heed of. The magazine’s amateurish execution (and I mean this in the best sense) gave PW a certain air of testimony, all the more so because a number of its writers, both out of a sense of fun and self-protection, chose to write under pseudonyms. PW’s dispatches from the working world were often rough-hewn and unfinished; they went in unexpected directions and contained sudden, moving confessional moments. They also were generally insightful about the power dynamics of the office and the petty tyrannies of bureaucratic regimes.
Processed World offered darkly comic dispatches from the absurdist trenches of the overmanaged workplace.
9 that they start over again. The writer concluded, “I had to work toward writing job definitions that would never be finished, and if finished never used.” This was but one among the magazine’s darkly comic dispatches from the absurdist trenches of the overmanaged workplace. Others gestured at something more haunting, such as the anonymous San Franciscan who wrote in issue 7, “I’m unemployed now and should be typing my resume. Typing a resume becomes more and more like typing a suicide note, and yet choosing not to MELINDA GEBBIE | PROCESSED WORLD NO. 4 work is a kamikaze mission.” It was In issue 6, for example, one anonymous to this group—torn between the exigencies correspondent, a “Personnel Management of white-collardom and the seeming imposAnalyst Trainee for the State of Tennessee,” sibility of living as one chooses—that Processed recalled being hired to create detailed job World ultimately spoke. definitions for 3,200 government positions. The Machine, Raging The consultant arrived on the first day to find eight colleagues working on this project San Francisco has changed dramatically over without having completed one definition— the last thirty years. It has been thoroughly and each was supposed to be three hundred gentrified, and become rich in a way that pages long. They had been working on this few American cities have before. Its radicaltask for two years. The ironies and indignities ism, its poor and working classes, its patches amassed from there: the project was only apof squalor, much of its analog culture—these proved to satisfy a capricious judge, it would once-distinguishing features have fled east take so long that the definitions would be out across the bay, to Oakland. Like so many of of date, an upcoming election might require us, they’ve been priced out.* * Swap in “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn,” and you have the same story for New York, though the pattern is repeating itself in Brooklyn now.
Baffler [no.25] ! 27
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s The tech backlash precipitated in journals like Processed World has also come of age. The cleaned-up version appears in the op-ed pages of our biggest newspapers, alongside news articles about the latest cuts in food stamps. Contrast this with a different, and likely more honest, form of dissent: crowds of bitter people holding placards (“Public $$$$, Private Gains”; “Stop Displacement Now”) while blocking the paths of Google buses, for example. The op-eds are understood to be the prudent, measured thoughts of experts. The protests are seen as bizarre, “misplaced” (a natural complaint for an industry obsessed with efficiency), and offensive. What to say except that this is a sign of a pitiable softness? Protest—actual bodies in the street—has become so rare, and so fully prey to a reflexive and deeply unearned cynicism, that it’s practically gauche, the hopeful incursions of the Occupy movement notwithstanding. Who wants to make such a mess? Who can get over his or her own practiced nihilism? If they were to be faced with the raucous, are-they-serious-or-aren’t-they militance of the Processed World crowd, today’s financial and tech elites in San Francisco or New York would probably just walk around it, perhaps asking the nearest police officer for assistance. (The state is there to help.) A stunt like the End of the World’s Fair—a “carnival of celebration and refusal” concocted by PW in 1984 after President Reagan, in a People magazine interview, suggested that we might be living in apocalyptic times—would be chum for a jaundiced media. That is, if it didn’t first die a thousand small, ignoble deaths on Twitter. Many of us know we work bullshit jobs; others would be only too happy to have one, to escape the suffocating anxieties of living on the margins. Those employed in socially useful jobs—teachers, nurses, social workers— * Or whichever famous name fits the news peg. 28 1 The Baffler [no.25]
must contend with low pay or, if they agitate for something more, being vilified. The point is to make something out of one’s disillusionment. Today, we have many smart, young, angry writers. Occasionally they sneak into legacy newspapers and magazines, or a New Yorker staffer will code-switch and bare his inner Marxist in an interview with Salon. Whether to reach larger audiences or exorcize their own guilty fixations, these radicals tend to hold up pop culture and celebrity as the prism through which their politics flow. Racism is important, but when you can talk about it in the context of Miley Cyrus or Macklemore,* it’s relevant. Along the way, the sense of community and common cause epitomized by Processed World has been sublimated into the incessant branding and self-promotion from which none of us appears immune. We are all living precariously, and so we tread water by competing for the occasional life preserver thrown out by the attention economy. Do your job well and maybe the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, or the latest buzzy new-media property will hire you as its token leftist columnist. Hit the jackpot, and you’ll become the next Chris Hayes. Who can blame them? It’s now so expensive to live in a coastal metropolis that one hopes to sell out at least a little bit. The remaining members of Processed World have become victims of some of the same forces. Over the last three years, Carlsson and Lazzara have seen an increasing number of friends evicted from San Francisco to make way for the tech nouveau riche. “It’s a tidal wave of displacement. All of our friends are leaving,” Carlsson said. “It’s like a trauma that people are living through.” It’s become passé to blame our machines— in our individualist society, you are the sole author of your failures—but consider this: to those whose work appeared in Processed World,
LUCIUS CABINS | PROCESSED WORLD
the introduction of computers to the workplace was a political act. The computerization of the workplace brought regulated workflows, surveillance by managers, deference to the dictates of software, and a machine with which you couldn’t keep up. It meant a noticeable loss of autonomy and a dawning sense—seen in the rapid turnover guaranteed by planned obsolescence—that productivity and growth had become ends in themselves. The most dangerous -isms turned out to be those preceded by “Ford” and “Taylor,” and they exerted their ultimate hold by becoming technologized and dispersed throughout our homes, our offices, our cars, and our cities. In a 1982 essay, three PWers wrote, “It is not hard to imagine that in the very near future most people will carry out their jobs in front of TV screens.” It’s one of those delightfully naive predictions that’s appreciated all the more because it so rapidly became antique. But there’s something unexpectedly apt here
about the phrase “TV screens,” with its aura of anesthetizing entertainment. In 1982 an office computer was almost certainly just a machine for work. Now, the same machines we use for work can also provide a salutary escape—into something meaningful, sure, but maybe just into something distracting and numbing, enough to get through that day’s particular soul-deadening meeting or performance review. Work has been allowed to conquer our lives in part because there is now no difference between the tools we use for work and for play. These tools are always with us, and so we are always available to our jobs. Maybe we’d be able to do something about all this bullshit if we weren’t forever standing in it. The essay, titled “Roots of Disillusionment,” ends with a consideration of why it’s so difficult to imagine, much less enact, a new social and political order. The members of Processed World hoped for a world defined by voluntary social and labor relations, “a freely, genuinely cooperative and communal world, in which the individual would be realized rather than suppressed.” It was a hazily defined goal, sure; they would always be searching, always be resisting the calls of competing ideologies and petty sectarianism, or giving up and going to work for Apple. But just as it had been in the sixties, that process was part of the point: Some of these experiences were disillusioning too—a good many former activists and communards turned sourly conservative after concluding that free collectivity was impossible. But others still remember the successes, partial as they were, the moments when people felt they had the power together to make their own history, to become anything they might desire to be. They carry with them a blurred snapshot of utopia.
That snapshot is worth holding onto. As we joylessly compete for ever-shrinking rewards, it might even provide some small inspiration.t The
Baffler [no.25] ! 29
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s
Noise from Nowhere The cable news jihad against human intelligence 3 Jason Linkins
n Saturday, January 4, 2014, Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the eponymous MSNBC show, began her broadcast with a sober announcement: Without reservation or qualification, I apologize to the Romney family. Adults who enter into public life implicitly consent to having less privacy. But their families, and especially their children, should not be treated callously or thoughtlessly. My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits, and for that I am sorry.
Oh, dear. What happened? Well, a week earlier Harris-Perry had invited a group of comedians onto her show, in an attempt to “look back in laughter” at the year gone by. Among other things, Harris-Perry thought it would be fun for the comedians to take a glance at “a number of photos that caught our attention over the course of the year” and provide whimsical captions for them. One of the photos that had apparently done the trick was an image of Mitt Romney as paterfamilias, posing with his extended family of grandchildren. The twist was that one of said grandchildren is an adopted African American child—a solitary figure of color stranded in a sea of ultrawhite Mormon family togetherness. It was the sort of scene that seemed to call out for mischievous comment, and Harris-Perry and her panel wasted little time obliging. “One of these things is not like the others,” said actor Pia Glenn. Comedian Dean Obeidallah added, “I think this picture is great. It really sums up the diversity of the Re30 1 The Baffler [no.25]
publican Party, the RNC. At the convention, they find the one black person.” Harris-Perry, apropos of God knows what, mused about a future tryst between Romney’s adopted grandchild and North West, daughter of pop culture icons Kanye West and Kim Kardashian: “Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?” No, but it doesn’t take a genius to imagine what happened next—a fierce derecho of outrage from conservatives. So, to put a stop to the furor, Harris-Perry submitted herself to the mercy of her viewers and apologized. And this was no ordinary apology; she didn’t simply treat the Romney segment as an order of old business and move on to the day’s new quotient of overwrought liberal political comment. Instead, she did something that no one on television is permitted to—least of all, it seems, the purveyors of cable-ready punditry from fixed ideological vantage points. Melissa Harris-Perry took a time-out from her network’s perpetual certainty to survey the implications of her regrettable actions. She became self-aware, on the air. It was like watching someone describe an out-of-body experience, a moment in which she had become completely unmoored from the sturdy coordinates of her public identity. Like a fallen penitent in a Hawthorne story, Harris-Perry worried over the unthinkable character of her trespass, seeming to marvel at the strange utterances that had unaccountably issued forth from her sinful mouth. At bottom, the apology amounted to a plea to her viewers to see her as she now saw herself:
LILY PADUL A
Why think when you can feel? Why have simple emotions, when high dudgeon and lusty outrage offer such heroic highs?
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After six years of consuming Sunday morning TV, I had to quit the beat entirely.
9 a raw, bewildered soul who had somehow allowed herself to become disconnected from her best intentions. “Given my own family history,” she said, “I’d identified with that picture, and I intended to say positive and celebratory things about it. But whatever the intent was, the reality is that the segment proceeded in a way that was offensive.” She admitted to using “poor judgment.” She castigated herself for “suggest[ing] that interracial families” were “deserving of ridicule.” Because why would she do that? (She is, after all, the founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South, tasked with the specific mission of “mov[ing] beyond the black/white paradigm in the study of race.”) By the one-minute mark, Harris-Perry broke down completely and wept, rackingly, at the memory of someone she didn’t recognize occupying her body and using her voice to undermine her life’s work. Still—a caption contest? With comedians permitted to speak “off the cuff”? How did this segment even air? The concept is as cheap as they come—equal parts TMZ cruft and Comedy Central Roast debauch. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against cheap concepts. But wasn’t Harris-Perry—Duke PhD, poli-sci professor, published author—cut from a different cloth? Thought-leader cloth, even? Was there ever a moment, as Harris-Perry first answered the call to cable service and imagined what her show would be like, that she so much as considered the possibility of staging such a display? Surely not. This was not how things were supposed to go. So what happened to Melissa Harris-Perry? Cable news is what happened to Melissa Harris-Perry. 32 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Your Brain on Cable As far as I know, when the American Psychiatric Association revised their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they made no mention of the psychological and cognitive impairments associated with prolonged exposure to cable television news. They failed to consult with me, anyway, and that’s a shame, because I have become an inadvertent expert in the field. I’ve spent many years working in a newsroom in which multiple televisions blared their inanities in my direction, and I’ve composed countless online roundups of the vile distortions of consensual reality known in Washington as the “Sunday Shows.” Lately, though, my employers have mercifully instituted an office-wide policy of putting the workday’s unceasing torrent of televised political blather on mute. And having made something of a recovery, I can appreciate what I was slowly becoming. Some of the symptoms that present themselves immediately are increased agitation and irritability, an uptick in outbursts of anger and agony, and the tendency to lapse into a prolonged reverie in which you wait—and hope—to find fresh outrage in whatever it is that Mark Halperin is about to tell Joe Scarborough. You experience a period of depression, in which you contemplate the strange and inconsequential things that the talking heads obsess over, followed by a period of panic, in which you wonder why you aren’t also similarly obsessing. You do antisocial things, like watch The Five. And with each passing moment, you feel yourself becoming less intelligent. Your brain basically sizes up cable news the same way it would any addictive substance. “Oh,” it thinks to itself, “this is how it’s
going to be then, from now on? I suppose I’ll need to make some adjustments.” The good news for an audience member is that you can change the channel any time you want, and switch over to a show about people bidding on the contents of long-forgotten storage units. The producers of cable news don’t get that choice. They’re mired in the stupidity, to the extent that it seems to rewrite their DNA. Cable news has produced a lot of human wreckage, and you needn’t dip too far back into the murky past to remember the carnage. Sometimes, the stupidity emerges out of situations that seem so benign that you come away wondering just how, and when, everything took a bad turn. Last August, the well-respected Julia Ioffe was invited on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss president Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ioffe, having spent three years in Russia as a Moscow correspondent, was a prudent “get” at the time—she had every reason to expect that her analysis would be met with respect. But that’s the thing: it wasn’t. Ioffe ended up quibbling with O’Donnell over his contention that the Putin regime was “in complete control of the outcome” when renegade NSA analyst Edward Snowden ended up at Sheremetyevo airport. Ioffe offered an objection, pointing out that O’Donnell was drastically overstating Putin’s omnipotence. For that crime, O’Donnell railroaded her with sarcastic, demeaning harangues, and never let her explain herself. The next day, Ioffe retreated to her perch at The New Republic to finally get a “word in edgewise.” There, she pointed out that O’Donnell “did exactly the same shit Russians did to me when I was in Russia”: They assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and
that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind. Sound ridiculous? Believe me, it sounds just as insane in reverse. The problem is that this was not in the ranting comments section, but was coming from the host of a prime time, national television show.
Why even have an expert in Russia on, if you’ve no plan to honor her expertise? Or take, as another bathetic example, Harris-Perry’s predecessor in MSNBC apologia, Martin Bashir. Last November, Bashir became greatly aggrieved when Sarah Palin— who by this time had long since reclined into the comfortable embrace of nonentity-ness— glibly characterized the national debt as slavery. Bashir took it upon himself to lecture the absent Palin about the “barbaric history” of slavery, reading at length from the diary of a slave owner named Thomas Thistlewood. There was one part of the diary that Bashir believed would make a particularly thrilling point: apparently one of the punishments meted out to the misbehaving human chattel at the Thistlewood estate involved forcing the slave to consume human fecal matter. But even this wasn’t shocking enough to provide Bashir with the sort of self-satisfaction his dudgeon demanded. “If anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood,” Bashir declaimed, “[Palin] would be the outstanding candidate.” I’m sorry, what now? Was there no one who thought that segment was going to be a bad idea? Bashir was made to humble himself in an ensuing broadcast: “I deeply regret what I said, and I have learned a sober lesson in these last few days: that the politics of vitriol and destruction is a miserable place to be, and a miserable person to become.” Sound familiar? But even these extreme The
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Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s shows of contrition couldn’t rescue Bashir’s cable-hosting career; in December he tendered his resignation to the MSNBC brass. One can only hope that he’s now better able to recognize the reflection greeting him in the mirror each morning. And then there is the curious case of Jon Meacham, elite television news historian par excellence. At the end of January, all of Washington was humming the buzzy narratives extruded from president Barack Obama’s State of the Union oration. A particular meme stuck out: Obama had made it clear that if he could not get the lycanthropic House of Representatives to even consider participating in the policy-making process, then he would take “steps without legislation” and find work-arounds, including the issuing of executive orders. This announcement prompted a great deal of pearl-clutching in front of the cable monitors. The keepers of our cable discourse were absolutely persuaded that Obama’s proposal betokened a tragic breakdown in the separation of powers, executive branch accountability, and just plain fair play. This was, in reality, anything but the case. The historical record shows that compared with his predecessors, Barack Obama had made spare use of the executive order. And Jim Newell further tore down the hype on The Baffler’s blog, pointing out that many of the act-by-fiat plans that Obama enunciated amounted to little more than calling meetings, impaneling experts, and cajoling corporate executives to lend a hand—not the sort of stuff upon which tyrannies are built. But the alternate-reality memes of cable commentary aren’t so easily dislodged. So Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of Andrew Jackson, took to the comfortable confines of Morning Joe to offer an analysis so profoundly off the mark that one wonders, as the kids say, where his head was at: We make fun of the executive orders and
34 1 The Baffler [no.25]
that is in fact something that—you know, you never really heard Lincoln and FDR say, “I’m going to rebuild America on an executive order.” You know, it’s not something that resonates off the tongue.
As this bald pronouncement made its way through the political blogosphere, Meacham was reminded that there was this pretty wellknown executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation, and that much of FDR’s New Deal agenda was likewise implemented via executive order. And so Meacham, too, had his moment of contrition in the cable klieg lights. “I’ve had worse mornings, I’ve said dumber things,” he told Talking Points Memo, fairly enough. “But I can’t remember when.” As with Melissa Harris-Perry and Martin Bashir, they were the words of a person who couldn’t seem to recognize the idiot who had assumed his body and voice. Naturally, dear readers, I don’t expect you to shed too many tears for these characters. We recognize that O’Donnell has always been a bull-headed blowhard, Bashir a haughty sensationalist, Meacham a milquetoast apologist for George W. Bush’s Iraq misadventures. But a Melissa Harris-Perry is supposed to be the antidote to all of this misrule. When her show debuted in February 2012, she was touted as a breath of fresh cable air—part of a young MSNBC vanguard of news presenters and political thinkers that include people like Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki. They are curious, engaged, academic. They are, most assuredly, immune to epistemic closure, averse to frivolousness and buzz-chasing, skeptical of the excesses within their own ideological camp, and open-minded toward the alternative. And they weren’t supposed to end up like Martin Bashir, stooping for forgiveness because of some easily foreseeable transgression. Yet as Harris-Perry reiterated with her own moment of public abjection, the intent of mere human subjects—even the powerful, meme-
shaping subjects who are graced with their own cable news franchises—counts for almost nothing in the monotonously titillating world of cable commentary. Cable television news is a territory shaped by the indefatigable winds of oligopolistic market forces and a modern media culture that’s all too enamored of its own bankruptcy. It has produced a multitude of casualties. And it leads us to wonder, using those famous words of Steve Albini, if some of our friends may already be this fucked.
Where Isn’t the Outrage? When Ted Turner talks about the dream that was CNN and what it ended up becoming, as he did in a July 2004 essay for the Washington Monthly titled “My Beef With Big Media,” he still conceives of himself as a mostly sinnedagainst “upstart.” In his telling, his tour of media moguldom was a character-crushing tragedy, in which a gonzo zillionaire with a defiant independent streak sets out to upend the old news establishment—and then largely fails to defend his own hard-won turf in the TV journalism wars, only to become a hesitant, if not entirely penitent, oligopolist. Turner blames the forces of media consolidation, spurred on by the rules of a merger-happy FCC, for the decline of CNN. In his Monthly confessional, he laments the “earnings pressure” that came in the wake of the 1996 Turner Broadcasting/Time Warner merger, complaining that “when all companies are quarterly earningsobsessed, the market starts punishing companies that aren’t yielding an instant return.” He also discusses how television ratings bedeviled his network: “The producer Norman Lear once asked, ‘You know what ruined television?’ His answer: when the New York Times began publishing the Nielsen ratings. ‘That list every week became all anyone cared about.’” The first mega-merged channel to emerge as a rival to CNN was MSNBC. A partnership between Microsoft and NBC News, it faced
much the same challenge—the need to somehow market an unpredictable commodity, the news of the day—but with the additional burden of having to develop a branding strategy to differentiate its content from the headlinedriven fare over at Turner’s network. In the end, MSNBC didn’t become CNN’s fiercest competitor. That was the Fox News Channel, which eats CNN’s and MSNBC’s lunch in the ratings to this day. Fox’s success can be attributed to the genius of Roger Ailes, who tossed the whole concept of what a cable news channel should do into the dustbin. Ailes doesn’t view “the news” as an end product to take to market. Instead, he sees “the news” as raw material for the manufacture of a different product entirely: a sort of diazepam (Aldous Huxley would have perhaps recognized his own soma, from Brave New World) for disaffected conservatives who have tried the present culture in the courtrooms of their imagination and found it insufficiently American. In the harum-scarum fare of Fox’s breathless culture-war dispatches, these viewers find succor in a forum of opinion that’s designed to cater to their worldview and make them feel good about themselves for having it. The added brilliance of Ailes’s design is that
“Hey! I found a quarter!” VICTOR KERLOW
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Watching our political culture’s solemn Sunday Morning Conversation was like mainlining high-test idiocy directly into my eyeballs with a white-hot needle.
9 he essentially pioneered “hate watching”; he drew in the peculiarly masochistic brand of cultural liberal who tunes in to the network for the sake of spying on the enemy camp and then comes away confirmed in his or her own sense of self-satisfaction. It’s quaint to remember that a decade or so ago, it was merely Fox’s conservative bias that drew the ire of media critics. Would that things were that simple. Roger Ailes’s true legacy now appears to be the creation of a hermetically sealed worldview, generating an endless series of glorified talking points that look and sound like news, without ever once challenging a viewer’s preconceived notions about the world and how power operates within it. And whether or not the competitors trailing behind Fox’s wildly successful business model care to admit it, they work from the same playbook. Why think when you can feel? Why have simple emotions, when high dudgeon and lusty outrage offer such heroic highs? And why simply convey information, when you can conjure up a devoted viewership by the sheer force of your own operatic selfsatisfaction? It turns out, in other words, that the best way to shun the panic-inducing unpredictability of the Nielsen ratings market is to consistently deliver smugness—to conscientiously program and package your news product so as to protectively seal your audience in the unquenchable righteousness of their own cultural grievance-addiction. But it would be unfair to pin the endumbening of the cable news world solely on the Fox News Channel. If anything, the pernicious habits instilled by the respectable, neutral media have been just as damning. 36 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Every Sunday morning, network news organizations stage political chat shows, primarily for a Beltway-centric audience. Meet the Press; Face the Nation; This Week, Occasionally with George Stephanopoulos . . . perhaps you’ve heard of them? For six years, I watched these shows religiously, on assignment for the Huffington Post. And I can tell you, if passively engorging myself on dayside cable news dreck was enough to give me contact stupidity, actively poring over the vicissitudes of our political culture’s solemn Sunday Morning Conversation was like mainlining high-test idiocy directly into my eyeballs with a whitehot needle. After six years of consuming this feculence, I had to quit the beat entirely, based on the documentable ways it was literally (and I am not abusing that word) ruining my life. These shows bill themselves as “public affairs” programming, even though there’s not a single mote of evidence to suggest that their producers have had any significant contact with a member of the public in recent years. The shows further cast themselves in an adversarial tradition—the “press” is “met,” a “nation” is “faced”—but in reality, they are essentially salons, in which those entrusted with serving the public know that they’ll never be submitted to any really rough treatment. Those who are interrogated know that their interlocutors are too dependent on maintaining access to Capitol Hill’s A-list roster of power-mongers to risk alienating them. It cannot be said that these shows create a product that might be called journalism—or even attempt to. No one called to serve on a Sunday show panel is there for the purpose of reporting or informing. Rather, they are
called to offer homilies from the High Church of Thought Leadership. Within that temple, the lives of normal human Americans almost never figure into the purely transactional airing of agenda items. Over the past six years of an ongoing unemployment crisis, the nation’s rampant joblessness would come up for discussion only to the extent that it might, theoretically, impinge upon the electoral prospects of affluent political elites. Likewise, there’s never any threat that the lofty exchange of views in these courtly venues will alight on a firm, empirically supported conclusion. That sort of thing just isn’t done—if for no other reason than the accumulated momentum of countless prior Sundays, and the hours spent touting such patent frauds as the American invasion of Iraq, the debt-leveraged housing bubble and the bailouts that followed hard upon its collapse, and the two-party system. Besides which, it wouldn’t be polite to interrupt our elite thought-havers—at least until the need to sell advertising for investment counseling concerns, luxury cars, or erectile dysfunction medications forces the host to reluctantly “leave it there.” These programs and their tropes have come to define media culture, by making the incessant production of insidery ideations the premium brand of televisual discourse on politics—instead of, say, the service of the public trust in an honest and equitable way. New York University media critic Jay Rosen has a term for the way the participants of these shows have organized themselves: the “cult of the savvy,” where savviness is defined as the need to appear “with it” and “perceptive,” as opposed to being “just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.” To the people inside it, savviness is not a cult. It is not a professional church or belief system. They would probably reject my terms. But they would say that journalists need to be savvy observers because in politics the unsavvy are
hapless, clueless, deluded, clownish, or, in some cases, extreme. The unsavvy get run over, easily. They get disappointed, needlessly. They get angry—fruitlessly—because they don’t know how things really work. As Rosen has it: Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. Therefore the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you. Especially if you are active in politics yourself.
Now, in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it continually has to position the journalist and his observations not as right where others are wrong, or as virtuous where others are corrupt, or as visionary where others are short-sighted, but as mature, practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, childlike, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog political realism to itself. Spend enough time wandering around the cable news dial, and you’ll see the cult of the savvy in action virtually everywhere. You’ll see it as you watch the junior varsity thought leaders of The Cycle politely yammering each other into the eternium, striving to ensure that nobody ends up getting all fucked up on messy things like personal convictions. You’ll see it in the constant subconsequential natterings of decadent “media critic” Howard Kurtz. You’ll see it in the terminal self-absorption of Lawrence O’Donnell or Piers Morgan—though in a rare occasion of humane decision-making, you won’t be seeing this from Morgan anymore. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, especially when its egomania sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. The
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Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s The question is, when will we begin to see these symptoms—the “savviness,” the smug self-satisfaction—in the latest crop of cable news presenters, the ones who have promised to shift all the paradigms? That moment may be a ways off, but there are troubling signs that seem to merit the sounding of a distant early warning.
Trouble in Nerdland In the beginning, there was branding, and the need for it. When MSNBC launched Up with Chris Hayes in September 2011, the network was making a risky bet that it could lure a younger audience out of bed early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. MSNBC had never been much of a weekend destination—its listings were typically larded with sensational series of prison life and true-crime pulp, and the network had suffered occasional criticism for not getting on the air in a timely fashion to cover non-weekday breaking news. Up was seen as an opportunity to present something with prestige that could compete with the Sunday morning public-affairs programming and attract a new generation of wonk-millennials. Hayes, a talented fill-in host with a solid sinecure at The Nation, was seen as an emerging talent and a potential “disruptor,” a role Hayes took to with aplomb, reportedly urging his guests, “The first and foremost important rule of the show: we’re not on television.” Well, actually, they are, and they’re charged with employing the same basic gimmicks that any other show employs in order to stimulate the nation’s overloaded eyeballs. And so the producers of Up seized on a novel, fully modern means of branding the show and building an audience: they took a hashtag, #uppers, which had grown out of viewers riffing on how damn early the show started, and began referencing it during the show. The trend stuck, and MSNBC has followed that model ever since. When Melissa Harris-Perry’s show came on the air in February 2012, it enforced its own 38 1 The Baffler [no.25]
hashtag brand, #nerdland. As Hayes moved to the primetime schedule as the host of All In with Chris Hayes, #uppers begat #inners. Just a bit of fun? Perhaps. But something still seemed somehow . . . off. Over time, the hashtagging morphed from something that built a brand into something that built a clique of self-selected cool kids congratulating themselves for being part of a fanboi smart set. The hashtags were shibboleths that demarcated who belonged and who didn’t. It all seemed . . . a trifle smarmy. Perhaps I’m making way too much of this. But you know how Chris Hayes wrote the book, literally, on the Twilight of the Elites? Well, I can assure him that the dawning of the elites happens not long after you let the scenesters in. Of course, you can attain only so much as a mere scenester. But there’s some membersonly status-mongering to be ladled out on a regular basis even so. One feature that has become a mainstay on Up—which since Hayes’s departure for prime time has passed into the custodianship of Steve Kornacki, late of Salon—is a segment called “Up Against the Clock.” During this surreal early-morning interlude, Kornacki and his guests stop engaging with the serious issues they seek credit for covering in a “you are not on television” way, and stage a zany game show. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty “you are definitely on fucking television” thing to do. It works like this: Three of Up’s guests take their place behind lecterns and answer three rounds of trivia questions. Points are scored, hijinks are had, and in the end, they give each other prizes, for knowing things like how many extra months of emergency unemployment insurance the Senate was proposing to confer on America’s long-suffering long-term unemployed, and what Republican senator was cosponsoring said bill. One might wonder, brimming with curiosity, what was motivating that Republican senator to break with his fellows and why he was doing so. Would
this seeming lurch into the service of a greater public good turn into an electoral vulnerability? Did it stem from some region-based insight into the perils of localized long-term joblessness? Perhaps the renegade Republican acted out of some deeply held philosophical conviction, something that might be articulated and analyzed? One can only hope that some other show—on the radio perhaps?—thought to ask these questions. On one particularly illuminating “Up Against the Clock” occasion, the three contestants were unable to identify the “blue state” that “enacted sweeping pension reforms that will cut benefits for state workers and save an estimated $160 billion over the next thirty years.” The answer? Illinois. One would imagine that the contestants might have been able to answer the question if there was, say, some televised news show committed to bringing to light what working-class residents of flyover states are enduring at a time when state governments across the country are pillaging the retirement accounts of state employees to make up for the criminally poor judgment of elite policymakers. I know. I’m a too-serious killer of joy. A scolding mope, begrudging others the chance to blow off some steam and have a light-hearted moment. Perhaps. But for a show launched and governed by the assumption that the cable news model needed more thoughtfulness, more listening, and less cheapness, this selfcongratulatory segment produces a crashing off-note, veering perilously close to the sort of Beltway-insider grotesquerie that Kornacki and his MSNBC labelmates all claim to eschew. Its main aim seems to be to prove who’s with it and hip—and the answer, of course, is that everyone is brilliant. Say what you want about the hurtful joke that later reduced Melissa Harris-Perry to tears, but her one-off transgression had the fortunate benefit of being a one-off transgression. “Up Against the Clock” is an intentional
display of self-congratulation—a feature, not a bug. If you are wondering how junior inductees into the Cult of the Savvy manage to ascend through their first few Operating Thetan levels, just watch “Up Against the Clock.” I will confess, that as I outline this critique, I occasionally succumb to the dread fear that I’m indulging in the cheapest of literary exercises, concern-trolling. The fact of the matter is that I find much to admire in the output of shows like Up and All In and Harris-Perry’s show. They produce scads of content well worth watching and tackle topics that often go unmentioned. In general, I feel like they represent a well-intentioned effort to make cable news, somehow, better. The fact of the matter is that I love a spot of fun, appreciate a good joke, and would gladly watch a panel show in the tradition of the BBC’s comic giants. But there’s a clear difference between a funny bit that assumes an audience’s intelligence (watch, for instance, Chris Hayes and Gawker’s Cord Jefferson riff on the criminal culture of white people in a brilliant parody of media tropes) and a whole segment of a show that’s designed to simply state and restate, “We are some clever people on the teevee, dig us.”
“Got any gum?” The
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Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s And so I cannot escape my worries that the people who are laboring to do something different, and better, in the cable news medium are a lot closer than they think to becoming what they despise.
Wasting Away in the Dudgeon In an odd coda to Melissa Harris-Perry’s apology saga, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates used his platform to argue that Harris-Perry was “America’s foremost public intellectual.” It was, obviously, a bold claim that invites scrutiny and argument. (For my part, I’d always ranked Coates a little ahead of Harris-Perry in my ordering of public intellectuals.) Any chance, however, of the discussion Coates invited remaining thoughtful or polite was lost when Politico’s perpetually in-over-his-head media reporter, Dylan Byers, took to Twitter to reject the premise of the discussion and slag off Coates with a cheap diss: “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s claim that ‘Melissa Harris-Perry is America’s foremost public intellectual’ sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?” This inevitably led to bunkering and backbiting—another dispiriting double-shift on the high-dudgeon production line. But once all the mean-spirited turd-tossing had died down, I noticed that a rather important question had never been raised: Assuming that Melissa Harris-Perry is, at the very least, one of America’s leading public intellectuals, if not the foremost, then how has it come to be that hosting a cable news show is the best thing that we, as participants in a shared cultural tradition, can offer her? Since when did directing pundit traffic before a studio camera become the sine qua non of intellectual accomplishment? As Harris-Perry looked back upon the televisual version of herself— the one who stooped to acknowledging, and contributing, some base quips about Mitt Romney’s family—did she wonder what she’d gotten herself into? Did she worry that she’d made a mistake? 40 1 The Baffler [no.25]
The latest young intellectual to grace MSNBC’s roster of presenters, and bulk up the supply of serious-minded cable news disruptors, is Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. He is, without a doubt, the product of a fame economy and the beneficiary of some small amount of celebrity connection. At the same time, he is not without impressive academic and occupational accomplishment. But I suppose you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. As Gawker noted, those accomplishments are emblazoned all over the set of his show: The rear panels of Ronan’s stage set feature several thematic word clouds superimposed over a world map—“FOREIGN AFFAIRS,” “STAND UP,” “INVOLVE,” “PEACE,” etc.—which also function, if you look closely enough, as Farrow’s visual résumé. In the photo above, you’ll notice “PUBLISHED AUTHOR” splayed across half of Africa (Farrow, who recently profiled Miley Cyrus for W Magazine, is writing a book about military aid) and “LAWYER” positioned on top of Sweden (Farrow is a licensed attorney in New York State).
Indeed, Farrow’s credentials swirl around the show’s opening credits, and include words like: “diplomat,” “Yale Law School,” and “State Department.” Gawker, naturally, assumed the most cynical position: “Ronan Farrow Is Pretty Great, According to Ronan Farrow’s TV Show.” An MSNBC spokesperson attempted to offer a more genial explanation: “The words are just general terms about the show. Sometimes they touch on worlds Ronan has moved in as we roll out the show. They mainly focus on the news and the show’s reporting.” I would posit that these word clouds serve a more practical, self-preserving purpose. When the day comes that Ronan Farrow finds himself appalled at what cable news has turned him into, he need only turn his back on the cameras to remember what he used to be.t
from Book of Conceptual Anarchy 3 P e t er Payac k From random atoms floating around the cosmos 14 billion years ago, you have to admit we humans, as a species, have come pretty far. We have this thing we call intelligence, and then this self-consciousness thing. We are pretty much all set, or are we? With this in hand, humans not only have been able to ponder on the inner workings of the cosmos, build a civilization that supports 7 billion beings, but to realize, in the deepest and most intimate sense, that it is ultimately a pile of cosmic shit.
Baffler [no.25] ! 41
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s
Tip and Gip Sip and Quip The politics of never 3 Chris Br ay
pen the book to the first page of the preface, and of course George Washington is sitting there on horseback, dreaming of his young nation and its glorious future. He’s there on the last page, too, looking down from a hillside at “this swamp along the Potomac,” boldly imagining the day when the muddy wasteland will become “the seat of a great new Republic.” But oh, reader, wouldn’t the great man’s bright and glowing eyes cloud over if he could see what we’ve become? Politicians aren’t pals anymore, and they aren’t behaving themselves. “Today we have government by tantrum,” and the District of Columbia is sullied. Chris Matthews is so heroically gifted at pumping out raw bilge that you would think the rest of the D.C. press corps could just retire and let the one roaring apparatus fill up all the cable TV shows and all the op-ed pages and all the clickbaitable lists on all the politics websites you look at every day but wish you didn’t. Identify the most obvious political idea in any given context, and then imagine the most obvious image you could use to illustra—nope, too late, Chris Matthews already got there. In his latest secretion, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Matthews describes a world in which we’ve lost the traditional decency and friendliness of American politics. Take a moment and read that sentence a few more times. As the title suggests, Matthews regards the Reagan administration as a high point, an age in which a pair of gifted leaders sat down together and agreed to make the world 42 1 The Baffler [no.25]
a better place. President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill were both Irish Americans, so they told jokes and stories to one another, so government happened, and it was all more or less wonderful. Really: The outsider and the insider: these two moved together in a remarkable, if sometimes rough, tandem. They argued mightily, each man belting out his separate, deeply cherished political philosophy—but then they would, both together, bow to the country’s judgment. Decisions were made, action taken, outcomes achieved. They honored the voters, respected the other’s role. Each guy liked to beat the other guy, not sabotage him. . . . Why, we wonder, can’t it be that way again?
By the time the book gets to its thin recitation of the Iran-Contra scandal, the scent of nostalgia has mostly been subsumed by the odor of bile—or, more to the point, by the odor of the Nicaraguan dead. But this is the effect only for readers; Matthews himself chugs along, telling chipper stories about the days when leaders made nice and American politics worked. By golly, we used to illegally ship weapons to Central American death squads—where did it all go wrong? If only we could get back to the start. As Matthews concludes, The worse things get in Washington—the more threats of shutdown weaken the country’s confidence in government; the more eleventh-hour stopgap deals come along to demoralize us; the more personal attacks are
Chris Matthews is so heroically gifted at pumping out raw bilge that you would think the rest of the D.C. press corps could just retire.
9 performed on cue for the cameras; the more nasty tweets—the more people who care about our republic look back to an idea of when the world worked the way it’s supposed to.
