You are on page 1of 196



Give the Gift
of The Baffler.
Order now and receive our special
holiday rate. 4 issues, one year,
for only $ 24!
See enclosed envelope for order form.
Or . . .


. . . you can also subscribe

and/or donate funds to
The Baffler at thebaff
No. 29

The journal that blunts the cutting edge

The journal that blunts the cutting edge
No. 29

EDIT OR IN CHIEF To certain orphans bobbing and weaving through

John Summers Harvard Squaredom, enabling or assisting with
9 this issue, we salute you, Cassandra de Alba, Diana
FOU N DING EDIT OR Clarke, Dan Davies, Sean Janson, Liam Meyer, and
Thomas Frank Carolyn Oliver. In agreement with certain solemn
SEN IOR EDIT OR contracts executed, we hereby acknowledge that
Chris Lehmann the story on page 23 has been excerpted from All
9 the Houses: A Novel by Karen Olsson, published by
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2015
The Flynstitute by Karen Olsson. All rights reserved. Ditto for Ray
Bradburys literary executor, who kindly approved
9 our application for reprinting Tomorrows Child,
but whose name we forget. The photos on pages
Lindsey Gilbert
10 and 11 come courtesy of 18 Stafford Terrace,
the Sambourne Family Home. Thanks, Sammy!
Dave Denison
The entries collected under Daniels Dictionary
represent but a tiny portion of Daniel Aarons
Lucie Elven
Commonplace Book, 19342012, published this
summer by Pressed Wafer. Dont wait to order
Edwin Frank
a copy. Dan turned 103 in August.

Emily Carroll 9
Joan Flynn Noah McCormack
C ON T R I B U T I N G E D I T O R S Valerie Corts
Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, W E B D E V E L O PE R A N D C ON T E N T M A N AG E R
David Graeber, Evgeny Morozov, James White
Rick Perlstein, Kim Stanley Robinson, AU D I E N C E D E V E L O PM E N T A S S O C I AT E
George Scialabba, Jacob Silverman, Hannah Gais
Anna Summers, Astra Taylor, D E V E L O PM E N T A N D E V E N T S M A N AG E R
Catherine Tumber, Eugenia Williamson Eliza Fish
C ON T R I B U T I N G A R T I S T S Zachary Davis
Mark Dancey, Michael Duffy, 9
Mark S. Fisher, Lisa Haney, PA S T P U B L I S H E R S
Brad Holland, P. S. Mueller, The MIT Press, 20122014
Katherine Streeter Conor ONeil, 20092011
9 Greg Lane, 19932007

No interns were used in the making of this Baffler. Thomas Frank and Keith White

The Baffler, P.O. Box 390049, Cambridge, MA 02139 USA | 19 West 21st Street, Suite 1001, New York, NY 10010 USA 2015 The Baffler Foundation, Inc.

2 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t A 5 Brad Holland

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 3

C on t e n t s : The Baffler, no. 29

The Family Way Jewels

Bedtime for Democracy 6 No Such Cuck 106
John Summers The conservative jeer
A mber ALee Frost
of the Selfie 8 Punk Crock 110
Susan Zalkind Whistling eternal yesterday
Eugenia Williamson
From the archive:
Twenty-Nothing 10 A Not-So-Golden State 122
Thomas Fr ank and Keith White The detective stories of Ross Macdonald
Andrew Bacevich
The Family The Dialectic
That Preys Together of Love and Authority 128
Distressed Cut-Offs 15 Christopher Lasch on the family
The morning angst George Scialabba
Lucy Ellmann
Paterfamilias, Kaput 20
Everybody knows Three Cheers for
Jacob Silver man George Scialabba 134
John Summers, Thomas Fr ank,
The Family Plot 30 Barbar a Ehrenreich,
On the rule of the perpetual snot-nose Nikil Saval, Rick Perlstein,
K athleen Geier Noam Chomsky, and George Scialabba
The Childrens Hour 46 Marching in Place 154
An all-too-sentimental education The politics of atonement
Kim Phillips-Fein Gene Seymour
Clans of the Cathode 56
Turning off TVs ersatz families Stories
Tom Carson from All the Houses 23
Memoirs of K aren Olsson
a Revolutionarys Daughter 66 The Third Son 78
Neda Semnani Andrei Platonov
Cradle to Grave 82 Monticello 148
L.A.s family-unfriendly family court Thomas Geoghegan
Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Bitter River 170
Mark Jacobs

4 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The Family That Preys Together

Poems Exhibitions
Yo Mama 12 A: Br ad Holland 3
Molly McQuade
B: Naomi Vona 13
Hard Objects 40 C: Gr ace Fechner 42
Yang Xiaobin
D: Fr ances Jetter 65
The Lighthouses 44
Yang Xiaobin E: Carl Dunn 77
No Knowing 54 F: Martin Mayo 91
Jennifer Nelson
G: R alph Steadman 127
The Mantegna Oculus Rift 62 H: R andall Enos 153
Jennifer Nelson
I: Dennis Nechvatal 187
from Depths 64
Anna Griva
Bafflomathy 188
Tomb of
the Unknown Celebrity 120
Carter R atcliff

Something 147
David Ferry

The American Academy

on Mars 169
Carter R atcliff

In Loco Parentis
Better Management 162
Through Belles Lettres
Literature at the B-school

Merve Emre

Black Sheep Down

Use It and Abuse It 184
Corey Pein A mother brings her son to see a psycho-
therapist. After the session, the doctor comes
Ancestors out of the office looking grave.
Tomorrows Child 92 Well doctor, she asks him, whats wrong
R ay Br adbury with him?
Madam, replies the Doctor, Im sorry
to inform you that your son is suffering from
the Oedipus complex.
Oh Doctor, Im so, so relieved, she says.
Oedipus Shmoedipusas long as he loves
his mother.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 5

Th e Fa m i ly Way

Bedtime for Democracy

The earth belongs to the plating our institutions. the mottled veins of birth-
living and not to the dead, (And remember how they right politics, a discourse as
Thomas Jefferson said. And filled their factories with old as the revolution itself,
a lot of good that did. The immigrant workers looking comes right on schedule.
founding father railed against to improve their station by
economic royalists and their shedding rather than hang- When you poll these gran-
schemes to perpetuate wealth ing onto their Old World dees on the issues of the day,
through inheritance, giving family surnames?) Now its of course, they all favor good
the dead hands of the past a the Kochs, the Murdochs, clean family living. As ritually
leg up (so to speak) over the the Waltons, the Gateses, intoned by the preachers,
lowborn living. Mr. Jefferson and the Kardashiansthe pundits, and politicians, the
probably wasnt the first, mutant offspring of the sanctity of the family idyll
and certainly wasnt the last, twenty-first-century merger helps manage the inevi-
to complain that inherited of entertainment, business, table frustrations that grow
privileges of succession, if and politicswho magnify between the official model of
enshrined, would produce the American contradic- success and the dread reality
a dynastic pattern of rule tion. Two of the contenders that your destiny depends
over a permanent American for next years presidential more on your birth-class than
underclass. coronation are members of on your achievements.
And boy, was he right. the same two families that, As we discovered in beget-
Natty old Uncle Sam himself between them, have occu- ting this issue, sitcoms from
bows before the scions of to- pied the White House for The Cosby Show and Married
days one percentsnot-nos- twenty of the last twenty- . . . with Children to The Simp-
es, thumb-suckers, trust-fund seven years. How nicefor sons and Modern Family have
bums, lucky sperm, and med- them. been obsoleted by more ris-
dling ninnies that they are. Its come to this: the ible spectacles of disintegra-
Marrying within their own perennial expectation that tion. So we give you nervous
social class, romping through every generation of enter- teenage girl vloggers posting
the same legacy schools, em- prising youth will transcend their Morning Routines
bracing the rites of chummy the horizon of the family, to YouTube and Instagram.
nepotism, and worst of all, to achieve independence in We give you the fallout from
being taken seriously (most rebellion against its author- the hack of the pro-infidelity
egregiously, by themselves) as ity, doesnt ring true to our website Ashley Madison.
some sort of natural aristoc- experience. We have high- And we give you the wan-
racy, the economic royalists born and we have lowborn, tonly family-unfriendly punk
of our time have restored but no middle. The grass- rock of the 1970s, now main-
the family as the fulcrum of roots hero who goosed the streamed onto the bulging
power. GOP establishment, Donald laps of suburban papas.
Once it was the Rock- Trump, was himself feather-
efellers and Fords, and other bedded to success by his rich What actually happens is
multigenerational cartels of father. That Trump made his that yuppie clans colonize
the industrial state, name- recent splash by tapping into our city playgrounds in

