The Baffler magazine, resurrected

Editor John Summers tells Matthew Reisz how his political convictions will be reflected in its no-holds barred approach

February 28, 2013

When John Summers wrote an article for Times Higher Education in 2008, there proved to be no going back.

He had been working part-time at Harvard University teaching social studies, a position that had been renewed for six successive years. Such a job, he wrote, was “a little like visiting Disney World” and it had left him distinctly unimpressed by “the post-pubescent children of notables for whom I found myself holding curricular responsibility” (“All the privileged must have prizes”, 10 July 2008).

Most such students had already embraced “the core components of the consensus upheld by their liberal parents”, such as that “the meaning of liberty lies in the personal choice of consumers”, he wrote. Despite “many fine exceptions”, his dominant impression of working at Harvard was that “the sedulous banality of the rich degrades teaching into a service-class preoccupation whose chief duty is preparing clients for monied careers”.

It is probably unsurprising that this article did little for Summers’ promotion prospects and today he cheerfully credits it with “helping to kill off the rest of my academic career”. Yet it also proved an important factor in securing a new job as editor-in-chief of The Baffler, since “it was one of the chief places that would have published something like that”.

The Baffler was founded by Thomas Frank and Keith White in 1988 and came out sporadically, with two-year gaps, and even a three-year interlude, until 2006. Although it “never formally folded”, Summers claims that it was resurrected and now appears three times a year, under what amounts to a licensing arrangement with MIT Press, largely because of one dramatic development: “If the people who brought about the crisis in 2008 and virtually wrecked the global economy had had some sort of accountability - not necessarily a comeuppance, although that would have been nice - we probably wouldn’t have felt the necessity of reviving the magazine.

“In my first issue as editor, [magazine founder] Tom Frank published an essay called ‘Too smart to fail’. People who got everything wrong, from the Iraq war to the tech bubble to the housing bubble to the global financial crisis, are not only still in place and in power but they have been rewarded. It’s that kind of counterintuitive dynamic we are keen to attack.” The central target is the ideology known as “market popularism”, “free market capitalism” or “the Washington consensus”.

Along with poetry and a little fiction, The Baffler specialises in long, polemical essays where Summers hopes to “mix the rigour and respect for facts typical of the academic researcher with the vim and vigour of the best non-fiction writing in order to illuminate contemporary social and cultural issues that have been all but abandoned by the bastions of enlightenment”.

Asked to elaborate, he states that “the senior editorial staff and regular contributors would all agree that universities, intellectually, culturally and politically speaking, are moribund. What is going on in the way of innovation is almost entirely corporate-based. In terms of culture, they are just irrelevant. It’s got worse since the 1990s, because the universities are now debt-producing entities that kill off students’ futures. It’s an ongoing outrage.”

So how do these political convictions play out within the pages of The Baffler?

The current issue, “Your money and your life”, includes an essay by historian Rick Perlstein which excoriates Mitt Romney’s “apparently bottomless penchant for lying in public”. In one striking example from the presidential campaign trail, Romney declared: “In France, I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up” - a notion that Perlstein says Romney picked up from “the Homecoming Saga, a science fiction series written by Mormon author Orson Scott Card”.

Yet this is not mere opportunism, Perlstein goes on to argue, but a form of “initiation into the conservative elite”, since “lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol”. He cites as evidence the many right-wing magazines and fund-raising mailshots where the content consists of “miracle cures, get-rich-quick schemes, murderous liberals, the mystic magic mirage of a world without taxes, those weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had hidden somewhere in the Syrian desert”.

Elsewhere in the same issue, the radical journalist Barbara Ehrenreich looks at Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and what it tells us about current religious anxieties. Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić offers an amusing account of Angelina Jolie “declaring with complete sincerity that she’d fallen in love with Bosnia” as she launched her film In the Land of Blood and Honey there: “She was a hit with everyone, the men in particular, so much so that no one noticed that her deferential manner was the kind you put on when talking to children.” Other writers turn their critical attention to the cable business network CNBC and the cosy Washington insiders’ news website, Politico. All provide what The Guardian has described as “beautifully discontented prose written by people who’d rather be out scrapping”.

Nor have universities escaped The Baffler’s beady eye. The issue before last, “The high, the low, the vibrant!”, went in for a bit more Harvard- bashing, with political writer Jim Newell dissecting the story of Adam Wheeler. Wheeler had attended the university and “been one year short of graduating when someone at the school belatedly noticed that he had falsified the credentials that won him admission”. A court had ruled that he was not allowed to claim that he had ever been to Harvard, so when he applied for a job with a CV which did just that, the university pounced. The result was a trial and a jail sentence.

Some of Wheeler’s claims about himself, in Newell’s view, were so implausible that the those responsible at Harvard for admitting him stand convicted of not being able to “smell bullshit if they were walking in a pasture half an hour past feeding time and felt a squish under their boots”. He was also appalled by the way that “the school of George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger (the war criminal who was feted on campus this [2012] spring as a conquering hero) took all appropriate measures to ensure that its name would never be sullied by associating with an immoral, egomaniacal charlatan, at least one who never held high office”.

A more powerful critique of the academy comes in Frank’s essay on the Occupy Wall Street movement. While broadly sympathetic to the cause, he is dismayed by the way the campaign “seems to have had no intention of doing anything except building ‘communities’ in public spaces and inspiring mankind with its noble refusal to have leaders…Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.”

Part of the problem, Frank goes on to claim, is that the Occupy movement became “an irresistible magnet for radical academics of the critical- theory sort…Why did [some] choose to share their protest recollections in the pages of American Ethnologist and their protest sympathies in the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies?…And dear god why, after only a few months of occupying Zuccotti Park, did Occupiers feel they needed to launch their own journal of academic theory? A journal that then proceeded to fill its pages with impenetrable essays seemingly written to demonstrate, one more time, the Arctic futility of theory-speak?”

Taking this point even further, Frank wonders whether the inability of the Left to “make common cause with ordinary American people anymore” can’t be partly attributed to the fact that it has become “dominated by a single [academic] profession whose mode of operating is deliberately abstruse, ultrahierarchical, argumentative, and judgmental”. Like many others, academics should find a good deal of provocative stimulation in Summers’ relaunched magazine.

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