Days of Rage But let’s bring George Washington down from the high horse Matthews puts him on: American politics never worked that way, and no one ever thought it did. Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale, has written the best book of the last
twenty years about the political elites of the early American republic.* It’s about the ways they managed their hate and rage, the ways that they got through their days without too badly losing control of the feelings of disgust they had for one another. The rules were distinctly personal in this “maelstrom of discontent,” but they weren’t rules about being nice: they were rules about not getting shot. With their behavior regulated by the real possibility of violence, national political figures were expected to channel their interpersonal loathing down a few narrow paths; the code of hon-
* Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2001). The
Baffler [no.25] ! 43
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s or meant that men could go only so far before they risked physical peril. “On the unstructured national political stage,” Freeman writes, “this code assumed great importance, for politicking was about conflict and competition above all else. Whether they were debating legislation or campaigning for election, politicians were competing for limited rewards. This was no great surprise to the first national officeholders. What did surprise them was the intensity of the political game. Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement—this was the tenor of national politics from the outset.” In 1800, with a presidential election approaching, John Adams exploded in disgust at the poor character of Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” and an “insolent coxcomb.” Oh, and “the greatest intriguant in the world—a man devoid of every moral principle.” Adams had appointed Hamilton a major general, and the former Treasury secretary had set to work building his political empire inside another man’s administration.* Finding his cabinet more obedient to Hamilton than to their president, Adams “dismissed or forced the resignation of most of the members in a rage.” This being the olden days when everyone got along, “Hamilton lashed back.” He printed and distributed a pamphlet, Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, attacking the president for his vanity and his absence of manly “self command.” Freeman’s discussion on the conflict between Hamilton and Adams appears in a chapter titled “The Art of Paper War”—a whole piece of the book dedicated to the ways
early American politicians tore each other to pieces in print. So, yes: Once upon a time, politicians didn’t constantly send out nasty tweets about their rivals. They printed entire pamphlets and broadsides instead. “Most personal of all were defense pamphlets,” Freeman writes. “Signed, structured character defenses brimming with hard evidence, they were legal briefs argued before a tribunal of one’s peers, the writer personally vouching for their veracity. . . . Of course, personal as they were, defense pamphlets were political publications aimed at attacking foes as much as defending friends, but their defensive tone masked their intentions; like gossip and dinner-table politicking, pamphlets justified and channeled aggression by framing it as something else.” Attacked, Adams began maneuvering against Hamilton behind the scenes, answering the assault quietly and indirectly. His “page-by-page refutation of Hamilton’s pamphlet” went into his private papers, unpublished, for posterity to eventually discover. But he couldn’t keep himself quiet forever, and the former president finally began to assail Hamilton in the pages of the Boston Patriot—five years after the other man’s death. Look closely for the familiar word Freeman uses to describe the published diatribes from one of the most prominent political figures of the early republic: Raging against Hamilton in the public press, he seemed cruel, hysterical, and unbalanced— just as Hamilton had pronounced him to be. Such excess would have been damaging enough in a pamphlet circulating among Adams’s peers. But broadcast from a newspaper, it became a tantrum on paper.
The ex-president’s private letters from the
* Adams was being too kind: Alexander Hamilton was generally an asshole. Cf. Paul Douglas Newman, Fries’s Rebellion:
The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 (Free Press, 1975).
44 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Politics is taking stuff, the means by which people wrestle control of resources from other people.
9 same period were even nastier, and wished physical violence on, for example, former secretary of state Timothy Pickering—“till the blood come.” Pickering felt about the same sentiment for his old boss and expressed a similar desire to see Adams bleed. “Such blood-lust reveals the rage beneath the surface of paper war,” writes Freeman. Today we have government by tantrum, though. What a shame.
Hanging Out John Adams and Alexander Hamilton represent the normal condition of American politics, not the exception. Our past teems with instances of full-throated abuse, not all of them falling just shy of violence. Andrew Jackson’s first term ended in brickbats, after a sex scandal in which secretary of war John Eaton married the widow of a navy purser (whom he had known quite well while her late husband was at sea). When congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts within an inch of his life in 1856, he did it on the Senate floor. The conservative Texas Democrat John Nance Garner earnestly despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he served as vice president; Roosevelt returned the favor by running for a third term—after Garner had already declared his candidacy for the same office. Still, the best example hails from the age when our sage, tirelessly civil leaders were diligently building a consensus behind the urgent business of bringing the republic back together after the trauma of the Civil War. In the summer of 1866, president Andrew Johnson embarked on his “Swing Around the Circle” trip, a three-week speaking tour that took him
to St. Louis and back. A Tennessee Democrat enmeshed in growing conflict with congressional Republicans, the president wanted to influence the upcoming midterm elections; to ensure the survival of his white-supremacyfriendly, pro-planter-class plan for Reconstruction, he hoped to engineer the defeat of some members of the radical Republican caucus who were up for election that year. But he fucked it up, and the trip mostly left people wondering if the president was an alcoholic. In Cleveland, someone in the crowd shouted that the president should hang Jefferson Davis; Johnson responded with the infamously dumb, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” The president of the United States, speaking in public, spontaneously started shouting about tossing a noose around the neck of a congressman. In short: Politicians are not, and have never been, united by their love of country, or by their ability to tell jokes, or by their friendship at the tavern. They seek power, and embrace or assault others as needed in pursuit of that power. Nevertheless, we somehow remain in the grip of the pleasing fiction that there was, once upon a time, a heroic group of selfless lawmakers who managed to just get along. The index for Tip and the Gipper includes this set of entries under “O’Neill, Thomas P., Jr. ‘Tip’”: personal civility toward Reagan by, xvi, 35–38, 44–45, 49, 74, 124–25, 143, 160, 161, 203, 207, 222, 251, 274, 293, 299, 307, 331, 341, 345, 365–66.
For all the bearing that O’Neill’s undeniably winsome way with a ribald anecdote or a heartily proffered drink has on the actual work he did as Speaker of the House, The
Baffler [no.25] ! 45
Po l i t i c s b y O t h e r M e m e s Matthews might have just as well included twenty-one index entries on the man’s shirt size. Personal civility is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to the main business of government, which is making, you know, the laws that compel the rest of us to obey the will of our leaders. That’s why, in Matthew’s sepia-toned reminiscence, Reagan’s practical response to the Boland amendments—the 1982–84 acts of Congress expressly prohibiting any material support for the Nicaraguan Contras—gets comparatively few mentions. Civility is wholly personal and performative; you can do whatever you want, but slap some backs on your way to visit Oliver North in the basement.
City on the Take In his spectacular banality, Matthews is merely the apotheosis of his breed. He’s relentlessly devoted to stripping the politics out of politics because that’s the way the narrative gets made by the narrative engine. Disagreement is ideological rather than interested, because nothing is a conflict of interests, and political decisions don’t represent the use of power to take from one group and give to another. It’s possible to “bow to the country’s judgment,” because, in Matthews’s gaseous fancy, such a thing actually exists: single, coherent, identifiable, unconflicted. There must have been a way for Andrew Johnson to satisfy defeated Confederates, manage the losses inflicted on slaveholders by emancipation, and make freed slaves happy, productive, and safe. And if the country didn’t find that set of answers—well, my goodness, maybe we could send Reagan back in a time machine to tell some knee-slappers and get everybody into the mood.* Politics used to work when everybody was friends. It didn’t, and they weren’t. Politics is tak-
ing stuff, the means by which people wrestle control of resources from other people; it’s an extractive process, business by the means of power. And the business works well for the affiliated status groups that run the enterprise. Just look at our nation’s power center. “A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education,” reads a November 9 story on that newspaper’s website. “But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.” In other words, a ridiculous, heaping pile of wealth surrounds the District of Columbia, as the great armies of political influence take fees for access to the $4 trillion container of capital that sits in the capital. In the quaint fantasy of contemporary America, the government protects us from corporate power; here on earth, government is corporate power itself, the corporation at the center of the corporate solar system. The great progressive advance engineered by the current administration is that you have to buy a product from private corporations, marketed and perhaps subsidized by a transfer of public funds to support the purchase. Kathleen Sebelius works for WellPoint—as does her recently installed successor, Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Chris Matthews never slows down long enough to notice that wealth and power are at stake; he never sees the heart of the thing he wants to describe. But then, Matthews
* This, come to think of it, was largely the point of Steven Spielberg’s reanimation of the Great Emancipator in Lincoln, a
wholesome, joyful, and hijinks-filled cinematic chronicle of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification having much more to do with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s schoolmarmish yearning for consensus at all costs than with the actual conduct of the people’s business in Washington, then or now.
46 1 The Baffler [no.25]
doesn’t appear to see or notice anything at all, any physical manifestation whatsoever of the earth he inhabits. Take Tip and the Gipper off the shelf at the bookstore—you remember the bookstore, right?—and just read the first page of the preface. Washington, D.C., is distinguished by its “quiet grandeur”; tourists are “respectful rather than boisterous.” “Even the bureaucracy, busy along its daytime corridors, fails to shatter the stillness,” Matthews writes. Has this person been to this city? I had been under the impression that he lived and worked there. But then we reach the very next paragraph, on the very same page, and the still, silent city is distinguished by “its jamboree of human voices engaged in discourse, debates, discussion, argument, compromise, leaks, gossip, criticism, and commentary, not to mention speechmaking.” That’s every kind of talking but lobbying, offering soft money, and manipulating the regulatory machinery with battalions of lawyers, but never mind—those things aren’t important. In the city that’s quiet as a church, marked by serenity and stillness, a great jamboree of voices fills up all the spaces and never stops. You can picture it all so clearly, can’t you? Yeah, he can’t either. In a book published last year, Those Angry Days, the miraculously non-insane political journalist Lynne Olson describes the tenor of American debate in the early years of World War II. In the summer of 1940, arguing over conscription in anticipation of American involvement in the war, Congress seethed with deeply personal anger. That rage showed up outside the building, too, as an isolationist group hanged interventionist senator Claude Pepper in effigy on the lawn outside the Capitol. “In the House,” Olson writes, “the fight turned physical; once again, it involved two Democrats. After Rep. Martin Sweeney of
Ohio delivered a scathing attack on the Roosevelt administration for allegedly using conscription as a way to get the United States into the war, Rep. Beverly Vincent of Kentucky, who was next to Sweeney, loudly muttered that he ‘refused to sit by a traitor.’ Sweeney swung at Vincent, who responded with a sharp right to the jaw that sent Sweeney staggering. It was, said the House doorkeeper, the best punch thrown by a member of Congress in fifty years.” On the back of Olson’s book? An enthusiastic blurb from a fellow journalist, a writer and television host who would soon release a book about how American politicians all used to get along. His name, of course, is Chris Matthews. And he’s no friend of yours.t
P. S . MUELLER
Baffler [no.25] ! 47
from Book of Conceptual Anarchy, cont’d 3 P e t er Payac k The dinosaurs didn’t really do much with their 200 million year reign of the planet except run around and eat each other. ∞ Don’t be a dinosaur. ∞ Dinosaurs really didn’t do squat. Well that is not exactly true. I have a piece of coprolite in my antiquities display case. Coprolite is fossilized dinosaur dung. So, I guess they did do squat. There is really not much evidence that dinosaurs ever existed unless you really dig for it. Whereas 67 million years after people vanish from the planet, you will still find Styrofoam cups from McDonalds washing up on even the shores of the tropical paradise, Antarctica. Which will be further proof of the existence of people. And if people do somehow still exist on the beautiful beaches of Antarctica, they would probably use their intelligence to worship the great and all-powerful God, Ronald McDonald, whose evidence would undoubtedly be found throughout all parts of the world. 48 1 The Baffler [no.25]
The None and the Many
K ATHERINE STREETER
Baffler [no.25] ! 49
The None and the Many KILLER BOOKS
Dallas Killers Club How JFK got shot 3 Nicholson Baker
here were three horrible public executions in 1963. The first came in February, when the prime minister of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qassem, was shot by members of the Ba’ath party, to which the United States had furnished money and training. A film clip of Qassem’s corpse, held up by the hair, was shown on Iraqi television. “We came to power on a CIA train,” said one of the Ba’athist revolutionaries; the CIA’s Near East division chief later boasted, “We really had the Ts crossed on what was happening.” The second execution came in early November 1963: the president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was shot in the back of the head and stabbed with a bayonet, in a coup that was encouraged and monitored by the United States. President Kennedy was shocked at the news of Diem’s gruesome murder. “I feel we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it,” he said. “I should never have given my consent to it.” But Kennedy sent a congratulatory cable to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the ambassador to South Vietnam, who had been in the thick of the action. “With renewed appreciation for a fine job,” he wrote. The third execution came, of course, later that month, on November 22. I was six when it happened. I wasn’t in school because we were moving to a new house with an ivy-covered tree in front. My mother told me that somebody had tried to kill the president, who was at the hospital. I asked how, and she said that a bullet had hit the president’s head, probably injuring his brain. She used the word “brain.” I asked why, and she said she didn’t know. I sat on a patch of carpeting in an empty room, 50 1 The Baffler [no.25]
I was six when it happened. My mother told me that somebody had tried to kill the president.
9 believing that the president would still get better, because doctors are good and wounds heal. A little while later I learned that no, the president was dead. Since that day, till very recently, I’ve avoided thinking about this third assassination. Any time I saw the words “Lee Harvey Oswald” or “grassy knoll” or “Jack Ruby,” my mind quickly skipped away to other things. I didn’t go to see Oliver Stone’s JFK when it came out, and I didn’t read DeLillo’s Libra, or Gaeton Fonzi’s The Last Investigation, or Posner’s Case Closed, or any of the dozens of mass-market paperbacks—many of them with lurid black covers and red titles—that I saw reviewed, blamed, praised. But eventually you have to face up to it somehow: a famous, smiling, waving New Englander, wearing a striped, monogrammed shirt, sitting in a long blue Lincoln Continental next to his smiling, waving wife, has his head blown open during a Texas parade. How could it happen? He was a good-looking person, with an attractive family and an incredible plume of hair, and although he wasn’t a very effective or even, at times, a very well-intentioned president—he increased the number of thermonuclear warheads, more than doubled the budget for chemical and biological weapons,
Baffler [no.25] ! 51
The None and the Many tripled the draft, nearly got us into an endtime war with Russia, and sent troops, napalm, and crop defoliants into Vietnam—some of his speeches were, even so, noble and true and ringingly delivered and permanently inspiring. He was a star; they loved him in Europe. And then suddenly he was just a dead, naked man in a hospital, staring fixedly upward, with a dark hole in his neck. Autopsy doctors were poking their fingers in his wounds and taking pictures and measuring, and burning their notes afterward and changing their stories. “I was trying to hold his hair on,” Jacqueline Kennedy told the Warren Commission when they asked her to describe her experience in the limousine. She saw, she said, a wedgeshaped piece of his skull: “I remember it was flesh colored with little ridges at the top.” The president, the motorcade he rode in, the whole country, had been, to use a postmortem word, “avulsed”—blasted inside out. Who or what brought this appalling crime into being? Was it a mentally unstable exMarine and lapsed Russophile named Oswald, aiming down at the back of Kennedy’s head through leafy foliage from the book depository, all by himself, with no help? Many bystanders and eyewitnesses—including Jean Hill, whose interview was broadcast on NBC about a half an hour after the shooting, and Kennedy advisers Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, who rode in the presidential motorcade—didn’t think so: hearing the cluster of shots, they looked first toward a little slope on the north side of Dealey Plaza, and not back at the alleged sniper’s window. A young surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Charles Crenshaw, who watched Kennedy’s blood and brains drip into a kick bucket in Trauma Room 1, also knew immediately that the president had been fatally wounded from a location toward the front of the limousine, not from behind it. “I know trauma, especially to the head,” Crenshaw writes in JFK Has Been Shot, published in 1992, 52 1 The Baffler [no.25]
republished with updates in 2013. “Had I been allowed to testify, I would have told them”— that is, the members of the Warren Commission—“that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the bullet that killed President Kennedy was shot from the grassy knoll area.” No, the convergent gunfire leads one to conclude that the shooting had to have been a group effort of some kind, a preplanned, coordinated crossfire: a conspiracy. But if it was a group effort, what affiliation united the participants? Did the CIA and its hypermilitaristic confederates—Cold Warrior bitterenders—engineer it? That’s what Mark Lane, James DiEugenio, Gerald McKnight, and many other sincere, brave, long-time students of the assassination believe. “Kennedy was removed from office by powerful and irrational forces who opposed his revisionist Cuba policy,” writes McKnight in Breach of Trust, a closely researched book about the blind spots and truth-twistings of the Warren Commission. James Douglass argues that Kennedy was killed by “the Unspeakable”—a term from Thomas Merton that Douglass uses to describe a loose confederacy of nefarious plotters who opposed Kennedy’s “turn” towards reconciliatory back-channel negotiation. “Because JFK chose peace on earth at the height of the Cold War, he was executed,” Douglass writes. This is the message, also, of Oliver Stone’s artful, fictionalized epic JFK: Kennedy shied away from the invasion of Cuba, he wanted us out of Vietnam, he wouldn’t bow to the military-industrial combine, and none of that was acceptable to the hard-liners who surrounded him—so they had him killed. “The war is the biggest business in America, worth $80 billion a year,” Kevin Costner says, in JFK’s big closing speech. “President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned in advance at the highest levels of our government, and it was carried out by fanatical and disciplined cold warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s covert-operation apparatus.”
The president, the motorcade he rode in, the whole country, had been avulsed—blasted inside out.
9 Well, there’s no question that the CIA was and is an invasive weed, an eyes-only historical horror show that has, through plausibly deniable covert action, brought generations of instability and carnage into the world. There is no question, either, that under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, the CIA’s string of pre-Dallas coups d’état—in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America—contributed to an international climate of political upheaval and bad karma that made Kennedy’s own violent death a more conceivable outcome. There’s also no question that the CIA enlisted mobsters to kill Castro—Richard Bissell, who did the enlisting, later conceded that it was “a great mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt”—and no question that the CIA’s leading lights have, for fifty years, distorted and limited the available public record of the Kennedy assassination, doing whatever they could to distance the agency from its demonstrable interest in the accused killer, Oswald. It’s also true, I think, that there were some CIA extremists, fans of “executive action,” including William Harvey and, perhaps, James Jesus Angleton, that orchid-growing Anubis of spookitude, who were secretly relieved that Kennedy was shot, and may even have known in advance that he was probably going to die down south. (“I don’t want to sober up today,” Harvey reportedly told a colleague in Rome. “This is the day the goddamned president is gonna get himself killed!” Harvey also was heard to say: “This was bound to happen, and it’s probably good that it did.”) We are in debt to the CIA-blamers for their five decades of work, often in the face of choreographed media smears. They have brought us closer to the truth. But, having now read less than one-
tenth of one percent of the available books on the subject, I believe, with full consciousness that I’m only a newcomer, that they’re barking up the wrong conspiracy. I think it was basically a Mafia hit: Kennedy’s death wouldn’t have happened without Carlos Marcello.
he best, saddest, fairest assassination book I’ve read, David Talbot’s Brothers, provides an important beginning clue. Robert Kennedy, who was closer to his brother and knew more about his many enraged detractors than anyone else, told a friend that the Mafia was principally responsible for what happened November 22. In public, for the five years that remained of his life, Bobby Kennedy made no criticisms of the nine-hundred-page Warren Report, which pinned the murder on a solo killer, a “nut” (per Hoover) and “general misanthropic fella” (per Warren Committee member Richard Russell) who had dreams of eternal fame. Attorney general Kennedy said, when reporters asked, that he had no intention of reading the report, but he endorsed it in writing and stood by it. Yet on the very night of the assassination, as Bobby began his descent into a near-catatonic depression, he called one of his organized-crime experts in Chicago and asked him to find out whether the Mafia was involved. And once, when friend and speechwriter Richard Goodwin (who had worked closely with JFK) asked Bobby what he really thought, Bobby replied, “If anyone was involved it was organized crime.” To Arthur Schlesinger, Bobby was (according to biographer Jack Newfield) even more specific, ascribing the murder to “that guy in New Orleans”—meaning Carlos Marcello, the squat, tough, smart, wealthy mobster and tomato salesman who controlled slot machines, The
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The None and the Many jukebox concessions, narcotics shipments, strip clubs, bookie networks, and other miscellaneous underworldy activities in Louisiana, in Mississippi, and, through his Texas emissary Joe Civello, in Dallas. In the early sixties, the syndicate run by Marcello and his brothers made more money than General Motors; the Marcellos owned judges, police departments, and FBI bureau chiefs. And when somebody failed to honor a debt, they killed him, or they killed someone close to him. According to an FBI informant, Carlos Marcello confessed to the assassination. Some years before he died in 1993, Marcello said—as revealed by Lamar Waldron in three confusingly thorough books, the latest and best of which is The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination—“Yeah, I had the little son of a bitch killed,” meaning President Kennedy. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself.” As for Jack Ruby, the irascible strip-club proprietor and minor Marcello operative who silenced Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas police station, Bobby Kennedy exclaimed, on looking over the record of Ruby’s pre-assassination phone calls, “The list was almost a duplicate of the people I called before the Rackets Committee.” And then in 1968, Bobby Kennedy himself, having just won the California primary, was shot to death in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles by an anti-Zionist cipher with gambling debts who had been employed as a groom at the Santa Anita racetrack. The racetrack was controlled by Carlos Marcello’s friend Mickey Cohen. The mob’s palmprints were, it seems, all over the war on the Kennedy brothers. Senator John Kennedy, during the laborracketeering hearings in 1959, said, “If they’re crooks, we don’t wound them, we kill them.” Ronald Goldfarb, who worked for Bobby Kennedy’s justice department, wrote in 1995, “There is a haunting credibility to the theory that our organized crime drive prompted a plan to strike back at the Kennedy brothers.” Lamar Waldron’s Hidden History is a pri54 1 The Baffler [no.25]
mary source for a soon-to-be-produced movie, with Robert De Niro reportedly signed to play Marcello and Leonardo DiCaprio in the part of jailhouse informant Jack Van Laningham. Other new books that offer the Mafiadid-it view are Mark Shaw’s The Poison Patriarch—which contains an interesting theory about Ruby’s celebrity lawyer, Melvin Belli, and fingers “Marcello in collusion with Trafficante, while Hoffa cheered from the sidelines”—and Stefano Vaccara’s Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination, which has just been translated. “Dallas was a political assassination because it was a Mafia murder,” writes Vaccara, an authority on the Sicilian Mafia. “The Mafia went ahead with the hit once it understood that the power structure or the ‘establishment’ would not be displeased by the possibility.” Burton Hersh, in his astute and effortlessly well-written Bobby and J. Edgar, a revised version of which appeared in 2013, calls the Warren Commission Report a “sloppily executed magic trick, a governmentsponsored attempt to stuff a giant wardrobe of incongruous information into a pitifully small valise.” Carlos Marcello, Hersh is convinced, was “the organizing personality behind the murder of John Kennedy.” All these books were published last year— the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination. But the notion that Kennedy’s assassination was a desperate Cosa Nostra counterblow, the result of a blood feud between the Kennedy family and an outraged alliance of crime families who felt they’d bought political protection from the Kennedys and then been double-crossed—a hit organized by Marcello, in league with Florida heroin trafficker Santos Trafficante and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana—actually has a long history. One of the first published suspicions came out even before the Warren Report did, in l’Aurore, a Paris newspaper. Serge Groussard, a reporter (later author of The Blood of Israel, about the 1972 massacre in Munich) wrote of the Mafia,
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“Feeling themselves to be driven back, little by little, from the labor unions they controlled and other screens for their activities, and drunk with rage, they must have decided for many months to strike at the very top— to kill the head of the Kennedy family.” Jack Ruby was, according to Groussard, assigned the job of finding a suitable patsy: “The ideal case was to find an individual who had no link with the Mafia, no real defense. An isolated man who could be led blindfolded, as far as possible. An executioner doomed to be, in turn, the victim.” Another writer, Thomas Buchanan, previously fired by the Washington Evening Star for Communist affiliations, was the first to quote Groussard’s theories in English, in a book called Who Killed Kennedy? published by Secker & Warburg in 1964. Buchanan agrees with Groussard up to a point—“Gangsters were involved in this case,” he writes—but he ultimately assigns guilt for the crime to an
unnamed millionaire oilman he calls Mr. X. In the American edition of Who Killed Kennedy? published by Putnam, lengthy passages about the Mafia’s potential role in the killing were cut, and observations about Jack Ruby’s mobsterish leanings were mysteriously softened. (For example, Putnam’s editors changed “Ruby was one of the most notorious of Dallas gangsters” to read, “Ruby was one of the bestknown figures in that border world which lives under continual police surveillance.”) Then, in 1969, in a study of the Mafia called The Grim Reapers, Ed Reid, a Pulitzer-winning reporter, published a revealing anecdote about Carlos Marcello. Back in September of 1962, Reid recounted, Marcello was entertaining an acquaintance (later identified as an entrepreneurial non-mobster named Ed Becker) in Marcello’s private hideout, six thousand acres of partially drained marsh outside New Orleans called Churchill Farms. Becker asked Marcello what he was going to do about Bobby The
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The None and the Many Kennedy, who had been making life impossible for him. “Livarsi na pietra di la scarpa” (Take the stone out of my shoe), said Marcello. Becker scoffed; if you get Bobby, he observed, then the president will just send in the Marines and shut you down for good. No, said Marcello: “You know what they say in Sicily: If you want to kill a dog, you don’t cut off the tail, you cut off the head.” Marcello added that he would employ a “nut” to do the job.
y 1969, when Ed Becker’s story surfaced, Jim Garrison’s sensational, selfimploding investigation into the assassination had come and gone—but with a strange omission. Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans, had charged that the CIA was behind the murder plot, and he turned up an interesting suspect: an eyebrowless former Eastern Airlines pilot and closet pederast, David “the Professor” Ferrie, who had done contract work for the CIA and had taught Oswald how to fly
in the Civil Air Patrol. But Garrison failed to mention that Ferrie had also flown planes (before his sudden “suicide”) for Carlos Marcello and had worked for Marcello’s long-time lawyer, G. Wray Gill. In fact, David Ferrie had been sitting in New Orleans Federal Court with Marcello, helping the “Little Man,” as he was called by associates, to beat yet another lawsuit from Bobby’s Justice Department, on the fateful day, November 22, 1963. Why had Garrison, a prosecutor normally given to fearless, grandiose accusations of intrigue, tiptoed so lightly around the topic of organized crime? Because, wrote Peter Noyes, a news producer (and later a Peabody and Emmy award winner), “it is no secret in New Orleans that Garrison and Marcello are friends.” Marcello’s financial empire grew, according to Noyes, “while Jim Garrison winked and looked the other way.” In Legacy of Doubt: Did the Mafia Kill JFK? (1973, reissued 2010), Noyes noted that he’d
P. S . MUELLER
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I believe, with full consciousness that I’m only a newcomer, that the CIA-blamers are barking up the wrong conspiracy.
9 heard journalists’ hints and rumors that Marcello was behind the Kennedy murder, but at first he couldn’t accept it. And yet it made sense. Marcello had the means—he was “almost as rich as Rockefeller, and much more powerful in his home territory”—and more important, he had the motive. Marcello’s personal animus, Noyes explained, was traceable to one of the first acts of the Kennedy administration. In 1961 attorney general Robert Kennedy ordered Marcello’s abrupt, extralegal deportation—Marcello called it a kidnapping, and the ACLU said it smacked of “totalitarian tactics”—to Guatemala, where Marcello had bribed someone to give him a fake birth certificate. (Guatemala City was becoming, it seems, a gambler’s mecca; president Carlos Castillo Armas, a dictator put in place by the CIA under vice president Nixon’s supervision, was then in turn murdered in 1957, supposedly by a lone pro-Communist “fanatic,” although later accounts determined that the fanatic was a patsy and that the killing was probably mob related.) Marcello, who was born in Tunisia of Sicilian parents and had been ordered to leave the United States in 1953, showed up on April 4, 1961, at the immigration office in New Orleans for his obligatory periodic check-in as a resident alien, whereupon he was handcuffed, hustled onto an empty plane, and flown to Guatemala City without being allowed to pick up a toothbrush or call his wife. He lived there in splendor in the Biltmore Hotel for a few weeks, joined by his family and legal team, and then (so later accounts have it) the Guatemalan government deported him and one of his lawyers to the edge of El Salvador. After a week in jail, they were driven to a remote hilltop on the border of Honduras and left to
fend for themselves. They stumbled over ravines, pledging revenge against “that Bobby,” until they were able to sneak back into the United States, perhaps on a plane flown home by David Ferrie, or perhaps on a shrimp boat, or possibly with the help of the Dominican Republic’s air force. (The president of the Dominican Republic was murdered shortly afterward, with CIA-supplied weapons.) “If any man had reason for wanting the Kennedy brothers killed,” Noyes summed up in Legacy of Doubt, “it was Carlos Marcello.” And Noyes made a closing proposal: “I suggest that it is not too late to revive this ugly moment in America’s history. A Congressional committee, armed with the power of subpoena, could give the American people an opportunity to live with the truth again. Earl Warren had no right to tell the American people that they might not know the truth about the assassination in their lifetime.” Noyes’s book was followed in 1978 by Seth Kantor’s Who Was Jack Ruby? Kantor was an observant Dallas-based reporter who knew Ruby personally—in fact, he had shaken hands with a distraught Ruby on the steps of Parkland hospital, just before the president’s death was formally announced, and not long before the moment when a rifle bullet, later known as the “magic bullet” because it had managed to pass through so many body parts with so little injury to itself, appeared on a bloody hallway stretcher that may or may not have held the wounded governor of Texas, John Connally. Kantor talked to many people in Dallas, including Jesse Curry, Dallas’s former police chief, who had once defended the Warren Commission’s lone-nut argument; now Curry was not so sure. “There’s coincidental things that have happened here,” the The
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The mob’s palmprints were, it seems, all over the war on the Kennedy brothers.
9 former chief said, “to lead one to believe that there could have been a conspiracy after all.” In Kantor’s view, which carries the weight of local knowledge, organized crime was the culprit. “Carlos Marcello made his way back from exile in Guatemala, managed to beat a perjury rap in federal court and was determined to seek revenge against the Attorney General,” he wrote. “In the universe of the Kennedy assassination the mob loomed as the sun.” Meanwhile a congressional committee had reopened the investigation into Kennedy’s death, just as Noyes had hoped. The House Select Committee on Assassinations was hastily voted into being in 1976, after some witnesses who’d been called to testify before Frank Church’s earlier Senate Intelligence Committee turned up dead or missing. (Chicago’s Sam Giancana was murdered while cooking sausage in his basement, five days before he was scheduled to testify, wounded around the mouth and throat to signify the price of becoming an informant; Jimmy Hoffa disappeared; and Vegas’s Johnny “Mr. Smooth” Rosselli, who’d mediated between the CIA and the mob in plots to kill Castro and who evidently, in closed session, had been overly forthcoming to the Church Committee about the Kennedy plot, was discovered floating—legless, stabbed, and shot—in an oil drum in Dumfoundling Bay, north of Miami.) The House Select Committee on Assassinations, troubled by inner feuds, took a while to get rolling, but eventually committee members took testimony from a lot of interested parties, including both Marcello and Trafficante (they didn’t say much); analyzed sound patterns on Dictabelts; and did elaborate “neutron activation” studies of bullet fragments. In 1979 the committee came up with a cautious verdict: 58 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Oswald was one of the shooters, but the crime was “probably” the product of a conspiracy. G. Robert Blakey, counsel to the committee and a veteran of Robert Kennedy’s justice department, went further in an interview with Newsweek: “I am now firmly of the opinion that the mob did it. It is a historical truth.” Blakey’s book, The Plot to Kill the President, written with his colleague Richard Billings, appeared in 1981. In a profile for Salon, David Talbot called Blakey “the man who solved the Kennedy assassination.” David Scheim, an IT person at the National Institutes of Health with a PhD in mathematics from MIT, began years of sifting through the voluminous testimony and supporting documents of the House Committee hearings, cross-collating them with the supporting volumes of the Warren Report. The result was a meticulous, quietly angry volume called Contract on America: The Mafia Murders of John and Robert Kennedy, which he privately published in 1983. Scheim follows the traffic patterns of Jack Ruby’s phone calls and meetings throughout 1963, and he persuasively links Ruby to Marcello and Marcello to Oswald: Oswald lived in New Orleans with his uncle, who earned cash on the side as a bookie for Marcello’s organization. After an April 23, 1963, story in the Dallas Times Herald about President Kennedy’s planned tour through Dallas, Ruby’s long-distance calls suddenly spiked. “A spree of telephone calls and visits begins between Ruby and Mafia associates in several cities, contacts that intensify with each update on the president’s trip,” Scheim notes. “For the first three months, these interactions occur in Marcello’s turf, New Orleans.” The circumstantial evidence that Scheim assembles goes a long way toward demonstrating that Ruby, a
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compulsive gambler with a savage temper, who beat up customers and strippers who crossed him and bought off a good percentage of the Dallas police force, served as the harried, debtridden intermediary in the execution of a contract agreed to by Marcello, Trafficante, Giancana, Rosselli, and Jimmy Hoffa. One of the few people who read Scheim’s book when it first came out was Kennedy family biographer (and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy) John H. Davis. Davis liked Contract on America so much that he wrote an introduction to the paperback edition, praising Scheim’s “analytical skills, intelligence, and moral courage”; it became a bestseller. But Davis, in his own bestselling book, The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster (1984), took the story further and gave it biographical lights and shadows—and not just by offering details on Judith Campbell, the mistress whom the steroid-stoked president recklessly shared with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. Davis writes
smoothly, and he’s good on Bobby’s Kennedy’s tortured silence, his “suicidal sense of guilt,” after the assassination. “I thought they might get one of us,” Bobby told a press aide. “I thought it would be me.” Bobby was part of the cover-up, according to Davis, along with Hoover and Dulles and Helms: all of them “withheld vital information from the Warren Commission.” Davis writes: It is the irony of all ironies that Robert F. Kennedy, the arch crime-fighter and enemy of the Cosa Nostra, was compelled to thwart the investigation of his own brother’s murder even though there was a high probability that organized crime was involved.
But it is John Davis’s next book, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1989), now out of print, that really slams blame home. What a paperback! It’s got a black cover, of course, with embossed red letters flanked by a smiling JFK and an The
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The None and the Many unsmiling Marcello. It’s the sort of true-crime book that I would have instantly turned away from when it was published. Now I paged through it eagerly; I wanted to know everything. It includes an account of an FBI report, filed a week after Kennedy’s killing, describing a conversation overheard in March 1963 at the Lounnor Restaurant, a.k.a. Tregle’s Bar, a Marcello-backed gathering place on Airline Highway in New Orleans, down the road a ways from Marcello’s own office at the Town and Country Motel. (The office had a famous sign on the wall: “Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead.”) Some men were at the Lounnor, flipping through a detective magazine, when they came to an ad for a mail-order rifle selling for $12.98. “This would be a nice rifle to buy to get the president,” said one of them. He added that there was a price on the president’s head now, and he said, “Somebody will get Kennedy when he comes south.” One of the men was called “the Professor”—the nickname for David Ferrie, Marcello’s factotum. Halfway through Mafia Kingfish, Davis again goes after Bobby Kennedy, who, he says, by hiding a footlocker full of medical evidence (including the president’s formalinpreserved brain, which eventually went missing), became an accessory after the fact to his brother’s killing. Davis writes, “It is scandalous that Robert Kennedy was allowed to control these autopsy materials, since, as a family member, his interests might have conflicted with the prosecution of anyone charged with the crime.” And then: In my opinion, it seems most likely that Robert Kennedy might have destroyed or rendered inaccessible the wound-edge tissue slides and bullet-riddled brain to eliminate the last remaining significant pieces of evidence that his brother had not been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, but by a team of gunmen which may or may not have included Oswald.
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s if that fat stack of mass-market paperbacks—by Noyes, Kantor, Blak ey, Scheim, and Davis—wasn’t enough to make the world take seriously the possibility of a Mafia plot in Dallas, there followed several damning memoirs written by insiders: one by Sam Giancana’s brother Chuck, one by Giancana’s daughter Antoinette, and one depth-charge of an autobiography by Frank Ragano, containing many incriminating conversations, called Mob Lawyer. All three were intimates of the alleged conspirators, and all three argue for the mob’s preponderant involvement in the assassination. In JFK and Sam, Antoinette Giancana and her coauthors write, “To Mafia insiders the Marcello contract against Kennedy looked like a typical mob contract against an Irish gang leader.” Chuck Giancana quotes his brother: “When I told Marcello what the deal was, he said he liked the way Oswald looked for the job.” Ragano quotes Santo Trafficante as saying, “Carlos fucked up. We shouldn’t have killed Giovanni. We should have killed Bobby.” So, Bobby Kennedy says that he thinks the Mafia did it, and Marcello, Giancana, and Trafficante all maintain late in life that they did do it. What more do you want? On YouTube, until recently, you could even watch an hour-long video of informant Jack Van Laningham describing how Marcello confessed in prison. (The video, produced by Prevalent Studios, has since been made private.) Yet many students of the assassination still don’t buy the Mafia-did-it narrative. Indeed, the notion really troubles some of the “deep politics” conspiracists, some of whom trace everything back to Lyndon Johnson. They share a general, and justified, conviction that the CIA, aided by a fishy liaison named George Joannides, held back from the House Select Committee a raft of relevant documents, and that Robert Blakey wrongly gave the Agency a pass. (Eventually Blakey himself came around on this point: “The Agency
KILLER BOOKS DISCUSSED David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (Free Press, 2007) Lamar Waldron, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination (Counterpoint, 2013) Mark Shaw, The Poison Patriarch: How the Betrayals of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused the Assassination of JFK (Skyhorse, 2013) Stefano Vaccara, Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination (Enigma Books, 2013; translated by Robert Miller) Burton Hersh, Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America (Carroll & Graf, 2007; new preface, 2013) Thomas Buchanan, Who Killed Kennedy? (Secker & Warburg, 1964; Putnam, 1964) Peter Noyes, Legacy of Doubt: Did the Mafia Kill JFK? (Pinnacle Books, 1973; reprinted 2010) Seth Kantor, Who Was Jack Ruby? (Everest House, 1978) G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings, The Plot to Kill the President (Times Books, 1981) David Scheim, Contract on America: The Mafia Murders of John and Robert Kennedy (Argyle Press, 1983) John H. Davis, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Signet, 1989) Antoinette Giancana, John Hughes, and Thomas Jobe, JFK and Sam: The Connection Between the Giancana and Kennedy Assassinations (Cumberland House, 2005) Chuck Giancana and Sam Giancana, Double Cross: The Explosive, Inside Story of the Mobster Who Controlled America (Warner Books, 1992) Frank Ragano, Mob Lawyer (Random House, 1996) Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton, 2007) MICHAEL DUFF Y
double-timed us,” he said in a documentary in 2005.) The Mafia-sourced explanation, the Unspeakablers think, is no more than a convenient blame-shifting distraction, a “false sponsor” pushed on the public by the CIA to divert attention away from a much bigger plot that originated deep within the hard-right Invisible Government. (And to a limited degree, of course, they’re right: the CIA is an opportunistic fungus, and its apologists have
often used the practice of “limited hangout” to shield from public view its history of murderous screwups.) The post-Garrisonites very much want Kennedy’s death to be a real martyrdom, based on principles, the result of a Seven Days in May sort of national-security-state power grab, not a mere sordid gangland slaying. It wasn’t, it couldn’t be, that JFK died because his hot-headed crusading brother (David TalThe
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In Bugliosi’s view, all conspiracy theorists are just wasting their lives, breast-feeding the credulous “with their special lactations of bilge, blather, and bunk.”