6 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

this issues many poems and
stories, in translations from
Greek, Russian, and Chinese,
is a daughters memoir of her
fathers 1983 execution in
Iran. Her parents were in hid-
ing when the brothersthe
revolutionary guards of the
Islamic regimecame and
took him away.

And in the lighter-fare

department, we offer a more
down-market patrimonial
putsch. Close observers of the
upcoming dynastic square-
off for the presidency have
noticed the word cuckserva-
tive bandied about through-
out the endless season of
GOP presidential primaries
and caucus debates.
The cuckservative coin-
2015 ESTATE OF Y VES TANGUY | Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
age, we learned, is an un-
The Great Mutation, 1942.
holy blend of conservative
with cuckold, intended
to neutralize right-wing
leisurely spells between fer- pious social scientists from candidates believed to be
rying junior and the young Harvard (were talking about lacking the cojones to stand
miss to test-prep class and you, Professor Putnam) tell- up to the Man, or something
piano lessons, while tod- ing them to get their houses like that. Demonstrating yet
dlers in certain Los Angeles in order. Protest leaders like again the fatal incompat-
neighborhoods die from the Nation of Islams Louis ibility of conservatism with
violent abuseunsaved by Farrakhan have said pretty irony, cuckservative also
concerned squadrons of much the same thing. Rich derives from a Christian
Californias family preser- or poor, the family unit is persecution complex rooted
vation workers. Domestic pointed to as an incubator of in the psychosexual racial
order is said to be the pre- personal responsibility and perversions of the dwindling
requisite for social change, atonement. patriarchy.
rather than the other way Not only in America, of Yeah, that one surprised
around. Dysfunctional poor course, does family-worship us, too.t
families have to put up with anchor conservatism. Among John Summers

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 7

Th e Fa m i ly Way
of the Selfie
M y great-great-great-
grandfather, Edward Linley
Sambourne (18441910),
known as Sammy, was
the principal cartoonist for
Punch. Sammy set up a studio
at his home in Kensington,
London, and photographed
not only his servants and
children, but also himself
thousands of times! The
Rhodes Colossus, depicting
British colonialist Cecil
Rhodes with one foot in
Cairo and the other in Cape
Town, is his most iconic
Susan Zalkind

8 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E.L. Sambourne
striking the pose
used to illustrate
his drawing of The
Rhodes Colossus
for Punch, 1892.


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 9

FROM THE ARCHIVE | The Baffler no. 4 (1993)

Even though the twenty-something debate Our resistance is not a hairstyle
is transparently absurd and painfully shallow,
or a Nirvana record or even
we cant simply reject generational iden-
tity as a totally meaningless category: there a leather jacket with safety pins.
have of course been small circles of people
from countless age groups that have shared 9
worldviews in a general way. But it is senseless
to expect to find meaningful common ideas of punk rock that youll never hear about;
held by everyone born between 1960 and 1970. the little magazines and independent record
And yet this is exactly what your prattling labels by the score that share nothing with
TV, your news magazines, attempt to do, the understanding of the world broadcast
since theyre interested in the clues to mass from everywhere by the official institutions
marketing rather than in the thoughts of real of American speech. You would have to dig
live people. Its as though you think the do- deep and listen carefully if you really wanted
ings of groups like the Young Hegelians were to know what we thought, but youd rather
characteristic of the vast majority of their hire somebody like the Red Hot Chili Pep-
contemporaries, as though the lost genera- pers or River Phoenix to play the part for you,
tion had something to do with flagpole sit- to tell you that its OK; that all the twenty-
ting, Amos n Andy, and the religious revivals somethings have come up with are a few
of the American 1920s. stylistic innovations, a new sound and look
And yet perhaps your confusion points that can be easily and fashionably imitated.
directly to the most salient aspects of our
thinking. We are a generation that is, at last, For each of us there came a point of revela-
wise to your game. Our paramount aim is to tion: a sudden, astonishing realization of the
resist, to negate the officious everyday assault way your world worked, of the real purposes
of this botched civilization you have created. of your media, your politics, your academy.
We dont think about bright futures and busi- For many it came from rock music, from
ness opportunities and the suburban spread bands faithful to the spirit of 1977, from a
that will someday be ours: our posture is a hundred local scenes alive with enthusiasm
defensive one, as we build barriers between us and camaraderie and the promise of asy-
and the incessant stream of lies and stupidity lum. It was the sudden knowledge that the
that is your public culture. We aim to carve musicand by extension, the literature, the
out autonomous space, to somehow free thoughtsthat spoke most earnestly and
ourselves from the daily drivel that drones honestly to our lives was virtually forbidden,
from all sides. Its a worldview that is neces- barred from the record labels and airwaves
sarily incomprehensible to your standardized, choked with 60s-style liberationist pap. Nev-
mass-mediated ways of knowing. er again could we blithely file away the hours
And you know none of this, because our in your office complexes, listening dutifully
discourse takes place not on audience-partici- to Madonna on the official radio. Never again
pation TV programs or in the hidebound pag- could we read your newspapers uncritically,
es of your glossy magazines, but in the small assuming their contents bore any relation to
cenacles in college towns; the sub-movements what went on in the world. Our entire gen-

10 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


erational compass was recalibrated instantly not take it into account when they do their
with one glimpse into the working of the studies of the young, there is a vast cultural
machine: we were now outside,our tastes and resistance underway. Your best and bright-
thoughts automatically condemned by a smug est want nothing to do with you. This is a
alliance of hippies and businessmen. generation that will never again cooperate,
It is this experience you will never un- will never make your coffee with equanimity
derstand, nor will your cooptations, your or discuss happily the latest doings of your
manufactured replicas ever bring us back favorite sitcom characters.
to the fold. Our resistance is not a hairstyle Thus we proclaim your American Century
or a Nirvana record or even a leather jacket at an end, with a shrug of distaste rather than
with safety pins. You have created in us an the bang you had counted on. We are a gen-
implacable enemy of the worst kind: a foe eration that finally says NO to your favorite
who understands how your cultural machin- institutions: not only will we not fight for
ery works and whom you are not physically oil, but we dont believe anything that you
capable of retrieving. broadcast, we avoid your malls, we dont care
about the free play of signifiers on your cable
You wonder about the nature of the twenty- TV. And you can never be rid of us.
somethings: heres your answer. We are The Baffler will not win this dispute by
TWENTY-NOTHING, forever lost to itself. You will believe what you choose to be-
your suburban platitudes; lost to the simple lieve, and you will go on using your telephone
blather of your TV; deaf to your non-politics; surveys and your public-opinion polls to
hopelessly estranged from your cult of pro- rationalize it. But then again, we dont care.
fessionalism, the brain-deadening architec- We know who we are, no matter what labels
ture of your office complexes. you choose for us. Now leave us alone.t
Although your anointed authorities may Thomas Frank and Keith White

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 11

Yo Mama
3 Molly McQuade

She loves him, because

he cannot be eaten.
Then, she tries.
Half dead, he resists.
His late flinch
entreats her.

