A Pox on the Know-Nothings!

The Baffler and the Boob Jubilee

Boob Jubilee: The Mad Cultural Politics of the New Economy. Salvos from the Baffler
Tom Frank and Dave Mulcahey, eds.

Is there a more dangerous social (read: “pseudo”) science than economics? Economists claim to be able to describe and predict people’s actions as a function of desire and cash flow, as if no rational person would ever act in the long-term on such externalities as ethical concerns, political beliefs or just plain eccentricity. Economists use certain theories to reach their conclusions (which policymakers, in turn, use to direct government), but the smartest economists remember that the behavior their theories describe is, more or less, a Platonic ideal, no more accurate than people are generic. Those economists who ignore this important caveat wind up promoting their theories as laws that justify the most reprehensible behavior the glut of angry, pro-business, anti-regulation right-wingers can conceive. And here’s a news flash: these angry right-wingers aren’t just sitting pretty in CEO chairs at their cowboy oil ventures anymore. They’ve managed to grab the reigns of the airwaves, the editorial boards and, most importantly, the seat of central government in this country, and they are not shy about trotting out some irresponsible economists who support their wholesale rape and pillage of the social safety net and the concept of good government.

Shocking? Well, yeah, but there’s nothing new under the sun. The history of this country is full of instances in which incompetent yahoos have mishandled power with the glowing support of sycophantic experts. In the early 20th century, we had the incisive wit of professional boob deflators like H.L. Mencken to reveal the Emperor’s New Clothes for what they were. Following in Mencken’s footsteps over the last 16 years (although from the left instead of the right), the boob deflators at The Baffler have made it fun again to puncture the self-importance and lies from on high.

The Baffler is the best magazine in America. Period. If you’re not reading it, you’re not doing your brain any favors. Sure, the last two issues (#15 and #16) have been a bit dryer and more academic than their immediate predecessors, but this doesn’t change the fact that The Baffler serves up more incisive wit and pointed analysis in each all-too-short issue than most magazines can muster in a decade. Unfortunately, a fire in 2001 took out The Baffler’s office and most of its back issues. Fortunately, W.W. Norton & Company has released Boob Jubilee, an anthology of some of The Baffler’s sharpest writing from issues #8-#14 (roughly 1996-2001), complete with rewrites and follow-ups from the authors to reflect recent changes in culture.

At the heart of The Baffler’s cultural critique is the growing influence of those pro-business, anti-regulation, invisible-hand nutsos who have spent the last 20 years slipping their poisonous philosophy into politics and American culture at large, co-opting subcultural movements and inventing strange new management techniques along the way. The late 1990s, when the balloon of the so-called New Economy hovered at its bursting point for many surprisingly long months, marked the heyday of The Baffler, which took great delight in describing all of the hot air filling the balloon, tempered by the knowledge that the New Economy was no joke to the people who weren’t coming out on top.

But The Baffler was never the work of your average academic leftists. With themed issues (“The God Who Sucked,” “Interns Built The Pyramids!”) and margins filled with pointed cartoons and shorter pieces, the magazine balanced its most serious essays (keeping with its love of early 20th century journalism, it calls them salvos) with serious social history, unblinking satire and goofy, knowing pseudo-ads.

Boob Jubilee doesn’t contain all of The Baffler’s smartest articles from this period. There’s no way it could. However, it does offer mostly entertaining articles (and a few fascinating missteps) taking on issues as diverse as press junketeering (“A Sell-Out’s Tale”), Al Capp (“The Brand Called Schmoo”), Coca-Cola’s aborted OK Soda brand (“I’d Like to Force the World to Sing”), internships as white-collar slave-labor (“The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust”), and one man’s un-Twainlike relationship with the Mississippi River (“American Heartworm”). One of the most distinctive salvos is “I, Faker,” a Swiftian experiment in satiric business writing gone out of control, which culminates in author Paul Maliszewski slightly modifying a torture manual from the CIA’s School of the Americas and publishing it in a business journal (under an alter-ego, of course) as new management theory.

The downside to reading these essays in Boob Jubilee, rather than in the individual Baffler issues, is the loss of the marginalia (such as the artwork and fake ads), the irreverent book reviews and the sense of coherence in each issue (they all seem to have a guiding theme). Hopefully, new readers will take the cue and simply subscribe to the magazine or look for the individual issues when they arrive (which only happens in certain select shops across the country). The Baffler is not on any regular publishing schedule (hey, neither is the High Hat), but the Baffler’s website keeps the public informed about updates and has a nifty mission statement, to boot.

Unfortunately, the last two Baffler issues have also suffered from a slightly suppressed sense of fun. The new format looks good, but much of the marginalia is gone, and the writers have tended to drop the jaw-dropping satire in favor of a somewhat drier academic style. To be fair, the last few years haven’t been much fun for anyone on the left, ever since the know-nothings in power replaced their free-market giddiness and pretense of caring for the little guy with a little old-fashioned domestic repression, unfettered class warfare and imperialism. What’s funny about that? Not so much, really.

Well, OK, the economic contortions these guys put themselves through to justify their policies are fairly amusing. And the leaps across the logical trapeze are truly breathtaking to behold. Oh, and the sleight-of-hand they use to draw your attention away from the 500-pound marauding gorillas in their tuxedos and top hats — yeah, that’s quite the party trick. They may not be shouting it to the stars, but the boobs are still holding their circus. And The Baffler is still deflating their hot air and poking holes in their chicanery.