9 bot calls him “the Kennedy family’s avenging angel”) was obsessed with shutting down strip clubs, slot machines, and bookie wires—no, the president died as a heroic consequence of his quiet peace overtures to Castro and Khrushchev and his professed desire to get out of Vietnam after reelection in 1964. This view understandably persists. You can sense it sometimes in James DiEugenio’s fierce attacks on Lamar Waldron’s books, and you can read it in its most extreme form in comment columns on YouTube. “The secret brotherhood of evil fuckers have been working hard to inject this Mafia explanation into the narrative of JFK’s murder,” says one commenter to a Waldron clip. Says another, “The Mafia is the new patsy.” But it seems pretty clear that Oswald is the patsy (a term perhaps derived from the Italian pazzo, “crazy person”), just as he said he was. Maybe the way to think about it is to ask yourself two questions. If there had been a CIA, but no Mafia, would the president have lived through the motorcade? I think the answer is yes. If there had been a Mafia, but no CIA, would the president have lived? I think the answer is no. Another writer who resists the Mafia-didit view is Vincent Bugliosi, author of a huge, fascinating, annoying book called Reclaiming History, whose purpose—aside from telling us how Oswald all by himself fired all the shots— is to rescue America from its evil conspiratorial degeneracy. “The decreasing trust by Americans in their government all started with the Kennedy assassination,” Bugliosi said recently in a CNN documentary, and he wants to turn that around. “The thought that Trafficante, 62 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Marcello, or any of the mob leaders would plot to murder the president of the United States is too ridiculous to even mention,” he writes. He dismisses mob-lawyer Ragano as “within the grasp of, or flirting very heavily with, psychosis”; in fact, Bugliosi wants us to believe that any person who offers evidence that the mob, or anyone else who is not Oswald, killed the president is dumb, crazy, senile, or fraudulently motivated by money. He dismisses one FBI informant’s evidence as “terribly ridiculous.” John H. Davis, he says, in one of 958 pages of endnotes included on a supplemental CD, “adds his own rubbish to the brew.” It’s all just bullshit, Bugliosi claims, “to anyone who is using the gray matter between their ears. That, of course, automatically excludes virtually all the resident habitues of the conspiracy community.” The notion that Carlos Marcello planned the killing, he said on TV in response to one of Waldron’s books, is “sublime silliness.” But then, in Bugliosi’s view, all conspiracy theorists are just wasting their lives, breast-feeding the credulous “with their special lactations of bilge, blather, and bunk.” Bugliosi is a hard-working man, but his mouth at times seems set in an unbecoming sneer.
here’s nothing silly about trying to find out what really happened. We know more now, and I think we know where the long finger points. Antoinette Giancana writes, “Chuck said that the three main Mafia chieftains sent as possible shooters their own representatives to Dallas.” Whoever the paid hit men were, one of them, positioned somewhere on Dealey Plaza, fired a different kind of bullet than the earlier shot or shots that hit
the president in the back and Governor Connally in the ribs: instead of penetrating cleanly into a human target, as a full-metal-jacket bullet does, this one exploded when it hit the president’s temple, leaving him mutilated and dying in his wife’s arms. The Parkland hospital staff, seeing the massive head wound, whispered that it must be from some kind of hollow-point, “dumdum” bullet—and in fact a constellation of white flecks visible on the x-rays of Kennedy’s head suggests to some experts that the shooter of the fatal shot used a frangible, mercury-tipped round, which disintegrates into many tiny pieces—the sort of professional assassin’s bullet later described in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal: “Hitting the head, such a bullet would not emerge, but would demolish everything inside the cranium, forcing the bone-shell to fragment.” Craig Roberts, a former marine sniper and author of Kill Zone: A Sniper Looks at Dealey Plaza, studied the Zapruder film. “I’ll tell you what I saw, as a sniper,” he said at a conference in Dallas in 1997. “I saw a guy hit from the right front, with a frangible mercury bullet.” Jack Ruby is the most interesting, and perhaps the most repentant, of the Dealey Plaza conspirators. Ruby, who professedly loved President Kennedy and claimed that he shot Oswald two days later in a moment of unpremeditated, grief-stricken rage, was not standing outside in the crowd, as one might have expected an ardent Kennedy admirer to be, waiting to wave as the president’s car drove by. “If I loved the president so much,” Ruby asked later, “why wasn’t I at the parade?” He said this during a polygraph test, in the presence of one of the Warren Commission’s lawyers, Arlen Specter. Where Ruby was, it turns out, at 12:30 p.m. on November 22, was in the office of the Dallas Morning News, in an office in the advertising department whose windows faced across from the Texas School Book Depository. He was there to place ads for his strip club—he had money now to bring
his account current—and he was sitting, according to an FBI summary, “in the only chair from which he could observe the site of the President’s assassination.” Georgia Mayor, a secretary in the advertising department, told the FBI that, although she wasn’t sure, “she had a faint impression that he was looking out at the scene where President Kennedy was assassinated.” Half an hour later, the secretary again glanced over at Ruby. He was in a different chair, sitting and staring into space. “He seemed very dazed.” Ruby sometimes sounds, during this rambling, polygraphed self-interview, as if he, too, is fitfully trying to confess. “What about my being present in the News Building that morning?” he asks. “The assassination took place across the street from there.” Arlen Specter tries to shut him down (“I think we have covered that”), but Ruby adds, “If I was in a conspiracy, wouldn’t it start off with that point?”t
The holy rock of never ever forgiving. ZOHAR L AZAR
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The None and the Many BOOB TUBED
Looks Like a Duck, Quacks Like Reality TV 3 Todd VanDerWerff
t’s one of the more curious features of our age of culture-war spectacle that, just as Americans are all set to retreat into the comforting, formulaic pleasures of our mass entertainments, we’re suddenly riven by the news that we’re also employing them as platforms for some ideological agenda or another. The most recent case in point was last winter’s uproar over the ignorant, homophobic tirade that Phil Robertson, star of the hit A&E reality TV franchise Duck Dynasty, unleashed to a reporter from GQ. Robertson’s outburst was little more than a rehash of talking points well trod by the evangelical right, from the claim that sodomy segues directly to bestiality to the prophecy that gays will not come into possession of the Kingdom of God. But to hear them come from a gruff-talking and otherwise beloved televisual symbol of Louisiana’s backwoods working class, as opposed to the likes of Rick Santorum or Ralph Reed, was enough to summon the pseudopopulist rhetoric of cultural confrontation in ampedup form. After A&E executives suspended Robertson over his comments, conservative political leaders from Sarah Palin to Bobby Jindal rallied to the defense of his free-speech rights in the workplace—protections that, by the way, our courts have routinely denied to Americans and that, in any event, are almost laughably inapt for someone tasked with adopting a largely scripted identity for the sake of lifestyle titillation. The great Duck Dynasty culture war skirmish ran its course soon enough. Robertson was grudgingly reinstated to the show’s cast, and he seems to have agreed, just as grudg64 1 The Baffler [no.25]
ingly, to keep his bigoted views out of range of reporters’ voice recorders. The blowback from the whole contretemps was likewise predictable, and served to confirm what no end of opinion polls and failed gay-marriage bans have already demonstrated: gay bashing is no longer a very popular or respectable American pastime. In January 2014, the month after the Robertson fracas began, Duck Dynasty ratings plummeted 28 percent. While the culture-war maneuvers of the Robertson scandal weren’t especially edifying, they did help to lay bare the distempers that make Duck Dynasty essential viewing in the first place. And they get at the great taboo subject that reality TV flirts with continually without ever airing in the light of day: the complicated tensions surrounding class privilege in America.
You Hand in Your Ticket to Go Watch the Geeks It’s easy, of course, to make sport of the boom in reality television. The cynical premise lurking behind many reality franchises—We’ll make you famous, so long as you are prepared to gratuitously humiliate yourself before an audience of millions—confirms all the gruesome stereotypes about the Hollywood power elite that you’d find in a novel by Nathanael West or Bruce Wagner. And the content of most reality shows caroms between overt class voyeurism (on either the upper or lower reaches of the social ladder) and the sort of tabloid-style indignation summed up by the familiar tagline that daytime talk shows have bequeathed to our common tongue: Oh no she didn’t!
GR AHAM ROUMIEU
Why doesn’t the reality genre traffic more directly in the economic reality of its subjects’ lives?
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Any time you send cameras out into the middle of America, you’re going to find somebody who’s struggling to make ends meet while still poking at the embers of the American dream.
9 Yet the appeal of reality television is, well, real. No matter how scripted and contrived the situations may be, and no matter how edited within an inch of its life the final product is, there’s always that core sense of watching real people trying to deal with something like real life. Most reality shows are very carefully constructed by their producers, who come up with storylines and even feed participants dialogue. But decrying this practice as somehow an abuse of the term “reality” (which it is, to be sure) misses much of the point. These are still real people, and their emotional reactions to whatever happens aren’t always easy to predict, even if they are easy enough for producers to shape and contain. Or, put another way, the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame—an extended family of duck-call manufacturers in the Louisiana wilds—might be obviously led around by the nose by producers eager to introduce unlikely sitcom scenarios into their lives, but the connections among them, formed over years and years of togetherness, are impossible to fake. Most scripted sitcoms would need several seasons to build those kinds of ties among their cast members. Duck Dynasty can coast along on something its producers simply found in the backwoods (or, you know, close enough to the backwoods, given that several Robertson family members were well-scrubbed southern suburbanites before signing on with A&E). Sure, it’s a form of cultural exploitation, but the fowl-trackers of Louisiana aren’t the first to swap some of their self-respect for a portion of fame. The wild success of Duck Dynasty—which, even after its January ratings debacle, is so popular that only a handful of shows in the 66 1 The Baffler [no.25]
entirety of cable television outrate it in any given week—points to another reason for the reality genre’s appeal: unlike most scripted television, which is comfortable within its upper-middle-class, coastal point of view, reality TV is far more likely to seek out people between the coasts, to wander into red-state America in search of wacky families and unusual situations. The simple fact of its orientation toward the Middle American interior makes reality programming the one genre of contemporary television that has consistently come up against the fallout from the middle class’s slow economic erosion over the past forty years.
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control So why doesn’t the reality genre traffic more directly in the economic reality of its subjects’ lives? And why does it set up a weirdly artificial distance between its middle-class viewers and its middle-class protagonists? To be sure, some reality shows sidestep Middle America altogether in favor of the workaday travails of the wealthy: the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, the Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. But at least as many entries in the genre—especially those on the numerous cable networks that rely on reality fare to round out their broadcast schedules—feature Americans who are either clinging desperately to whatever remains of the middle class or sinking toward its forgotten lower reaches. And somehow these figures almost always come across as terminally marginal misfits. Never mind that they’re struggling just like viewers at home. Wouldn’t it be fun to laugh at them?
Whether it’s the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo family (generically wacky proles of the heartland), the American Hoggers (a clan of Texans running down wild boars), or the unlikely entrepreneurs stepping forward to ask the 1 percent for their table scraps on Shark Tank, reality shows seem determined to keep the viewer at home distanced from the characters on screen. Getting viewers to laugh at the follies of the rich, as Real Housewives often does, is no real trick; American storytelling has a long tradition of turning the foibles and oddities of the upper class into satire and sitcoms. But keeping the reassuring appearance of an impassible socioeconomic distance between viewers at home and people onscreen who might be just like them is another trick altogether, and increasingly it’s wearing thin. In reality television’s reverse social (anti social?) contract, we can see some of the founding principles of the genre at work. The first reality show is generally agreed to be PBS’s seventies opus An American Family, but the genre as we now know it is rooted far more directly in MTV’s landmark nineties show The Real World and in CBS’s early aughts wilderness contest Survivor. Both were giant hits. Both defined generations of TV viewers and made their influence felt far and wide. And both, more importantly, were incredibly cheap to produce compared to just about anything else TV had to offer. The appeal of such programming for fledgling cable channels was soon plain enough: no matter what any network has to pay to keep a reality show going, it’s far less than the cost of any equivalently scripted half hour of dramatic or sitcom programming. Scripted comedies and dramas require actors and writers—and the hefty, union-mandated fees that guild members in Hollywood command. But reality shows don’t run up such costs, and occasionally can be made without any unionrepresented personnel whatsoever. The savings over a scripted show are substantial, and
the ratings breakout potential remains huge. Yet this trend is also, in some ways, the ultimate expression of Hollywood class warfare. It might seem silly to single out Hollywood writers and actors, many of whom are handsomely compensated, as “working-class,” but that is clearly where they stand in relation to the entertainment executives who give them work. Entertainment corporations’ relationships with the most powerful Hollywood unions—namely the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America—are cordial on the surface but driven by constant attempts to make sure as much money as possible ends up in corporate coffers, as opposed to with the people who do the actual production work. So while one doesn’t feel instantaneous, organic solidarity with, say, Will Smith, who commands a per-film fee of around $20 million, he’s technically worth far more than that to the studios that employ him. And in today’s Hollywood, stars and directors alike have called out studio heads for cooking up misleading contracts and accounting tricks to keep money out of their hands. On television, at least, this stubbornly antagonistic relationship has finally found its escape valve in the reality show. The stars of Duck Dynasty are not SAG members. They’re not going to go looking for back-end points or a cut of syndication revenue or anything from the series’ DVD and streaming contracts. (Though in a telling indication of the show’s—and the reality genre’s—growing market share, the Duck Dynasty clan did delay work on the show’s fourth season by demanding a $200,000 per-episode participation fee.) There’s no union for reality TV stars, nor does it seem likely that one will take off anytime soon; an effort by the WGA to cover reality TV’s writers—called story editors, because they craft storylines from the raw footage from the shoot—ran aground in 2008. More recently, the East Coast headquarters The
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The None and the Many of the WGA issued a report on rampant wage theft against reality production crews; the research sample was a small group of online poll respondents, but the results are eye-opening even so. Of the poll’s 315 respondents, 60 percent said they routinely worked more than eight hours a day, and 85 percent said they had never received any overtime pay. The WGA collected information on the labor practices of at least seventeen different production companies and found that they were liable for as much as $40 million in unpaid back wages. As the report noted, the per-segment production costs for a typical cable reality program are dramatically lower than the costs for union-staffed scripted shows: $225,000 to $425,000 for a reality hit like Pawn Stars, for example, and between $2 and $2.5 million for a drama on the USA cable network. Even the big, glitzy network reality shows, which rely on standard reserves of behind-the-scenes union labor, still fall significantly below the costs of the average scripted program. There’s no direct sense in which the ascendance of reality TV represents a network campaign of union-busting. Scripted programming remains popular, and most healthy networks need a mix of the two types of programs to stay alive. But the divide between the runaway popularity of some reality programs and their bargain-level production costs now appears to be creeping into the production and visual language of standard network drama and entertainment fare as well. Nor is it hard to see how this could be the case. Reality shows are designed to promote division and rancor, to encourage audiences to hold unwashed subjects at arm’s length, and to suggest to the viewer that it’s worth living in terror. (Scores of true-crime programs still litter the cable schedule, most famously at the news-talk empire MSNBC, where lurid crime-and-prison fare sits uneasily alongside a solidly liberal roster of prime-time politics shows.) In this sense, the content of reality 68 1 The Baffler [no.25]
shows serves as a surrogate right-to-work propaganda campaign, echoing the studio executives’ broadside against Hollywood unions. The official voice of the programs remains condescending toward working-class and middle-class people—precisely because the shows arose out of an attempt to cut the working-class contingent of Hollywood labor out of the picture as much as possible.
Who’s Afraid of Honey Boo Boo? When reality TV manages to directly address the financial plight of Middle Americans, it does so in fugitive, fragmentary glimpses. In most cases, these glimpses occur entirely by accident and are swiftly shunted aside. But they turn up nonetheless; any time you send cameras out into the middle of the United States in search of something that smacks of documentary realism, you’re all but certain to find someone struggling to make ends meet while poking at the embers of the American dream. Consider one lurch into dire economic reality, from “Tiny Miss USA,” the tenth episode of the second season of Toddlers & Tiaras. The episode pivots around the efforts of an earnest Southern woman named Kim Jones to ensure that her seven-year-old daughter, Mckenzie, has every shot she can to claim first place at the Tiny Miss USA regional beauty pageant. But midway through the show, Jones learns from her husband, William, that he entered Mckenzie in something called the “optionals”—a lesser competition that doles out additional titles and trophies to girls who might not win anything at the main event. In that moment, the veneer of goofy camp that propels the class voyeurism of Toddlers & Tiaras drops away, and something more akin to docudrama realism emerges. The family doesn’t have the money necessary to enter the optionals, and Kim’s husband might have just shot the family budget to hell without consulting his wife. There is, inevitably, a heartwarm-
Reality shows serve as a surrogate right-to-work propaganda campaign, echoing the studio executives’ broadside against Hollywood unions.
9 ing resolution—Mckenzie wins several of these lesser pageant laurels—but the threat of economic meltdown hangs over the episode, and leaves a sense of desperation that can’t be programmed away by a dubiously authentic happy ending. Here is a woman who would sacrifice everything for her daughter, and she’s forced to choose between two potentially crippling such sacrifices: going for broke in the central competition or sinking the family deeper in debt for the sake of shoring up her daughter’s self-esteem. (The question of just how and why toddler beauty pageants have come to serve as arbiters of young children’s ever-frail grasp of their value in the world is, alas, the subject for another essay entirely.) Such high-stakes moments of economic reckoning are departures from the story telling arcs of your basic reality offerings; more often, you see bland rehearsals of the pernicious American fantasy that happy-golucky poor people are perfectly content to wait around for their big break—perhaps on a reality show! To add insult to injury, reality programs have been successful in part because they’ve taken the place in the TV ecosystem of what once were known as rural or working-class sitcoms. Programs both terrible (Petticoat Junction) and pretty damn great (Roseanne) prospered in this genre throughout the history of television, but they receded in the wake of NBC’s success with series about carefree bigcity white people, a formula the network perfected in the nineties. Seinfeld and Friends may have been great television, but they left precious little room for shows about people who had to scramble to make ends meet.
In a partial bow to present economic woes, the broadcast networks have programmed a handful of shows in the working-class tradition, most notably the much-buzzed-about The Middle, which carries what remains of Roseanne’s torch. Another noteworthy example is the sharp, if at times overly farcical, Fox sitcom Raising Hope. Yet both of these programs lack the harder edge Roseanne brought to the genre; that extended study in socio economic stagnation was clearly inspired by the working-class sitcoms of Norman Lear, who never met a social issue he couldn’t turn into an episode of television. The Middle occasionally saunters up to the brink of abject financial despair—particularly in its fourth season, when the show’s protagonist, Frankie Heck, loses her job—but its creators carefully modulate the economic menace to make sure nothing gets too dark. During its most compelling moments, reality TV careens right over such guardrails. One of the most remarkable reality programs of the past decade was the Sundance Channel’s Nimrod Nation, a depiction of a high school basketball team living in an extremely rural corner of Michigan’s already extremely rural Upper Peninsula. The program operated as a kind of unscripted Friday Night Lights, digging deep into the cycles of poverty and hopelessness that gripped its central town, while still depicting the hope and excitement of fledgling teenage romances and the town’s fervid support for the basketball team as it made a run at a big win. These kinds of stories crop up elsewhere too—even in the lucky-bootstraps fare of American Idol or in the umpteenth cable reality show with the word Swamp in its The
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The None and the Many title. It’s just that the conventions of the reality genre don’t permit class solidarity to be encountered in any sustained fashion, or hardup characters to be more than caricatures. The question, then, is why contemporary television bothers to depict these sorts of moments and places in the first place, if they’re always shoved into the same pat, feel-good narratives about the smiling poor. American art has always been lousy at depicting poverty and economic struggle, but American television has been especially bad at it. Even a series like Breaking Bad—uniquely attuned to the economic moment in which it was born— eventually turned into a low-level fantasia on the American dream coasting along on pure adrenaline; its genius, and a good deal of its appeal, stemmed from its erratic, piecemeal depiction of the economic pressures stoking the disintegration of its meth-dealing protagonist, Walter White. Just pause a second to let that sink in: the Great Recession’s most compelling economic narratives on television come from the imaginary exploits of a crystal meth kingpin who toiled most of his life earnestly, and to no avail, as a hard-working, and doubtless unionized, high school science teacher. (It’s an additional layer of irony that this cynical gloss on the American Dream comes from the pen of Vince Gilligan, who broke out as a writer on the dark and quasi-paranoid nineties sci-fi franchise The X-Files; TV’s most thoughtful encounter with widespread economic misfortune owes its origins to the grimmest reaches of deepest outer space.) By contrast, the hidden suggestion cutting against all the scattered moments of class realism within the reality genre is that if you, too, live in the middle of nowhere and don’t see people like yourself reflected on scripted TV, you just might be worthy of your very own reality show. It’s the modern version of the kid who gets discovered at Schwab’s drugstore and gets a job in the pictures. 70 1 The Baffler [no.25]
If reality TV is ever going to approach its artistic potential—or even render the “reality” part of the genre name something more than a punch line—it’s going to have to confront how the form’s very existence skews the narratives it presents. Much like lottery winners, the people at the center of these shows often come into sudden fame and riches in their real lives. On a show like Survivor or American Idol, this doesn’t entail a great deal of cognitive dissonance; the point of the whole thing is, indeed, to become rich, or at least famous. But what about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—itself a Toddlers & Tiaras spin off and a big enough success for TLC to ensure handsome paydays ahead for most of the show’s principals? TLC surely learned its lesson with Jon & Kate Plus Eight; that franchise wound up inadvertently spotlighting the economic trials of its subjects, since Jon and Kate needed to gin up more notoriety— cable, tabloid, and otherwise—to keep their kids fed. (Surely the not-at-all upbeat saga of the famous “octomom” Nadya Suleman, who turned to porn, stripping, and online “date” auctioning to support her own army of children after her dreams of reality stardom had fizzled out, also preyed on the harried moral imaginations of the TLC brass.) These cautions all but guarantee that the plotlines of Honey Boo Boo will remain ironclad: a homespun lower-middle-class family in the South makes its pleasures out of unexpected, low-budget fun. After its first season, which was produced in a comparative vacuum of public attention, it has become a series about a family of reality TV stars, going through the paces, circus-animal style. Yet Honey Boo Boo is unquestionably charming. It’s the most obvious example of the reality genre’s split between presentation and content. It’s clear that the producers expect audiences to laugh at the central family—but the family itself is so sweet and unassuming that the occasional over-the-top
insistence on outlandish behavior from the producers feels unusually mean and churlish. More than any other reality show in history, Honey Boo Boo has prompted think pieces and concern over what might happen to the little girl at its center once she’s conducted away from the cable klieg lights to resume growing up. Now, however, to watch the show is to see people who seem to treat the cameras as just another weird fact of life. It’s possible, of course, to imagine a different path forward. The thing that would take Honey Boo Boo from an inessential if agreeable time-waster to something truly interesting would be to chart this family’s rise from their status at the beginning of the series to their newfound wealth—all documented via the medium that made it possible. By embracing this fresh approach, reality TV could throw over many of its fast-obsolescing conventions and creaky plot devices. It could get past the feel-good narratives and casual condescension
and risk acknowledging the real stakes of life as it’s now lived among our downwardly mobile middle class—up to and including the role that our pseudo-documentary media plays in distorting that life. Yet to do such a thing might scare away the audience, so Honey Boo Boo, like the many now-forgotten and eminently disposable reality sagas that preceded it, must keep tending the divide between the real lives of its players and the TV personas it offers up for indignant reproach or bemused mass consumption. That divide hasn’t yet devoured Honey Boo Boo, but it inevitably will, in just the same way that it effaced the uncomfortable economic truths that demolished the Jon & Kate franchise. The faithful viewers of reality TV are by now too attuned to the format the way it is—and presumably too comfortably settled into the conceit of their own superior standing—to put up with any abrupt redefinitions of the nightly fare they accept as reality.t
Memorial to all who saw something sad on TV and went on about their lives as if it had happened to them.
ZOHAR L AZAR
Baffler [no.25] ! 71
Route 202 3 Edw i n Fr a n k Somehow we are always back on it, though always it appears to be going a different way— here, east west; there, north south; anyway the wrong way— and there is nothing much to see, mainly the scrawny late-growth woods that famously cover up the abandoned farmsteads and well-forgotten setbacks of earlier passersby, our ancestors, or we halt at the granite crown of a hill as worn down as an old tooth affording a glimpse of another road (it must be the very one we want, the one that goes to the place where we are going, if only—if only!—we could get there, we laugh) and the gas station nestled in the valley below. Old potholed manufacturing towns, weed trees, sagging row houses, Irish bars: it is all very familiar and everywhere much the same here on the road through history to where history ran out with us alone on it, it appears, and though we are quite lost we admit now, we are barreling along happily enough in silence when again that sign crops up, Route 202, the same, my mind wandering as it does to wonder at the two identical twos facing each other across the empty space of the zero, just like a mirror, I think. And oh yes, it is our road after all.
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E x h i bi t B
CHRIS L ABROOY
Baffler [no.25] ! 73
The None and the Many WHITE BLIGHT
The Jim Crow Soft-Shoe Segregationists of St. George 3 Tom Gogola
he Mall of Louisiana is a sprawling, indoor-outdoor retail complex whose commodity affiliations run the gamut from a tucked-away Spencer’s sin emporium to an ever-bustling Chick-fil-A in the food court. There’s a smattering of region-specific shops, including one called Storyville, which offers ersatz totems of the heyday of New Orleans jazz life. It shares the name of, but exactly nothing else about, the neighborhood where Louis Armstrong grew up. But this blandified memorial to a far livelier cultural past does have totemic significance of its own. Located in the suburban settlement of St. George, the Mall of Louisiana—and most particularly, the millions in tax revenue it generates—was, until recently, ground zero in a fiercely pitched battle over the economic, political, and racial makeup of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city. This May, the Baton Rouge city council voted to annex the mall firmly within the city’s borders—thus claiming for the majority-black city one of the key economic prizes that had been in the sights of a new cohort of affluent (and mostly white) would-be municipal secessionists. But that setback for the region’s secessionist forces is unlikely to slow the momentum of their movement, which thrives on a powerful compound of free-market development stratagems, movement-conservative swagger, and new-millennial racial animus. St. George, like many of the predominantly white and well-off communities that have sprung up along the New South’s exurban interior, has drawn a steady stream of salaried professional workers away from the commercial
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center of Baton Rouge, which hosts not only the state government, but also Louisiana State University. According to the regional-development playbook touted by social prophets such as Richard Florida, the capital city should be a magnet for the Information Age’s knowledge elite, who are known to savor the funky authenticity of subculture-friendly communities. But there’s, you know, Storyville the mall logo and then there’s Storyville the legendary urban neighborhood. Baton Rouge may have attractive research and lobbying concerns, and a robust jobs economy, but a quarter of the population there is living in poverty. Fifty-five percent is black. These trends have continued in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 landfall. Up to four hundred thousand storm evacuees, mostly from New Orleans, fled to Baton Rouge, and some never left. Many of them, too, are poor and black. So in recent months, the professional class of St. George has grown restive. Baton Rouge’s rump southern suburb is now looking to put itself on the map as a new city, steeped in the great American first principles of piety and untrammeled free enterprise. Incorporation activists have been collecting signatures in a petition drive to put the issue to a vote—a vote that, under state law, would be limited to residents of St. George. Anticipating a favorable outcome, a local group, with image-and-branding help from a staunchly conservative media-consulting firm, has already launched a website heralding the arrival of the City of St. George. Nominally, the secession movement in St. George is about schools and local control. The architects of the incorporation plan
R ANDALL ENOS
Enter TPG Capital, very, very quietly, stage right.
Baffler [no.25] ! 75
The None and the Many have adopted the PR-friendly mantra “Local Schools for Local Children.” It’s true that Baton Rouge’s school system has room for improvement. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has issued a study noting that nearly six in ten district students in the 2011–12 school year were enrolled in schools that the state deems to be “failing” or “almost failing” in basic academic performance. Twenty percent of high schoolers dropped out; another 30 percent of students are enrolled in area private schools. Throughout the South, rich municipalities have begun to raise the specter of secession— despite the associations that carry over from the last big push by a privileged white Southern elite to carve out a brave new civic destiny for itself, during the years 1861 to 1865. Similar movements to inaugurate breakaway townships and school districts have lately taken off in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. But the St. George effort is different. For starters, it furnishes a detailed case study in how the unvarnished rhetoric of white reaction has been repackaged as a sunny faith in the mystical healing powers of school choice. And it has drawn a corps of politically prominent supporters who are long-standing entrepreneurs of far-right reaction. The present effort took off in earnest last year, after the state legislature failed to endorse a plan to fund a new school district in St. George. So in the summer of 2013, a group of liberty-loving Christian activists launched the incorporation scheme, which would divide the greater Baton Rouge area roughly in half. The southern side of town would cleave off into St. George, home to the Mall of Louisiana and at least one inviting parcel of sagging commercial-residential development. The other half would be everyone else—everyone else, that is, who wasn’t doctrinaire, connected, or just generally canny enough to get in on the ground floor of this remarkable boondoggle of ideologically driven urban reconfiguration. The incorporation plan would create a new city of 76 1 The Baffler [no.25]
more than one hundred thousand residents in eighty-five square miles of previously unincorporated land in the city-parish conglomeration that is greater Baton Rouge. The alternative to incorporation is annexation—the tactic that the Baton Rouge city council employed to keep the Mall of Louisiana within its civic orbit. This more common procedure has permitted other localities within the state to streamline the frequently confused lines of authority stemming from Louisiana’s unique patchwork system of combined city and parish governance. As both a city and a parish, greater Baton Rouge is hobbled by lots of internecine turf wars—mostly over education and public safety—a layer of civic chaos that the city’s political leaders say they can ill afford as they, like municipalities throughout the rest of the country, continue to dig out from the 2008 economic meltdown. But a consolidated city of Baton Rouge didn’t sit well with the suburbanites in St. George, steeped as they are in the anti government orthodoxies of the Tea Party insurrection—or, in some cases, their milder variant from the Gingrichite wing of the GOP. And so in November 2013, St. George boosters went into high gear to publicize the benefits of incorporation (itself a much more palatable term than secession). Of course, none of this has been characterized in racial terms. No, the leaders of the incorporation movement present themselves in public as concerned parents, seeking to ensure better performance standards for the schools their children attend, and they make sure to promise a slew of trickle-down economic gains for the parish as a whole. Who could possibly be opposed to that? The St. George secessionists insist that their movement won’t harm the finances of or quality of life in present-day Baton Rouge. But the numbers so far say otherwise. A recent study commissioned by local business and civic groups said splitting off St. George
would mean $85 million in lost annual revenue for the city-parish coffers, some of which is linked to the beleaguered St. George retailresidential complex, whose name positively wafts Old South wisteria: Perkins Rowe. That report also highlighted a stark and undeniable demographic difference between the city of Baton Rouge and the proposed St. George fiefdom: the former is mostly black and significantly less well off than the latter. “The mean household income for the proposed city will be $30,000 higher than the City of Baton Rouge,” the report noted, adding that “more than 60 percent of households in Baton Rouge have incomes below $50,000.” St. George, meanwhile, is the reverse image of Baton Rouge, in economic terms: 60 percent of households in St. George have incomes above $50,000. Further to the point: St. George is about 70 percent white; the city of Baton Rouge is about 55 percent black.
The White-Washed New Social Contract Those numbers have spurred some acrobatic displays of studiously “postracial” rhetoric from the secession movement. As the St. George incorporation plan has gained momentum, it has become a study in the elaborate protocols of racial denialism on the newmillennial right. One common bond among the promoters of the incorporation plan, who otherwise run the gamut from Rand Paul libertarians to Ben Carson–style culture warriors, is the shared refrain that the plan has nothing to do with race. What’s more, it never had anything to do with race—and how dare you imply it has anything to do with race in the first place? But race is, of course, an inescapable motivating force here. The fear of sharing schools and other civic accommodations with the city of Baton Rouge’s majority black population is, after all, what fueled the initial wave of suburban exodus toward St. George in the
first place, beginning in the mid-sixties. The incorporation movement amounts to a variation on the old phenomenon of “white flight” to the suburbs. In the case of the St. George plan, the aggrieved white population isn’t fleeing. Instead, it’s proposing to morph itself into a predatory libertarian microrepublic, one that will do a good deal more than simply turn its back on the poorer, blacker inner city. This new fever dream of a free-standing dynasty of low-tax suburban deregulation will draw sustenance directly from the adjacent city of Baton Rouge, where most of the area’s black people live. (St. George is about 23 percent black.) As plans for a great educational and cultural promise of a new municipal dawn for the citizens of St. George unfold, the vultures are coming home to roost. This kinder, more convenient return to Jim Crow just makes sense, as supporters of the incorporation plan argue. But for black residents of Baton Rouge, the sense it makes is all too plain; the incorporation of St. George represents a formal ratification of the two-tiered, racialized urban life that they’ve already come to know. Jasmine Vaughn is working the Celebrity Stop Makeup kiosk at the Mall of Louisiana. She is twenty-six and African American. She went to a local Christian high school and describes herself as a cultural conservative who is not altogether keen on “California values,” but she does have a refreshing live-and-let-live attitude about gays. She says her family has lived on both sides of the proposed new border and speaks of the “unspoken segregation” at the heart of blackwhite relations in Baton Rouge. A dustup over a series of dances in nearby St. Francisville was a case in point, she said. Organizers of the events apparently informed black participants that they would technically be welcome—but that if they did go to certain dances, “they’d be the only black person there,” Vaughn says. There were certain days designated, unofficially, for blacks, and othThe
Baffler [no.25] ! 77
The None and the Many ers for whites. “That goes on all the time,” she says. “It’s just accepted.” Looking at the well-appointed retail outlets around her, Vaughn adds, “We can work here, we can shop here, but we’re always looked at in a certain type of way. It’s an unspoken thing.” The Committee for the Incorporation of St. George gets much of its strategic support from area business leaders who specialize in their own brand of behind-the-scenes suasion. Not surprisingly, a few are at the helm of enterprises already based in St. George that would stand to reap substantial economic benefits from the breakaway movement. Local players have businesses in medicine, education, media, consulting, construction, and real estate, and, as is often the case in Louisiana’s capital, the lords of local commerce are also involved in various faith-based and conservative civic initiatives. The big-picture political thinking behind the incorporation effort may be libertarian, but most of its civic partisans came of political age imbibing the old-time religion of conservative backlash. Norman Browning is the founder of the Committee for the Incorporation of St. George. He also owns a real estate company in Baton Rouge, and co-owns another company called Genesis Medical Products. As if the biblical name weren’t enough of a clue, the firm’s promotional materials explain that it’s in the business of providing both prayers and “durable medical equipment” to its client base. Meanwhile, out-front supporters of the incorporation plan, such as Woody Jenkins, have deep connections with the broader conservative movement. Jenkins was the first director of the Council for National Policy, founded by the evangelical culture-war guru Tim LaHaye in 1981 to lobby on behalf of Christianist initiatives in Congress. In his new guise as a champion of local choice and local students, Jenkins launched a new online publication called the St. George Leader. The Leader’s Facebook page is short on 78 1 The Baffler [no.25]
information on incorporation, but it does, on occasion, link out to WorldNetDaily—the conspiracy-minded site on the fringe right that recently ran afoul of Google after the search engine’s executives declared that its reliably race-baiting headlines were a form of hate speech, and so not eligible to be included in Google’s ad program. You’d think it would undercut the piously intoned “postracial” rhetoric of the incorporation plan to have a website conspicuously identified with the effort hawking the rank racial effluvia of WorldNetDaily. But figures like Jenkins understand the benefits of dropping all the enlightened talk of color blindness before certain constituencies for the sake of drumming up popular support among a conservative base trained to heed the dog whistles of white resentment. Longtime watchers of Louisiana politics remember Jenkins for an especially flagrant trespass against federal election law. The FEC fined Jenkins’s 1996 Senate campaign for concealing its purchase of an automated phone bank made up of supporters of former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke; the phone bank dated from Duke’s own gubernatorial campaign in 1991. The purchase was made by none other than Tony Perkins—then working as a senior Jenkins campaign aide, but now far better known for his work atop the Family Research Council, one of the cultural right’s most efficient sources of anti-gay bigotry masquerading as a profamily policy agenda. Meanwhile, John Couvillon, a Republican pollster who lives in the contested area of St. George, is providing background research to bat back any and all questions involving race. But Couvillon’s message also veers in strikingly divergent directions, depending on who he thinks is listening to him. Couvillon runs a company called JMC Enterprises of Louisiana/JMC Analytics and Polling. He has been combating adverse press reports about the incorporation effort; re-
In St. George, the aggrieved white population isn’t fleeing. Instead, it’s proposing to morph itself into a predatory libertarian microrepublic.