Pale little legs,

that pod,
a few hairs,
almost no eyes
this least is what she craves
yet cannot have.

Keep me,
he asks.
She bounces him
from paw to paw,
and sighs.

If he were
still alive,
would love him
kill him.

For Ethan Leinwand.

12 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t B 5 Naomi Vona

Nuclear Family.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 13

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er


14 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Distressed Cut-Offs
The morning angst
3 Lucy Ellmann

How convenient for capitalism that the self Product placement is the sinister inspira-
morphed so easily into the cellphone. The tion behind much of what these girls inflict
doomed and dying use selfie sticks to record on themselves and one another. They seem to
their every car accident and shark encounter. want to be your pal, but its really the attention
But the web is also awash with cheery self-pro- of multimillion-dollar companies they crave.
motion, from glossy offerings like Comedians in Starbucks looms large. Even half-drunk frap-
Cars Getting Coffee ( Jerry Seinfeld interview- puccinos from yesterday are still worth ten-
ing fellow comedians and advertising cars on derly videoing on their bedside tables. Among
the side) and Freunde von Freunden (where arty the humbler categories of the girlie video
Europeans show off, in text and photos, their world is the shopping haul, in which the girl
carefully curated homes, offices, and dogs) to sits chummily on the floor of her bedroom,
many other types of bragging: terrorist train- displaying bags of clothing and her encyclope-
ing camp highlights; photographic compila- dic knowledge of everything on offer at chain
tions of thimbles, thumbtacks, antique weap- stores, while emphasizing that all the stuff she
onry, or corkscrews; glitzy performances of bought is cute, awesome, and really cheap. Ev-
culinary tasks; more or less frank discussions erything, according to teenyboppers, is super-
of periods and tampons; and goofy videos of duper cute. In a baking video, two cute girls
boys trying on bras. The web is for lonely, make cute cupcakes out of cute ice-cream
needy, greedy show-offs and obsessives, and conesbut how mercilessly would they mock
the people who love them. any girl who thought of eating one. Bulimias
Those most enamored with the technology cute too.
of self-absorption are also the most self-con- Men should be forced to watch this
scious (and most unhappy) people on the planet: stuff, to see what theyve done to women.
teenage girls. These people live in terror of the
society in which they find themselves, and their Hairdos on Demand
main aim is to reach adulthood without being The makeup tutorials feature deceptively am-
raped, shot, manhandled, or murdered. Their ateurish product shots, with shaky close-ups
self-protective strategies take some odd forms, of every lip gloss, shampoo, perfume, and itty-
and they have now carved out for themselves a bitty container of wrinkle cream. They can
whole safe, insular online world in which they seem endless, with the juvenile tutor spend-
record their sheltered existences and get ex- ing twenty minutes at a time basting her face
amined, adored, and minutely hated by other six ways from Thanksgiving. Ever forget to
girls, whom the video girls welcome (in the brush your hair, or apply lipstick, deodorant,
virtual sense only) into their bedrooms. This nail polish, jewelry? These girls dont, and by
is the barefaced, bug-eyed, belief-beggaring, example they encourage other girls to spend
bullshitting selfif not exactly a work of art, at hours of their lives every day on self-conscious
least a work of nascent commerce. self-abasement of the same kind. They even

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 15

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

pretend this is fun: theyre always smiling and the girl seems to be in sole command of
while they administer the gunk. They have a this empire (an adolescents dream come true).
real ball trying to hide their acne. Then there Not much sign of parents or siblings, and cer-
are the sisterly talks, in which were told that tainly not of the retinue of servants that must
friendship is a two-way thing, unhappiness a keep the whole shebang afloat. Outside sits a
waste of time, water necessary, and that bees BMW she claims is hers.
yeah! make the world keep going. In cloyingly But what does she need a car for? Many
solipsistic Q & A sessions, the apparently fas- of these self-chronicling shut-ins are home-
cinating fun-ette answers questions about schooled and hardly go anywhere. Their idea
herself from viewers, such as, Whats your of going out is to sit on the balcony, where they
favorite item of makeup; your OOTD (outfit complain that people in the outside world
of the day); the craziest thing you ever did? In make noise. This interferes with the video
Mom Tags, the mother is interrogated about project, forcing them to retreat indoors. Little
the craziest thing the girl ever did. There are Kaspar Hausers, their only abiding interest is
also whole videos of hairdos, created in re- in looking, sounding, and yeah! acting cool,
sponse, supposedly, to viewer demand. Or, so as to receive thumbs ups on their vlogs.
now and then, you get a ten-minute video on They are dolls come to life: they move their
Whats in My Purse: the depressing contents limbs, chatter, and change their clothes a lot,
of a purse (lets face it, the contents of purses their bodies smooth, their skin (almost) blem-
are generally depressing, because theres rare- ish free. Other lonely, less affluent girls are al-
ly enough money in there) are dumped on the lowed to benefit from this shamanic conform-
floor so that our hostess can mull over, and ism. They can learn, for instance, how to carry
explain, yeah! the mind-numbing purpose of on a ditzy blow-by-blow monologue while ap-
each object. I wish theyd dump out whats in plying the daily dolly mask that ensures they
their wastepaper baskets instead: come on, will prematurely age and require multitudi-
lets see the roaches, needles, and prophylac- nous cosmetic purchases for life. Vita brevis,
tics. But drugs and sex have nothing to do Noxzema longa.
with this particular web niche. These are rich,
pretty, and artfully self-censoring princesses, Amazeballs and Awesome
showing off their regalia. (or: What a Beautifying Morning?)
The most curious thing about these dis- These girls have all mastered the Valley Girl
plays is how alone the girl is. Despite the vague accent and manner, even if their valleys lie
and occasional evidence of moms, it seems in Minnesota or Pennsylvania. Or maybe
more likely that the girl was incubated and Transylvania. Their forced cool is completely
hatched in her bedroom by remote control, standardized. Its always Christmas in July
with no connection to the outside world at all. for them. But distress abounds, and not just
The bedroom is surprisingly neat, the walls in their high-waisted denim cut-offs. Most
white or lilac, with the emphasis on the bed, of these young women are sinisterly manipu-
her pedestal. Shes surrounded by scented can- lated, fearful, and crankyhowever serene
dles and electronic devices. As the girl stud- their foreheads may beand they market to
ies herself, all available screensthe TV, the fellow sad sacks an intimidating set of criteria
laptop, the smartphone, and the meer (or for being acceptable. Theyre like all the girls
mirror)become interchangeable. The house you hated at school, and their pretense of hap-
is brand-new, ostentatious, and ferociously hy- piness is one of the most exasperating things
gienic, with a comically well-stocked fridge, about them. They should all be out saving

16 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 17

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

whales, planting trees, building railroads, dis- opens the fridge door. She embarks on a break-
mantling Guantanamo, or just reading a real fastyogurt, granola, fruit, and coffeethat
book. Instead, theyre half-listening to audio- hints at constipation (see above). Then were
books of recent Hollywood offerings and star- back upstairs to watch the exhaustive makeup
ing at themselves in the meer. They pretend to routine. Its the worst sleepover you ever at-
be cosmopolitan and crazy busy: they always tended. To liven things up a bit, she may take a
have to grab a coffee, a bottle of water, their shower, since she has at least four soapy liquid
boots, or their car keys before theyre good to products to delightedly present. In the shower,
go. But they have fenced themselves off from Morning Routine girls wear bikinis. This is
our collective impending implosion and yeah! never explained. Perhaps, like certain nuns of
banished any hint of it from their speech, old, the girls have been ordered never to look
their looks, their demeanors, and their bou- upon their own naked bodies, for fear of some
doirs. They live in envelopes of arid noncha- unfortunate Edenish awakening that might
lance. They have no time for negativity (nega- lead to the collapse of this purdahed pubes-
tive vloggers are hard to findthey must have cence in which everythings cute except boys.
all been burnt at the stake), and the prissiness For every Humbert Humbert who may
is beyond belief. be watching Morning Routine videos to see
One of the strictest formulae these young budding starlets in bikinis or in bed, there
women have created is the Morning Rou- are at least a dozen female contemporaries
tine video, which issues from their YouTube avidly soaking up the atmos, thrilled to be
channel (they dwell on this word: they may spoken to nicely by anyone, even a complete
believe they own whole TV networks). The stranger or a complete idiot. Artificiality
Morning Routine sometimes begins with an is a given: despite the pretense of intimacy,
intro, in which the kid flings her arms around truthfulness, and autonomy, most of these
a lot and wags her head from side to side in video artists obviously have a lot of technical
a sphinxy way to make sure you know shes help. The more energetic the camera angles,
cute, alarmingly so. Now the routine blasts the more ruthless the editing, the more vivid
off. The convention is that shes asleep in bed. the lighting, the more maniacal the colors,
Her cellphone buzzes, she drowsily silences the more hotel-like the domicile, and the
it, and then proceeds to spend a good amount more joyful (and savage) the dermabrasion,
of time lying in various poses on the bed tex- the happier the sponsors. You should see all
ting people and yeah! checking social media. the jars of brushes and eyebrow pencils, the
A memo of the midteen midriff. Sometimes a array of eye shadows and eye shadow con-
purse-dog or bunny rabbit joins her to be cud- cealers, the eyeliners and eyelash curlers and
dled (bunnies are big in this world, though the earlobe accentuators, the lipsticks, the lip ex-
bunny itself must be small). Then, abruptly foliators, the lip-zippers, the cold cream, the
forgetting all about her squiffy pet, the girl foundation, the ointments, the unguents, the
stumbles into her private bathroom. mists and sprays and monsoon mud packs,
No one excretes in this fantasyland. In- the scissors, the tweezers, the sponges and
stead, at the sight of a new meer, she starts cotton balls and foam pads and pad foams,
dancing excitedly to her favorite music. and yeah! the amazeballs hair-curling and
Soon shes trotting, still in her cutesome pjs, hair-straightening and hair-knuckle-under
through the echoing mansion to the fridge, machines. Its enough for the army of make-
which handily houses a camera so that we can up artists on a Busby Berkeley picture. The
see her yeah! exact facial expression as she shelving alone deserves an Oscar, with many

18 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

little totalitarian drawers of very well-orga- life is controlled, possessed, by a shifting set
nized stuff. With such pigments and priori- of laws. . . . The side of the street she walks on,
ties, these adolescents could be painting the the shoes she wears to walk on it, the socks,
Sistine Chapel! But Morning Routine art is the skirt, the pocketbook . . . even the jacket
ephemeral, and all wiped away twelve hours and the haircut are rigidly prescribed.
later by the Nighttime Routine.
But baby-boom popularity-seekers were
The Hall of Meers spared the extra barbed wire of social media.
Theres a confessional element to the before- Will our pampered slave-girls break free?
and-after cosmetic transformations: these Their current YouTube, Instagram, Keek,
girls are admitting to their viewers that chan- and Vine experiments could turn into real girl
neling Barbie takes work. To show theyre hu- powerif these ostriches could only find time
man, they may even venture into a little irony for it, between the waxing and the waning of
(of the easy Friends variety), presenting some their beauty regimens. A little light activism
stagey awkwardness or a little self-parody in might brighten the bleak days of their dot-
the requisite blooper reel at the end. Other- age, for surely they cant remain apolitical
wise, theyre continuously upbeatsince un- narcissists forever, documenting their own
happiness is such a waste of time. They are disintegration.t
product placement cheerleaders, with blusher
brushes as their pompoms, the purse-pup as
mascot, and the bedroom a field of dreams.
Some of these walking advertisements are
under sixteen, though, and therefore child Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [A]
laborers. Theyre exploited, and they in turn
exploit, varnishing their sponsorships, hood- Acersecomick One whose hair
winking their public, and luring the unwary was never cut.
toward their deranged music videos, which Daniel Aaron
they also want to sell. So, yeah! these home-
made stars lead freedomless, eventless, nour-
ishmentless, and odorless livesapart from
all the fumes from the promotional perfume
and toner with which they hourly douse them-
selves. Though vulnerable to thumbs downs
across the globe on account of their asses (fat)
and eyebrows (thick), their resolutely pally
personas are perfect avatars of capitalism.
The phenomenon isnt new. As Shirley
Jackson put it in the 1950s:
From the time my daughter gets up in the
morning to brush her hair the same number
of times that Carole up the street is brushing
her hair to the time she turns off her radio at
night after listening to the same program that
Cheryl three blocks away is listening to, her

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 19

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

Paterfamilias, Kaput
Everybody knows
3 Jacob Silverman

The August leak of thirty-plus gigabytes of it would continue to dump data periodically
datacustomer email addresses and credit (and punitively). This corporate set-to deliv-
card records, company emails, salary and ered, in short, an admirably elegant equation
bank information, source code, at least one of motivational boardroom sloganeering:
film treatmentfrom Ashley Madison, the Avid Life plus Impact Team equals Cheerless
pro-infidelity dating site, brought the cul- Monogamy Vindicated.
tural logic of the moment to some kind of But things didnt stop there. Enterprising
perverse perfection. With all of the florid crusaders with nothing better to do created
maximalism of a Michael Bay film, the hack, searchable versions of Ashley Madisons user
targeting Toronto-based Avid Life Media list from the dumped files, and the Washington
(ALM), Ashley Madisons parent company, Post and others published articles explaining
proved that information about ourselves we just how a Schadenfreude-minded tech ci-
might hold private and dear shall be, in due vilian could go about plumbing the database
courseinescapably, you betspilled faster for customized juicy details. The names of
than a two-pump chump six beers into Satur- various notable members began to emerge,
day night. though they could claim, at best, a dubious
On cue, the usual doleful cultural assess- provenance: Ashley Madisons loose proce-
ments arrived alongside the tidal wave of dures meant that anyones email address could
hacked data to scold a site promoting covert be registered with the site. A famous conser-
infidelity. As moral failings go, hypocrisy ap- vative family values activist/reality star/sex-
peals to the easily shocked, the naive, or the ual abuserthe triple crown of todays right
deeply cynical. (Gawker founder Nick Denton wingwas a member, apparently. So were
once said, before his public conversion on the some politicians, an NFL player, actors, gov-
subject, Hypocrisy is the only modern sin.) ernment employees, and a guy I went to col-
This righteous judgmentalism, which is noth- lege with. What do you know?
ing if not regressive, originated with the hack- Fairly quickly, tales of individual Ash-
ers themselves, a group calling itself the Im- ley Madison users began to appear, most-
pact Team. In several statements, the Impact ly anonymously. Some reflected familiar
Teamwhich an ALM executive indicated tropes of rich men paying for sex or socia-
may include a former contractorcastigated bility. But some offered more complicated
the sites users, addressing them as cheating picturesloveless marriages, open relation-
dirtbags who should learn your lesson and ships, appetites for self-destruction, desire
make amends. Initially, the Impact Team for companionship, or minor transgressive
had demanded that ALM shut down its two thrills. Sex outside of marriage happens in
most prominent sites (Ashley Madison and many forms, but the users of Ashley Madi-
Established Men); when that didnt happen, son were judged through the lens of the sites
the group began the leak and announced that louche promotional style. (Life is short.