9 cently his website denounced a Huffington Post article on the St. George fight that, as he put it, was spreading “the insinuation . . . that the incorporation of St. George had racial undertones to it as a ‘white flight’ phenomenon.” This is a typical example of the rhetorical back-switching involved in the St. George PR push. In reality, the only people voicing the white-flight argument are those who seek to refute it. White flight is, of course, a relic of the first wave of the residential desegregation wars of the fifties and sixties. But in order to appear enlightened and postracial, the purveyors of the St. George hard sell must pivot off the straw-man notion that opponents of the incorporation plan are wild-eyed race fundamentalists, obsessively refighting the fifty-year-old landmark struggles over racial equality. Conservative postracialism demands a prescribed set of false tactics, including the dusting-off of the sixties rhetoric of white flight to provide a soothing cover story about why opponents are wrong about white flight. The redherring research from Couvillon dodges the main racial issue at hand: the “black flight” of the hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians who evacuated to Baton Rouge after Katrina. Meanwhile, Couvillon gave some insight into his own thinking on the “postracial” conservative push in a 2012 interview with the National Review Online. Trying to explain Obama’s post-convention bump in the polls, he told Jim Geraghty, “At the simplest level, people ‘like’ Obama because they see him as a trailblazer—identity politics is still a very powerful thing for many racial and ethnic minorities—who appears to have a good marriage and attractive children.”
The slippery posturing on racial matters from the white backers of the plan gets added traction from another prominent advocate: C. L. Bryant, an African American Tea Party activist who has appeared at civic podiums promoting incorporation, mostly to put to bed the notion that St. George’s secession would render the city of Baton Rouge a glorified Bantustan. Bryant’s case against the racial argument has been unsurprisingly platitudinous—in effect, trust me, I’ve studied this. But the simple fact of his presence among the leadership of the incorporation movement complicates any straightforward effort to weigh the likely racial impact of the push for St. George’s independence. And that is just how the incorporation boosters want it. Their unceasing mantra is that the flight from Baton Rouge is spurred by class, not race—which is to say that more comfortable, upward-striving households in the capital are already streaming into outlying suburban neighborhoods, in search of peace and quiet, better services, and of course, better public schools. But if you dig a bit beneath the surface of this civic showdown, another curious specter emerges, one that recalls a more recent episode of culture-war hucksterism on the Southern right. During the ill-fated mid-nineties lobbying career of Ralph Reed under Jack Abramoff’s tutelage, the former Christian Coalition leader had promised to deploy an army of evangelical activists to block the development of a planned tribal casino in Louisiana so as to clear the path for a rival tribe—also, of course, Abramoff clients—to proceed with its Louisiana casino development. While Reed’s star was badly tarnished by The
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The None and the Many that whole affair, there’s no reason to think that the lure of gambling revenues has diminished for the ideological entrepreneurs captaining movements like the St. George incorporation effort. In this respect, one of the incorporation-related maneuvers that bears close watching in the months ahead is happening well offstage from all the talk of white flight or the glorious dawn of enhanced educational liberty. A Texas-based private equity firm, TPG Capital, has recently purchased a stake in the complex at Perkins Rowe. That development has already tried, and largely failed, to carry the banner of right-leaning policy innovation. Launched in 2009 as a sort of neo-New Urbanist free-market empowerment zone—retail outlets, a movie theater, medical industrial companies, apartments, and hotels all share the space—the site is a rare blight in the otherwise bustling retail economy of St. George. It’s spent the past four years in foreclosure proceedings, and would presumably attract a whole new kind of motivated investor once St. George is unshackled from the revenue bonds of greater Baton Rouge. So: Enter TPG, very, very quietly, stage right. The firm’s move on Perkins Rowe, uncovered in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, might seem at first glance an odd fit with its other high-profile acquisitions—such as the 2013 takeover of Southern California’s ritzy Gelson’s supermarket chain. Until, that is, you scan TPG’s storehouse of recent acquisitions and come across this suggestive item: in 2006 the firm bought out the casino and resort giant Harrah’s, which happens to own the only license to build landbound casinos in Louisiana (it currently operates one, in New Orleans). So far, TPG has stayed mum about its plans for the Perkins Rowe site. But any observer of the byways of development in southeastern Louisiana doesn’t have to spend much time connecting the dots here. 80 1 The Baffler [no.25]
A casino in St. George would represent more than a staggering new infusion of revenue for an already well-heeled new municipality. It would also fit neatly into TPG’s projected plans for long-term capitalization. The firm has been seeking an opportune time to float an initial public offering, and thereby increase its current $55 billion portfolio. Nothing would calm the check-writing hands of IPO investors like the prospect of all that free money coursing through the corridors of a new Harrah’s development in St. George. This is all still conjecture, of course. TPG may elect to erect a tasteful high-end grocery outlet at Perkins Rowe, or flip the property to some other investor altogether. But the knotty tangle of sanctimony and vice that has long propelled the course of Louisiana politics suggests that, at a minimum, it would be foolhardy to bet against the seductive draw of a Harrah’s casino complex within easy reach of the Mall of Louisiana. Regardless of what TPG does with its Perkins Rowe parcel, the battle for hospitality dollars is clearly under way in St. George. Late last year, Mike Wampold, a major Baton Rouge developer and contributor to the Republican Party, purchased a $1 million property in Perkins Rowe and told the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report that he’d consider building a hotel there. What’s more, he explained, he was buying the lot purely as a defensive move. Wampold owns another hotel across the main commercial road, Bluebonnet Drive. “I didn’t want someone else to buy it and put a hotel there,” he explained to the Business Report. Wampold Companies has made campaign contributions of about $100,000 since 1996, according to the watchdog website OpenSecrets.org. All but $3,000 of that money has gone to Republican candidates. When there’s a land rush on vacant lots in a yet-to-be-incorporated city, well, that’s the sort of fast-and-loose movement of capital that the word “boomtown” was coined to describe.
The House Wins While St. George’s prophets of independence hymn the wonders of entrepreneurship and economic liberty, the main development projects in the pipeline appear to be postindustrial sluices for disposable income. Regardless of whether a casino finally lands there, the economic profile of the initiative’s present backers—hoteliers, real estate developers, medical-equipment salesmen, conservative media submoguls—makes it likely that the new St. George will shape up as another pricey New South satellite of the hospitality trade, much like many erstwhile Florida convention-and-leisure destinations now gone belly-up in the wake of the ’08 crack-up. It doesn’t tax the civic imagination to envision the whiter, sleeker St. George hosting, say, medical equipment conventions in atrium-
lobbied new hotels filled with local (but not too local) hospitality workers, some of them refugees from Katrina. And in a perverse way, this also means that the boosters of the new St. George are also banking on the ongoing failure of Baton Rouge’s urban schools. Suppose, as now seems likely, all the coming decisions about incorporation break in the favor of St. George’s business elite. At that point, the policy playbook of the state’s ambitious, sanctimonious, and politically savvy governor, Bobby Jindal, would kick into gear. Ever since much of southeast Louisiana was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, state and federal Republican leaders have strived to transform it into a showcase for the dubious virtues of corporate-backed takeovers of public schools, with the destruction of the state’s teacher’s union as an added bonus.
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The None and the Many Beginning with George W. Bush’s ideologically driven bids to make the storm-ruined (and already underfunded) greater New Orleans school system into a playground for the corporate-funded charter school movement, the drumbeat of school privatization has not let up anywhere in Louisiana. The state’s new market-besotted education status quo is neatly summed up in a pair of interlocking factoids: Louisiana ranks forty-ninth in education outcomes, but first in the nation when it comes to the explosion of charter schools. At last count, 85 percent of public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools—whereas the national average of students enrolled in charters is around 5 percent. Jindal signed a new voucher law in 2012, so low-income parents (which in Louisiana means, overwhelmingly, black parents) can redeem vouchers to a broader range of private and public schools. He’s being sued by Eric Holder’s Justice department over the law, which, Holder says, runs afoul of longstanding federal oversight of school desegregation efforts in Louisiana. While Louisiana’s charterized, voucherized schools have yet to show any meaningful progress in educational achievement, policy outcomes are largely beside the point, so far as the St. George secessionists are concerned: in public forums, they can claim with a straight face that poor kids of any color can attend any school they like, across district lines. Never mind that the kids most likely to be uprooted, inconvenienced, and shuttled from one end of the parish to the other would share a common economic profile and skin pigmentation. The school-choice rhetoric propelling the secession movement involves the same racial dynamic that Jasmine Vaughn pinpointed in the Mall of Louisiana. Call it the “nudge” approach to Jim Crow: school choice in a racially segmented place like East Baton Rouge Parish functions to lure citizens along certain paths of conduct that the political leadership class 82 1 The Baffler [no.25]
would really rather they followed. Black people are told, in essence, that you’re free to work in the area’s booming new service economy— but, when it comes to exercising other choices, it would be better all around if you were to stay out of our school district. You might be the only black family there, and we wouldn’t want your child to feel uncomfortable. In the plans afoot for an incorporated St. George, the outlines of this social contract are coming into sharp relief. The payoff to Baton Rouge’s “black community” boils down to low-paying work in the service sector, via more hotel, retail, and, perhaps, casino jobs. Promoters of the secession campaign are pushing to fast-track incorporation on the grounds that it would nail down footloose investment capital all that sooner. As the boosterish website for the St. George incorporation initiative explains, the whole idea is to “embark on a pro-growth, pro-private sector agenda.” Better yet, say supporters of incorporation, everyone will benefit: “Our progrowth agenda will bring people back into East Baton Rouge Parish.” But here’s the curious thing: no one’s been leaving East Baton Rouge Parish. Indeed, the municipality has seen its population swell over the past decade, partly with refugees from Katrina. The most ludicrous claim among the special-pleading talking points for the secession movement is that Louisiana municipalities have been obstructing the flow of energetic capital through its predestined channels of heroic self-expression. In reality, the case for the St. George secession movement revolves around a non-problem: it would further cut red tape for developers in a state where homerule is already given enormous deference, via a state charter that grants extreme leeway to localities. By detaching St. George from the local governance structure that its supporters contend is stymieing opportunity, the secessionists would pile on more giveaways to an already lavishly indulged investor class.
These hard-working entrepreneurs would be spared the ignominy of having to work around urban Democrats and their poorer, blacker constituencies—but in practical terms, that just means paying off a different kind of civic power structure. In Louisiana, the dominant pigmentation of a given power structure counts for a lot. But the arbiters of racial reaction also understand the need for some protective coloration in a rhetorically postracial America. A project like the St. George secession movement has drawn such heated statewide interest in part because it promises to square the vexing circle that is conservative activist politics in the twenty-first century. The libertarian doctrine of a commercially savvy color-blindness predicated solely on individual market choice will permit the traditional captains of Cajun state commerce to land in their comfort zones—and should the St. George experiment prove a viable, easily replicated model elsewhere, to come into a
good deal of political power into the bargain. This means, among other things, that the apostles of the newest version of the New South can bypass all the infighting that has lately paralyzed the American right’s forays into electoral politics. There need be no awkward divide between a traditional GOP business establishment and an evangelical insurgency when the same civic fathers are peddling school vouchers and state-of-the-art medical equipment bolstered by personal prayer. Conversely, the Christian right activists in town might well end up taking a page from the Ralph Reed playbook and see fit to suspend their objections to the lesser vice of gambling in return for a generous slice of casino revenues. Politics is the art of compromise, after all, and nothing inures suburban power brokers to operational pragmatism like the prospect of unmolested revenue. It could all be so simple, you see—if only everyone would stop talking about race.t
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Maybe Next Time Around 3 Josh ua Mose s
Dogs. Yes, dogs she says, are like angels. No, I say, they are like dogs. It’s 103 degrees. August, church bells banging, cars, voices
of children and parents. Dogs,
are better than people, she says. They embody virtue, exemplify the steadfastness and magnanimity that redeem the nightbound world. I’m not sure, I say. I think they’re more like dogs. Meanwhile, we’re watching her dog noisily and
intently chew a rawhide. I’m thinking
that I don’t like having a body. Dogs, she says, have been coevolving with humans for 50,000 years. That’s a long time, I say, imagining
a northern landscape, campfires, ancient
caribou herds, dogs trailing skeptically behind, eyeing their first humans. Do you think, I say, we are getting any better? Me, you,
people? Do you think dogs
are making us better humans? I don’t really look at it that way, she says. What way, I ask? The getting better way,
she says, that things are getting anywhere.
Oh, I say, seeing a planet in flames, humans clinging to dogs, careening through space, burning towards the next world.
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E x h i bi t C
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Brothers from Another Planet 3 Chris Lehmann
hether we like it or not, the big idea behind American democracy is to make us like each other more. It’s a faintly embarrassing dimension of our social experiment, carved out of the crack-up of the original British colonies, that the great theorists and practitioners of new world order in America were looking for something more than political independence. They sought to create a basis for the small-r republican ideal of fraternity: a territorially limited, widely participatory, and socially equitable economy made up principally of small producers— home manufacturers, merchants, and farmers. Only on such a basis, the theory went, could America be prevented from regressing into anarchy, despotism, or worse. But things didn’t exactly go as planned. Come the Jacksonian age, the legal interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, spurred on by the directives of a fast-consolidating national and corporate economy, ratcheted the whole enterprise upward into something that many of the founders would have seen as a blatant contradiction in terms: a “commercial republic,” as the jurisprudence of the Federalist-onthe-make John Marshall (echoing the political rhetoric of his close political ally Daniel Webster) had it. The Federalists’ great work of constitutional revisionism posed as a hard-bitten brand of realism—a way to revise the airy abstractions of the rights of man and the cradle of liberty so as to make them reflect how the world putatively works. In reality, though, the Federalists’ commercial republic was just utopianism of a different stripe, one that posited a monad-style assemblage of rationally self-interested market actors at the vanguard
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of American social relations and then remade the nation’s founding political sensibility in their image. Employing the iron-clad, twodimensional reasoning of judicial review, the jurisprudence of the emerging corporate age effectively rendered the social heart of the republic so much bread-and-circuses shadow play. The lower-born, militia-serving citizenry of civic republican lore gave way to the countinghouse and the bond trader. Thomas Paine’s revolutionary cry for a “brotherhood of man” no longer served any clear purpose in an age that was much closer in spirit to a Cornelius Vanderbilt—or, on the receiving end of the Market Revolution’s less-than-tender mercies, a Bartleby the Scrivener. So it takes a good deal of work, and no small amount of the old optimism of the will, to begin reengaging with the fraternal ideal in any substantive fashion. “Social media” is every bit the same contradiction in terms that the “commercial republic” of the nineteenth century was—and yet there it sits in its undisturbed glory, rationalizing the many utopian putsches of our own new-millennial Market Revolution. Our social media has converted “friend” into a verb, transacted in the space of a keystroke, while also somehow contriving to make “following” and “unfollowing” badges of fraternity. Surely there must be some more coherent way to summon the battered spirit of American fraternity than to continue miniaturizing it into nothingness— or worse, perhaps, the melancholy, pixelated vapor trail of a retweet or a “Like” button. And it’s not as if you can look for help in the many high-concept simulacra of fraternity burbling through the placid brooks of our academically respectable and politically
Fraternity, like solidarity, its twentieth-century cousin, becomes a hushed and forlorn echo of American politics past.
9 opportunistic social commentary. You have your communitarian theorists, peddling requiems for an unmourned age of procedurally recursive Deweyite daydreaming. You have your wonky theorists of the neoliberal “nudge,” your difference-trimming think tanks in hot pursuit of an ever-mythical postideological pragmatism at the heart of a still-more mythical American “vital center.”
You’ve got your prim, all-purpose pleas for greater “civility” (or its creepier homiletic variant, “civil religion”), your ritual bemoanings of “hyperpartisanship” in a political culture chronically incapable of getting even the simplest things done, even as it’s funded on an ever more Caligulan scale. Then you’ve got your libertarian Nobelists, busy managing the acceptable bounds of economic debate, The
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and their social-science counterparts, the high priests of “rational choice” and supplyside theories of the traffic in “social capital.” Democratic fellow-feeling in all these contexts functions as little more than a fig leaf, concealing the all-purpose conscription of social virtue into market servitude—and fraternity, like solidarity, its twentieth-century cousin, becomes an even more hushed and forlorn echo of American politics past. Not only does all this charlatanism of the mushy center make us less disposed to see each other as brothers and sisters; it makes us hate the daily conduct of our public life. A lobbyist’s wish list or an investment firm’s portfolio is embraced as the common good. Meanwhile, political association is assumed to be crude and transactional, destined for a mad scrum of eternally realigning power. All you need to know about how our politics disfigures any basic idea of human decency is right there on the radio, the web, and the Sunday chat-show circuit, where Machiavellian flacks from Ideological Team A gleefully rain down heavy-breathing talking points and character-assailing innuendos on designated targets from Ideological Team B. If you need advanced instruction in these misanthropic minuets of power, you can always order up an episode of House of Cards on your Netflix queue. The orphaned ideal of fraternity points to something painfully absent from this conception of political society. Partisans of the fraternal ideal have always venerated social understanding as an end in its own right, not a convenient fiction masking the moment’s reformist infatuation or personal ambition. Friendship in politics was never supposed to be anomalous or strategic; it was, weird though it may seem today, supposed to be one of its aspirations. This fine but important distinction has been critical to fraternalism’s gradual, ineluctable submergence in America’s market88 1 The Baffler [no.25]
driven culture of the main chance. “The public and the people!” announced Herman Melville, perhaps our literary tradition’s most ardent (and therefore most tortured) muse of the fraternal ideal. “Let us hate the one and cleave to the other.” His pledge of allegiance to flesh-and-blood Americans is a far cry from the bloodless schematics of civic life proffered by the founding theorists of the commercial republic. What’s been elevated as the “genius” of the American system, from its Federalist heyday down through today’s inert company of postideological liberals, has, from a fraternalist point of view, been an impoverishment of the social imagination. Small wonder that the rallying cries of “the people” have to be ritually quarantined from the important business of “the public.” Put another way, the corporation and the state, those reassuringly remote and abstract nouns, are universally understood to be (in rhetorical terms, at least) the guarantors of liberty and equality. Fraternity belongs to us, and it’s been made abundantly clear that none of us is supposed to give the slightest shit about what happens to it. But as Wilson Carey McWilliams notes in his groundbreaking 1973 study The Idea of Fraternity in America, this division has entailed a tragic loss of vision. As the fraternalists have been hounded into the margins of public life by the architects of our market-utopian commercial republic, we’ve lost sight of a great deal of what made life in society worth bothering with in the first place. Our pleasures, moral imaginings, and cultural pursuits have become strictly private matters. In lieu of the toy-soldier face-offs—between Whigs and Federalists, liberals and conservatives, bloodless technocrats and insurgent culture warriors, social engineers and Tea Partiers— that we’ve been urged to accept as the main event in American democratic life, McWilliams’s long-forgotten book gives us access to a neglected trove of anthropological, literary,
v Our social media has converted “friend” into a verb, transacted in the space of a keystroke.
9 and religious testimonials to communities of moral purpose. After all, unlike old-regime ideologies of blood, crown, and soil, the idea of fraternity assumes a steady expansion of fellow feeling rather than a rearguard defense rooted in fear. And unlike the ideology of the “commercial republic” and its latter-day variants, fraternity takes its cue from the fact of our randomized births into families we did nothing to deserve and whose outsize determinations of our fates cannot begin to approximate anything like equality or freedom. McWilliams—who came by his own political patrimony as the son of the crusading investigative journalist Carey McWilliams, a longtime editor of The Nation—thought everything about our politics depended on how we responded to the woeful knowledge that the basic circumstances of our lives are beyond our control from the word go. “Chance,” he says in the book’s early pages, is a guarantor of fraternity, the assurance that even in the most unpropitious of societies, men are not excluded from the possibility of brotherhood. Fraternity grows from the recognition of kinship, likeness more important than unlikeness. All the fraternal relationships of man, in his progression from birth to death, teach the same lesson. A man is kin to his blood-brothers, like them more than he is unlike, because dependence and society are more important than physical isolation. His fraternity with those who share value and vision is established because man’s recognition of a perfection which he sees but does not embody is a truer measure of human proportions and nature.
That mutual recognition, forged amid the
bonds of biological fraternity, now stands as little more than a punch line, as the lobbyists’ paradise known as our public life continues to serve up ever more grandiose and empty promises of Progress. But as McWilliams suggests, there’s still a great deal of value in re-envisioning the fraternal world we have lost, and revisiting just how we have lost it.
About Face Today’s custodians of postpartisan blather are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1801 inaugural appeal to the American citizenry in the wake of the nation’s first, and singularly brutal, party-driven ballot. “We are all republicans, we are all federalists,” the Monticello sage pronounced, as he sought to tamp down the inflamed passions of the electorate and get on with the serious business of governing. You can see why our pundit class is so enamored of this sentiment. Like Barack Obama’s reputation-making 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address conjuring up the bold spirit of One America in defiance of the scripting of public life along the fixed coordinates of Blue-and-Red-hued Kulturkampf, Jefferson’s refrain gilds the vision of a grand American synthesis. A higher meaning—any higher meaning, really—is rescued from the infinitely baser clashes of interest, class, creed, and section. Such invocations of a Higher America wish away the defining conflicts at the heart of our politics and serve only to dramatize the deeper, counter-fraternal condition of our common life. To begin with, of course, these invocations were in each case the baldest sort of bootstrapped chicanery, peddling the people’s The
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rites of politicized fraternity at the lowest market proffer. You, dear citizen, cannot afford to disappoint my own preferred vision of the republic’s destiny, both Jefferson and Obama proclaimed, in a flourish of exactly the sort of statesmanlike play-acting that Melville rightly despised. And soon enough, predictably, such orotund pieties of the postpartisan nation were proven to be abject failures on their own terms. Jefferson’s speech didn’t mark the end of the first American party system, but rather its bitter opening act, with plenty of conflicts ahead on matters ranging from the country’s fledgling banking system to the profoundly anti-republican spread of the American nation’s territorial empire. Obama’s oracular hymning of the One Higher America likewise didn’t come anywhere close to corralling the People within its noble contours; the 2004 presidential vote was, indeed, an exceptionally vicious culture-war set-to, choreographed in time with heartland fears of terrorist appeasement and the alleged excesses of gay-married metropolitan elites. The lesson here was pretty much the opposite of the prim guidance handed down from the great man’s lectern. If such a thing as a saving Higher America were actually plausible, professional political leaders would be the last people you could count on to make it a flesh-and-blood reality. They can continue to summon it, with no end of soaring rhetorical appeals, precisely because they never mean any of it. Consider instead, from Jefferson’s same speech, a far more heartfelt appeal, and one that could have furnished the epigraph for McWilliams’s study: “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things.” This was no perfunctory nod to the household gods of American democracy. Indeed, it strikes our own ears as a singularly odd and intimate-sounding 90 1 The Baffler [no.25]
overture to hear from a president-in-themaking, which is why it will never be brushed off for reassuring sound-bite duty on cable television. But that’s just it: for fraternalists of the Jeffersonian persuasion, a life bereft of genuine social solidarity isn’t much of a life at all. Nor, despite Jefferson’s appeal to harmonious social intercourse, is the fraternal ideal an abolition of conflict; what was regrettable about the election’s partisan rancor, Jefferson claimed, was that “we have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” not that differences of political opinion existed in the first place. Here, weirdly enough, in the democratic reverie of a flawed patrician slave owner, is a paean to the virtues of a fraternal life pursued almost entirely for its own sake. Nor did Jefferson confine his vision of democratic social life to the inaugural lectern. In laying out his own alternative blueprint for America’s deliberative democracy, Jefferson had correctly surmised that the doctrine of separation of powers would concentrate power continually upward, toward the system’s higher executive reaches. In lieu of the Founders’ patchwork arrangement of rival federal powers, each endowed with its own allegedly self-cancelling ambitions, he had advocated for a federal system arising out of a network of local “wards”; each was to have been small enough to enable the direct participation of ordinary citizens while also supplying a larger, interlocking communications scheme that was to have nosed out parochialism and intolerance. In some ways, Jefferson’s vision of ward-level democracy went on to form the basis of the modern party system, which pivots on the intersection of bottomup ward participation and top-down national organization. But as McWilliams notes, this outcome perverted Jefferson’s original intent: His hopes for civic fraternity were intimately tied to conditions in the whole environment of politics, the domestic economy, and the in-
ternational order. There should be reasonable economic security so that individual citizens need not fear nor suspect their fellows; there should be none of the massive inequality and hierarchy in economic life which could lead to a reemergence of feudalism though in different guise; towns and cities should remain of a size to enable personal feelings of involvement and affection. It was these general principles derived from his fraternal ideal, and not any irrational “mystique,” that made Jefferson suspect industry and favor agriculture. Finally, there must be a comparative absence of external involvement and war, for Jefferson never doubted that such
conditions would demand speed of decision, secrecy, and centralization; foreign policy, if it became perilous and vital, might reduce devices like the “ward” system to obstacles to national survival.
Even in McWilliams’s time, however, the democratic implications of the fraternalist vision were fast receding. In the aftermath of the New Left’s many self-dramatizing collapses, McWilliams offered an admirably clear-headed accounting of its late cultural posturing. The notion that “a common ‘life style’ provides the basis for brotherhood,” McWilliams writes in his epilogue, mistakes The
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the baubles of authenticity for the bonds of fraternity: That notion is integrally related to . . . the product and commodity orientation of industrial society. . . . It implies that what is visible, one’s “style,” is somehow the essence of community, a political behavioralism which looks no better when adopted by the left than when employed by orthodoxy. Taken literally, it would suggest that the common lifestyle of the suburbs reflects “community.” Perhaps it means to make that suggestion. The belief in the community of “life style” reflects the liberal doctrine of a private man, for whom community is always an illusion, a “superstition” to which he is subject or which he induces in others. It is sad that men who feel a desperate need for communion have been so affected by a society whose life and thought deny it, that they can conceive a community only as an image, an illusion no less ephemeral for being willed.
Nowadays, the features of Jefferson’s civic fraternity feel still less recoverable than they were at the time of McWilliams’s dour reckoning. Today, we know more than ever about Jefferson’s friendly attachment to the institution of slavery—and its ugly ramifications throughout his personal life make his reveries of true civic fraternity seem like emptier-than-ever pieties. And as if that weren’t enough, Jefferson’s radical democratic theory has been misappropriated by state’s-rights and Tea Party zealots, brandishing Gadsden flags and overheated quasi-secessionist rhetoric. Meanwhile, a vacuum has opened up within our political imagination. Far from tailoring our political economy to serve the ends of fraternity, we’ve grown accustomed to regard its maintenance as something akin to the Transformers movie franchise, in which an oversized economic oligarchy wages heavy-footed battle against the lumbering incursions of 92 1 The Baffler [no.25]
state intervention, all prosecuted very loudly and very far above our heads. It need hardly be added, in the bailout-happy aftermath of the 2008 meltdown and amid the consolidation of a permanent surveillance state, that the twin threats of a neo-feudal labor regime and a runaway executive war-making power have rendered the Jeffersonian reveries of a socially enlivened, ward-based democracy a deader letter than ever. By common pundit acclamation, the sputtering out of 2011’s Occupy movement betokens the sad, fixed truth of things: too much high-frequency information, computer savvy, and expertise is involved in the top-heavy rigging of our financial system for it to admit any merely popular (let alone democratic) deliberation. You might as well try toppling a Transformer with a popgun. This fatalist mood makes it more, not less, urgent to total up the collateral damage that fraternity’s loss has wreaked upon our moral imaginations. The fading of fraternity into mutely isolated superstition is in equal parts a disfigurement of the American political self and a powerful lament within our republic of letters. A few decades after Jefferson’s death, for instance, Herman Melville bore down sharply on what he viewed as the naive and bankrupt terms of the American social contract of the nineteenth century. Melville’s notoriously restless muse betrayed at its core a kind of existential panic, and his tales of high-seas adventure yielded an unsparing vision of human agency drifting into the void. Almost all the signal tragic turns in Melville’s fiction are failures of the friendship bond, as in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd. The outcast protagonists of Melville’s morality tales, his fabled “isolatoes” who take to the sea, find their quests for a higher fraternal purpose thwarted by fate—or worse, in most cases, by rampaging civic indifference. Especially as Melville chronicled the crucible of the Civil War, much of the false
v Machiavellian flacks from Ideological Team A gleefully rain down heavy-breathing talking points on Ideological Team B.
9 and sunny chatter of national renewal and newfound fraternity struck him as grotesque. The war had transformed “duty” into the “mask of Cain,” he argued. As early as his 1849 novel Redburn, he was already evoking the surreal, and soon all-too-familiar, scene of detached personal comfort in the face of a terrible crucible: “people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead.” But Melville’s was very much a minority view. Other, more sanguine, bards of progress repressed the suspicion that the foundering of fraternal social relations in the commercial republic came with any tragic costs. Instead, they rushed to conflate the fraternal idea with the sprawling new prerogatives of the American nation. For Melville’s contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, McWilliams writes, the idea of intimate friendship commanded ready rhetorical praise, but in practice it reduced to “a radical individualism and privatism.” As such, Emerson’s cramped celebration of a hyper-individualist will was also an utter repudiation of the soul-constricting demands of politics and public life. According to McWilliams, Emerson believed that all society is a “descent” into parochial and animal spirits for one of vision. The good man must separate himself from class or party; he must regard all association as only “natural,” “momentary” and hence suspect . . . The individual should reject the “material limitations” which unite him to particular human beings and places.
“Emerson went so far as to argue that an
impoverished environment which holds no temptations is peculiarly conducive to the growth of thought,” McWilliams writes. “In effect, Emerson’s was a teaching of sublimation, offering a sense of ‘union’ with the race at the price of separation from individual men.” The windswept social world envisioned by Emerson seems far removed from the great tumult of commerce and brotherhood descried across all American vistas by his principal poetic heir, Walt Whitman. But in this tireless singer of the body electric, McWilliams likewise discerns a flight from the merely social demands of democratic life—a spiritual complacency that Whitman explicitly identified with the dogmas of progress. Whitman, McWilliams writes, “was sure that culture and society ‘grew,’ that the true human being was being produced by the ‘evolution’ of dialectic forces.” During Whitman’s age, the faddish formulas of social Darwinism were endemic to American social thought, which displayed a near-maniacal determination to baptize the inequities of industrial capitalism in the image of a benevolent natural order of things. So where Melville, for instance, had found ample grounds for despair in the post-war social predations of the Robber Baron class, Whitman mustered the requisite cosmic optimism to overwhelm the facts of the case. Yes, he confessed, he “brooded” over the glaring public trespasses of the age’s market monopolists, but he returned with redoubled conviction to the ordinary striving nature of Americans, to their “deep integrities” and “quiet ways.” Surely these qualities, he The
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v Th e
Doll a r Deb auch
declaimed in high Emersonian fashion, had to be “endless.” What has proven to be “endless,” of course, is our capacity to sing, and re-sing, the transcendental virtues of our marketbesotted nation. The destructive nineteenthcentury vogue for progress is now the common currency of our TED Talks, our smarmy web manifestos, and our flailing neoliberal fever dream of bailouts and austerity measures, all hymned as great cosmic unities by the latter-day bards of the redeemed inventive American nation in Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley.
No Friend in Mind Today, the social ideal of fraternity has taken on many of the ungainly features of Whitman’s heroic effort to recast the love that dare not speak its name as an imperishable romance between self and cosmos. Americans remain a remarkably clubbable people, despite the earnest lamentations to the contrary lodged in scores of social science jeremiads, from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. But where Whitman projected his fraternal fantasies onto the largest canvas imaginable, we’ve tended to confine our fraternal lives to the most practical, instrumental, and inconsequential byways of our public life. Book groups and soccer clubs dot the suburban interior, homages more to our cherished images of ourselves as intellectually inquisitive or athletic team players than to any corresponding reality. The American tradition of the college fraternity, intended to bond its members into lifelong personal and professional alliances, is a multibillion complex of bleary and aimless sybaritism, most commonly associated with an ugly record of sexual assaults and hazing fatalities. Religious congregations—which arguably represent our most robust vindications of the fraternal ideal still going—have bulked up into self-parodic 94 1 The Baffler [no.25]
megachurches and prosperity-themed televangelical ministries. But such halfhearted feints at resurrecting a dubious version of the fraternal ideal are more farce than tragedy. By contrast, the cruelest irony of revisiting McWilliams’s neglected masterwork today is that, after conceding that the curtain was closing on the American dream of fraternity, he detects signs of life in the black nationalist and Black Panther movements, which, at the time his book was published in 1973, still clung to the fringes of American politics. McWilliams invokes the Exodus tradition of black churches, for which the idea of fraternal destiny meant the promise of communal deliverance. This tradition had reappeared in secular black militant movements as something far more urgent than an ideal. “In black militant thought, community and unity are not merely devices, tactical means to win admission to the ‘open society,’ and then to be abandoned,” writes McWilliams. “Community becomes a permanent principle, a constant political need.” McWilliams, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see our first black president, but he would likely have seen “postracial” politics as yet another effort to propel ourselves beyond the legacy of a painful history of oppression (and a history of resistance). In our “postracial” era, the president’s racial identity, far from allying him with a beloved community of brothers and sisters, has served as just another totem of the surface lifestyle novelty McWilliams cautioned against in 1973. In this respect, it’s no different from Obama’s post-Boomer cultural affinities, or his weakness for phony bipartisan accord that stems from his years basking in the crackpot dialectics of the University of Chicago Law School. Indeed, his administration’s fiscal and economic policies have given a forceful final rebuke to McWilliams’s well-intentioned appeal to black nationalist thought as the
modern age’s last preserve of the American fraternal ideal. This is clearly a “postracial” politics only in the pejorative sense—an effort to fastforward past the more demanding judgments of history in favor of the empty symbolism of the Higher American Nation. And so it has landed us in much the same spiritual cul-desac occupied by Herman Melville’s lost and desperate isolatoes. In place of any evocation of an enduring community nonetheless bound by time and place, Obama has adopted self-help bromides straight out of the Whitman and Emerson playbook. He’s abjured uncomfortable talk of inequality in favor of
vacuous sloganeering on behalf of American “opportunity.” Faced with the evidence of unabated economic suffering, he preaches a kinder, gentler brand of neoliberal austerity. And in lieu of rousing citizens into a substantive social intercourse, let alone a more sustained and demanding quest for justice or democracy, he peddles the great meritocratic dream: an individualist, entrepreneurial war against all of history, waged via a prayerful, and terminally unstable, compound of individual and national will. The idea of fraternity, in other words, is the corpse around which the apologists of the state and corporation are now frantically making merry.t The
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wS T O R Y
Among Friends 3 Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
’m a direct person, always smirking and poking fun when we all get together at Marisha and Serge’s on Fridays. Everybody comes. If one of us misses a Friday, it’s because he or she couldn’t get away, or has been banished by the enraged Marisha or the entire gang. Andrey the informer, for example, was banished for a long time after socking Serge in the eye, that’s right. Can you imagine? Serge, our bright star, our precious genius! Serge has figured out the working principle of flying saucers. I looked at his calculations: some universal point of departure, some this, some that—a bunch of nonsense, if you ask me, and I’m very smart. You see, Serge doesn’t read about his subject. He relies on intuition—a mistake, in my opinion. Some time ago he intuited a way to increase the energy efficiency of a steam engine from fifteen to seventy percent—a miracle. He was feted, presented to the members of the Academy of Science. One academician came to his senses and pointed out that this very principle was discovered a hundred years ago and described in a college textbook on page such and such; the same textbook explains why it doesn’t work. The miracle was canceled; seventy percent became thirty-six, also purely theoretical, but by this point a special unit had been set up at the academy to study Serge’s so-called discovery, and Serge was invited to be the head. A mass rejoicing among our friends followed—Serge didn’t even have a PhD! But Serge chose to stay at his miserable job in the Oceanography Institute, because they had been planning an expedition with stops in Boston, Hong Kong, Vancouver, and Montreal—six months of sun and freedom— and Serge hoped to go too. The thirty-six percent unit, in the mean96 1 The Baffler [no.25]
time, began operating at a leisurely pace. They fetched Serge once or twice for a consultation, but soon got the hang of the utopian project: to replace all modern technology with an impossibly efficient steam engine. This stupendous goal was to be accomplished by five people jammed into a single room, who divided work hours between cafeteria and smoking room. In addition, the head of the unit, who was hired instead of Serge and did have a PhD, was having a child on the side any moment, and the parents of the woman had filed a complaint against him. He spent his workdays screaming on the phone in the same room with the other staff. Our Lenka was the lab assistant there; she told us all the gossip. As far as Lenka could tell, no one once mentioned Serge’s principle. All that had been accomplished was a draft of an application to use the lab for three hours after midnight when the building is closed, as if anyone were going to be there. Serge’s bid for sun and freedom also came to nothing. In his Party questionnaire he wrote that he wasn’t a member of the Komsomol, but in his original job application he had written that he was. The Party committee responsible for approving everyone who went abroad compared the paperwork and discovered that Serge had simply stopped paying his dues, just like that, and that couldn’t be fixed by anything, so the committee didn’t admit him. All this was told to us by Andrey, who also worked there, and who stopped by Marisha’s one Friday night, drank some vodka, and then revealed in a fit of honesty that he’d promised to inform on the other members of that expedition—that’s how the Party committee had admitted him. He said we shouldn’t tell him anything, even though he
HAZEL LEE SANTINO
Every Friday we come, as though magnetized, to the little apartment on Stulin Street.