20 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


Have an affair.) There is no reason to sit in has enthroned this same principle of preda-
judgment over others private sexual choices, tory mass humiliation, relentlessly pushing its
except that it can feel good and allow us to hapless subjects toward mockery and failure
think we have made better ones. while rewarding a (supposedly) lucky few. The
Within days of the story efflorescing onto promise of a permanent afterlife in the form
every homepage and feed, there were reports of embarrassing search results, tied to their
of blackmail attempts and two suicides con- real names, hangs over all viral stars. Welcome
nected to the leak. The operative sentiment to the funhouse, guys.
in this affair wasnt so much distaste for hy-
pocrisy as simple cruelty. A great deal of re- It soon became clear, amid the mount-
porting on the viral sensation of the moment ing digital squalor surrounding the Ashley
boils down to pointing at some stranger, brief- Madison hack, that Avid Life Media was far
ly in the glare of the spotlight, and announc- from innocent. As security researchers, re-
ing: Look at this dumb bastard. Reality TV porters, and untold amateurs pored over the

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 21

ALM data, the startling possibility emerged background search service
that Ashley Madison was a fraud. It turned these destinations are designed to coax users
out that most of the sites users were men. at every turn to add another upgrade, piece of
Women rarely sent messages; the company, insurance, associated product, or membership
in fact, had programmed millions of bots to renewal to the shopping cart, simply by click-
contact male accounts, feigning female inter- ing another box. Fantasies arent cheap.
est. (Two years ago, a former Ashley Madi- If the Internet really is some kind of col-
son employee sued the site, claiming that lective id, then the scattered traces of such
she injured her wrists via the drudgework of transactions reflect who we are and where
creating hundreds of fake female profiles weve beennot to mention the inadmissible,
not exactly the sort of repetitive motion the time-honored fact that we might desire vari-
dude-heavy client base was likely fantasizing eties of sex that our regressive society doesnt
about.) People may have met and had affairs condone. In the immortal epigram of William
through the site, but probably vastly fewer Blake, Those who restrain desire do so be-
than implied by Ashley Madisons cunningly cause theirs is weak enough to be restrained.
crafted image. As Navneet Alang wrote in For everyone else, there was Ashley Madison,
Hazlitt, It was, in essence, a site dedicated to a machine built to exploit the rickety insti-
fantasy. tution of marriage, promising security and
There were other signs of deceptive behav- discretion in its algorithmic matchmaking.
ior, if not outright criminality. Users pass- What a crock. But every good grift has its
words were poorly encrypted, allowing a group winners: ALMs defrocked CEO made $5 mil-
of researchers to crack eleven million pass- lion last year.t
words in ten days. Emails between company
executives appeared to reveal efforts to spam
Twitter with one hundred thousand messages
per month, design a stock-picking app that
would serve as a front for a pump-and-dump Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [B]
scheme, and hack into competitors systems.
Company engineers also created an app called Bye-blow Bastard, result of
Whats Your Wife Worthno elaboration a passing fancy.
needed. Daniel Aaron
The site makes money by soaking users
with fees. Liaison-seekers have to pay for all
kinds of essential features, from messaging
women to sharing photos to being guaran-
teed an affair. Until recently, Ashley Madi-
son charged customers $19 to delete their ac-
counts, yet held onto data it claimed to have
trashed; included in the leak were birthdays,
body weights, and geographic coordinates of
men (poor saps) who thought they had paid to
cover their tracks.
This kind of pay-to-play model can be
found at many low-rent e-commerce shops. STUART GOLDENBERG

GoDaddy, Ticketmaster, Spirit Airlines, the

22 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

wS T O R Y

From All the Houses

3 Karen Olsson

Often when I tell people I grew up in Washington, D.C., they ask me if I grew up in the city proper
or in the suburbs. In the city, I tell them, though Ive felt funny saying it. But it was like a suburb,
Ive sometimes added, because I grew up in Cleveland Park, a leafy realm of large houses and oak trees
and private schools, where people could (and did) tune out the rest of the city.
This book is set in that world, the genteel neighborhoods of northwest Washington, where a legion
of lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, economists, and others make their homes and raise their kids. People
in that world tend to be more than a little obsessed with their work and their professional status,
which takes its toll on the families there.
The story traces the repercussions for one family after the father, a Reagan Administration
official, gets caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. It alternates between the mid-1980s, when Tim
Atherton is working at the White House vetting communications for the national security advisor,
and 20042005, when Tims middle daughter, Helen, returns to D.C. to take care of Tim after a
heart attack.
The chapter you will read here takes place in 1985, as the secret negotiations and operations that
led to the scandal are well under way. A couple of months prior to this, Tim attended a meeting in
Miami between Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras. After the
meeting, Tim related a story to North about a cabinet secretary whod made a coarse joke in front of
the presidenta story that will work its way back to him. Karen Olsson

N obody sleeps. The men tasked with running the country, they are
in bed a few hours a night, if that, which they occasionally supplement
by snoozing on an office couch or nodding off in a meeting. Night after
night they deprive themselves, until more than a few hours of sleep are
no longer even an option, for theyve replaced their steady circadian
rhythms with staccato, erratic beats. Their heads buzz and ache and
echo. Other countries, distant wars, twirl in the dreamless kaleido-
scopes of their minds, as they write memos and more memos.
Most days, Tim drives to work. At six, six-thirty you can usually
still find a space not too far away. From behind, with its fountain not
yet turned on and the East and West Wings half-hidden by trees, the
famous building is just a house. Often, the sunrise is the last thing he
sees before he goes inside of it, joining a slew of nervy workers in coats
and badges. And once he passes through the portal that is the west en-
trance, through security, he finds himself in the midst of an alternative
civilization, a hive, with fluorescent lights buzzing and the presidential
seal everywhere, on the walls and the coffee cups. Men in dark suits
walk briskly to and fro as brisker couriers retrieve and deliver the great
daily burden of paper documents, waves of memoranda and briefings

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 23

parceled out in manila envelopes, bound dossiers, file folders, naked
stacks still warm from the copy machine. Here are the graying viziers
of the free world and their minions, their staffers, their secretaries
eager Southern girls changing out of their Reeboks into navy-blue
pumps. Here a lingering odor of scrambled eggs from the breakfast
Tim works for Robert McFarlane, the national security advisor,
a.k.a. the assistant to the president for national security affairs. It
bothers McFarlane no end that the president has not yet established a
clear set of policy goals, leaving his own office without an agenda. The
advisor tries to seal away his grievances, his fear that he isnt accom-
plishing anything, and yet he takes such pains to present a calm facade
that the underlying turmoil is all too apparent, as if he were continually
declaring that he was not upset, no, not in the slightest. Not at all! At
times the force of his anguish and the force of his efforts to swallow
the anguish combine to make him hover just above the ground, or so it
seems to Tim. He returns from the presidents morning security brief-
ing with his jaw locked and his Florsheims floating over the carpet: out
of sheer frustration, the assistant to the president for national security
affairs is levitating.
He is mysterious to the people around him. He speaks in abstrac-
tions, makes general pronouncements in a flat voice that stops, backs
up, starts again, and does everything it can to avoid any slithering, bit-
ing emotion. His jaw clenches. But every so often, a vent opens and he
releases a quantum of steam. His voice grows more insistent, though
no louder, and his ears redden. Tim doesnt necessarily know what (or
who) caused it. His boss, as hes confided to Jodi Dentoff over lunch,
is an honorable, thoughtful man, but his desire for the presidents ap-
proval runs so deep it can never really be satisfied.
McFarlane would return from a meeting and lament, The president
has been misinformed! Its bad policy!
All right, Tim says. Lets put together some information for him.
But his boss bristles at that, ever loath to contradict his commander.
Instead, he contradicts himself: Its not a matter of information, he
says. And then, just as quickly as this upset emerged, it is suppressed.
Redacted. A thick black line is drawn over his covert turmoil. McFar-
lane places the studious mask back over his face and asks Tim to locate
an unrelated document. Then he asks whether Poindexter is in, nod-
ding at the closed door to his deputys office.
I believe so, says Tim.
The deputy is a taciturn man, a vice admiral more inclined toward
technical questions than politics, his mouth frequently plugged by a
pipe, the door to his office usually shut. Tim doesnt knowalmost nev-
er knows for surewhether hes there behind that door or not. At the
end of the day, Tim is distantly, quietly fond of McFarlane: hes rooting

24 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


for the boss, hoping hell drone and frown his way out of the adminis-
trative straitjacket hes been forced to wear, unlikely as that may be.
But with the technocrat in the deputys office, who mostly communi-
cates, if at all, through short sentences scrawled on memos, Tim rarely
finds common ground.
McFarlane heads toward his own office door, then reverses direc-
tion and asks Tim to lend him a quarter for the vending machine. He
takes a series of deliberate breaths, as his eyes peer out from their cool

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 25

caverns. Before he marches off he saysto Tim, to Poindexters closed
door, to nobodyI believe it is necessary for us to follow a coherent
course of action, in accordance with the presidents objectives.
His voice becomes lower and slower as he continues. Thats of the
utmost importance, he says. Clear, decisive action is needed.

I n the courtyard at the Tabard Inn, Tim drapes his arms over the back
of his small chair and clasps his hands behind him. He tilts the chair
onto its hind legs. Its a balmy day, and the light lusters the two friends
hes met for lunch. He listens to them trade tattle, between bites.
Because what I hear is, Shultz has been offering to resign on a daily
basis, Jodi says, referring to the secretary of state.
I wouldnt call it daily, says Dick.
Hes spinning his wheels.
Its not like Shultz is the only guy whos got problems.
The clusters of iron furniture are like big spiders that screech every
time they move. He and Dick and Jodi meet up once a month, some-
times more, for breeze-shooting purposes. The Washington breeze:
the braid of information and misinformation and you-didnt-hear-it-
from-me, the airstream of open secrets. Flirting also plays a part in it,
the weightless, daytime flirting that keeps things interesting.
Look at this woman eat, Dick says.
She is a tiny woman with an enormous appetite, now making short
work of a cheeseburger. For Tim its like watching his daughters when
they were younger and had hands as small as Jodis and ate real food
before all the diets. Do Jodis feet even reach the floor? He is a giant by
She takes a sip of her iced tea. Im still recovering from last week, she
says. I was in Phoenix, which was like Satans armpit. So hot I couldnt
What were you doing out there? Dick asks.
Talking to loons, she says. These people had their own logic that I
couldnt follow. I understood what they were saying on the face of it,
and going from A to B it made sense, but once they got out to F or G it
was just gobbledygook. This group called the United States Council for
World Freedom, theyre out there in the desert plotting how to eradi-
cate communism globally.
I hear theyve got Scottsdale pretty well cleared, Tim says. When
youre out in that kind of heat theres a different thinking process that
happens, she says.
Tim dreamed, once, that he and Jodi were standing together at a
cocktail party, a fund-raiser in a great empty plain of a room, with
a huge marble floor and no one else there but the waiters. When he
awoke he retained that image, and it has stayed with him as though its
a secret they share.

26 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

And how goes it in the inner sanctum? she asks him.
I wish I knew. You know how many people are on our staff, Tim
says. Its one hundred eighty-something. And McFarlane talks to may-
be half a dozen of those. The rest dont know what the hell theyre do-
ing. I mean, some do, but weve got guys who are literally wandering
the halls.
She narrows her eyes, even as she eats and eats. Its an impossible Look at this
situation, she says.
woman eat,
Exactly, he says. Thats off the record.
Mitchell scoops up a bundle of Jodis fries and eats them one by one Dick says.
out of his hand.
If you want any fries, just help yourself, she quips. 9
On paper Tim and Dick Mitchell have the same credentials, same
track records in Washington. Tim would never swipe fries off some-
ones plate without asking, though. At work, he relies more on dili-
gence, while Mitchell has his card sharks memory, his agility, and a
talent for endearing himself to older men.
Theres been talk about your hardworking marine, Jodi says to Tim.
Theyre saying that the lieutenant colonel has gone operational, she
says. That hes been jetting off to Ilopango and Tegucigalpa. They say
his ass is way out on a limb.
How people relish the sheer insiderness of inside information, the
specialized lingo of the agency and bureau, the acronyms within acro-
nyms within acronymsand inside the innermost one, a rumor about
a petty feud or somebodys drinking problem. Or Norths irregular
(since nobody really knew what was illegal) activities. Every fact has its
own, erratic momentum. It sticks to other facts, and they drag words
along behind them. For instance: after the president was diagnosed
with intestinal cancer he said that he did not suffer from cancer. He
later clarified that while he did have cancer, he did not suffer from it.
He didnt feel that he had suffered.
Jodi has stopped eating: Any chance you could confirmI cant,
Tim says.
It must make you uneasy, she says.
I see the guy sometimes. I barely know him.
You know what the complaint is, she says. Youve got all these mili-
tary officers, ex-military working over therethey dont understand
politics. They resent it. They see Congress as the enemy.
Tim nods. Its a familiar rap on his bosses, but to him it seems su-
perficial, a description as opposed to a diagnosis. I dont think anybody
really knows, he says. Knows the whole situation.
Youre talking about North, Jodi says.
North isnt so bad, he says. Everythings happening interstitially now.
Jodi notices the time. She lays cash on the table, stands up, and backs
away, smiling. Gentlemen, she says. Its been a pleasure.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 27

After she leaves another spark lights up Mitchells face. He taps the
edge of the table twice, with both hands, and tells Tim: You managed
that well enough.
He isnt aware that he tried to manage anything. He doesnt think
of it that way. But he can see from Dicks expression that his friend
knows all about Norths game, maybe more than he himself does.
There is too much to know, too little to do. Every morning the agency
staff descend from Annandale and Arlington by the thousands, with
their lunches in brown bags, and succeed by dint of their long memo-
ries and regulatory vim in maintaining what the outsider might take
to be stasis but what, to these balding Virginians, is a delicate equilib-
rium. A hippopotamus perched, just so, on top of a pole. Required to
maintain the balance are strategic delays, lunch at ones desk, gallons
of sour coffee, thousands of ballpoint pens, careful ignorance of what
might be happening in other departments, and countless memoranda
with titles like Initial Proposals Re: Preliminary Steps to Prevent
Negative Consequences.
Tims position is superior to those of the pencil pushers, yet he has
limited authority; it is not for him to direct policy or to be captured on
camera as he marches from a doorway into a waiting black car. He is a
platinum conduit, a fancy connector, through which top-secret mat-
ters ooze their way along, and as they go past, small adjustments can
be made, suggestions offered, deposits of information amassed. He
is close enough to the peripheral bureaucracy that he nurses a fear of
becoming engulfed by it, of turning into a numbassed, forgotten desk
rat, to whom none but the most inscrutable and irrelevant documents
are routed, and routed lastthe fear that his would be the desk where
disregarded memos go to die.