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w had promised to inform only on the ship and not on dry land. True enough, Andrey left with the expedition and brought back a small plastic dildo, purchased in Hong Kong. Why so small? He didn’t have money for a bigger one. I said that Andrey had bought it for his daughter. Serge was there too, looking distracted, for he had spent the last six months in Leningrad with a bunch of lowly assistants, taking care of the expedition’s correspondence . . . You must understand that all this happened some time ago, in the days when Marisha and Serge stood up together and together lamented Serge’s career. Alas, those days of friendship and understanding are long gone; these days, God knows what mess is happening, and still every Friday we come, as though magnetized, to the little apartment on Stulin Street and drink all night.
n the beginning, “we” meant, first of all, our hosts, Serge and Marisha, and their daughter, Sonya, who slept in the next room through the racket. (All three are now my relatives—such is the absurd result of our communal life.) Then there was myself; my husband, Kolya, who was Serge’s oldest friend; Andrey the informer, first with his wife, then with a string of temporary women, and finally with a new wife, Nadya; then there was Zhora, whose mother is Jewish, something no one but me ever mentions; and then Tanya, a blonde valkyrie, Serge’s favorite; sometimes, when especially drunk, he stroked her hair. Once, there was also Lenka, a D-sized beauty, twenty years old. At first Lenka behaved like a common con artist: talked herself into Marisha’s favor, borrowed twenty rubles from her, and disappeared. Lenka reappeared without four front teeth but with Marisha’s twenty rubles and said she had been at the hospital where they told her she could never have children. Marisha showered her with affection, Serge found her a posi98 1 The Baffler [no.25]
tion at the thirty-six percent unit, and Lenka replaced her missing teeth and married a young Jewish dissident who turned out to be the son of a famous underground cosmetologist, a fantastically rich woman. According to Lenka, the contents of a single closet in her new home could feed us all for the rest of our days. Lenka, however, didn’t appreciate her new comfortable position, and continued running around seedy holes and basements. Finally she declared that her husband’s family was immigrating to the U.S., via Vienna, but she wasn’t going with them. So she went and divorced her nice Jewish husband, and at our gatherings she developed a habit of flopping on the lap of every boy in turn. Only Serge she considered untouchable because he belonged to her deity Marisha. But Andrey the informer wasn’t untouchable, and Lenka regularly mocked him by flopping on his lap, so his super-young new wife, Nadya, turned purple and fled to the kitchen. That Nadya was just eighteen, even younger than Lenka, and looked like a corrupt schoolgirl. No surprise there: as Andrey’s previous wife told everyone, Andrey was impotent. Only something like this Nadya could arouse his interest. When this corrupt nymphet got married, however, she changed her tune and became a plain housewife: what she cooked, what she bought. Her only remaining perversity was a wandering eyeball: at moments of stress it would literally fall out and hang over her cheek like a hardboiled egg. Andrey, I suppose, lived for these dramatic moments: he would grab Nadya, carry her to the ER, and on those nights, I imagine, he was able to perform. Andrey’s life with the previous wife, Aniuta, was similarly punctuated by high drama, involving the attacks of her so-called venomous womb. This venomous womb, which prevented them from having children, was a popular subject among us, their friends. By then we all had had children: Zhora had
Nadya had a wandering eyeball: at moments of stress it would fall out and hang over her cheek like a hard-boiled egg.
9 three; I had my Alesha; and if I missed two Fridays in a row they joked that I was in bed with child, a reference to my figure. Tanya had a son who as a baby crawled all over her, from breast to breast, the mother and the child’s favorite amusement. But Andrey and Aniuta were sentenced to childlessness, and we all pitied them, for the whole point was to live normally, to worry about feedings, childcare, illnesses, but then one night a week, on Friday, to escape the routine and relax so completely that the neighbors across the street would call the cops. Then one day, almost without any physical change, Aniuta gave birth to a daughter. That night Andrey bought two bottles of vodka, he and Serge invited my Kolya, and the three of them spent the night boozing. That was the high point of his family life, and after that, I expect, Andrey forsook his conjugal duties for a long time, while Aniuta became an ordinary woman without any venomous womb and expanded her circle of friends, so to speak, especially when Andrey was gone squealing for six months. Andrey found consolation in a string of gorgeous girlfriends, all of whom he brought to Marisha’s. Lenka once flopped on my Kolya, too, and Marisha turned away abruptly and began to talk with Zhora. This was when I first began to understand. Lenka, I said, you’ve gone too far: Marisha’s jealous of you. Lenka just grinned and stayed on top of Kolya, who drooped like a little flower. From that moment on, Marisha’s affection for Lenka began to cool, and eventually Lenka disappeared from our gatherings. Lenka never flopped
on Zhora, because Zhora, like many runty men, demonstrated constant sexual excitement and was in love with all our girls—Marisha, Tanya, and even frigid Lenka. Flirting with Zhora was dangerous, as one incident demonstrated: at the end of a dance with Andrey’s girlfriend, Zhora simply grabbed her by the armpits and dragged her into the next room, where he threw her on Sonya’s little bed (Sonya was at her grandmother’s that night). Except for the attacked woman, we all knew, of course, that Zhora only played at being a ladies’ man, that in reality he spent his nights writing a dissertation for his wife and attending to his three children, and only on Fridays did he throw on Casanova’s cloak. But the careful Lenka refused to play sexual games with Zhora, for then it would be two performances: she’d flop on his lap, and he’d have to grope her, which Lenka didn’t enjoy and neither did Zhora. But Lenka has long been gone, and when I mention her name it’s received as another of my blunders.
ecently my memory grew hazy and I began losing my eyesight. How many years passed in our Friday gatherings—ten? fifteen? We heard of the political unrest in Czechoslovakia, then in China, then in Romania, then in Yugoslavia; after that came the news about the trials of the culprits, followed by the trials of those who had protested against the original trials, then the trials of those who had collected money to support the families of the incarcerated dissidents, but all these events rolled past our nest on Stulin Street without leaving a trace. Occasionally we had a visitor. One night the neighbors summoned the local patrolman to quiet the noise. On Fridays Marisha’s door was always open, so this patrolman, Valera, barged in and demanded to see everyone’s papers. None of our boys had a passport on him, and the girls Valera didn’t ask, which led us to believe he was looking for someone. After The
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w days of nervous phone exchanges we decided that Valera was looking for a certain Lev, a naturalized American whose Russian visa had expired and so he could go to jail for a year. This Lev had been coasting from house to house, but I never saw him at Marisha’s. Her neighbors—a couple of eternal students and their ever-changing lovers—accommodated him for a night, and he, by mistake, took the virginity of the government minister’s daughter, a sophomore in the journalism department. Apparently the girl woke up covered in blood, panicked, and dragged her bloody mattress to the kitchen sink—they didn’t even have a shower in that apartment. The neighbors told us all this with a laugh when they came the next day to borrow a ruble. The daughter, they said, was now looking high and low for Lev, considering him her intended after the Russian custom, but Lev disappeared from Stulin Street, and the patrolman wasted his visit. The following Friday, however, Valera returned to turn off our boombox at five minutes past eleven and didn’t leave. He stayed all night, watching in silence as we drank. What he wanted remains unclear. Marisha was the first to find the right tone and addressed him as a misunderstood, lonely young boy. (In that house, everyone was welcome and comforted, but few chose to impose.) Marisha offered Valera bread and cheese with dry wine—all they had on their poor table—and, followed by Serge, engaged him in a conversation. Valera answered their questions calmly and unselfconsciously. Serge asked, for example, if Valera had joined the police to get a Moscow registration, and he said, no, he’d had registration before; he chose that neighborhood because of its toughness and because he knew karate. He had to quit sport after an injury: during a practice he didn’t signal to his opponent to stop. “What kind of signal?” I asked. “Well,” he blushed, “one has to cough or, pardon me, pass wind.” I wanted to know how 100 1 The Baffler [no.25]
“Fart” wasn’t on the list of obscene words punishable by fifteen days of prison.
9 one can fart on demand, but Valera ignored me and proceeded to tell us that things were soon going to change back to where they were under Stalin, when we at least had some order. We tried to subject Valera to the same mocking interrogation we inflicted on all our guests, but either he was very clever or we were too passive. He deftly avoided our hesitant questioning and revealed nothing of himself or of his work duties and instead went on and on about Stalin, and we were too afraid of his provocations to reveal our own political opinions. Who reveals them anyway? It was considered childish and rude, and so Valera remained untapped and unstudied, and at midnight we all slunk away, but Valera stayed on. Maybe he had nowhere else to spend his shift or maybe he was in fact waiting for Lev—who knows. We all felt put on the rack. Lenka didn’t sit on anyone’s lap, and Zhora didn’t shout “Hey, virgins” at the passing schoolgirls; only I wouldn’t shut up about the one subject he avoided, and he couldn’t do anything—he introduced the subject himself, plus “fart” wasn’t on the list of obscene words punishable by fifteen days of prison. I alone kept interrupting the flow of Serge’s condescending questions, but Valera didn’t give a damn about Serge’s condescension and persisted in his dangerous speeches about the army and those who control it. “But still, tell us, do they teach you how to fart in the army?” I asked him again and again. “You, obviously, didn’t learn the trick and sustained an injury . . .” The army, Valera intoned in response, you can’t begin to imagine, hands of gold they have, they know every weapon inside out . . . Serge asked Valera how often he
was on duty and where they gave him a room, and Marisha asked if he was married and had children. Tanya quietly commented on Valera’s most idiosyncratic remarks, always addressing Zhora, who was half Jewish but looked entirely Jewish, as though supporting him in this difficult situation. Zhora was the only one with a passport, and Valera read his data out loud: Georgy Alexandrovich Perevoshchikov, ethnically Russian. I was curious to see how Andrey the informer would react to Valera’s presence, but he was calm and reserved. When Valera turned off the music, Andrey had to sit down next to his Nadya, who, despite looking like a perverse teenager, was dying of banal jealousy. Her father, however, was an army colonel on the rise, and she listened to Valera’s macho speeches through the prism of his lowly rank of lieutenant. She relaxed, went out to call a girlfriend, and then walked off with her Andrey, and Valera said nothing. Who knows, maybe we all could leave and he would have allowed that. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t. In the end Marisha gave up and went to sleep on the floor in Sonya’s room, and Serge stayed to ply Valera with diuretic herbal tea. Yet in the course of the night, Serge reported later, Valera hadn’t once left the room to pee. Serge held it too, afraid that Valera would search the room in his absence. That night Kolya and I made it in time for the subway, and on coming home at half past one discovered that Alesha was snoozing in front of the television, which was transmitting only static. When I was putting him to bed, he said he was afraid of the dark and of sleeping alone in the house. The lights were on in every room. He didn’t used to be afraid, but then my father, his grandfather, was still with us. My father died recently, three months after my mother. She died from an illness that began with blindness, the same illness I now seem to have. My parents raised him, surrounded him with love and care. And
now he is to remain completely alone, for I am going to leave soon, too, and as for Kolya, I can’t rely on him to take care of our son. Kolya, so generous and kind to the others, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes. In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us and not just for anyone—for Marisha.
any years, I’ll repeat, passed over our peaceful Friday gatherings. Andrey the informer turned from a golden-haired Paris into a father, then an abandoned husband, then the owner of a condominium bought for his new wife by her father the colonel, and finally an alcoholic. But, as in college, he remained in love with Marisha, who knew and appreciated it. All other women in his life were just replacements. Once or twice a year Andrey performed a sacred ritual, a slow dance with Marisha. Zhora grew from an unruly undergraduate into a penniless research fellow with three children, a future star of his field, but his essence remained unchanged, and that essence was his ardent love for Marisha, who had always loved Serge and no one else. My Kolya also worshipped Marisha. All our boys lost their heads over Marisha in our freshmen year, and their competition continued up until the shocking moment when Serge, who was married to Marisha and alone had rights to her, suddenly up and left her for another woman, whom he had adored, it turned out, since grade school. It happened on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the charades: he simply got up with an announcement that he must call his beloved, to wish her a happy New Year. Just like that. We were all deeply shaken, for if the boys worshipped Marisha, we all of us collectively worshipped Marisha and Serge as a couple. Many years ago Serge fell in love with Marisha and offered her marriage, but Marisha was seduced by a charming scoundrel, a certain The
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w Jean, and rejected Serge’s pure first love. After Jean left her, she crawled back to Serge and proposed marriage to him, forever rejecting the idea of erotic love on the side. She used to say that Serge was a sacred crystal vessel. (“Difficult to make love to,” I’d remark.) In those early days we lived for camping trips, drinking by the bonfire, mocking everything and everyone. The only aspects of the sexual sphere that caught our attention were my white swimming suit that turned transparent in the water, and the absence of a lavatory at our camping site, because Zhora complained that in the ocean poop didn’t swim away. Romantic Andrey walked three miles to the TB sanatorium to dance with the patients; Serge expressed his masculinity through scuba diving. At night I could hear rhythmic knocking coming from their tent, but her entire married life Marisha remained a jittery creature with shining eyes, which didn’t speak well of Serge’s abilities. The sexual flame that flickered around Marisha in combination with her inaccessibility held our circle together for so long. The girls loved Serge and wanted to replace Marisha, but at the same time pitied Marisha and wouldn’t betray her. Everything and everyone was full of their undivided, irresistible love, but Serge, the only one with the right of access to the beautiful Marisha, was restless with anger, and one time this ulcer broke. We were sitting at the table discussing sexual themes—innocently, for we were pure people and could discuss anything innocently. Someone mentioned the book Sexopathology by a Polish author. Now, that book was an entirely new phenomenon for our society, where every citizen lived as if on a desert island. In the book, I announced, sex is divided into three parts: in the first, the spouses arouse one another by stroking their ear lobes! Did you know that, Serge? Everyone froze, and Serge began to shake and sputter and scream that his attitude toward me had always been 102 1 The Baffler [no.25]
deeply negative, but what did I care? I knew I had hit the mark.
ll this had taken place before Serge rediscovered the love of his life, a plump brunette, and before the patrolman Valera began his vigils on Stulin Street, and also before I found out that I was losing my eyesight, and definitely before I realized that Marisha was jealous of my Kolya. Suddenly all the knots became untied. Serge stopped sleeping on Stulin Street; our Friday gatherings moved to the room Tanya shared with her teenage son, who was pathologically jealous of her and had to be moved to Stulin Street where he spent the night with Sonya. I remarked that it would do them both good, they should get used to sleeping with each other, but as usual no one paid me any attention. In between Fridays we were overtaken by a wave of tragic events. Marisha’s father was run over by a car outside her house—he was heavily intoxicated, as the autopsy showed. That night he had had a conversation with Serge, man to man, about his decision to leave Marisha. The conversation took place early, when Sonya was still awake. They were keeping from Sonya that Serge had left the family. Serge came home after work and stayed until nine to put Sonya to bed, then went back to his childhood erotic ideal. Poor Marisha’s father, who himself was onto his second family, walked in on them right in the middle of this fake family time, said some useless things, and uselessly perished under the car at nine thirty, when there is no traffic. During that time my mother melted from a hundred and sixty pounds to seventy. She held up bravely, but right at the end her doctors decided to look for a nonexistent ulcer: they opened her up, then by mistake sewed a bowel to the stomach muscle, leaving her to die with an open wound the size of a fist. When they rolled her out to me, dead, crudely stitched up with a gaping hole in her
Boiled potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and many bottles of wine—clearly, they planned to party all night.
9 belly, something happened: I couldn’t understand how this could have been done to a human being, let alone my mother, and began to think that my mama was somewhere else, that this couldn’t be her. Kolya wasn’t with me that day. He and I had separated five years earlier but didn’t pay for the divorce and continued to live like roommates, as is often done. After my mother’s funeral, though, he informed me that he had paid his share and suggested that I pay too, and so I did. Three months later my father died from a heart attack, in his sleep: I got up to put a blanket over Alesha and saw that papa wasn’t breathing. I went back to bed, waited till morning, and saw them both off: Alesha to school and papa to the morgue.
missed several Fridays, and then came Easter, when by tradition we congregate at my house. My parents used to help me with the cooking; then they and Alesha would travel for ninety minutes to our allotment, where they would stay the night in an unheated shack so my guests could party all night in our house. This year I told Alesha that he was going to the allotment alone: he was big enough—seven years old—and knew his way there perfectly. He was to stay the night there by himself. I also forbade him to come back and ring the bell under any circumstances. That morning I took Alesha for the first time to visit my parents’ grave. He helped me carry water; we planted some daisies. Alesha overcame his initial fear and took pleasure in planting flowers in our clean, dry soil—I had my parents cremated, so there are just urns
with ashes, nothing to be afraid of—and then we washed our hands and ate our bread, apples, and Easter eggs, leaving the crumbs for the birds. Everywhere around us people were drinking and eating at their family plots—we have preserved the tradition of visits to the cemetery on Easter, when the air smells of early spring and the dead are lying in their neat graves, remembered and toasted, and we will all go down the same road, everything ending for us with paper flowers, ceramic portraits, birds in the air, and bright Easter eggs on the ground. On the way home, on the subway and bus, everyone was tipsy but in an amicable, peaceful way, as though we had just peeked beyond the grave, seen fresh air and plastic flowers and drunk to them. From the cemetery Alesha set out without rest for the allotment, and I went back home to start dough for cabbage pies—all I could afford that year. A cabbage pie, a pie with mama’s jam, potato salad, boiled eggs, grated beets, a little cheese and salami—good enough. My salary is small, and I couldn’t expect Kolya to chip in—he had practically moved in with his parents, and on his rare visits yelled at Alesha that he didn’t eat right, didn’t sit right, dropped crumbs on the floor, watched television all the time, didn’t read anything, and was growing up to be God knows what. This pointless rant was in fact a scream of envy inspired by Sonya, Marisha and Serge’s daughter, who sang, composed music, went to the elite music school where the competition was three hundred students per slot, read since age two, and wrote poetry and prose. At the end of the day Kolya did love Alesha, but he would have loved him more if Alesha were talented and handsome, good at his studies and popular with his peers. Right now Kolya saw a version of himself, which drove him up the wall. Like Kolya, our son had poor teeth, which hadn’t come in completely. Also he had never adjusted to his orphaned status after losing my parents and ate sloppily, The
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w without chewing, dropping large pieces on his lap and spilling everything. In addition, he began to wet his bed. Kolya flew like a corkscrew out of our family nest in order not to see his little son drenched in pee, shaking in wet underpants. When Kolya saw this for the first time, he slapped Alesha with the back of his hand, and Alesha fell back into his filthy bed, relieved to be punished. I just smirked and left for work. That day I had an appointment with an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed the same hereditary illness that killed my mother. (She didn’t name it, but she did prescribe the same drops and the same tests.) So how could I care that Alesha was peeing himself and that Kolya had hit him? New horizons opened up before me, you understand, and I began to take measures toward saving my son from the fate of an orphan. That Easter day I baked my pies, extended the dinner table, covered it with a tablecloth, arranged plates and wine glasses, salads, cold cuts and bread. In the evening, with Alesha gone, I received my slightly embarrassed guests. They all came because of Marisha, who was too brave and too proud not to show her face. Serge was there too, and my newly divorced husband, Kolya, with his ruined teeth. He went straight into the kitchen to unpack everyone’s contributions to the table: boiled potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and many bottles of wine—clearly, they planned to party all night. And why not? There was an empty apartment at their disposal, plus the titillating fact that Marisha and my Kolya had been married the day before. Serge behaved as usual, only was a little ravenous for booze; he and Zhora immediately retreated to celebrate. Lenka had long been gone; someone saw her on the subway wrapped tightly in a shawl: she said she had delivered a stillborn baby but didn’t complain, only mentioned that her breast milk arrived. Andrey the informer put on a record; his underage wife, Nadya, began to play mother 104 1 The Baffler [no.25]
of the family, telling me in detail how much child support Andrey was paying, and that he didn’t want to defend his thesis because his entire raise would go to his former wife and daughter and so on. Tanya the valkyrie walked in, flashing her eyes and white teeth at me; I asked if her son was sharing Sonya’s bed, but she just brayed. “For you, Tanya, it’s nothing, but Marisha has a daughter—have you taught her how not to get pregnant?” “What’s going on?” Nadya jumped in. “Nadya,” I asked her, “is it true you have a glass eye?” “She’s always been like that,” explained shining Tanya, and Andrey added that his attitude toward me had always been deeply negative, but I ignored the informing scum. Serge and Zhora, already drunk, emerged from the kitchen, and Kolya stepped out of our former bedroom—God knows what he was doing there. “Kolya, have you finished selecting sheets for your new marital bed?” I addressed him. I knew by his reaction that I was right. “Marisha,” I continued, “do you have enough sheets to sleep with my husband? Mine are all ruined. Kolya decided to wash the sheets for the first time in his life, and he boiled them: all the sperm cooked, and now it looks like clouds in the sky.” They all laughed and sat down to eat. Then it was Serge’s turn. Mumbling drunkenly, he argued with Zhora about the theory of a certain Riabkin: Serge attacked it viciously, and Zhora defended it, but without enthusiasm. Finally Zhora grew tired and agreed with Serge with obvious condescension, and suddenly we saw that our genius Serge was just a failing, unrecognized scholar, while bedraggled Zhora was a true rising star, for nothing betrays success like condescension toward one’s peers. “Zhora, when are you defending your thesis?” I asked him at random and guessed
These people, who will rip out each other’s throats without blinking, couldn’t stand the sight of a child’s blood.
9 correctly, for Zhora took the bait and told us excitedly that his pre-defense was on Tuesday and the actual defense whenever they could find a slot in the schedule. For a moment everyone was silent, and then began to drink. They drank to the point of blacking out. Andrey began to complain that his local Party committee wouldn’t allow them to buy a three-room apartment, to the displeasure of Nadya’s papa, who was recently promoted to general and wanted to shower her with presents—if she agreed to study and hold off on a child. Nadya pouted that she wanted a baby, but no one listened to her. Marisha and Kolya were talking quietly, probably deciding when Kolya should pick up the rest of his things and where they were going to keep them while Marisha’s apartment was being exchanged for a room for Serge and a small one-bedroom for Marisha, so that Sonya could have a private room for her music, and Serge could have somewhere to live with his childhood love, and Marisha could sleep with my husband. “Marisha,” I asked her, “how do you like my apartment? Do you want to move in there? Alesha and I will live where you tell us—we don’t need much. You may keep all my things, too.” “Idiot!” Andrey yelled. “All Marisha thinks about is how not to take anything from you!” “But why not? Go ahead, take it. Alesha’s going to an orphanage. I’ve made arrangements—I found one in Borovsk, a long way from here.” “Let’s get out of here, I’m sick of this
show,” protested the informer, but as Andrey got up to leave, the others didn’t stir—they wanted to stay for the curtain. I reached for the papers on the bookshelf and showed them to Kolya. He took one look and tore everything up. “Idiot, shameless idiot,” spat Andrey. I leaned back in my chair. “Help yourselves, dear guests,” I told them, “I’ll be right back with the pies.” “Fine,” said Serge, and back to drinking they went. Andrey put on another record, and Serge invited his former wife Marisha for a dance. Marisha blushed and threw me a guilty glance. The party went into high gear, with everyone drinking, singing, dancing, and shouting; only Kolya was unoccupied. He came up to me and asked, “Where’s Alesha?” “Out,” I said. “But it’s past midnight!” He went out into the hall, then detoured into the bathroom and stayed there for a long time. In the meantime, Marisha, who had drunk too much, couldn’t think of anything better to do than to lean out of the kitchen window and throw up the beet salad on the wall of my building. Ruined pies, cigarette butts, unfinished salads, apple cores, empty bottles under the couch, Nadya weeping and holding her eye, and Andrey dancing with Marisha in his arms, his annual sacred ritual, which Nadya witnessed for the first time, and it shocked her to the point of losing an eye. Then Andrey quickly got dressed and dressed Nadya—the subway was about to stop running for the night. Serge and Zhora were also getting dressed; Kolya finally emerged from the bathroom and lay down on the couch but was roused by Zhora and led to the door; and at the end of the procession walked beaming Tanya. I opened the door for them, and they all saw Alesha, who was sleeping outside on the steps. The
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w Thus began the final act. I jumped outside and punched the sleeping child on the face so hard he started spouting blood from his nose and choking on blood and snot. Screaming, “How dare you come back when I told you not to,” I continued to pummel him, but they grabbed me and shoved me back into the apartment, holding the door while I kicked and yelled. I could hear them shouting; someone was weeping; Nadya was promising to strangle me with her bare hands. I could hear Kolya, on the way down, calling Alesha’s name, swearing to take him away from me— anywhere, it didn’t matter where. My calculations were correct: these people, who will rip out each other’s throats without blinking, couldn’t stand the sight of a child’s blood. I locked the door, turned off the light, tiptoed to the kitchen window, and looked out over Marisha’s vomit. Soon the whole gang marched out; Kolya was carrying Alesha! They were talking excitedly, high on their righteousness, waiting for the last one, Andrey, who was holding the door. Nadya wept and screamed hysterically that I must be stripped of my maternal rights. Their drunken voices echoed throughout the neighborhood. They even flagged down a cab! Kolya, Alesha, and Marisha sat in the back, Zhora in the front. He’ll be the one paying, I thought, as always, but why should I care? They’ll all get home, somehow. Of course they won’t sue me, that’s not their style. They’ll hide Alesha from me, surround the abused child with love and attention. The most enduring affection will come from Andrey and his childless wife, Nadya. Tanya will take Alesha to the seacoast in the summer; Kolya, who tonight took Alesha in his arms, is not the same Kolya who slapped his little son for wetting his bed—he’ll be a decent father from now on. Marisha, too, will love and pity my talentless, toothless boy. Zhora, who’ll become a famous professor, will throw him a few crumbs and maybe help 106 1 The Baffler [no.25]
him get into college. Now, Serge is another matter. He will end up living with the only person he truly loves, his own daughter, his crazy love for whom will continue to lead him through life by dark corners and underground passages until he understands what’s happening and gives up other women for the one he himself brought into the world. Such things do happen, and when it happens to Serge, my friends will find themselves in a serious predicament. But that won’t happen for another eight years, and in the meantime Alesha will grow stronger and smarter. I’ve arranged his fate at a very cheap price: I simply sent him to the allotment without the key to the shack and forbade him to ring the bell or knock—he understands what “don’t” means. My performance, the beating of an innocent child, threw Alesha into the protective arms of his indignant new parents, who otherwise would have sent him to an orphanage upon my death and barely tolerated his visits in their new home. That’s how I planned it, and that’s how it will happen. And I’m glad that this odd family will live in Alesha’s home, not he in theirs, it’s better for him this way. Very soon I’ll be gone; Alesha, I hope, will visit me on the first day of Easter at the cemetery, like I showed him earlier today. I think he’ll come—he’s a very smart boy—and there, among the drunken crowd, with their painted eggs and plastic wreaths, he’ll think about his mother, and forgive her. My son, my Alesha, will forgive me, I know, for not letting him say goodbye at the end, for leaving him in the world without a mother’s blessing, covered in blood, at the mercy of my so-called friends. That way it was best—for everyone. I’m smart, and I know.t Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers. “Among Friends” will appear in Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s forthcoming There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, translated and introduced by Anna Summers.
E x h i bi t D
BRIONY MORROW- CRIBBS
Vulpes Zerda The
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Re f o r m e r s
JebFest: The Education Miracle That Isn’t 3 Jennifer C. Berkshire
eb Bush’s annual education summit has dents first, Bush’s FEE cuts a distinctive figbarely begun, but already the scholarure. Started by the former Florida governor ship window at the Sheraton Boston is doin 2008, FEE assumes that business leaders ing a brisk business. It’s an early morning in know exactly what it is that the nation’s longOctober, and elected officials are lined up outsuffering schoolchildren need to succeed. It side of the space that usually serves as the hotherefore follows, you see, that elected offitel coatroom. They are applying for payments cials of both parties should serve as the handthat will cover the cost of their travel to Boston maids of these captains of industry. The main and back, along with two nights at the hotel: job, for elected officials and policy professioncityscape or Charles River views, their choice. als alike, is to clear the educational scene of These scholarships are a sweet deal—esthe failed and destructive conceits of publicpecially if you’re, say, a local school board sector pedagogy so that business can deliver member who rarely gets to experience an allthe goods. For the kids, you understand. expenses-paid junket. They’re also, if not il On stage, Jeb, who resembles less an aspirlegal, then somewhere between ash grey and ing presidential candidate than a higher-end gunmetal on the ethics spectrum. In fact, just Rotarian, serves up the education-reform equivalent of red meat. Our classrooms are one day before the summit, advocacy group mired in mediocrity, he laments—a sad and ProgressNow New Mexico filed a complaint sorry state that jeopardizes America’s status with the IRS alleging that Bush’s Foundation as the most dominant nation on earth. Worse for Excellence in Education, known in all seriousness as FEE, had failed to disclose payyet, those invested in the status quo of failments to public officials on its tax forms. The ure—an enormous army into which he lumps the nation’s 3.3 million teachIRS requires nonprofits to Jeb is serving up ers—are fighting harder than report payments for public ever to keep it. He gazes out officials’ travel and entertainthe education-reform ment if they exceed $1,000. over the tops of his specta Such arcane niceties of equivalent of red meat. cles, shaking his head slowly, nonprofit compliance are far morosely: “Empires do not afield from the main event go quietly into the night.” today, however. The grand ballroom has been But there’s good news, too, and lest his audiabuzz all morning because the man of the hour, ence slump into despair, Bush morphs into Jeb Bush himself, is about to take the stage. the shiny-suited salesman whose products are The National Summit on Education Reform, guaranteed to put us on a path to excellence— a.k.a. JebFest 2013, is officially under way. if only we’d let them. Even in the comically overcrowded land The products are familiar: more charter scape of organizations seeking to fix our failed schools, more vouchers, more tax-credit scholand failing public schools and at last put stuarships (a complex boondoggle in which corpo-
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rations can claim a fistful of tax deductions by giving money to nonprofits that grant private-school scholarships). But it’s when Jeb starts talking about technology that he really takes flight. It’s one of FEE’s articles of faith that the solutions to our great educational dilemmas are a mere click away—if, that is, the schools and the self-interested dullards
who run them would just accept the limitless possibilities of technology. Of course, these gadgets don���t come cheap. And this means that, like virtually all the other innovations touted by our postideological savants of education reform, the vision of a tech-empowered American student body calls for driving down our spending on teaching (labor costs The
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Re f o r m e r s account for the lion’s share of the $600 billion spent on public education in the United States each year) and pumping up our spending on gizmos. Some of these wonder gizmos are on display here today. On hand to demonstrate the miracles of tablet technology is ed-tech company Amplify, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and headed up by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.* The tablet, which comes preloaded with Amplify’s “exclusive educational platform”—and stay tuned for a lineup of soon-to-be-released time-and-geography-bending literary games, including one in which Tom Sawyer battles the Brontë sisters—is one of the few products here for students. The real growth industry is the measurement of so-called teacher effectiveness. That’s the amount by which teachers are able to boost student test scores each year—an amount that’s also, in the numbersincentivized world of ed reform, the basis for promotions and pay increases. So global software maker SAS is showcasing its SAS® EVAAS® software, which lets school districts check the effectiveness of prospective teachers as easily as they might access a credit score. “Too many tests, not enough time?” is the question posed by Scantron, which promises to make measurement itself measurably more efficient. Infamous for devising the tidal wave of bubbled test-taking sheets that took over American public school classrooms beginning in the 1970s, Scantron has since moved into the more lucrative market of assessments, offering high-tech systems that can chart everything from individual academic performance to diversity within a school’s student population. An unquestioning faith in the power of tech-
nology to transform teaching and learning gives the proceedings here the feel of an oldfashioned church revival. During each of the strategy sessions I attend, someone stands up to tell a miracle story about technology’s redemptive powers. In the tale related by Howard Stephenson, a state senator from Utah, students seem to gain a year’s worth of math knowledge every time they pick up their oneto-one devices. Stephenson brings genuine passion to his rendition of this implausible fable, and you can feel the energy level in the room lift. The Chinese are on notice. The Finns too. Or at least they would be if there wasn’t always somebody standing in the way— the teachers’ unions, the education enterprise, or the emerging enemy du jour: the colleges that prepare teachers to teach.
Changing of the Grade Every organization has a creation myth, and FEE’s is that while in office Jeb Bush presided over a Florida education miracle—one that prompted other state officials to flock to the Florida experiment and clamor en masse for Jeb’s secret sauce. Bush attributes an increase in student test scores during his governorship to the lettergrade report cards issued to schools soon after he came into office.** The report-card plan centers on a concept so simple that even a politician can understand it: it assigns schools an A through F grade based on student test scores so that parents, local leaders, and even realtors know whether the public school around the corner is failing or merely flailing. Systems like these, one of which is almost certainly making its way to a state or district near you, have proven irresistible to reformers. In speeches, the systems can be made to seem
* Amplify’s ambitious plan to corner the K–12 tablet market recently suffered a serious setback when a North Carolina district suspended use of all fifteen thousand of its tablets due to hardware problems and reports of melting chargers.
** W hether Florida did indeed experience an educational miracle while then-Governor Bush was in office is subject to debate. While students did see an increase in test scores, it’s not clear that Bush’s policies were the cause, and his beloved school report-card evaluations, keyed to student test score performance, have been repeatedly revised by the legislature.
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in-law of Academica’s CEO, infallible—but school grades The products are and a land-use consultant can always be changed, for familiar: more charter for an architectural firm the right person and the that has built a number of right reason. Take the case schools, more vouchers, Academica schools. At toof poor Tony Bennett, formore tax-credit day’s FEE confab, of course, mer education chief in InFresen is here to talk about diana and Florida. After losscholarships. accountability. ing reelection to his Hoosier chancellorship in 2012, Ben “So much of this is about nett landed in Florida. It seemed a perfect fit— good old-fashioned profiteering,” Ed Daviduntil evidence surfaced that he had jiggered son tells me during one of several networking the entire Indiana grading system in order breaks. ( Jeb Bush has implored us to maximize to boost the grade of an Indianapolis charter our time here by getting plenty of business school operated by a prominent Republican cards and email addresses.) In a mostly corpodonor. Bennett was forced to resign his Florida rate and power-suited crowd, Davidson is clad post. He’s now one of the many free-agent eduin head-to-toe camouflage, and I’d approached preneurs lurking about the Sheraton Boston, him hoping he was a Corespiricist—i.e., a memperhaps debating dropping by the afternoon ber of the a burgeoning movement on the right session on “Transparent A–F Grading Systems that views the new Common Core State Stanfor the Next Generation of Schools.” dards as an Obama-led plot to keep America FEE’s Floridian roots do have one undestupid. But Davidson is something altogether niable pedagogic function: they make the different: a fiscal watchdog and honest-governblatant hucksterism at the heart of the educament advocate who believes in local control of tion reform movement much harder to deny. schools. Captain Davidson—he’s a decorated Florida, after all, has played host to more naval combat pilot—decided to run for a seat grand swindles than any other state. Charter on the Monroe County School Board, which schools, which are publicly funded but prioversees public schools in the Florida Keys, vately run, are just the latest in a long line of after the superintendent of schools was conget-rich-quick-schemes in the Sunshine State. victed of embezzlement. Beneath today’s noble-sounding buzzwords— Davidson is an odd fit for this crowd. He achievement, excellence, twenty-first-century seems to like teachers, for one thing, and he skills—are the same murky land developis insistent that whatever promise technolment deals, Republican politics, and taxpayer ogy holds, it will never replace the human money that have become as emblematic of the interaction at the heart of education. He also Florida landscape as alligators and swimming worries that politicians and investors are far pools. more interested in expanding their business plans than they are in closing down failing In Miami, for instance, rapper Pitbull recharters—a concern shared by critics of the cently opened a brand-new charter school, the education reform movement (including severSports Leadership and Management Acadeal speakers at FEE’s conference). “There’s no my, or SLAM. While Pitbull provides the star question that there are some terrific charters power, the school will be run by Academica, a out there,” says Davidson. “I’m just not sure fast-growing charter management chain with that we want an education system that’s based close ties to the Florida GOP. State Repreon powerful folks doing favors for other powsentative Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican, erful folks.” is a former Academica lobbyist, the brother-
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This is tricky stuff for Charter schools are just to school, lowering the test FEE. Some of the worst scores of poor minority stuthe latest in a long line charter schools in the coundents and blighting their try are part of politically of get-rich-quick-schemes prospects. Fortunately, he well-connected chains, like announces, a happy ending in the Sunshine State. White Hat, the Ohio charis in sight. Olson is part of ter management firm run a high-powered team that by GOP contributor David has filed a sweeping lawBrennan. The online education company K12 suit, funded by Los Angeles philanthropist Inc., the largest private operator of public Eli Broad and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Daschools in the country, with annual revenues vid Welch, that is aimed at eliminating most approaching $1 billion, has been a major FEE workplace protections for teachers. contributor. Not surprisingly, the steady But like so many of the claims circulating growth of virtual charters is up near the top here, Olson’s saga of public education’s decline of the foundation’s reform wish list. and prospective recovery in California de But K12 critics, like hedge funder and repends on selected facts and muddled causality. form advocate Whitney Tilson, compare the California teachers have had tenure proteccompany to a subprime mortgage lender that, tions since 1912, preceding even Olson’s own in order to maximize revenue, deliberately golden era of schooling. As for the lemons, are targets kids who are likely to fail.* Copies of there more of them? Are they dancing faster? One hulking, unmistakable fact doesn’t Education Transformation, the new book by enter into Olson’s campfire story of rampagK12 CEO and founder Ron Packard, are being union privilege devouring the frail educaing handed out for free outside of the Sheraton tional opportunities of public school kids in ballroom, just down the hall from the scholarCalifornia: education funding in the Golden ship window. State has fallen off a cliff since the 1970s, and Dance of the Lemons per-pupil funding now ranks among the lowest in the country. At the same time, the rate It is a truism of the reform movement that edof poverty among California’s public school ucation is the civil rights issue of our time. The students has risen. According to a report reFEE crowd tweaks this bumper-sticker sentileased by the Southern Education Foundation ment slightly, adding “choice” into the mix. hours before Olson’s talk, the majority of stuConservative legal star turned gay-marriage dents in public schools in the western United advocate Ted Olson is the featured lunchtime States are now low income—a 31 percent inspeaker, flown in from California to explain crease since 2001. to the crowd that education is the new gay marriage. Or something like that. The story During the break, I strike up a conversation Olson tells is that California’s public schools, with Vanessa Tillman. One of the few African golden back in his day, have since sunk into Americans in attendance, she’s the president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers deep decline. He attributes this slide to what Association, part of a delegation of district he calls the “Dance of the Lemons,” in which and union leaders who have traveled to Boston bad teachers, who can never be fired thanks to from Florida’s west coast. When I ask her if their union protections, are passed from school
* Tilson, in turn, is betting that K12 will fail. In a presentation to the Value Investing Congress in September, he announced that K12 stock was his biggest short. A month later, the stock had lost close to half its value.