A few years earlier, the White House had been no more technologi-
cally capable than a bank branch, but just recently a man whod worked
on the presidents campaign promoted, then installed, an office com-
puter network. Now every desk has a machine, its rounded screen tra-
versed by letters and numbers, a glowing green armada of characters
arranging themselves into directives and updates and schedules. Now
messages can be sent directly from one person to another, rather than
by the standard routing arrangement. Nobody has oversight over the
flow of it all.
It was part of Tims job to review the documents intended for the
national security advisor, forwarding some of them along and rerout-
ing others. He has tried to maintain an equivalent control over the
computer messages, but often hell ask for a document only to be told
that it has been sent straight to the boss. Theres no controlling the
little green characters. North, he knows, sends everything directly to
Poindexter and McFarlane.

28 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

He goes across the street, looking for North. Within this
Inside the Old Executive Office Building, the grand rooms that
once housed the Department of War are themselves embattled, in dis-
repair, spattered with bits of chipped-off paint, stalactites of dust in and sodden
the corners. Distinguished area experts bring in box fans during the
summer and space heaters during the winter. Exposed wiring dangles
from the ceiling in one of the mens rooms. the rhetoric
Within this massive and sodden building the rhetoric of crisis is
of crisis is
slung about. He waits outside a meeting of the Outreach Working
Group on Central America, where North is holding court, and after slung about.
the meeting breaks up he intercepts North. He wants to discuss the
computer messaging system. Lets walk back to my office, North says. 9
In his head he has rehearsed what he means to say. He wants to dis-
cuss the computer messaging system. I think we need to get some-
thing straight. These are the rules. An organization has to abide by
its own rules, or else chaos will result. But those are words in his head,
spoken to an image of North, and here is the man himself swaddled in
his noble causes. Rules and procedure and caution are impediments,
obstructions to right action. Tim has to portray himself as a fellow
All messages from you are considered high priority, Tim says. Ill see
to it that he gets everything right away
You bet, Ill route everything through you, North says.
I only ask because that hasnt been the case recently.
What happens is, Ill be working late, Im here at ten p.m., or on a
Sunday, and since youre not here I just send it directly.
But if you route it to me, itll still go to the boss as soon as hes in.
You bet.
Room 392 is Norths command center: there are multiple terminals
and a printer with paper spilling out onto the ground, and several dif-
ferent-colored phones, one of which is answered by the prettiest wom-
an in the building. As they walk in, she calls out messages like numbers
in a bingo game, ending with, And you-know-who came by to say that
Motley still hasnt sent the draft directive you asked for.
Thats just what we were talking about upstairs, this BS from
State. If we didnt have one or two friends over there, I dont know
what wed do.
Then he turns to Tim and grabs him by the forearm. Hey, listen to
He proceeds to tell Tim a variation of the story Tim told him in
Miami, but now its the secretary of state making the joke about
the man and the elephant, the story exaggerated and turned into a
parable of ineptitude. He clearly has no idea that Tim told it to him
originally, and that it was about a different man, no memory of that at

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 29

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

The Family Plot

On the rule of the perpetual snot-nose
3 Kathleen Geier

This August, a crew of crackpot Republican are responsible for almost half of the contri-
presidential hopefuls dutifully trudged to an butions to the 2016 presidential election.
elite donor conference hosted by the power- Domination of family clans is something
ful patrons of the American right, billionaire few predicted during the midcentury heyday
brothers Charles and David Koch. The candi- of the middle class. In his 1960 book, The End
dates outdid one another in obsequiousness. of Ideology, sociologist Daniel Bell heralded
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina the breakup of family capitalism. In early-
gushed that the Kochs and their cronies are stage capitalism, the political economy was
people who care deeply about our nation, ruled by an elite group of families, Bell point-
and who are willing to put their time and their ed out, and inheritance was a key determinant
energy and their resources and their minds to of how wealth was allocated across the genera-
the challenge of making a better nation. And tions. Bell argued that by the early twentieth
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker chirped century, the old order was giving way to a new
hopefully, from the dregs of his campaign, So system in which property was becoming sepa-
many of you here arent here because of any rated from family control. Dynastic marriag-
interest on behalf of your personal finances or es had been key to keeping the old system in
your industries, youre here because you love place, but with the rise of the individualized
America. But there was one GOP contender ethos of romantic love, affective marriage
who was having none of it: real estate magnate became the norm, and cross-class alliances
and reality TV star Donald Trump. The short- of the heart were on the rise. Meanwhile, on
fingered vulgarian tweeted, I wish good luck the more strictly managerial front, a series of
to all of the Republican candidates that trav- crises erupted that led to the financial indus-
eled to California to beg for money etc. from trys gradual takeover of many of the countrys
the Koch Brothers. Puppets? largest and most powerful enterprises. The
Yes, the only candidate to call bullshit on bankers removed the family owners and re-
this sycophantic exercise was the richest man placed them with professional managers, who
in the race. But Trumps utterance only un- in turn eventually won independent control of
derscores the new normal of the postCitizens the firms.
United environment. Its no longer enough to Thus, by the middle of the twentieth cen-
argue that moneyed interests are controlling tury, technical and management skills, rather
our politicsnow we must heed the moneyed than property and inheritance, were seen as
dynasties scrambling to lord over the erstwhile the key sources of wealth and power. As Bell
American common good. Among the mega- wrote:
donor class, much of the funding is actually
The young men from the provinces, pass-
coming from a small subset of Americas great
ing through the classrooms of the Harvard
family fortunes. A New York Times analysis
Business School, now had an avenue by which
found that fewer than four hundred families

30 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


to ascend to high social as well as economic family capitalismor as Thomas Piketty has
positions. Thus family capitalism gave way to dubbed it, patrimonial capitalismis stron-
social mobility. ger than ever.

Looking back at Bells essay more than Here Comes Junior

half a century later, its hard to hail it as an Truth be told, family capitalism never really
unerring work of prophecy. Indeed, its re- went away. Family-controlled businesses are
markable how little our present economy still overwhelmingly the norm; some 80 to 90
has in common with the brave new world of percent of businesses in the United States are
midcentury managerial capitalism, and how family-owned. Family-controlled firms make
strongly it resembles the old regime. Contrary up about 35 percent of the Fortune 500 and a
to Bells predictions, many of Americas most third of the S&P 500, and account for 62 per-
powerful corporations are still owned and op- cent of U.S. jobs. Household names such as
erated by wealthy families. Inheritance-based Walmart, Ford, Campbells Soup, The Gap,