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she feels a little like an alien invader, she makes a face that’s at once bemused and exasperated. Tillman says that what bothers her about what she’s heard here isn’t all of the bad teacher talk or the hostility to unions but the smallness of FEE’s vision. “I understand that a lot of these folks have a business perspective,” she says. “But you never hear them say anything about the bigger picture. Where’s the part where we all work together as a society?” She’s right. Parents are almost never mentioned here, except as consumers demanding more educational choices. And poverty, to the extent that it impinges upon the reformers’ vision at all, is merely something that great teachers can overcome with high expectations. Tillman’s own story isn’t so different from the against-all-odds tales highlighted by Jeb Bush in his opening speech. One of six kids, she grew up in the Florida Panhandle during the height of battles over busing and desegregation. Her father had a sixth-grade education; her mother, a high school diploma. Yet every one of Tillman’s siblings went on to
complete college and to lead successful professional lives. “We own homes and pay taxes,” she says. When Tillman considers many of her own students, she sees odds that are even longer than the ones she faced growing up. “They are the poor children of poor children, and they’ve lost that belief we had that if you just worked hard you could get ahead.”
Vested Interests Jeb Bush may paint the organization he founded as an insurgent upstart, but in today’s fiercely privatizing education landscape, FEE represents the status quo. For a group that’s less than a decade old, FEE has been remarkably successful at pushing its agenda through statehouses across the country, usually with bipartisan support. (There is even a Biden on hand at the summit: Joe’s brother Frank, who runs—what else?—a for-profit charter school chain in Florida.) But there are mounting signs of buyer’s remorse as education reform comes to stand for things that people don’t actually like: relent-
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less standardized testing, The man of the hour, ers employed by Duval mass school closures, the County public schools, Jeb Bush himself, is about constant scolding narraroughly 100 have left as tive about what failures a result of newly enacted to take the stage. Welcome we all are. When Rahm performance measures, acto the National Summit Emanuel takes the stage cording to Fischer. As for to deliver the final keynote the rest? “Our goal should on Education Reform, here, he tells the crowd be to invest in the people a.k.a. JebFest 2013. that he’s not an education we have and help them to reformer and that what he’s be the best professionals doing in Chicago isn’t eduthey can be,” he says. Mild cation reform. What he is is up for reelection stuff to be sure, but practically heretical in in a city where the great reform experiment is these circles. now more than twenty years old. In the wake I ask him about some of the other issues of a bitter eight-day strike by Chicago teachthat FEE holds dear. What about that pereners and the closing of more than fifty schools, nial reform favorite, merit pay? “I’m not a fan of pitting employees against one another,” Emanuel’s approval ratings on education have says Fischer. “It doesn’t work at a corporation, nosedived. Indeed, many name-brand leaders so I don’t see how it’s going to work in educaassociated with the reform agenda have met tion.” Failing charter schools? Fischer says with electoral misfortune lately, with voters in Indiana, Idaho, and Connecticut sending that there are some in his own city that should them packing. be closed down tomorrow. By the time we get My conversation with a new school board to universal pre-K, Fischer is sounding like member from Jacksonville, Florida, gives me New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio. About a glimpse into the future of FEE—as well as a a quarter of the children in Duval County live sense of possible future moments of reckonin poverty; among African American chiling for the larger reform movement of which dren, the number is closer to a third. “Educait’s a part. In 2012 twenty-nine-year-old Jason tion is a huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s just Fischer became the youngest person ever one piece,” says Fischer. “There’s a bigger picelected to the Duval County School Board. A ture we need to consider.” former civilian engineer for the navy, Fischer The privilege of defining that bigger picran for office as a conservative business canditure, though, has increasingly fallen to the date with the strong support of Jeb Bush. He’s business leaders. They’re the real marquee worked for CSX and is currently employed by attractions here. Executives from Exxonthe ominous-sounding URETEK Holdings. Mobil, Microsoft, Accenture, and EMC are In other words, he is exactly the sort of person all joining forces to shake up our schools. I’ve come here expecting to meet. Their mantra, neatly conveyed in the title of one FEE session, speaks volumes about the “Jeb Bush is one of my heroes,” Fischer tells strange cul-de-sac in which education reform me. I scribble his words down on my notepad, now finds itself, trapped by a relentlessly petadding an “ugh” for good measure. But our ty, gnat-straining assault on the public sphere conversation quickly takes an unpredictable masquerading as an epic-heroic vision. High turn. Fischer says that he rejects the notion Expectations Make Cents, the conference that schools are overrun with bad teachers session proclaims. And nearly everyone here and that we can essentially fire our way to a seems to believe it.t higher-achieving future. Of the 8,500 teach-
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The Business of America is Dirty Tricks Meet the United States Chamber of Commerce 3 Lee Fang
ny glance at the inert state of political progress in our market-addled age has to leave even the most dogged investigator a bit bewildered. We live, after all, in an era of economic and ideological drift—of street occupations and ballot-box insurgencies. Yet our institutions of national government remain in shameful fealty to a laissezfaire fantasy. With metronomic predictability, the wise men of Washington preach austerity amid a raging jobs recession and wish away the bulwarks of economic security that make life in these United States (barely) tolerable for fixed-income retirees and poor people who have had the unpardonable bad taste to fall ill. As major manufacturing metropolises go bankrupt, as wages continue to go south while productivity climbs, as mortgages and pension plans are pillaged by the bailed-out banking class, we are trapped in a political consensus that urges government continually to shrink and depicts tax increases on the rich as an unholy abomination against the market’s righteous will. Why, for God’s sake? One answer comes from a place that few Americans spend much time thinking about: the stodgy and terminally respectable U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group best known for its civic booster speeches and “young entrepreneur” scholarships. What has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce done to advance the undoing of the American middle-class dream? One might ask, far more efficiently, what the Chamber hasn’t done along these lines. The group, which commands an 116 1 The Baffler [no.25]
annual budget of more than $200 million covering six legal sub-entities, has proven a diehard foe of federal health care reform, global warming legislation, rational tax policy, and virtually any piece of legislation not designed to feather the nest of a plutocrat. And thanks to its little-noted recent makeover as a corporate sluicegate for soft-money campaign contributions, this formerly milquetoast business lobby is probably the main reason that the Tea Party will hold domestic policymaking in a functional state of suspended animation for the foreseeable future. At the moment, the D.C. media claims the Chamber is “at war” with the far-right fringe of the Republican establishment. The government shutdown, the conventional wisdom goes, split the business community from Tea Party leaders. Yet a closer examination of the record shows that little has changed; the right wing of the GOP still benefits from the Chamber’s largesse. In March the Chamber presented awards to dozens of lawmakers for championing the “Spirit of Enterprise.” The awardees included many leaders of the hostage-taking last fall. And true to form, while pledging to reporters that they would oppose the proponents of the shutdown in their election campaigns, the Chamber has already aired campaign advertisements in favor of GOP congressmen who voted to shutter the federal government. The Koch brothers may get most of the credit for funding the antigovernment right, but the Chamber funded a large number of
LISA HANE Y
What has the Chamber of Commerce done to advance the undoing of the American middle-class dream? One might ask what it hasnâ€™t done.
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The Chamber is regularly mistaken for a mundane advocacy group, a “voice for business.”
9 the campaigns that stamped the U.S. House of Representatives as an unofficial franchise of the Tea Party. And the Chamber’s strategists didn’t much care which campaign finance laws they had to sidestep in the process. So let’s give them their due.
The Vanilla Putsch On the surface of things, it is hard to account for this dramatic recalibration of power in official Washington. At first glance, a tourist walking past the Chamber might view its Corinthian columns and Beaux Arts architecture and confuse it for any number of nondescript federal agencies: A branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, perhaps? Or maybe a meeting ground for local chambers of commerce? Plunked down on a grassy lawn just across from the White House, the Chamber seems to be the very picture of placid policymaking chumminess. And though its decisions are largely made by a small clique of executives hailing from Fortune 500 companies, such as Pfizer and Dow Chemical, it would be easy to assume that the national Chamber reflects the desires of small-town chambers across the country—as indeed the flacks for the group routinely claim. Even for politicos in the know, the Chamber is regularly mistaken for a mundane advocacy group, a “voice for business” that can be found hosting quaint-sounding conferences on regulatory issues or sponsoring bland advertisements in Capitol Hill newspapers. The Chamber’s brand is wholesome and unthreatening and, more important, ambiguous.
But in the sort of Machiavellian genius native to our nation’s capital, this very ambiguity has permitted generations of ambitious leaders of the group to chart radically different paths to power. And the Chamber’s vanilla image, bolstered by a now-distant record of pragmatism and strategic compromise, has helped conceal its recent career as an all-purpose corporate enforcer, a launching pad for reactionary movements and a source for unabashed partisan propaganda. No other organization can be credited as much for obstructing progressive governance. Within the first two years of the Obama administration, the Chamber led the way in blocking what was widely—and correctly—understood to be the greatest opportunity for Democrats to pass substantive reform legislation in more than three decades. While business leaders fretted about how liberals would use their control of Congress and the White House to remake America, the Chamber— virtually alone among Washington’s difference-trimming lobbying community—was there to offer hostility. But any overheated conservative blog or opinion journal can do that; what sets the Chamber apart is that it has the money and organization to lead a fullthroated counterassault.* As the rest of Washington scrambled to catch up to the first Democratic sweep of representative government in nearly forty years, the Chamber’s money brought the legislative process grinding to a halt. How? For starters, the Chamber’s opposition to any draft of health reform or climate change legisla-
* W hile media outlets obsessed over the approximately $310 million that the 2008 Obama campaign spent on advertising, the
Chamber spent more than $396 million in the first two years of the president’s first term. And this money, unlike the Obama campaign brand, was tailored to very specific legislative initiatives—or more precisely, to their scorched-earth defeat.
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tion proposed by Democrats led to partisan gridlock. And the Chamber directed an enormous flow of corporate money into attack ads against Democratic lawmakers—an outlay of a gargantuan scale without parallel in our political history, and neatly enabled by the Chamber’s own litigation strategy in battles over the interpretation of campaign-finance law. The Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which unleashed unlimited corporate money into the election system, propelled the Chamber into leading— along with a Super PAC run by the Chamber’s former general counsel—a midterm-election advertising campaign that outranked the campaign spending of both of the two major political parties. With a few exceptions, their ads ravaged Democrats and helped to elect Republicans in the Tea Party sweep of 2010.* And you thought Silicon Valley had the patent on synergy.
The Powell Doctrine Just months before president Richard Nixon nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1971, Lewis F. Powell Jr., then a partner at Hunton & Williams, the Richmond-based law firm best known for its ties to the tobacco industry, penned a memo setting out a future course of advocacy for the Chamber. In the hard-hitting document, Powell advised the Chamber to mobilize the business community against a new national wave of antibusiness activism. Liberalism, from clean air and water laws to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the burgeoning consumer rights movement, seemed unstoppable back then, even under a Nixon adminis-
tration. The Powell Memo, as it is now known, urged the Chamber to bring corporate leaders together to work in unison, not only to tamp down government regulation and tax hikes, but also to change public discourse about the role of business in society. To Powell and his colleagues at the Chamber, business leaders were too timid—and their beliefs and tactics were too segmented when they elected to fight back against the liberal tide. There “should not be the slightest hesitation” in rallying Americans to the cause of business interests, Powell wrote, and corporate executives should not shy away from any opportunity “to penalize politically those who oppose” their political agenda. Businesses would find strength, Powell argued, in solidarity: Strength lies in organization, in careful longrange planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.
Powell’s call for capitalists to carry the banner of “confrontation politics” found a receptive audience in the early years of the antiliberal backlash. In short order, business leaders launched new policy-focused think tanks in New York, San Francisco, and beyond, including right-wing institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council. The Chamber itself more than doubled in size and formed a legal foundation. Corporate political action committee and lobbyist spending skyrock-
* Citizens United had been nudged on by the Chamber through years of successful cases designed to chip away at campaign
finance regulations. The Chamber’s amicus brief was even cited in the final decision. Notably, justice Anthony Kennedy fell for not only the Chamber’s arguments about government censorship inherent in corporate money restrictions (there’s little evidence of that), but also the lie that the Chamber represents three million companies, most of them small businesses with fewer than one hundred employees. Kennedy cites this figure and the Chamber approvingly in his opinion. In reality, the Chamber now admits that member companies total somewhere around three hundred thousand firms; in previous years, tax records show that a mere nineteen companies provided a third of the Chamber’s budget. As a former Chamber executive admitted to the Washington Monthly, larger firms have significantly more clout. The
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Re f o r m e r s eted over the next decade. Big business, in short, had created a new political apparatus, with sprawling lobby groups like the Business Roundtable established to ensure that even under the most liberal of D.C. regimes, corporate America would have the resources to hold its ground. The Powell Memo has also become something of a Rosetta stone for left-leaning theorists of the corporate influence on American politics. “We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down,” notes Bill Moyers, who adds that Powell, a hard-bitten strategist of elite power formation, used it to recast the Chamber’s role in ideological conflict as a “council of war.” Such sinister interpretations are not mistaken, but they do tend to foreshorten the range and ambition of the Chamber’s agenda today; the contemporary leaders of the group make the power-grabbing reveries of Lewis Powell seem like so much child’s play. Four decades after Powell’s call to corporate arms, no one has to mount any serious case for corporate influence in American governance; that is the great and fundamental taken-for-granted condition of the businessman’s republic. No, the challenge ahead is for the Chamber and its far-flung allies to secure their standing as the seat of financial power—the real “permanent government” in today’s Washington. That quest has taken an unexpected, and distinctly ominous, form in the age of the other great transformative force in American commerce and politics: the rise of Big Data. Sure, the Chamber continues to run up shortterm legislative and legal victories—such as a big win on class-action lawsuits at the Supreme Court and a bipartisan law, the 2011 JOBS Act, that has gutted many of the modest investor protections established under the accounting provisions of the post-Enron Sarbanes-Oxley Act—but it also has been quietly planning the next few decades of control. If the Powell Memo was a blueprint for the last few genera120 1 The Baffler [no.25]
tions of right-wing political ascension, a lesserknown set of documents, originating from the group codenamed “Team Themis,” points toward a manifesto for twenty-first-century domination. Hold on to your hat, Bill Moyers.
Law and Order Victims Unit Following the 2010 midterm elections, a group of defense contractors, including Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley data analysis startup, exchanged hundreds of emails discussing how to customize their wares for an exciting new prospective client. The contractors were developing a state-of-the-art surveillance system and had been in direct conversations with the Chamber and its law firm—by coincidence, Powell’s old employers at Hunton & Williams. The spying operation would gather massive amounts of personal information, some from meta-data scraped off social media accounts (like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and some stolen through illicit “custom malware” attacks. The group, nicknamed “Team Themis” after the Greek goddess of law and order (say what you will about the kids who helm Silicon Valley startups, they have a well-developed sense of irony), would keep tabs on an array of journalists, activist groups, and labor unions. As one of the people crafting the proposal explained, Team Themis would resemble the “fusion cell” used by the Joint Special Operations Command— the elite military unit that hunted down Osama bin Laden. For these contractors, the opportunity seemed like a natural application for their technology. After all, Palantir, a Big Data firm founded in part with an investment from the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, has won contracts from several U.S. intelligence agencies, the Marines, and the Army. And Palantir’s proprietary software scans through immense quantities of information, searching for patterns. It’s tracked
Taliban insurgents and Somali pirates, and it’s gained traction within the private sector, including a well-publicized contract to help JPMorgan Chase detect fraud. The two other firms that make up Team Themis, HBGary Federal and Berico Technologies, employ a roster of executives with extensive backgrounds in clandestine cybersecurity work. The president of HBGary Federal’s sister company, HBGary, is a legendary developer of “rootkits”—undetectable software that can be planted on a target computer for malicious purposes. For a modest charge of $60,000, HBGary offered a rootkit designed in partnership with General Dynamics that could monitor keystrokes, delete files, and crash a computer infected with its proprietary code. HBGary Federal—which, as the name suggests, is the government-sector wing of the company—attempted to sell contracts to the U.S. Air Force, among other clients.* Now why would the Chamber of Commerce, America’s premier lobbying group, want to develop its own miniature National Security Agency? Consider the events that led up to its negotiations with Team Themis. Ever since the landmark electoral triumph of 2010, the Chamber has been consumed by paranoia. And it’s not hard to see why; institutional paranoia was, in many ways, the winning strategy that landed the House of Representatives firmly within the control of the nihilistic right. Just days before the Chamber’s attorneys reached out to the defense contractors, Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs for the Chamber, appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio show to discuss the ways in which the Obama campaign sought to make the Chamber an “enemy of the state.” Lower-grade versions of this jumpy, perse-
cution-haunted self-image have since landed the Chamber in the same ever-vigilant, everfearful posture of keystroke-monitoring that fuels our postmodern digital surveillance state. It speaks volumes about the present synergies of our interwoven omnisurveillance sectors that diplomatic paranoia and its private-sector cousin are now used indiscriminately to market each other. As the correspondence surrounding the Palantir deal shows, the Chamber was greatly enamored of some dummy software the firm had developed to monitor the business movements of the great geopolitical bogeymen of the national security state: the Iranian regime. What “sold the Chamber in the first place,” wrote Pat Ryan, an analyst with Berico Technologies, in an email to the other defense contractors involved in the plan, was the “Iranian shipping demo.” The Iran shipping demo is a presentation that Palantir’s lead marketers cooked up to impress clients. By compiling press reports, Palantir shows how its software can visualize the various shell companies that Iranian operatives have used to bypass 2008 sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines company, a state-owned shipping company that the U.S. Department of State has accused of weapons smuggling. For the Chamber, the plan presented an opportunity to lash back at its perceived enemies. As one Team Themis presentation noted, the Chamber faced increasing scrutiny from a union-backed watchdog group, U.S. Chamber Watch, which had filed a formal complaint in 2010 alleging that the former AIG chief executive Maurice Greenberg had laundered money from a tax-exempt foundation through the Chamber for political purposes. Moreover, the Chamber has also been
* The New York Times later revealed a secretive Chinese government hacking cell, based in Shanghai, that had broken into the computers of major American companies and government agencies. The Times relied on a report that identified the Chinese cyber agents largely by using their profiles on HBGary’s now-shuttered message board for discussing rootkits. It’s unclear whether HBGary knew its technology had fallen into the hands of foreign interests. The
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Why would the Chamber of Commerce, America’s premier lobbying group, want to develop its own miniature National Security Agency?
9 fielding flak from, well, me: I wrote an October 2010 report for ThinkProgress, the online arm of the Center for American Progress, revealing that the Chamber had been funneling a boatload of foreign money into the 2010 midterm campaign. The group was issuing campaign disbursements through its primary legal entity, the Chamber of Commerce of the USA, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that had raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from companies based in Bahrain, India, and other foreign nations. Watchdogs at U.S. Chamber Watch and MoveOn.org started to look more deeply into this global cash nexus, and eventually, both Obama and Joe Biden began questioning the Chamber’s foreign funds on the campaign trail. After all that publicity, you can see how the Chamber wound up talking to Palantir. The eminences of the businessman’s republic might have felt, well, like an Iranian shipping network trying to elude closer scrutiny from the West. The trio of defense contractors seeking to land the Themis deal concluded that a concerted campaign to undermine the U.S. Chamber Watch’s “messaging capabilities and credibility would represent a huge win for the CoC and should be a focus.” So in short order, Team Themis had worked out a plan of sabotage, including a proposal to create a “fake insider persona” to “generate communications” with the Chamber’s union critics, while planting phony documents with the Chamber’s watchdog groups. The architects of this countermessaging initiative would feed Palantir’s proprietary software with information gleaned from metadata concerning the personal lives 122 1 The Baffler [no.25]
of activists. The targets included labor unions SEIU, IBT, UFW, UFCW, and AFL-CIO and the labor coalition Change to Win, as well as left-leaning organizations such as the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, Courage Campaign, the Ruckus Society, Agit-Pop, Brave New Films, and others. As the Chamber’s attorneys haggled with the contractors, Team Themis shopped the same idea to Bank of America in a proposal to undermine WikiLeaks, which was rumored at the time to have in its possession private files from Bank of America. A plan similar to the one devised against U.S. Chamber Watch was detailed in a PowerPoint presentation that called for destroying the credibility of Glenn Greenwald, WikiLeaks’ biggest booster in the press. Though the Themis plan began as a proposal to help the Chamber counter certain left-leaning groups, Hunton & Williams and the contractors clearly expected to adapt this model of activist surveillance for other markets—anywhere that perceived rivals and enemies could be profitably surveilled or undermined.
The Right Stuff To understand how a historically buttoneddown lobbying concern like the Chamber has emerged as the testing ground of first resort for cutting-edge digital espionage programs, it’s necessary to pan back a bit and consider the group’s curious odyssey of influence-peddling since the early phase of the Cold War— arguably the Golden Age of its legislative influence and the initial proving ground of its paranoid style. Like many such institutional migrations to the hard right, the Chamber’s
journey has been a gradual affair, taken in small, incremental steps rather than in a single leap of faith. Still, the transformation of the Chamber into a Big Data player of the first rank is an ideological wonder to behold. The cloak-and-dagger tactics of Team Themis, or even the aggressively adversarial politics of the Powell Memo, would seem unthinkably bizarre to the Chamber’s initial leaders. To be sure, there has always been a reactionary tilt to the Chamber’s collective mindset. But such tendencies were largely confined to the hobbyhorse political agendas of individual members; rarely had the Chamber staked out hard-line positions on any controversial questions of politics or social policy during its early career. Indeed, the group made its name in Washington by pointedly resisting the eager political overtures of its godfather in the Oval Office, William Howard Taft. The Chamber was founded in 1912 at Taft’s urging; the Republican president had sent a bill to Congress the previous year outlining the purpose of such an organization. Publicly, Taft said he envisioned the group—one among countless Progressive Era initiatives meant to better organize the institutional framework of American society as it coped with the new upheavals of industrial capitalism—as a centralizing network, set up to keep “in touch with associations and chambers of commerce throughout the country and . . . to keep purely American interests in a closer touch with different phases of commercial affairs.” Privately, Taft and his secretary of commerce and labor, Charles Nagel, hoped the national Chamber would curry favor with employers in the presidential election that year. Unfortunately for Taft, the Chamber selected Harry Wheeler, a pragmatic and moderate executive from Chicago who refused to get involved with electoral politics. Wheeler preached “commercial patriotism,” calling for peaceful relations with labor unions and for policies to better position American firms
against foreign competitors. Under Wheeler, the Chamber endorsed a broad expansion in central government, from the creation of the Federal Reserve to a national vocational education system. He also found common cause with Progressives in the push for expanded infrastructure spending on state highways, the plan to establish a federal trade commission, and even Wisconsin’s experiment with an income tax, which the Chamber hoped would reduce the public sector’s reliance on property taxes. Up until the New Deal, the Chamber viewed itself less as a bludgeon for businesses to beat back the forces of government expansion and more as a conduit for executives to get their interests before policymakers. At a 1917 convention in Atlantic City, the Chamber promised support for the war effort in Europe, which meant the acceptance of price controls, and even passed a resolution praising the nascent revolution in Russia. The election of president Franklin Roosevelt brought a bitter reaction from much of the country’s business elite, as lobby groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and millionaire-backed front groups like the American Liberty League sowed fear about “socialism.” Still, in many cases, the Chamber demurred from high-profile fights with FDR and his brains trust. For all the sound and fury that issued from the boardrooms of the Liberty League and the NAM, the Chamber’s New Deal–era leadership stayed resolutely moderate. Insurance executive Henry Harriman, for example, told a House of Representatives committee in 1933, shortly after he’d taken over the Chamber’s presidency, that there was “ample justification for a reasonable public works program” and defended other early Roosevelt initiatives. Though a right-leaning faction within the Chamber scorned his positions, liberals like Harriman prevailed in leadership squabbles. World War II marked the end of moderaThe
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Re f o r m e r s tion. As the war came to a close, Eric Johnston—another FDR ally who would go on to serve as Roosevelt’s U.S. trade emissary in South America and the Soviet Union—left the top spot at the Chamber to lead the Motion Picture Association of America. The Chamber’s extended run of moderate presidents preaching an accommodationist posture toward the New Deal finally gave way to a different breed of business leader—fiercely anti-Communist figures bent on transforming the Chamber into a more partisan organization. One such commercial leader, an Omaha attorney named Francis Matthews, founded the Committee on Socialism and Communism under the Chamber’s aegis in 1946; its mission was to study the influence of Communism throughout America. Matthews’s group started to produce alarmist red-baiting reports well before the rise of senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade began in earnest. The Chamber also worked closely with John Francis Cronin, a Catholic priest who assisted the FBI in compiling lengthy lists of suspected Communist agents—including evidence against Alger Hiss, the State Department official whose prosecution launched Richard Nixon’s politi-
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cal career. Without naming them, Matthews accused advisers to labor leaders such as CIO cofounder Sidney Hillman of being cardcarrying Communists. (Hillman had passed away two months prior to the report, rendering him unable to answer the charges.) Matthews also demanded that Congress enact a series of laws to regulate labor unions and that it investigate suspected Communist infiltration of American society. The Chamber provided research to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, later, to McCarthy. The initial phase of the Chamber’s high-paranoid theology of the backlash was officially under way. All this post-war red-baiting gave rise to a new set of Chamber-affiliated organizations that sought to marry ideological conservatism with American corporate leaders. Leonard Read, then general manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, was one of the conservative dissidents who had grumbled for years as national leaders of the group endorsed, or refused to fight, much of the New Deal. Through connections with business executives forged through his time at the Chamber, in 1946 Read formed the Foundation for Economic Education, a corporate-funded think tank that distributed the radical laissezfaire writings of Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises—and even got a strict Misean curriculum approved for use in high school economics instruction. Read’s model was also a forerunner of latter-day Tea Party tactics: his foundation took an absolutist approach to political debates, demanding policies that reduced the size of government. FEE gained prominence quickly through partnerships with local chambers and large expenditures on marketing. FEE also gave rise to other libertarians, including F. A. Harper, who befriended a young industrialist named Charles Koch. Today, Koch cites Harper’s book, Why Wages Rise, as one of the free-market tracts that “helped
start me on my intellectual journey.” In 1961 Harper founded what is now one of the most prominent Koch-funded political operations, the Institute for Humane Studies, a libertarian think tank. Throughout the latter half of the last century, the Chamber settled into its new identity as a vigilant guardian of the laissez-faire way, lobbying against much of the modern welfare state, including Medicare, as well as much of the modern regulatory state. But it took another leadership revolt within the Chamber to transform it into the powerful and paranoid lobbying behemoth that is today.
Show Me the Money In the early 1990s, Chamber president Richard Lesher, who had enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Reagan and Bush administrations, broke with the Republican Party and pledged to work with the Clinton White House on major economic policies. Lesher was a lobbyist willing to go to bat for unpopular corporate lobbying efforts, like opposing the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he also hoped to make the Chamber more responsive to the interests of the wider business community. He oversaw an expansion of the Chamber’s national magazine and developed broadcast news content under a new program called BizNet, which took up an entire floor of the Chamber’s headquarters. He interviewed policymakers and made sure the Chamber’s economic analysis reached local business leaders. But when he proposed to collaborate with the Clinton White House, he infuriated the Republican right. In 1993 a number of far-right House members, including the influential Texas dyad of Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, began to circulate a letter condemning Lesher. Lesher’s short-lived offer to negotiate with Clinton on his planned first-term health care
overhaul was a stinging provocation to conservative lawmakers, who were counting on rigid opposition to Democrats as part of their political strategy. In the letter, the congressmen wrote that there was “a rapidly spreading frustration and anger with the Chamber’s failure to take an aggressive posture on the Clinton economic program.” Ohio GOP Rep. John Boehner reportedly confronted Lesher and his chief lobbyist, William Archey, and told them it was “the Chamber’s duty to categorically oppose everything that Clinton was in favor of.”* (In other words: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.) Eventually, the conservatives successfully brought off Lesher’s ouster, and in 1997 his successor Tom Donohue, a former Chamber official then leading a trucking industry trade association, officially took charge of the organization. In short order, Donohue instituted an ambitious new set of policy initiatives showing that he’d taken the clarion call of the Powell Memo very much to heart. He expanded the Chamber’s lobbying team from two to its current number, seventy-eight. He dissolved BizNet and other programs Lesher had created to communicate with ordinary business leaders; in a telling convergence of entrepreneurial policy interests, Donohue rented the roof space of the Chamber’s headquarters to the D.C. bureau of Fox News. He increased the Chamber’s budget fourfold: from $50 million in 1996 to the more than $200 million that the Chamber and its largest foundations spent in 2011. Donohue, a prolific fundraiser with a “Show Me the Money” placard set conspicuously atop his office desk, explained later to an interviewer that the chamber acts as “reinsurance salesmen.” When a corporation finds itself in a bind, or when another lobbying association finds itself stuck,
* Lesher said that three Chamber board members considered the GOP attack to be “McCarthyism of the ’90s” and that “some said it was fascism and has no place in American life.”
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Re f o r m e r s the Chamber is there to take on the difficult public affairs campaigns, deploying its brand to make any singular issue an affront to—or, as the case may be, a priority for—American business. Donohue also gained prestige within the right-wing establishment by pushing the limits of federal campaign finance law. Well before Citizens United changed the rules of the game, the Chamber tiptoed around restrictions, or at least the commonly accepted norms, of corporate money in politics. He pushed a multimillion-dollar campaign to flood state judicial elections with advertising—thereby polarizing the balloting for state judgeships along the same fiercely partisan grid that distorts most campaigns for national office. Though the Chamber was prohibited from spending money in federal elections, it took a risk by providing $3 million to a committee called the November Fund, which attacked John Edwards during the 2004 presidential race. Federal Election Commissioners
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refused to pursue the matter, and their silence quite predictably emboldened other corporations to find loopholes for injecting soft money into campaigns. The Chamber pounced on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling allowing vague campaign-related advertisements near an election date to expand its corporate-funded expenditures in congressional elections in 2008. And of course, it was an unprecedented typhoon of undisclosed corporate money, spent through the Chamber, that made Donohue’s old friend John Boehner the sixty-first Speaker of the House. There is no issue—taxation, bailouts, or even health reform—that whips up the Chamber’s lobbying machinery with greater ferocity than campaign finance. When the Obama White House floated a proposal to use an executive order to force government contractors to disclose “dark money” contributions to third-party political groups such as the Chamber, a lobbyist with the Chamber told the New York Times that the group was planning a response in line with how NATO forces had dealt with Muammar Qaddafi. A threat of violence by a Washington insider against the president, even in jest, on the front pages of the Times, might have been a costly and humiliating tactic for a group other than the Chamber. But as has generally been the pattern during the ostensibly liberal takeover of our federal government, the Chamber prevailed: Obama backed down from the executive order. Such inside-Washington set-tos point up the bracing lesson of the Donohue revolution: by plunging the once-staid Chamber into rounds of relentless fundraising and brash electioneering, he basically reinvented the business lobby as an unanswerably powerful arbiter of political survival on the right. From there, it was a short step to the course of action that most fiefdoms of state power in Washington pursue once they’ve secured their foothold here: the safeguarding of privilege by any means necessary. And so enter Team Themis,
with a plan tailor-made to solidify the Chamber’s new alliance with the Tea Party right into seeming perpetuity. Here, too, the money flow tells the real story. As the Chamber led Bush-administrationbacked campaigns to forge new free trade deals, Donohue began a fundraising quest to bring foreign corporations into the Chamber membership fold. No longer would the group simply spin off new foreign trade entities, like the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, a group that was founded in 1982 under the Chamber’s corporate umbrella but that maintains its own independent legal existence. Going forward, the Chamber would solicit donations from businesses to feed its coffers directly. For instance, as Donohue’s group led the lobbying effort to pass the Hyde Act, which cemented nuclear cooperation with India in 2006, Indian businesses were asked to give money to the Chamber of Commerce of the USA, the 501(c)(6) entity later used to pummel Democrats in advertisements. The U.S.-India Business Council, the Chamber’s ostensible affiliate for India-related commerce issues, does not exist as a distinct entity; checks to the U.S.-India Business Council go directly to the Chamber of Commerce of the USA. Other trade efforts, such as the accords the United States has inked with Bahrain and Brazil, brought new foreign-based membership dues through the door. Although the Chamber has been cagey about releasing any information about foreign business contributions in its budget, a tax form for 2010 shows the Chamber spent $570,574 on “fundraising and program services” in South Asia alone. By using the 501(c)(6) protections of the Chamber of Commerce of the USA—which require no public disclosures under Citizens United—to shield election expenditures from
closer scrutiny, the backlash-obsessed Chamber has created a backlash of its own. As the flurry of 2010 press reports showed, it’s bad PR for a group historically aligned with business patriotism to be exposed unleashing new torrents of foreign money into U.S. elections. The Chamber denied that it had spent its foreign dues on the election, telling Politico that it kept its out-of-country donations separate from its domestic campaign expenditures. Even if such a claim were verifiable—which is most decidedly not the case, since the Chamber never explains its budgeting procedures —it’s largely a distinction without a difference. If modern-day Washington has taught us nothing else, it’s that money is profoundly fungible. Still, the foreign money story was what spooked Donohue’s Chamber into nearly approving the Team Themis plan—a dirtytricks campaign aimed at smearing and sabotaging the critics who were questioning the group’s use of foreign campaign cash. The Themis initiative unraveled due to yet more adverse publicity: members of the hacking collective Anonymous stole some 75,000 emails from one of the Team Themis contractors, HBGary Federal, and leaked them to the public.* Chamber leaders quickly distanced themselves from the plan, telling reporters that they had not made any deal with the Team Themis firms, nor did they endorse the tactics. Luckily for the Chamber, the hackers released the emails only days before February 14, 2011, the date on which Hunton & Williams and the Chamber had scheduled to finalize the Themis deal. But this is no cause to be complacent. God only knows what countermeasures Donohue and company have been contemplating now that they’ve added Anonymous to their enemies list.t
* HBGary Federal officials had bragged to the Financial Times that they were going to unmask the identities of several Anonymous members, thus making them a target for hackers from LulzSec, a splinter group of Anonymous.
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Re f o r m e r s
Hope and Ka-ching Workers of the world, apply here 3 Astr a Taylor
veryone is equal at New Era Windows Cooperative, a factory on the southwest side of Chicago. There is no owner to answer to because everyone is an owner; there are no outside shareholders to choose a board of directors. There is no boss because the workers fired him. I paid a visit to the New Era plant, housed in a towering building full of commercial warehouses, to celebrate its grand opening on May 9, 2013. The air was heavy with nervous anticipation and pride. Assigned to decorating duty, I noticed one of the workers, an older fellow who rarely spoke or smiled, redoing my handiwork, rearranging props so they framed the podium symmetrically and rehanging the New Era banner so it was perfectly straight and the knots were evenly spaced. By 3 p.m. about fifty people had arrived—friends and family, union representatives, and local officials—filling a room that had been dark and cavernous only a few months before. The workers had installed lighting and painted the walls, mapped and cut drains in the cement floor, rigged the wiring, and transported massive window-building machines from across town on their own, saving themselves the tens of thousands of dollars it would have cost to hire outside movers. “We used to make windows, and now we can make factories,” said Melvin “Ricky” Maclin, who grew up a sharecropper in Tennessee. When it came time to cut the ribbon, all the workers lent a hand, an attempt to symbolize the difference between New Era and everywhere else they had worked. There are at least 150 million members 128 1 The Baffler [no.25]
of cooperatives in the United States, if you include retail, housing, agricultural, electrical, insurance, and most other types of coops. Eleven thousand American companies are owned wholly or in part by their workers through employee stock-ownership plans. Where these two groups intersect and go even further is in the four hundred worker cooperatives that exist in this country, enterprises that are owned by members and democratically run. As for cooperative factories, New Era is a rarity, among the only operations of its kind in the United States.
he story of New Era begins in late 2008, when workers occupied the newly closed Chicago factory of Republic Windows and Doors, demanding the severance and vacation pay they argued they were due under the law. Along with representatives of their union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the workers had been staking out the building around the clock, watching and following mysterious trucks hauling away machines and office furniture, confirming their suspicion that the business was not really being shut down at all but rather moved to another state where wages were lower and unions nonexistent. When the closing was officially announced, Republic’s 250 employees, some of whom had clocked thirty years on the job, were given three days notice of their termination. A group of workers decided to risk arrest and refused to go home, blocking anyone from moving or selling the plant’s remaining assets; they didn’t leave for almost a week.
The workers of New Era Windows Cooperative, along with Brendan Martin, at right, of the Working World.
Their timing was good. It was the first sitdown strike in many years, and thanks to the financial crisis and bank bailouts, the public was in no mood for the usual explanations from company management. The unionized Chicago police declined to drag the workers off the property, and soon local, and then national, politicians were falling over themselves to show support. (“I think they’re absolutely right,” said president-elect Barack Obama when a reporter asked for his thoughts on the issue.) Both the Right and the Left rallied to the workers’ defense: the occupation was praised by Fox News and immortalized in
Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story. Labor activists and corporate executives alike believed the sit-down was a harbinger of things to come, a revival of the moribund labor movement. To appease a public they believed was ready for blood, the company’s bankers quickly granted a settlement, and victory was declared (though workers had to wait until last December to see Republic’s ex-chief, Richard Gillman, finally slapped with a four-year prison sentence for theft). Before long, the publicity attracted the hip CEO of a company called Serious Materials, who believed he could enThe
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gineer an even happier Finance, as it is currently f you have spent any ending, and make a fortime on the activist set up, is parasitic. But what tune in the process, by left in the last decade, revamping the windows you will have heard plenif it was productive instead? operation. In 2009 Serity of talk about horizonWhat if it invested in ous Materials bought the talism, about consensus factory for $1.45 million, decision-making and dithe community instead planning to launch a new rect democracy. Occupy of always sucking money out? line of energy-efficient Wall Street brought building products that these principles, long would take advantage of commonplace in anarthe Obama administration’s green jobs stimuchist circles, to a wider audience. And yet if lus. Can you say “blue-collar synergy”? you joined the movement—as I did, begin It was a miscalculation. The stimulus never ning that first, fateful day in Zuccotti Park— materialized, and production barely got off it quickly became evident that no one really the ground. Before long, the workers occupied knew how to put horizontalism into practice. the plant again. This time it took only twelve Direct democracy is easier said than done, as hours for their demands to be met: they wantthe dysfunctional general assemblies of the ed to purchase the company from Serious and Occupy movement made clear to most who run it themselves. participated in them. Open political groups, This startling idea had been suggested bound by nothing more than shared idealism to Armando Robles, one of the leaders from and overlapping antipathies, often splinter the fight with Republic, by the documentary apart when unanimity is elusive. film The Take, the story of Argentinean facto So far, however, the New Era workers ries where workers practice “horizontalidad,” have stayed together. Nearly a year after the or democratic self-management. Robles had launch, the machines are up and running, and also met Brendan Martin, a former computer window sales are growing slowly but steadily. programmer who had been so inspired by The (The workers believe that minority-owned Take that he had moved to Argentina, learned business certification, soon to be granted, Spanish, and invested his life savings in a rowill make them competitive for government tating loan fund to help factory takeovers and contracts that could guarantee solvency.) democratic cooperatives flourish and expand, Nonetheless, the New Era team readily aca venture he called the Working World. knowledges that it isn’t always easy to come to agreements and get along. One founding When it became obvious that Serious Mamember has quit the group. Another point of terials was failing and that the workers were contention arose when the workers decided going to lose the jobs they had fought so hard to continue paying a colleague who had to to keep, Robles gave Martin a call. Martin stay home due to his wife’s illness. The debate had made small loans and provided assiswas fierce, but eventually everyone agreed tance to almost two hundred cooperatives in that they would want to receive the same asArgentina and Nicaragua, but he had never sistance if they were in his shoes. Day to day, taken on anything of this size; nor had he ever there are personality clashes, differences of worked on a project in the United States. He opinion, and garden-variety annoyances. But scrambled for money, and in 2012 the worksince the workers have kids and grandkids to ers bought the factory at the fire-sale price of feed, or relatives back home in Mexico to sup$500,000. The time for bosses had passed.
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A RTH U R B U L L E R S
New Era worker Beatriz Gurrola installs window hardware.
port, or bills that are piling up, no one can afford to forfeit their share of the rewards they expect to materialize down the road. When I met with them, the workers kept referring to themselves as a “family,” and it was clear the word was meant to convey the combination of affection and irritation, comfort and conflict, that typically attends the bonds of kinship. Horizontalism is not simply about being fair to old friends. Nor is it about passing a political litmus test or pretending everyone has identical abilities. Instead, it is a practical matter, a way of mitigating the uncertainty and sacrifice the task requires of all involved, even if it means supporting those who are less proficient or those who are unable to work as hard as others due to unforeseen circumstances.
Toward this end, the group recently affirmed their commitment to “solidarity economics,” specifically assuring that all future workers will be members. Despite the disproportionate role played by the founders, every worker, present and future, must be given a “buy-in” that will make them all legitimate owners of capital and make it harder for the business to demutualize, as some cooperatives have in the past. Essentially, they want to be blocked from someday becoming the bosses they deplore. Starting New Era, one worker told me, was a “survival strategy” pure and simple, a way to “stop the abuse” they had suffered. Making windows for Republic, Robles said, was “a type of modern slavery,” with every minute logged and monitored through a complicated The
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Re f o r m e r s tracking system. Now they move freely, working and breaking when they need to, with a sense of purpose that Robles says gets him happily out of bed at dawn without the help of an alarm clock. Arizona Stingley, who was a nanny for white families in Mississippi in her younger days, told me there was simply no comparison between Republic and New Era. “It was divide and conquer by the boss. They were always pitting Mexicans against blacks,” she recalled. “And it worked. People wouldn’t want to teach you anything because they were afraid you’d take their job.” The groups sat at different tables at lunch and rarely mingled across race lines. Now they share skills instead of regarding each other as threats. Experiences like these have convinced the New Era crew that cooperatives are the wave of the future. “Bosses, at any minute they can close the plant and just destroy your life. They say it’s your job, but really it’s their job to take away,” said Maclin, whose fluency in English is a resource for the predominantly Spanishspeaking crew. He likened his awakening over the last few years to the movie Star Wars: “You know how it says, the power is with you, the force is with you? Well the power is with us. The force is with us. We are the work force. We’re taking back the power we already have.”
ince the earliest outbreak of labor unrest in the United States, workers have held out hope for more than mere survival: they have dreamed of running their own businesses and getting rid of bosses altogether and, by doing so, building a better and more just society. In 1768 twenty journeymen tailors walked off the job in New York City intending to start a cooperative, though there is no record of whether they succeeded. Many laborers, farmers, and consumers would follow their example, building cooperative enterprises and associations. In the 1880s the Knights of Labor represented more than two hundred industrial cooperatives that they 132 1 The Baffler [no.25]
hoped would serve as the basis for a “cooperative commonwealth.” History abounds with examples of cooperative ambitions; unfortunately, it also contains an almost equal number of failures. The stumbling block, nearly every time, has been lack of access to capital. Workers are more than capable of managing things on their own—work, after all, goes on whether the bosses are in their offices or out on the putting green. But the money to purchase equipment and pay for space and materials has always been hard to come by for the proletariat. After owners shut down the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill in the late 1970s, a landmark event in the history of deindustrialization, workers made plans to run it themselves; they were stopped when the Carter administration failed to come up with the $100 million in financing it had promised. In 1996 the CEO of Republic Windows and Doors was able to secure nearly $10 million in financing through a public program that diverted property-tax revenue from schools and parks to expand his private company. In 2012 the workers needed just a petty sum to buy the business, but for them there was no public investment to be found. The only entity that would even consider extending credit to a ragtag group of immigrants and union rabble-rousers was Brendan Martin’s Working World. Finance, as Martin sees it, is the key to getting significant control of wealth into workers’ hands. “There is this myth of capitalism that says that the 1 percent invest productively, but the fact is, we don’t need them,” Martin explains. “They said, ‘If you don’t bail us out, there won’t be jobs.’ But their aim isn’t to make jobs; it’s to make money for themselves. Finance, as it is currently set up, is parasitic. It’s extractive. But what if it was productive instead? What if it actually invested in the community instead of always sucking money out?” The Working World, which has lent out over $4 million in less than ten years, is Mar-
Gilberto Reyes prepares a window sash for installation.
tin’s answer to that question. The Working World is unique but not unprecedented. Like others in his field, Martin takes inspiration from the Mondragon Corporation, a complex of cooperative enterprises in the Basque region of Spain that has achieved an almost mythic status in the minds of American fans of horizontalism. Founded in 1956 by five young men under the guidance of a Catholic priest, Mondragon grew rapidly, thanks in large part to the Basque country’s geographic and linguistic isolation. Today, it is a network of more than 250 entities, spanning nearly every field: appliance and auto manufacturing, furniture making, construction, a grocery store chain, a university, research and development centers, and, importantly, banking. It operates globally, employing almost
one hundred thousand people and producing annual revenues of around €15 billion. But Mondragon is not the scary multinational colossus these facts might suggest. As the Mondragon complex of companies expanded to become the seventh largest conglomerate in Spain, its operating principles, including solidarity, balance, and social transformation, remained unchanged. At an annual general assembly, the workers hire a managing director and make decisions about what to produce and what to do with profits; the highest-paid person at Mondragon makes only eight times the wage of the lowest-paid worker—in stark contrast to the American situation. While the rest of Spain was pummeled by the economic crisis, Mondragon maintained itself by prioritizing jobs over profits; The
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thus far, the only casualty Trade unionists have tiful” attitude of those of the crisis has been Moncooperators who are consuspected that cooperatives dragon’s consumer applitent to stay on the fringe, ance wing, Fagor, which who lack the oppositional are a cop-out, a way of filed for bankruptcy prospirit necessary to take dodging the hard reality tection in November. The on capitalism directly. He fundamental principle is would also have scoffed at of class struggle. straightforward: “Capital activists who believe they is an instrument, suborcan practice and prefigure dinate to labor.” This is why Caja Laboral, a democracy without building institutions, accredit union owned by the member co-ops, incumulating resources, or holding power. vests workers’ savings in new cooperative ven The cooperative activists themselves oftures. For Caja, which sits at the center of all ten recognize the problem. Marina Sitrin, the the Mondragon enterprises, financial returns author of several books about horizontalism, are secondary to expanding and diversifying never believed that the large assemblies that the system. Without this unique financial archaracterized the early days of Occupy Wall rangement, there would be no Mondragon. Street would be sustainable for a prolonged Mondragon is remarkable, without a doubt, period. She told me that horizontalism needs though not beyond reproach. The venture has to be grounded in a specific place and have a had to compromise its principles to stay in the well-defined purpose in order to function. A game, adopting a two-tiered system: at preshundred people debating abstract principles ent only around 30 percent of the people it in a public forum will likely drive each other employs are cooperative members, or worker bonkers, but the same hundred people may be owners; the rest are just workers, many emable to run a school or a health center or a facployed by short-term contracts in subsidiaries tory if their community and lives depend on it. as far afield as Brazil and China. Nor is MonIn other words, for consensus decision-making dragon alone in making concessions; even a to be practicable, there has to be something at small, democratically run cooperative has to stake, something to stick to and stick with. You succeed as a business, which means it must need a school or a health center or a factory. play by prevailing market rules on some level The Occupy movement has, for the most or cease to exist. That’s why plenty of purist part, avoided such enterprises. Though it has anarchists tend to regard all cooperatives as raised upwards of $2.5 million, if you count cowardly accommodations to economic realfunds from its various offshoots, the moveity. And they’re not the only ones to voice critment has declined to invest in infrastrucicisms. At least since Beatrice Webb’s The Coture, instead directing any available cash to operative Movement in Great Britain, published its charitable projects. Last spring, however, in 1891, certain trade unionists have suspected Occupy Sandy earmarked and delivered that cooperatives are a cop-out, a way of dodg$100,000 to help start community cooperaing the hard reality of class struggle. tives in parts of New York City hard-hit by the storm. Two businesses, the Roca Mia construction company and the Las Mies bakery, arl Marx wrote approvingly of coquietly opened their doors last fall and are on operatives, insisting that the “value the road to becoming fully operational, and a of these great social experiments second annual “cooperative academy” began cannot be overrated.” Nonetheless, he probthis March, with the dual aim of educating ably would have scorned the “small is beau-
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Rodolfo Zoto and Norberto Román make signage for the New Era Windows plant.
anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of cooperative undertakings and encouraging investment in local, worker-owned companies. Meanwhile, labor unions are also looking at worker control as a way forward. In 2009 the United Steelworkers (USW), which boasts 1.2 million active and retired members, announced a collaboration with Mondragon and unveiled a template for “union co-ops,” or unionized, democratically run cooperatives, a plan proponents say will allow members to maintain their identity as workers while also owning. After a series of delays, their first project, a green industrial laundry in Pittsburgh, will break ground before the end of the year. What remains to be seen is whether the current crop of cooperators and activists— the New Era window builders, Occupy and its post-disaster rebuilding efforts, and the USW with its plans for union-cooperative hybrids—will actually be able to change things. They look at Mondragon and the substantial cooperative networks in other countries, as
well as the factory takeovers in Argentina and Greece, and believe we may be entering a cooperative renaissance spurred on by an endless economic slump. And maybe that is so. But cooperative momentum will flag if the movement doesn’t take the problem of finance seriously. Until we create loan funds or build banks that are committed to non-extractive economic growth, cooperatives will remain marginal phenomena, nice places to shop for organic food and get your bicycle repaired, but not much more. One thing the cooperators can count on is self-interest. People will pursue worker control because it is more appealing than being exploited and then disposed of by employers whose only allegiance is to the bottom line. They will be drawn to structures that can help them support their families and communities, and these real, urgent needs will in turn encourage them to endure the vexations of direct democracy, to stick with it even though the meetings last for hours and comrades inevitably chafe. It’s still better than having a boss.t The
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Re f o r m e r s
Slumming It The gospel of wealth comes for Dharavi 3 Daniel Brook
n a speech to the financial elite of India delivered in Mumbai in 2010, president Barack Obama opted for an unusual form of flattery. He saluted “all the Mumbaikars who get up every day in this City of Dreams to forge a better life for their children—from the boardrooms of world-class Indian companies to the shops in the winding alleys of Dharavi.” It was a notable name-check. Despite the president’s mangled pronunciation, his audience of well-heeled Mumbaikars all knew what Obama was talking about. Dharavi is their metropolis’s most famous slum. Were Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to come to America and do the same— hail the impoverished workfare mothers of Anacostia while on a state visit to Washington, say, or give a shout-out to the tenants of Harlem’s housing projects during a speech on Wall Street—it would be an uncomfortable moment. But, of course, it would never happen. If Singh’s speechwriters tried to throw in a mention of a famous impoverished neighborhood, higher-ups would surely excise it. The American myth of equal opportunity is greatly cherished, they would inform the prime minister, so in the interest of being a gracious guest, let’s not mention the places that call it into question. But Obama’s tribute to Dharavi went over remarkably well. Those present at the tony U.S.-India Business Council summit seem to have taken it as the compliment he intended it to be. By the time the president sang the praises of Asia’s largest slum, as it’s known (although these days Karachi’s Orangi neighbor136 1 The Baffler [no.25]
hood is challenging it for that dubious distinction), the ideological precedent for this sort of thing was well established. Through a decade of academic apologetics and media mythologizing, Dharavi had been transmuted from India’s most shameful urban space—the warren of exploitation, filth, and disease that it plainly is—to the pride of Mumbai. Prince Charles had visited Dharavi on a postcolonial inspec-
ADAM FERGUSON | VII
Mumbai’s Dharavi, the most crowded slum in India—six hundred thousand people in five hundred acres—occupies some of the most valuable real estate in the world.
tion tour in 2003. (Prince Andrew would follow in 2012.) A cover story in National Geographic had presented Dharavi as a place of audacious dreamers. The Wall Street Journal had recommended Dharavi’s “dusty, bustling” leather goods market to “adventurous shop-
pers in search of true bargains,” and the New York Times had advised visitors to the Indian financial capital to take in Dharavi’s “hives of entrepreneurship,” where toil the “majority of Mumbaikars [who], of course, cannot afford nightclubs or cool boutiques.” By 2010 The
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Dharavi caught on because it tapped into one of our most durable fantasies—the notion that the poor make better, tougher capitalists than the rich.
9 Dharavi was a well-established symbol, and what it symbolized was the capitalist dream: a wonderland of innovation in which resourceful economic actors deftly evade the interference of an overbearing government. Before long, the idea of the market-affirming slum went global. Shantytowns all over the developing world were reconceived as industrious anthills of pluck and ingenuity, places that showed capitalism at its best. It was a stunning feat of intellectual alchemy, like a pundit using Soweto as an illustration of the wisdom of apartheid. It caught on because it tapped into one of the most durable fantasies of the business culture—the notion that the poor make better, tougher capitalists than the rich. Durable because it delivers what all such fantasies aim to deliver: a balm for the middle-class conscience and the conviction that the poor enthusiastically support the system that keeps them poor. And it worked. Soon an expatriate American journalist was pulling together a book of essays under the working title Everybody Loves Dharavi.
or Mumbaikars fortunate enough not to have to live there, Dharavi is less a place than an odor. A settlement of between six hundred thousand and a million people living on a 530-acre V-shaped noman’s-land created by two divergent commuter rail lines, Dharavi is a neighborhood that middle-class Mumbaikars zip by on express trains. When a train passes the slum, the smell turns foul. It is precisely the stench you would expect to emanate from a neigh138 1 The Baffler [no.25]
borhood with one working toilet per one thousand people. (Lacking air-conditioning, the doors of Mumbai’s commuter trains are permanently bolted open for ventilation, making the olfactory assault of Dharavi all the more intense.) For the Anglophone upper class of Mumbai—the people who would attend a speech by President Obama—Dharavi is easier to ignore. For them, sealed in their air-conditioned, chauffeured automobiles, Dharavi’s stench is stanched. In fact, the city’s global business class came around to acknowledging Dharavi’s existence only once it had been resold to them as a point of civic pride, transformed from an indictment of the free-market system to its vindication. The repackaging began in 2000 with the publication of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum by Mumbai journalist Kalpana Sharma. The book started out as a Progressive-style effort to show the world how the poor and the marginalized live. As Sharma explains in her introduction, when she embarked on the project, Dharavi was “a reality which many would prefer to ignore. . . . People in Mumbai [would] ask me, why a book on Dharavi, on a slum?” But going where Mumbaikars of her class feared to tread, Sharma unearthed tales to charm a city rediscovering its mercantile roots. The slum dwellers were not pitiable beggars or chiseling welfare queens, Sharma discovered. No: They worked hard! They made do! They were entrepreneurs possessed of an inspiring cando spirit! The story of Dharavi, Sharma reports, “is a story of ingenuity and enterprise; it is a story of survival without subsidies or
ADAM FERGUSON | VII
Radheshyam Nehrua, from Uttar Pradesh, dries plastic chips on the roof of a recycling shed in Dharavi. Nehrua came to Mumbai for work and earns three thousand rupees a month, most of which he sends home to his family in northern India.
welfare; . . . [of] an island of free enterprise not assisted or restricted by the State or any law.” What does all this unrestricted free enterprise look like on the ground? “We work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” an elderly potter named Ramjibhai Pithabhai Patel tells Sharma amidst his neighborhood’s smoke-spewing kilns. “If we don’t work, we die.” This sounds unambiguously awful, and yet in Sharma’s hands a society with no social security system is repackaged as one old man’s inspiring will to succeed without mooching off the taxpayer. The cosmic unfairness of capitalism—that the poor work constantly and yet still live in poverty—is sold to the reader as a cultural expression we must respect. Which, conveniently, also lets the middle-class reader off the hook for not paying taxes to fund public pensions or labor safety inspectors. In Sharma’s schema, we honor this old man’s work ethic and au-
tonomy precisely by not helping him. Wearing her rose-tinted glasses, Sharma peers at a cottage-industry foundry that turns out brass belt buckles, and sees “poor men willing to destroy their lungs.” Here in Dharavi, no know-it-all bureaucrat interferes with the common people’s free choice to slowly kill themselves by not insisting that bosses provide respirators. As the author explains, “Workers [don’t] complain because in their own way, everyone gains something from this situation.” In this libertarian fantasia, safety gloves are for saps. Sharma fakes left and veers right time and again. She cares about the poor so very much, taking pains, for example, to ask a young Dharavi resident about the neighborhood’s notorious water problem. Now, among sociologists and urban planners, the only real debate about the local water disaster concerns its precise extent; a reliable (albeit dated) The
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After working for a stretch as a dollar-a-day cobbler, Jameel Shah started his own sweatshop. Now his factory sells stilettos to Bollywood starlets! The price for a single pair is equal to his old monthly salary!
9 study of the slum’s infrastructure cited by Sharma found just 162 running-water taps in the entire district. And yet when Sharma looks into the matter, the slum dweller she questions tells her that there is no water problem in Dharavi: “She cheerfully replied . . . ‘See those drums? We have plenty of water!’” (In the absence of adequate running water, slum dwellers scrounge to purchase drums of water on the private market, dispensing it to bathe or wash away excrement.) It would be disrespectful, Sharma implies, for middleclass Mumbaikars to pity the slum dweller who lacks the running water they take for granted. Instead, Sharma urges us to follow her own path and “discard sentimental middle-class attitudes towards the urban poor.” If a teenage girl in Dharavi “cheerfully” reports that there is no water problem in her slum, who are these smarty-pants sociologists and urban-planning commissars to disagree? No, the only real way to help the poor seems to be by purchasing what they make. “If you want to eat the best gulab jamuns [rosewater-soaked doughnut holes] in town,” Sharma suggests, “there are few better places in all of Mumbai than Dharavi.” And even unadventurous souls can patronize the slum: “The next time you bite into a soft, sweet, gulab jamun at a five-star hotel in Mumbai,” Sharma crows in her “Food, Glorious Food” section, “you will probably be eating something manufactured in Dharavi.” Suspecting that your dessert was fried by a small child tending a vat of boiling oil with no safety equipment would seem stomach-churning to many. But for Sharma, 140 1 The Baffler [no.25]
knowing the luxury products you enjoy were made in slum sweatshops is a way of supporting the city’s plucky street urchins. After all, these slum businesses are the places where “many thousands have prospered through a mixture of hard work, some luck and a great deal of ingenuity.” Exploitation never tasted so good.
efore long, this understanding of Dharavi had gone as viral and global as bird flu. In 2005 a short piece appeared in The Economist—surely the best shortcut to global conventional wisdom—entitled “Inside the Slums: Light in the Darkness.” It begins by describing the archetypal international business traveler’s first glimpse of India: the descent into the Mumbai airport over “a mass of corrugated-roofed slums.” Ah, but do not despair. “Hidden in [Mumbai’s] sprawling slums is a thriving entrepreneurial spirit that has spawned small businesses ranging from pottery to leather goods.” The utterly unremarkable point was catching on—in India, poor people work! A few months later “Slum Inc.,” a humaninterest feature in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, fleshed out the story line. Leading the reader on a deep dive into Dharavi, Canada’s paper of record intoned, “Yes, this may be one of the world’s bigger slums, but it is arguably its most prosperous, a thriving and productive business centre propelled by tens of thousands of micro-entrepreneurs.” Then came the statistic that launched a thousand PowerPoints: “Estimates vary considerably, but the collective economic output of Dharavi
ADAM FERGUSON | VII
A woman walks through the Kumbharwada potting area of Dharavi in 2011.
is as impressive as it is improbable: at least $800-million a year, and perhaps well over $1-billion.” I have heard this $1 billion sum cited dozens of times and yet never—never—broken down into a per capita figure. So let’s do the math: The roughly one million people living in Dharavi produce $1 billion in goods per year. That would yield only $1,000 per person per year in economic output (which is then, no doubt, grotesquely carved up before anything actually gets to the slum dweller’s pocket). The Globe and Mail reporter probably earned more in a few days in India researching the story about hard-working Dharavi than his sources did by toiling every waking hour every day for the year. But what matters is sticking to the journalistic template, and so we learn, “These people may be lacking, but they are also industrious and enterprising.” The poverty may be atrocious, but they’re working like dogs. To ascend from mere conventional wis-
dom to become an unconscious tic in elite discourse, the entrepreneurial slum myth needed just one more catalyst: celebrity endorsers. Enter Stewart Brand, the Bay Area guru who never saw a cultural bandwagon he couldn’t mount (his original claim to fame, on which he coasted for four decades, was launching the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968). By 2006 Brand could be found raving—first in his TED talks, and then in a book, a Wired interview, and more—about what he called “aspirational shantytowns.” As he wrote in his 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline, “squatter cities are vibrant” (emphasis, of course, in the original). “What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.” Brand brought this swelling global meme to its natural crescendo: poverty is wealth. It’s like a fine cut of lamb, see. “What drives a city’s innovation engine—and thus its wealth engine—is its multitude of contrasts,” he obThe
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Apparently the main problem with India is that it doesn’t have enough inspiring, scrappy slums.
9 serves. “The more and greater the contrasts, and the more they are marbled together, the better.” Actually, it’s more like a spicy lamb curry served up from Brand’s bottomless Crock-Pot. “In this formulation,” he continues, “it is the throwing together of great wealth and great poverty in the urban stew that is part of the cure for poverty.” And in this delicious metropolitan masala, even child labor becomes a hopeful sign: “They don’t worry about unemployment: Everyone works, including the children.” Not only are shantytowns yummy, according to Brand; “squatter cities are Green” (capitalization, of course, in the original). And as everyone knows, anything that’s green is good. There are green prisons and green mansions. The richest man in Mumbai, an oil refinery magnate, lives in his own $1 billion personal green skyscraper with hanging gardens growing out of its walls. And Dharavi is greenest of all. How so? Because they’re so desperately poor, Dharavi residents can’t afford polluting private automobiles or much in the way of disposable consumer goods. Instead, like decomposers at the bottom of a food chain, they survive by recycling the things that richer people throw away. Dharavi is home to some thirty thousand ragpickers, scavengers who find and sort recyclable scraps from the city’s garbage dumps. Thus, Brand informs his Western readers, so proud of their own environmental righteousness, “in most slums recycling is literally a way of life.” As Sharma’s elderly source might put it, if they don’t recycle, they die. This, too, was soon assimilated into the global hive mind. In 2007 the Observer (U.K.) sent a reporter to Dharavi and noted not only its “entrepreneurial spirit” (duh) and that it 142 1 The Baffler [no.25]
is “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia” (they work hard) but also that what they work on, specifically, is recycling: “Dharavi is becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai [from] choking to death on its own waste.” The story goes on to describe the “hundreds of barefoot street children, human recycling machines” who make all this inspiring entrepreneurship possible. Child laborers as human machines. Top that one, Soweto. Next came Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who, in his much-celebrated 2011 book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, presented his Panglossian paean to the neoliberal city. If only meddling do-gooders from the labor and environmental movements would get out of the way—“Why do so many smart people enact so many foolish urban policies?” he wonders aloud—the market could work its socialmobility magic. As Glaeser baldly puts it, “There’s a lot to like about urban poverty.” While Glaeser casts a Brazilian favela as the star of his “What’s Good About Slums?” chapter, Dharavi plays a crucial supporting role in his book. To the Harvard don, Mumbai’s premier shantytown is just one big “teeming mass of humanity and entrepreneurship.” As Glaeser reports from the sludgeclogged trenches of Dharavi, “In one small, dirt-floored windowless room, a couple of guys are recycling cardboard boxes—tearing them open, turning them inside out, and then stapling them up again so the printing is on the inside. The space does double duty as a dormitory, for old boxes make an adequate resting spot.” What will these scrappy slum-
ADAM FERGUSON | VII
An Indian man and his daughter-in-law watch television at their home in Dharavi in 2008. Residents of Dharavi fear they will be moved from their existing homes to the outskirts of Mumbai when slum redevelopment plans go ahead.
dogs think up next? “All this recycling makes Dharavi feel pretty green,” Glaeser muses, predictably. With popularizers like Glaeser and Brand carrying the proverbial gulab jamun, the morality tale of the entrepreneurial slum became ubiquitous in the West, just the sewage-stinking air we breathe. Meanwhile, back in India, the 2012 book Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw in Dharavi and Why It Matters became a bestseller. A collaboration between pop business writer Rashmi Bansal, management consultant Deepak Gandhi, and photographer Dee Gandhi, the book upped the ideological ante considerably. Poor Little Rich Slum is beautifully illustrated with portraits of slum dwellers and their surroundings. In other hands it might have been an Indian version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Except there’s this: it was openly marketed as a self-help book for middle-class
Indians. The business of comforting the comfortable is not implied sotto voce in the margins; it is the book’s front-and-center purpose. As the authorial pair announce, in identification with their presumed readers, “We are ordinary middle-class citizens. The kind who employ maids and drivers from slums” and who initially visited Dharavi to satisfy a “sense of adventure.” After one research trip, we learn, the trio went out for lunch at a nearby five-star hotel, a place where a single buffet ticket costs the entire monthly income of a slum dweller. In the bathroom, one author realized, the toilet stall was larger than the homes the team had just visited: “The unfairness of it all, suddenly came alive.” But as the research went on, the authors overcame those pesky feelings of moral outrage. The people living in the toilet-less homes smaller than a hotel toilet stall taught them that “we can be happy, we can be hopeThe
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Re f o r m e r s ful, we can be enterprising—no matter where [we] are. The question is—are you? If Dharavi can, so can I.” Rather than pity the slum dwellers, you see, middle-class Indians should learn from their business prowess. What Wharton student could fail to be inspired by Poor Little Rich Slum’s profile of Jameel Shah? In 1995 the penniless Shah moved to Dharavi from Bihar (India’s version of Mississippi) and, after working for a stretch as a dollar-a-day cobbler, started his own sweatshop. Now his factory sells stylish stilettos to Bollywood starlets! The price for a single pair is equal to his old monthly salary! Shah’s profile deftly dodges the dog-eat-dog details of Dharavi capitalism, but even when the authors descend to that level, they find nothing but more inspiration. An underground plastic recycling operation spewing noxious
black smoke is evidence that Dharavi’s shrewd business sharks aren’t deterred by the pesky labor and environmental regulations of the world’s largest democracy. And neither should you be! “All’s fair in love, war and business,” the authors declare. If even the impoverished urban migrants to Dharavi get “sucked into the can-do culture of this special economic zone,” what excuse do middle-class Indians have? Get off your duff! Start working! With the slum dwellers safely recast from pitiable panhandlers to enviable entrepreneurs, the slum itself is transformed from a shameful zone of exploitation with no place in a modern nation into a model for export. “Dharavi should be celebrated and replicated,” the authors conclude. Apparently the main problem with India—and, by extension, the world—is that it doesn’t have enough inspiring, scrappy slums.
P. S . MUELLER
144 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Slum tourism (a.k.a. “poorism”) is big these days in Mumbai.
hanks to the newfound international fad for admiring the urban poor, slum tourism (a.k.a. “poorism”) is big these days in Mumbai. And so, on a trip to the Indian finance and entertainment capital last year, I went to see Dharavi for myself. I booked a slum tour with Be The Local, an entrepreneurial startup of Dharavi natives who, for ten dollars a head, sell insider tours of their neighborhood to people from all over the world. (Unsurprisingly, the company is one of the local business success stories profiled by the authors of Poor Little Rich Slum. The tour left them wondering aloud, “Is less really more?”) I met my Be The Local sherpa in a downtown railway station. Dressed in a form-fitting blue T-shirt and jeans and sporting hip, lozenge-shaped specs, the twenty-one-yearold cut the figure of a young man on his way up. We rode to where the rail lines split and the stench begins. Crossing the elevated walkway over the tracks from the middle-class neighborhood on the west to the unplanned Dharavi slum on the east, my guide adamantly explained that he and his neighbors are hard workers. “People think we’re just sitting around smoking cigarettes,” he told me. Unlike slums in America, which to his mind are plagued by unemployment born of laziness, Dharavi’s residents, he assured me over and over again, are industrious. Indeed they are. The slum children we saw certainly weren’t letting excuses like exposure to carcinogenic chemicals keep them from working overtime. And, true to my guide’s guarantee, we didn’t encounter a single beggar. On the tour, we took in a luggage factory where a notably gloveless man was positioning rectangular pieces of heavy-duty fabric
beneath an enormous metal press that descended every twenty seconds, transforming the rectangle into a curved, streamlined side of some future suitcase. Then we observed a recycling plant where workers melted plastic down into pellets of uniform size and color. Then on to a garment sweatshop where men sewed star shapes into fabric with metalliccolored thread at lightning speed. And finally, to a smoky, sweltering, subterranean bakery that turned out tray after tray of flaky pastries. When we encountered a lone drunkard passed out on his back in the packed-mud street, my guide quickly assured me, “Out of a hundred, maybe only one.” Slipping into a residential alley, dark and barely shoulder-wide with ladders extending down to the street from the upper-floor residences, I caught a glimpse of a gleaming white high-rise looming up behind a fence. It was the premier slum residence, my guide explained, the building where the wealthy few who have risen to the top of the pyramid in Dharavi’s various cottage industries reside with their servants and air conditioners and flush toilets. When I asked my guide if he wanted to live there one day, he looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Everybody wants to live in that building,” he said. Ending poverty was once an international goal. Now it is a personal one. And yes, some succeed. But even when individuals make it out of the slums, the slums themselves endure. Even if the pundits get their way and eliminating condescension becomes more important than eliminating poverty, it seems there will always be one acceptable way to look down on a slum: from the penthouse suite.t The
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wS T O R Y
Solitude 3 Melina Kamerić
’ve got money. But money means nothing. I have no visa. So I can’t leave the airport. I can’t take the express train to Vienna. So I drink Viennese coffee and eat Sachertorte. I’ll be trapped in Terminal C for a full seven hours. How many perfumes can you try out in the duty free shop for seven hours? How many gifts can you buy? Mozart candies. Refrigerator magnets. Mozart candies. More perfume. Coffee. I read yesterday’s paper. I hate being alone. At the airport. I hate being alone anywhere. I people-watch. I drink another coffee. The coffee makes me pee. I go to the toilet for the third time. And I’ve been here just an hour. Airports are catalogs of destiny. I watch people. I imagine stories. Who goes where. And why. And to whom? And to what? It makes it easier for me. I enter the toilet for the fourth time. A girl stands in front of the mirror. I have no idea why, but I feel an acute urge to ask how she is. She stands there with a suitcase and I know she’s been there an hour. I know because I watch people. I’ve seen her every time I’ve been to the toilet. I wash my hands next to her. And then, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, watching my reflection in the mirror, she says to me in poor English, “You are pretty.” I look her in the face and think, Oh God . . . she’s crying. “Where are you flying?” I ask her. “I don’t know . . .” she says. And tears roll down her cheeks. A scarf tied under her chin absorbs them. “Are you alone?” I ask the silliest possible question. We are all alone. 146 1 The Baffler [no.25]
“Yes . . . he left and told me to wait for him . . . here in the toilet . . .” I fear the answer . . . but still I ask, “And when did he leave you?” “Two days ago . . .” I feel my stomach clench. “Are you hungry?” She nods. I take her hand and lead her from the toilet. Her name is Fatma. Fatma’s stomach hurts. Fatma cries. Fatma is from Somalia. And I . . . I would have screamed. She takes a pill for the pain. She cries more. Quietly. Tears roll down her cheeks. She doesn’t know if she has a passport. He may have it. But he left. And told her to wait for him. In the toilet. She pulls a birth certificate from her pocket. Folded and worn. She’s twenty-one years old. And she says, “He will come back, Inshallah.” Her big watery eyes grow even bigger and wetter when she sees the people from airport security. She clutches my hand and waits for them to pass. She is afraid. Afraid of what will happen when they arrest her. She asks me if there’s a refugee camp in Bosnia. She asks me if Bosnia is in America. She cries. She says, “He’s coming, Inshallah!” She doesn’t want me to go with her to the police. She doesn’t know what she’ll say to him if he returns for her. I ask her, “Where did he bring you from?” She doesn’t know. She shrugs. She says, “I have no parents. Dead. I have a brother. But I don’t know if he’s alive.” And again she cries. Quietly. I forget everything. And time passes. Fatma cries.
JENSINE ECK WALL
They page me: “Last call for passenger Kamerić!” I leave Fatma in the toilet. I give her a phone number. I hug her. Fatma cries. Now I must leave. I hug her tightly. And I feel completely empty. I understand nothing. Nothing. Not solitude. Not sadness. Fatma remains. Alone. In the toilet at the Vienna airport, with sandwiches I crammed into her pockets and a crumpled Somalian birth certificate. And then I think, God keeps her. And her faith.
he contacts me ten days later. Finally someone from Vienna airport security noticed a young, beautiful woman who’d
been crying in the toilet for five days. Fatma no longer cries. She says they told her she’ll get asylum. She says I’m a good friend. I say, “Take care Fatma, may God protect you. And keep in touch, Fatma.” And then I slowly understand what solitude is. Solitude isn’t sitting alone in the airport in Vienna and wondering if someone will be waiting when you touch down at home. Solitude is the phone in the asylum center from which you call the only number you have.t Translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer H. Zoble. The
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Pist ol s f or Two
Soak the Rich An exchange on capital, debt, and the future 3 David Gr aeber and Thomas Piketty This exchange is from a conversation in Paris between David Graeber and Thomas Piketty, discoursing on the deep shit we’re all in and what we might do about climbing out. It was held at the École Normale Supérieure; moderated by Joseph Confavreux and Jade Lindgaard; edited by Edwy Plenel; first published by the French magazine Mediapart last October; and translated from the French for The Baffler by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Moderators: You both appear to think that the prevailing economic and financial system has run its course, and cannot endure much longer in its present form. I would like to ask each of you to explain why. Thomas Piketty: I am not sure that we are on the eve of a collapse of the system, at least not from a purely economic viewpoint. A lot depends on political reactions and on the ability of the elites to persuade the rest of the population that the present situation is acceptable. If an effective apparatus of persuasion is in place, there is no reason why the system should not continue to exist as it is. I do not believe that strictly economic factors can precipitate its fall. Karl Marx thought that the falling rate of profit would inevitably bring about the fall of the capitalist system. In a sense, I am more pessimistic than Marx, because even given a stable rate of return on capital, say around 5 percent on average, and steady growth, wealth would continue to concentrate, and the rate of accumulation of inherited wealth would go on increasing. But, in itself, this does not mean an eco148 1 The Baffler [no.25]
nomic collapse will occur. My thesis is thus different from Marx’s, and also from David Graeber’s. An explosion of debt, especially American debt, is certainly happening, as we have all observed, but at the same time there is a vast increase in capital—an increase far greater than that of total debt. The creation of net wealth is thus positive, because capital growth surpasses even the increase in debt. I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing. I am saying that there is no purely economic justification for claiming that this phenomenon entails the collapse of the system. Moderators: But you still say the level of inequality has become intolerable? Piketty: Yes. But there again, the apparatus of persuasion—or of repression, or a combination of the two, depending on what country you are considering—may allow the present situation to persist. A century ago, despite universal suffrage, the elites of the industrialized countries succeeded in preventing any progressive taxes. It took World War I to bring about a progressive income tax. David Graeber: But the indebtedness of one person has to imply the enrichment of another, don’t you think? Piketty: That is an interesting question. I loved your book, by the way. The only criticism I would have is that capital cannot be reduced to debt. It is true that more debt for some, public or private, is bound to increase the resources of others. But you do not directly address possible differences
C .K . WILDE
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Pist ol s f or Two between debt and capital. You argue as if the history of capital were indistinguishable from that of debt. I think you are right to say that debt plays a much more significant historical part than has been assumed—especially when you dismiss the fairy tales retailed by economists concerning capital accumulation, barter, the invention of money, or monetary exchange. The way you redirect our attention by stressing the relationships of power and domination that underlie relationships of indebtedness is admirable. The fact remains that capital is useful in itself. The inequalities associated with it are problematic, but not capital per se. And there is much more capital today than formerly. Graeber: I do not mean to say that capital is reducible to debt. But the absolute opposite is what everybody is told, and it is our task to fill in the blanks left by that account with respect to the history of wage labor, industrial capitalism, and early forms of capital. Why do you say that resources increase even as debt increases? Piketty: Net wealth has increased— “wealth” meaning resources inasmuch as we can calculate them. And this is true even when debt is taken into account. Graeber: You mean to say that there is now more wealth per capita than before? Piketty: Clearly, yes. Take housing. Not only is there more housing now than fifty or a hundred years ago, but, by year of production, housing, net of debt, is increasing. On the basis of annual GNP, if you calculate national capital (defined as all revenue engendered by economic activity) and then the total indebtedness of all public and private actors in the country, the former will be seen to have increased relative to the latter in all the rich countries. This increase is somewhat less spectacular in the United States than in Europe and Japan, but it exists nevertheless. Resourc150 1 The Baffler [no.25]
es are increasing much faster than debt. Graeber: Getting back to the original question, the possible collapse of the system, I think that historical forecasts of this kind are a trap. What is certain is that all systems must end, but it is very hard to predict when the end might come. Signs of a slowing down of the capitalist system are visible. So far as technology is concerned, we no longer have the sense, as we did in the 1960s and 1970s, that we are about to see great innovations. In terms of political visions, we seem to be very far from the grand projects of the postwar period, such as the United Nations or the initiation of a space program. U.S. elites can’t act on climate change, even though it puts our ecosystem and human life itself in jeopardy. Our feelings of helplessness stem from the fact that for thirty years the tools of persuasion and coercion have been mobilized to wage an ideological war for capitalism, rather than to create conditions for capitalism to remain viable. Neoliberalism places political and ideological considerations above economic ones. The result has been a campaign of fantasy manipulation, a campaign so effective that people with dead-end jobs now believe that there is no alternative. It is quite clear that this ideological hegemony has now reached its limit. Does this mean that the system is on the point of collapse? It’s hard to say. But capitalism is not old. It hasn’t been around forever, and it seems just as reasonable to imagine it can be transformed into something completely different as to imagine it will necessarily continue existing until the sun blows up, or until it annihilates us through some ecological catastrophe. Moderators: Is capitalism itself the cause of the problem, or can it be reformed? Piketty: One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link
he shows between slavery and public debt. The most extreme form of debt, he says, is slavery: slaves belong forever to somebody else, and so, potentially, do their children. In principle, one of the great advances of civilization has been the abolition of slavery. As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next. It is possible to picture an extreme instance of this, with an infinite quantity of public debt amounting to not just one, but ten or twenty years of GNP, and in effect creating what is, for all intents and purposes, a slave society, in which all production and all wealth creation is dedicated to the repayment of debt. In that way, the great majority would be slaves to a minority, implying a reversion to the beginnings of our history.
In actuality, we are not yet at that point. There is still plenty of capital to counteract debt. But this way of looking at things helps us understand our strange situation, in which debtors are held culpable and we are continually assailed by the claim that each of us “owns” between thirty and forty thousand euros of the nation’s public debt. This is particularly crazy because, as I say, our resources surpass our debt. A large portion of the population owns very little capital individually, since capital is so highly concentrated. Until the nineteenth century, 90 percent of accumulated capital belonged to 10 percent of the population. Today things are a little different. In the United States, 73 percent of capital C .K . WILDE belongs to the richest 10 percent. This degree of concentration still means that half the population owns nothing but debt. For this half, the per capita public debt thus exceeds what they possess. But the other half of the population owns more capital than debt, so it is an absurdity to lay the blame on populations in order to justify austerity measures. But for all that, is the elimination of debt the solution, as Graeber writes? I have nothing against this, but I am more favorable to a progressive tax on inherited wealth along with high tax rates for the upper brackets. Why? The question is: What about the day after? What do we do once debt has been eliminated? What is the plan? Eliminating debt implies treating the last creditor, the ultimate holder of debt, as the responsible party. But the system of financial transactions as it actually operates allows the most important players to dispose of letters of credit well before debt is forgiven. The ultimate creditor, The
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Pist ol s f or Two thanks to the system of intermediaries, may not be especially rich. Thus canceling debt does not necessarily mean that the richest will lose money in the process. Graeber: No one is saying that debt abolition is the only solution. In my view, it is simply an essential component in a whole set of solutions. I do not believe that eliminating debt can solve all our problems. I am thinking rather in terms of a conceptual break. To be quite honest, I really think that massive debt abolition is going to occur no matter what. For me the main issue is just how this is going to happen: openly, by virtue of a topdown decision designed to protect the interests of existing institutions, or under pressure from social movements. Most of the political and economic leaders to whom I have spoken acknowledge that some sort of debt abolition is required. Piketty: That is precisely my problem: the bankers agree with you! Graeber: Once we grant that debt cancellation is going to take place, the question becomes how we can control this process and ensure that its outcome is desirable. History offers many examples of debt elimination serving merely to preserve iniquitous social structures. But debt abolition has also at times produced positive social change. Take the Athenian and Roman constitutions. At the origin of each was a debt crisis resolved in such a way that structural political reform ensued. The Roman republic and Athenian democracy were the offspring of debt crises. Indeed, there is a sense in which all great moments of political transformation have been precipitated by such crises. During the American Revolution, the annulment of debt by Great Britain was one of the revolutionaries’ demands. I feel that we are now confronted by a similar situation and that it calls for political inventiveness. 152 1 The Baffler [no.25]
Cancellation is not a solution in itself because history records so many hopelessly regressive cases of it. Researchers at the Boston Consulting Group have written a paper entitled “Back to Mesopotamia?” on this issue. They roll out various models to see what might happen in the event of massive debt cancellation. Their conclusion is that great economic turbulence would result, but that failing to take such a course of action would create even more severe problems. In other words, the protection of prevailing economic structures requires debt cancellation. This is a typical case of reactionary calls for debt annulment. As for capitalism, I have trouble imagining that it can last more than another fifty years, especially given the ecological issue. When the Occupy Wall Street movement was reproached for failing to frame concrete demands (even though it had in fact done so), I suggested—somewhat provocatively—that debts should be forgiven and the workday reduced to four hours. This would be beneficial from the ecological viewpoint and at the same time respond to our hypertrophied work time. (This means that we work a great deal at jobs whose sole purpose is to keep people occupied.) The present mode of production is based more on moral principles than on economic ones. The expansion of debt, of working hours, and of work discipline—all of them seem to be of a piece. If money is indeed a social relationship, founded on the assumption that everyone will assign the same value to the banknote that they have in their possession, shouldn’t we think about what kind of assumptions we wish to embrace regarding future productivity and commitment to work? That’s why I say that the abolition of debt implies a conceptual break. My approach is intended to help us imagine other forms of social contract that could be democratically negotiated.
Moderators: Reading your work, Thomas Piketty, one gets the impression that for you the eradication of debt is not a “civilized” solution. What do you mean by this? Piketty: The fact is, as I say, that the last creditors are not necessarily the ones who should be made to pay. What do you think, David, of the proposal that a progressive tax be imposed on wealth, which seems to me a more civilized way to arrive at the same result? I must repeat how perplexed I am by the fact that the most enthusiastic supporters of debt abolition, apart from you, are the partisans of “haircuts,” to use an expression favored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bundesbank. That proposal comes down to the idea that the holders of public debt took risks so now they must pay. So reduce the Greek debt by 50 percent or the Cypriot debt by 60 percent—hardly a progressive measure! Forgive me, but I am very surprised that you attach so little importance to the question of what tools we should employ, what collective institutions we should create, the better to target those whom we wish to target. Part of our role as intellectuals is to say what collective institutions we want to construct. Taxation is part of this. Graeber: Progressive taxation seems to me to epitomize the Keynesian era and redistributive mechanisms based on expectations of growth rates that no longer seem valid. This sort of redistributive mechanism relies on projections of the increased productivity, linked to rising wages, which historically accompanied the application of redistributive tax policies. But are such policies workable in the context of weak growth? And with what social impact? Piketty: Well, weak growth actually makes those fiscal tools even more desirable. I am thinking not only of traditional income taxes,
but also of a progressive tax on wealth and capital. People possess a certain quantity of capital, net of debt. If you impose a progressive tax rate on this, for those who possess very little that rate may be negative, which amounts to forgiving some of their debts. So this is a far cry from Keynesian income-tax policies. Moreover, a weak growth rate makes both income taxes and wealth taxes even more desirable because it widens the gap between the rate of return on capital and the growth rate. For most of history, the growth rate was almost zero, whereas the return on capital was around 5 percent. So when the growth rate is around 5 percent, as it was in Europe after World War II, the gap between the two rates is minimal. But when the growth rate is 1 percent, or even negative, as in some European countries today, that gap is enormous. This is not a problem from a strictly economic point of view, but it certainly is in social terms, because it brings about great concentrations of wealth. In response to which, progressive wealth and inheritance taxes are of great utility. Graeber: But shouldn’t such a progressive tax on capital be international in scope? Piketty: Yes, of course. I am an internationalist, and so are you, so we have no differences on that score. Graeber: All the same, it is an interesting question, because historically whenever an era of expensive credit begins, some kind of overarching means is generally found for protecting debtors and giving creditors free rein— even going so far on occasion as to actively favor debtors. Such mechanisms for constraining creditors’ power over debtors have taken many forms, including a monarchy based on divine right in Mesopotamia, the biblical Law of Jubilee, medieval canon law, Buddhism, Confucianism, and so on. In short, societies adopting such principles had institutional or The
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Pist ol s f or Two moral structures designed to maintain some form of control over lending practices. Today we are in a period in which lending is decisive, but we do things the other way around. We already have the overarching institutions, which are almost religious in character inasmuch as neoliberalism may be seen as a kind of faith. But instead of protecting debtors from creditors, these institutions do just the opposite. For thirty years a combination of the IMF, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the financial institutions that came out of Bretton Woods, the investment banks, the multinationals, and the international NGOs has constituted an international bureaucracy of global scope. And unlike the United Nations, this bureaucracy has the means to enforce its decisions. Since this whole structure was explicitly put in place in order to defend the interests of financiers and creditors, how might it be politically possible to transform it in such a way as to have it do the exact opposite of what it was designed to do? Piketty: All I can say is that a lot of people would need to be convinced! But it is important to know exactly where we want to get to. What bothers me here is the fact that for the large institutions you are talking about, it is far more natural than you think to forgive debt. Why do you think they like the word “haircut” so much? Your prescription is trapped in the moral universe of the market. The culprit is the party that owns the debt. The danger I see is that the financial institutions move in exactly the direction you describe. Typically enough, in the case of the Cypriot crisis, after entertaining the idea of a (slightly) progressive tax on capital assets, the IMF and the European Central Bank eventually opted for “haircuts,” along with a flat-level tax. In the France of 1945–46, the public debt 154 1 The Baffler [no.25]
was enormous. Two means were used to deal with the problem. The first was high inflation, which is the main way, historically, of getting rid of debt. But this reduced the worth of those who had very little: poor old people, for example, who lost everything. As a result, in 1956, a national consensus supported the introduction of an old-age pension, a form of guaranteed minimum income for retirees so affected. The rich, meanwhile, had been untouched by the inflation. Inflation did not reduce their wealth because their investments were in real capital, which sheltered them. What did lose them money was the second measure, adopted in 1945—namely, an uncustomary progressive tax imposed on wealth and capital. Today, seventy years later, the IMF would have us believe that it is technically impossible to establish a graduated tax on capital. I really am afraid that the institutions you mention have powerful ideological reasons for favoring haircuts. Moderators: What about the risk of tax evasion? Isn’t it easier for the owners of capital to avoid taxes than to avoid the impact of debt cancellation? Piketty: No, it is very easy to avoid the effects of debt forgiveness, just as it is easy to protect oneself against inflation. The big portfolios do not hold letters of credit—they are composed of real capital. Is it possible to fight tax evasion? Yes, if you want to, you can. When modern governments really want their decisions to be respected, they succeed in getting them respected. When Western governments want to send a million soldiers to Kuwait to prevent Kuwaiti oil from being seized by Iraq, they do it. Let’s be serious: If they are not afraid of an Iraq, they have no reason to fear the Bahamas or New Jersey. Levying progressive taxes on wealth and capital poses no technical problems. It is a matter of political will.t
To Be Rid of a Rival 3 M el iss a Mon roe For this curse, you need a liter of good grain liquor and a heartful of unquenchable hate. Keep the bottle corked, and spend a long, dry night thinking of everything your rival has that ought to be yours. At dawn, roll up your trousers and set off barefoot down an unmaintained side road that dissolves into sand, then dead-ends at the river. Walk upstream until you see the swift skein of the water tangle and fray, marking the snag where the river dumps its garbage. An almost spokeless bicycle wheel, an oil drum, two traffic cones and the aluminum bones of a beach chair have fetched up on this altar of wet rock and weed. Wade in as close as you can to make your own ugly offering. The stream may be icy, but your stoked-up rage will keep you warm as you unstop the bottle and drink deep, wishing your rival gone gone gone gone. Your curse will gain strength with every swig. Picture a heart attack; picture a jittery mugger with a gun; a missed stoplight and a truck; a sailboat in a thunderstorm. When your head starts to swim, take a final pull, then throw the bottle hard onto the trash heap. A trail of white lightning will glitter for an instant like shards of glass across the air. Wish once more. If your libation is accepted, some misfortune will soon carry your rival away— cast off, washed up, worn down— until nothing is left but a slight catch in the river’s throat.
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City of Blight
Break on Through, Abbot Kinney Venice, California 3 Helaine Olen
ne can think of gentrifying neighborhoods as the real estate equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s bankrupt veteran in The Sun Also Rises. Change occurs gradually and then suddenly. Once upon a time, places like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, San Francisco’s Mission District, and Washington’s U Street Corridor were working-class neighborhoods. At some point, artists began to move in. The company was congenial and the price was right. They were able to get by selling handbeaded jewelry and living in the back of the shops, or working as political activists for low-paying, likely futile left-wing causes. We didn’t need to sell out to the man here. Then word gets out about the charm of the place. The next thing you know, it’s an artsthemed shopping mall. But no one can really say how and when it happened. Consider Venice, California, the Los Angeles beach community. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when it became a playground for the upper classes. When I asked residents and business owners during a visit last summer what was happening to them, a surprising number blamed GQ , of all things. That’s because in 2012 the magazine that tells men how-to-shop-but-still-be-men proclaimed one of Venice’s main thoroughfares, Abbot Kinney Boulevard—which bisects the community for more than a mile beginning a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean—“The Coolest Block in America.” “Just about everything in GQ’s Style Bible (plus delicious cocktails and a swim) can be had on Abbot Kinney Boulevard,” GQ enthused about the rapidly gentrifying street,
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You can bike! Go to the beach! Shop! Enjoy the ocean breezes! Spend time on “the coolest block in America.”
9 calling out the “limited-edition sneaks from Japan (leopard print, yo!)” for sale at Waraku and describing the Jack Spade men’s shop—located in a turn-of-the-century bungalow—as “a groovy love shack” where customers can play Ping-Pong in the front yard. To be fair, GQ is a pleasure-industry tip sheet and not, say, a magazine that wants its readers to think about the meaning of it all. Its Venice recommendation didn’t need to mention the community’s past, when it was simultaneously a boho retreat and the site of gang warfare. Moreover, such celebrations are usually forgotten the day they are printed. This one, however, was not. The already substantial crowds exploded, led by a surge of twentysomethings hoping to find a combined shopping and party-time experience—so much so that LA Weekly, yet another arbiter of on-the-edge cool, proclaimed Venice’s shopping strip one of “Los Angeles’ Douchiest Neighborhoods.” As Weekly writer Dennis Romero put it, “Abbot Kinney is not so much a neighborhood as an exception to any concept of Venice as a place where artists, surfers, African Americans and Latinos used to rule.” Sigh.
K AREN BALL ARD
“Mr. X,” a muscleman regular on the Venice, California, boardwalk, shows off his stars and stripes.
Trout Salad, but Please Hold the Homeless Perhaps Venice’s final act began in 2008, when Gjelina opened on Abbot Kinney Blvd. Here was your typical glam-hip restaurant, this one known for its “nouveau-peasant fare,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The reviews were excellent, and it immediately attracted long lines and fame (or notoriety) for a no-substitutions policy so intense that the unthinkable happened. A very pregnant diner by the name of Victoria Beckham—a.k.a. Posh Spice—was turned down by management when she requested Gjelina’s $13 small-plate smoked trout salad but asked that a number of the regular parts—grapefruit, avocados, lemon, and red onion—be laid to the side. International headlines ensued.
Success attracts imitators. Other high-end farm-to-table restaurants soon followed, advancing down Abbot Kinney and onto nearby Rose Avenue, where they elbow up against social-service organizations. The homeless now walk by the chic outdoor patio at Superba Snack Bar, wheeling shopping carts filled with their belongings. At the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Rose, a 48,000-square-foot Whole Foods shares a strip mall with a Laundromat and a 99 Cents Only store. “Skid Rose, meet Restaurant Rose,” wrote a scribe for the Los Angeles Times. And then, in 2011, Google arrived and began snatching up property, moving more than four hundred employees into a campus near the beach. For Google, the artists and hipsters of Venice are the perfect prop, a way of The
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City of Blight claiming business cool. “What makes Google L.A. unique?” Google’s website asks itself. The answer: It starts with our location in Venice, long home to the edgy and offbeat, from Beat poets in the 1950s and the Z-Boys skateboarders of the 1970s to Jim Morrison, George Carlin and Jean-Michel Basquiat. . . . All that creativity is inspiring, helping us push the needle on innovation in technology development as well as in helping clients develop exciting new approaches to engaging customers.
The Google expansion has sent tech money surging into the local real estate and retail markets. “Everyone says the GQ article” caused the change in Venice, says Marian Crostic, a photographer who moved into a bungalow on Abbot Kinney with her husband, Fred, back in 1976, when it was so ungentrified it was known by the less hip name West Washington Boulevard. “I don’t know. Fred and I think people have a lot of money; they put their money into real estate because they have to invest their money.” But it seems that after the GQ article appeared, things got worse. Tales began to circulate that landlords were presenting copies of the offending GQ issue to store-owning tenants and demanding fantastic increases in rent. This much is sure: Jin Patisserie, a neighborhood pastry shop famed for its tea and cakes, was replaced by cookie-cutter Kreation Kafe, a Los Angeles–based juicery, the sort of place that attracts ranting complaints from anonymous customers on Yelp for running out of walnut milk. Glencrest Bar-B-Que, a takeout joint with mixed word of mouth that the locals had either loved or loathed for decades, also vanished, and the higher-end Pork Belly’s Sandwich Shop moved in. Upscale chains began to arrive, of the same kind that have overrun New York City’s Soho and other former artist enclaves. Keetsa, an “eco-friendly mattress” retailer, 158 1 The Baffler [no.25]
opened shop last year, as did Australian company Aesop, which sells antioxidant-rich body-care products. (Don’t worry: the Aesop brand favors “interiors that respond to neighbourhood anthropology,” according to its website, so the concrete floor of its Venice store “has been left untouched,” with “the marks of its previous life as an artist’s studio evidenced in its imperfect paint flecks and fissures.”) As for Google, it even took over the building that houses the iconic Gold’s Gym. The real muscle in town is money, after all.
The Money Swamp Yet before we get too indignant, it’s worth remembering that pining for the “real” working-class, artistic Venice is to forget that the community was born of a wealthy real estate developer’s failed fantasy. Founder Abbot Kinney, along with two partners, once controlled two amusement parks in what is now Santa Monica, as well as swampland located directly to the south. In 1904 the threesome began to quarrel and decided to dissolve their partnership. They tossed a coin to determine the split. Kinney won. To everyone’s shock, he rejected the existing businesses and took the swampland. There he created “Venice of America,” a fantasy resort town, a salute to Italy’s floating city. It was an amusement park with intellectual aspirations, complete with gondolas. The business model? The hordes coming in via the Los Angeles street car system would go for the cheap thrills, while wealthy people would come for high-minded entertainment and gobble up the bungalows lining the new canals and adjacent streets. This high-minded plan didn’t really pan out. Kinney made Venice a stop on the Chautauqua lecture circuit; Sarah Bernhardt performed, the Chicago Symphony played, and William Jennings Bryan spoke. But many more of the visitors to Venice preferred to
K AREN BALL ARD
Nana Ghana, model and regular on the Southern Cal art scene, has a laugh with friends outside of Principessa, a boutique fashion store on Abbot Kinney.
spend their time and money on the less than erudite side of leisure—the adjacent amusement park, with its funky arcades, the Darkness and Dawn funhouse, the early roller coasters, the world’s smallest woman. And, of course, the beach. Kinney died in 1920, and Venice slowly collapsed in his wake, as Prohibition made a serious dent in the party-time atmosphere. In 1925, in desperate need of a financial bailout, the town formally joined with Los Angeles. But rather than yielding an infusion of help, Venice’s new civic enclosure produced a state of malignant neglect. The one exception involved that great engine of growth powering the fast-spreading empire known as Southern California: private development money, marching in lockstep with the advance of the automobile. All but six of the canals that Kin-
ney rooted out were paved over to make way for cars. The amusement park fell into disarray, and finally closed in the late 1940s. After that, Venice became a lower-middleclass, racially diverse community with an artsy flavor, where the relatively cheap rents meant you could find Beat poets and oil derrick workers living side by side. Venice was the place where Jim Morrison ran into Ray Manzarek on the beach, and the two decided to form a band. Painters Chuck Arnoldi and Ed Moses moved to the community, amid elderly Jews living on meager Social Security checks and pensions. (If you take one thing away from this essay, read Number Our Days, the late anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff’s heartbreaking study of this now-vanished group.) In the 1980s the historic neighborhood of Oakwood became a regional epicenter of the The
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City of Blight crack trade, and gang warfare that was considered vicious even by the dim standards of Los Angeles raged on an on-again, off-again basis for almost two decades. When it seemed that things couldn’t get much worse for Venice, the community’s financial prospects picked up. A number of artists and former hippies stayed on after they became successful. Their presence led to a mini Hollywood invasion, sparked by the kinds of actors and directors who viewed themselves as outside, you know, the system. Dennis Hopper set up a compound in the heart of Oakwood. Simpsons creator Matt Groening purchased a two-bedroom cottage on the Venice canals, a move he reportedly made at the request of his then wife, who didn’t accept his quaint idea that a mortgage was “too bourgeois.” It’s funny how things have tended to work out for the countercultural rebels. Groening’s surrender to homeownership turned into an excellent investment after all. A multimillion dollar initiative to revive the remaining canals, which had all but collapsed into stagnant pools of filthy, smelly water with adjacent sidewalks sinking into the earth, was finally completed in 1993, though the effect was to draw more of the same sort of wealthy residents. In those years, the encounters between old and new Venice had a faintly surreal feeling. The block where I lived in the late 1990s was a five-minute stroll from Hal’s, a local restaurant and watering hole that everyone went to, where paintings by Ed Moses and Joni Mitchell hung on the walls, and the Hydrant, a coffee shop for dog lovers, with a large open patio on Abbot Kinney where patrons could sit outside with their pets. I’d walk during the day, but not after dark. A local story had it that a famous television actress came home one night to find the entrance to her street blocked. “It’s a shooting,” the cop refusing to let her through said. 160 1 The Baffler [no.25]
“What are they shooting?” the Hollywood veteran asked. “People,” the cop replied.
Warning: Cool Zone Ahead These days, Venice can feel like a shooting of the sort the actress imagined, except you are starring in your own leisure epic. You can bike! Go to the beach! Shop! Enjoy the ocean breezes! Spend time on “the coolest block in America.” If you have the money for it, that is. Abbot Kinney’s modest, single-story bungalows are increasingly becoming artifacts, replaced by new, relentlessly upscale luxury developments. The houses now for sale are the popular mix of rustic and designer sumptuousness. Kitchen sinks are often “farmhouse” but bear about as much resemblance to agricultural living space as Marie Antoinette’s dairy farm did to the real thing. The appliances are highend designer products costing thousands of dollars—refrigerators and ranges are Viking, dishwashers and washing machines Bosch. It is all meant to convey effortless luxury, with a helping of fun. The preferred style? What’s generally called “architectural.” There is much in the way of glass, light, floating staircases, and commodious, loft-like expanses. A few are designed by name architects like local resident David Hertz, who rents out his own home, which is adjacent to the Venice canals, on luxury site Onefinestay for $2,159 a night. “We tend to feel like we live in a spa-like environment, a resort-like environment,” Hertz told the Los Angeles Times. He might be right. The home features a chemical-free lap pool and walls of “sustainable reclaimed wood,” and is, according to the site, “a nirvana of fantastic views and total privacy.” These are McMansions, but McMansions with style, for those with the taste to live in an urban neighborhood with rough edges and not in a cookie-cutter suburban development. Move to Venice, these homes are whispering,
K AREN BALL ARD
A man makes his way to Abbot Kinney’s Gjelina restaurant (on left), which opened in 2008.
and you can be a part of the arts world. And better yet, you’ll be spared the emotional and financial angst that comes with living in an actual arts bohemia. “It’s a way to be in the arts world without being an artist or buying paintings,” admits Jeff Sulkin, an architect and former Venice resident who is now designing a home for a client who works in the financial services industry. “It’s a self-image. If you see yourself as a creative person, you let someone build you a house like that.” “It’s an imprimatur that says, ‘I’m in Venice. I want to be associated with this,’” he adds. “‘I’m not going to go to the galleries every weekend, but I want to be associated with the creative community.’” Needless to say, few artists—even of the film industry sort—can scare up the cash to buy such residences as the “slick architec-
tural” house on Amoroso Place with “a soothing back-drop for dining & entertaining” that was recently listed for $2.6 million. As a result, real creativity is increasingly less than welcome. Never mind selling out to the man to live here. You need to be the man. The tale of Eileen Erickson’s tree house is instructive. Erickson and her late husband, Sid, built the two-story play structure out of bamboo more than a decade ago for the enjoyment of their grandchildren and other neighborhood kids, not to mention the stray tourist who sees it. It’s giant and whimsical and makes just about everyone who walks by laugh. It is also, according to the city of Los Angeles, which suddenly took an interest last year, in violation of multiple construction codes and should be taken down. The idea of enforcing quality-of-life codes makes long-time Venice residents roll their The
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City of Blight eyes. Erickson has been an outspoken opponent of the home-renovation trend in Venice, and is convinced the anonymous person who finked on the tree house was retaliating. At the time, there were at least three homes on her block currently under construction. Another longtime Venice resident has run afoul of the new real estate consensus in far uglier fashion. The Gonzalez family of Abbot Kinney—just down the block from the Crostics—found themselves out on the street after sixty years in 2010. A death in the family and an ensuing financial dispute among the survivors tied up the home in legal limbo, and it was eventually sold out from under them. It’s now been bulldozed; after the property was flipped again, it became the site of an organic nursery, Home Grown Edible Landscapes. This high-end establishment, as its name suggests, specializes in helping urban homesteaders design and maintain “sustainable” and “organic” gardens on their properties. If that’s too much work, they’ll handle it all for you. No need to get your hands dirty. “Grow like a pro—because the pros grow for you!” the sign out front reads. “The Cook’s Garden by HGEL is now offering a limited number of growing subscriptions to home cooks . . . grown to your specifications by our expert staff!” As I am contemplating the sign, wondering if this is an inspired satirical commentary on gentrification of this formerly hip zone, a woman and her husband walk by. “I could use that,” she tells her husband, as she snaps a photo of the sign with her iPhone. “We killed all our plants last year.”
The Hero’s Journey One of the unique features of upper-middleclass life in 2014 is a simultaneous demonization and celebration of spending. It works sort of like this: If you are blowing your paycheck on cheap, mass-produced, plastic goods at Walmart, that is not a good thing. But if you demonstrate a combination of proper, 162 1 The Baffler [no.25]
authentic, and natural taste, mixed with a twist of environmentalism and purpose (see: organic garden), well, that’s another matter entirely. On a practical level, this rationalization permits people who would otherwise subscribe to the tenets of John de Graaf’s Affluenza, or who would nod their heads in agreement while they read such anticonsumerist manifestos as Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American, to indulge in sumptuous shopping. Think of it this way: Abbot Kinney Boulevard is a consumer’s Chautauqua. Accordingly, many of Venice’s businesses, no matter how luxurious or self-indulgent, advertise self-improvement and doing good, frequently with a New Age or holistic spin. At the posh accessory outlet Kendall Conrad, the handbag line is “artisanal,” the materials used are “sustainable,” and the black Lupe Sino handbag is $1,250. The Dailey Method, a barre-based cardio workout, promises that, for a mere $22 a class, one’s “body, mind and physical awareness will be transformed.” The same goes for restaurants. In the publicity materials for Barnyard, a newly opened restaurant located near the beach, executive chef Jesse Barber refers to his tenure at another well-regarded dining establishment, the Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney. At this venue, apparently, workers participated in an epic, soul-enriching quest straight out of Joseph Campbell’s mythologies. Barber claims he “led a troupe of talented, young professionals on a journey that involved late nights, early mornings and loads of commitment to their culinary craft,” and then goes on to say, “I hope to create lasting relationships with neighbors, friends, farms and local vendors.” Just serving quality food, as some other eateries do, won’t suffice. Still other Venice businesses offer earnest lectures on the importance of charity, that modern-day shibboleth among the upper classes, who seem to be under the impression
K AREN BALL ARD
Vegan cone, anyone? This food truck featuring artisanal ice creams, parked on Abbot Kinney, is routinely busy.
that voluntary donations can somehow make up for national and global inequalities of income and wealth. If some of the money spent on luxury items goes to the less fortunate, then the explosion of high-end—excuse me, “artisanal”—retail is no longer spending for spending’s sake, but a reflection of the global citizen’s higher spiritual calling. At TOMS Shoes, founded by Blake Mycoskie, a former competitor on CBS’s The Amazing Race, it’s one pair of shoes or glasses for you, and one for a poor person in need. “I believe business can be used to improve people’s lives,” he told the Los Angeles Times when the flagship store opened on Abbot Kinney in 2012. There’s also a coffee bar on the premises. Mycoskie has spoken at South by Southwest, headlined a Clinton Global Initiative
summit, and written a book called Start Something That Matters, all to spread the gospel of social entrepreneurism. All this was not Abbot Kinney’s original vision, but it might just be an updated, twenty-first century version. Today’s Venice is the perfect mix of entertainment, nostalgia, and upscale education for our own Gilded Age, where work is supposed to be fun, shopping is supposed to have meaning, food needs to demonstrate virtue, and leisure must embody some greater vision of global justice to be worthy of anyone’s time. There’s no need to feel guilt about spending money, or bulldozing family homes, or squeezing out longtime neighborhood activists and local merchants— so long as it’s done with the right sense of taste and fun.t The
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Placard at the Los Angeles Excavation Site, 5002 A.D. 3 El ise Pa r t r id ge
These concrete pits at the rear of their dwellings may have been used for cooking purposes: charred grates and aluminum cans nearby are consistent with feasts they called “barbecues.” The pits were constructed to receive full sun, which we think they worshipped as a deity. Patterns of tiles arranged around the edge may have shown off the possessors’ wealth. Some believe the pits were used for ritual games, others conjecture for human sacrifice: their society was known for its violence, judging by the number of skeletons unearthed with bullet trauma to the ribs or skull. Some pits have springboards where we think priests stood. (Their rulers put innocent people to death.) The drains at the bottom might have caught blood.
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E x h i bi t F
WALTER S .H. HAMADY
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In M emor i a m
Seen Dave? D
avid McLimans has contributed significant art to these pages over the past few years, most recently the cover of the previous issue, The Baffler no. 24. He died this year on the first day of spring. It’s one thing to lose a close friend and quite another to experience the absence of a true collaborator. David was one of those rare illustrators to whom I could assign most any problem for visual remedy. He would man the doors of perception, open windows of insight, and, if called for, blow the damn roof off the house. However, David was never one to express anger, at least visually. Rather, he employed bemusement, creating art that mattered, inviting the viewer to enter into an understanding through the deft application of symbolism, texture, and color, along with an exquisite sense of form and composition. And in that, the artist still lives, speaking from the remains of his art, yet illustrating our sometimes human condition. These pages display but a few samples of David’s work, created in sympathy for a world that’s now ours, all ours. —Patrick JB Flynn
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In M emor i a m
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Economic Warriors The
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In M emor i a m
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Eye Spy The
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6Bafflomathy [No. 25] Nicholson Baker (“Dallas Killers Club,” p. 50) is the author of ten novels and four works of nonfiction, including House of Holes and Double Fold. Jennifer C. Berkshire (“JebFest,” p. 108) writes the blog edushyster.com. She lives in Gloucester, MA. Chris Bray (“Tip and Gip Sip and Quip,” p. 42) is a sometime history professor and is writing a book about the history of American military justice. Daniel Brook’s (“Slumming It,” p. 136) latest book, A History of Future Cities, was recently issued in paperback. Barbara Ehrenreich (“Zapped by the Invisible World,” p. 13) is a contributing editor of The Baffler. Her latest book is Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. Lee Fang (“The Business of America is Dirty Tricks,” p. 116), a San Francisco–based journalist, is an investigative fellow at the Nation Institute and cofounder of the Republic Report. Edwin Frank (“Route 202,” p. 72) is editor of the NYRB Classics series and author of Snake Train: Poems 1984–2013, which will be published next year. Thomas Frank (“Veiled Pensioners of the Mystic Sofa,” p. 8) is founding editor of The Baffler. His books include What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Pity the Billionaire. Tom Gogola (“Jim Crow Soft-Shoe Segregationists,” p. 74) is news editor of the North Bay Bohemian, a weekly paper in Northern California. He was formerly a criminal justice reporter for The Lens, an investigative news site in New Orleans. David Graeber (“Soak the Rich,” p. 148) is a contributing editor of The Baffler. His book Debt: The First 5,000 Years is now out in paperback. Melina Kamerić (“Solitude,” p. 146) was born in Sarajevo. Her short fiction collection Cipele za dodjelu Oskara (Shoes for Oscar Night) was published in 2009. Chris Lehmann (“Brothers from Another Planet,” p. 86) is senior editor of The Baffler, coeditor of Bookforum, and author of Rich People Things. Jason Linkins (“Noise from Nowhere,” p. 30) writes about American decline for the D.C. bureau of the Huffington Post. He can be found on most social media platforms under his nom de guerre, “DCeiver.” Hugh McGraw
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(“Earth Liberation Stunt,” p. 16) worked in advertising for many years. He lives in Massachusetts. Melissa Monroe (“To Be Rid of a Rival,” p. 155) lives in New York and teaches at the New School for Social Research. Joshua Moses (“Maybe Next Time Around, p. 84) is visiting assistant professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Haverford College. Helaine Olen (“Break on Through, Abbot Kinney,” p. 156) is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry and a regular contributor to Reuters and Pacific Standard. Elise Partridge (“Placard at the Los Angeles Excavation Site,” p. 164) is the author of Chameleon Hours. Peter Payack (“Book of Conceptual Anarchy,” pp. 41, 48) has lived on the Left Bank of the Charles River for some forty years, and was Cambridge’s first Poet Populist. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (“Among Friends,” p. 96) was born in 1938 in Moscow, where she still lives. Her books include There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories. Thomas Piketty (“Soak the Rich,” p. 148) is the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Matthew Roth (“Dreams Incorporated,” p. 14) lives in Philadelphia, where he is currently writing Magic Bean, a history of the soybean in twentieth-century America. Jacob Silverman (“World Processor,” p. 20) is writing a book about social media and digital culture. John Summers (“Friends in Low Places,” p. 6) is editor in chief of The Baffler. Astra Taylor (“Hope and Ka-ching,” p. 128) is a writer, documentary filmmaker, and activist. Her films include Zizek! and Examined Life. Her latest book is The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Todd VanDerWerff (“Looks Like a Duck,” p. 64) is the TV editor of the A.V. Club. Natasha VargasCooper (“Brown Noser,” p. 11) is an independent journalist in Los Angeles.
Donald Nicholson-Smith, Anna Summers, Natasha Wimmer, Jennifer H. Zoble
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Karen Ballard, Steve Brodner, Arthur Bullers, Lucius Cabins (Processed World graphic), Joseph Ciardiello, Sue Coe, Mark Dancey, Henrik Drescher, Michael Duffy, Jensine Eckwall, Randall Enos, Adam Ferguson, Mark S. Fisher, Patrick JB Flynn, Melinda Gebbie (Processed World no. 4), Walter S. H. Hamady, Lisa Haney, Brad Holland, Anne K. (Processed World no. 2), Victor Kerlow, Lori Klopp, Lewis Koch, Stephen Kroninger, Chris Labrooy, Zohar Lazar, Brendan Martin, David McLimans, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, P. S. Mueller, Michael Northrup, Lily Padula, Graham Roumieu, Hazel Lee Santino, Katherine Streeter, David Suter, Tryon (Processed World no. 3), Linda Wiens (Processed World no. 1), and C. K. Wilde. The front cover of this issue of The Baffler is illustrated by Katherine Streeter. The photograph on the back cover was made by Michael Northrup. The typeface employed throughout the pages of The Baffler is Hoefler Text, with just a smidgen of Gotham. The
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Baffler [no.25] ! 175
argument n. there are always at least two sides classics n. the force of oppression; know enough to despise them critics n. reject their ideas, since they never have any suggestions for what we should do elites n. people who read books and/or work in the media facts n. values idealism n. leads to war intellectuals n. their time is through morality n. raise your eyebrows if anyone says this seriously philosophy n. very difficult; protest it is all over your head print n. has had its day
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