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 31

Comcast, and Purdue Pharma (the maker confer equal voting rights to outside stock
of OxyContin) are family-run enterprises. purchasers.
Media empires seem to be especially fond of An old problem also plagues family firms:
family control: witness the New York Times what do you do if your heir apparent turns out
Company (the Sulzbergers), News Corp (the to be a wastrel, a dullard, or worse? In Thomas
Murdochs), Viacom (the Redstones), Cond Manns great novel of family capitalism, Bud-
Nast (the Newhouses), and Rolling Stone denbrooks, each successive generation displays
(the Wenners). Forbess list of the richest less business sense and weaker attachment to
Americans is studded with gazillionairesthe bourgeois virtues than the one preceding it.
Kochs, the Waltons, the Pritzkers, Donald The once-thriving family firm slowly declines
Trump himselfwho made their money the until finally, in the novels closing pages, it is
old-fashioned way: they inherited the family liquidated. Contemporary research supports
business. Family owners of the worlds most the intuition that putting the heirs in posi-
lucrative businesses are often strikingly re- tions of power tends to be bad for business.
luctant to yield control, no matter how much One study found that family members who
they might marry for love or delegate day-to- serve as board leaders and CEOs are more
day managerial tasks to a credentialed busi- likely to erode shareholder value. Investors
ness elite. A recent study of the worlds five in corporate giants such as Comcast, Bechtel,
hundred largest family-run businesses found Marriott, and Fidelity Investments, as well as
that 44 percent of them were owned by mem- countless others, should take heed. In each of
bers of the fourth generation or later. those companies, the CEO inherited the job
So what happened, exactly? One key de- from dear old dad.
velopment is that the older model of family- Unlike the class of executive heirs Warren
controlled capitalism has merged with the fi- Buffett dubs the lucky sperm club, manag-
nancialized variety rather than ceding control ers do not inherit their positions. But todays
to it. Todays family firms are far more likely managerial elites have little in common with
than their predecessors to have access to the the socially mobile young men from the prov-
capital markets they need in order to expand. inces whom Bell saw embodying the brave
Perhaps even more important, regulators have new spirit of technocratic capitalism. Particu-
been extraordinarily accommodating of fami- larly in the United States, spiraling economic
lies desires to maintain control of their busi- inequality has largely been driven by a new
nesses even as they sell off large quantities of class of supermanagers: executives who have
company shares to outside investors. The in- helped themselves to lavish, historically un-
novation that enables this valuable bit of leg- precedented compensation packageschiefly
erdemain is called the dual-class share. Such stock options designed to spur the lucky CEO
stocks enable the nameplate family at the clutching them to push for ever greater up-
helm of a large conglomerate to retain most ward spirals of short-term profitability. These
of the voting power even while owning a mi- pay packages convert such traditional longer-
nority of shares. The advantages to the family term managerial perks as performance-based
are obvious: dual shares maximize control but salaries and pensions into wealth and future
minimize financial risk. Dual-class shares are income from wealth. Defenders often claim
becoming increasingly popular, especially in that merit is the reason the executive elite is
the tech sector, but they have a serious down- rewarded so exorbitantly: the competition for
side. Numerous studies have found that dual- truly gifted Maximum Leader CEOs is so in-
class firms perform worse than those that tense that the firms retaining their talent have

32 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

to produce top-dollar paydays to keep them the goods that win the daymore than grades
generating value. Yet there is not a shred of or experienceare extracurricular activities,
evidence that firms that reward their execu- a sunny autobiographical narrative suffused
tives with spectacular compensation packages with overclass values such as individualism
perform any better than those that remuner- and personal achievement, a polished self-
ate them more moderately. presentation, and social compatibility with
the interviewer. These intangibles are quint-
The Apple Tree essential class markersthe tastes, styles, and
Whats more, the system by which aspiring behaviors that are powerfully linked to status
professionals gain entry into the executive elite and mediated through the family.
is itself anything but meritocratic. This trend, It starts with education. Parental econom-
ironically enough, recapitulates the original ic resources are quite blatantly the prime de-
idea of meritocracya term coined by social- terminant of the quality of a childs education.
ist British scholar Michael Young to describe Not only do affluent parents have the option
the stubborn retention of wealth by a mobbed- of sending their kids to private schools, but
up power elite operating under the beguiling they are far more likely to live in neighbor-
cover of professional expertise. Young fore- hoods with high-quality public schools. Un-
saw that such a meritocracy would expedite like most countries, the United States funds
the rise of an uncredentialed, permanently public schools through property taxes, so
disenfranchised service class, which, he pre- most well-heeled school districts cluster dis-
dicted, would eventually rise up to overthrow proportionately in neighborhoods with high
their social betters. And it takes but a glance property values and high incomes. Thus,
at the vertiginous inequalities of the Ameri- geography becomes destiny, as schools in af-
can Information Age to see that something fluent neighborhoods are significantly more
very much like Youngs dystopian prophecy likely to offer academically enriching curri-
has come to passexcept, so far, for the rising- cula, including the kinds of Advanced Place-
up part. Meritocracy smacks of nothing so ment courses and athletics, music, art, and
much as old-fashioned class privilege. drama programs that are prized so highly by
Take the supermanager class. Overwhelm- the admissions committees of elite colleges.
ingly, supermanager jobs are doled out to The college counseling offices at these schools
the lucky few who possess all the advantages are also, not surprisingly, likely to be top
from birth: the kind of social, cultural, and, flighthigh-achieving, high-income college
yes, economic capital that is transmitted kids being, as they are, the main export of this
through the family. In her sharp-eyed recent particular hothouse industry. And should the
study, Pedigree, sociologist Lauren A. Rivera ample public resources at their disposal still
analyzes how it is that elite students get elite not suffice to secure the bulging Ivy League
jobsprestigious, highly paid positions in admission envelope so hotly coveted in this
tony law, investment banking, and consulting educational nirvana, wealthier families can
firms. The book, which The Economists review also lay out for tutors, test-prep programs, and
rather hilariously blurbed as a guide on how high-cost extracurricular activities.
to join the global elite, shows that access to But economic resources arent the only rea-
these jobs is hardly determined by ostensibly son why high-income kids have such a power-
impartial and meritocratic criteria such as ful advantage in the college admissions game.
grades or specific skills. In the first place, a By virtue of generalized access to the higher
degree from an elite college is de rigueur. And levels of what social scientists have dubbed

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 33

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

social capitaldefined by Rivera as the size, tech campuses: a counseling program special-
status, and reach of peoples social networks izing in wealth management.
affluent parents can leverage contacts and in- Of course, Harvard, for all its mythic im-
sider knowledge to help their children gain in- port in the sustenance of venerable family
ternships, admission to schools and academic capitalist rule, is just one campus. Still, the
programs, and other critical advantages. For same basic dynamic is now replicated at most
the kids, too, the sheer suffocating monocul- upper-echelon colleges across the nationbe-
ture of a peer group single-mindedly orga- ginning with who does and doesnt matricu-
nized around their miniature social-capital late at any college campus, anywhere. Among
networks of maximum achievement is a pow- members of the highest-income quartile of
erful point of entry into the Ivied good life. American families, about 80 percent earn col-
lege degrees; among the lowest-earning quar-
The Nepotism Trust tile, only about 10 percent do so. The educa-
Cultural resources tend to be less visible than tional advantages of the elite extend even to
the traditional material markers of social and its least intellectually distinguished members.
economic class and status. But as Rivera ar- One study has shown that the lowest-scoring
gues, they are powerful drivers of stratifica- rich kids are about as likely to graduate from
tion, especially when it comes to gaining ac- college as the highest-scoring students from
cess to societys upper echelons. The cultural low-income families. And even a fourth-
ethos of achievement-for-advancements-sake generation legacy admission C-student could
supplies the frames of knowledge, percep- grow up to be the forty-third president of
tion, interpretation, and behavior we use to these United States. Isnt America wonderful?
navigate the social world. Most especially, In college admissions, in other words, merit
the overclass family hearth incubates all the turns out to be a highly malleable construct.
intangible yet invaluable assets that make up Before the 1920s, Ivy League schools largely
the plutocrat-in-trainings zone of comfort: based their admissions decisions on intellec-
class-specific tastes, values ... modes of self- tual meritsubject tests and the like. But, as
presentation ... and behaviors. sociologist Jerome Karabel has shown, when
You can get some sense of the powers con- Jews started to gain entry to the Ivies in large
ferred by this sort of cultural advantage by re- numbers, the formula shifted in significant
viewing the numbers. Beginning in the early ways. Admissions standards began to empha-
1980s, just as entrance into elite colleges be- size character rather than academic achieve-
came significantly more competitive, parental ment. And what was character, exactly? Well, it
income was becoming an increasingly strong had a lot to do with being well-rounded, and
predictor of admission into these schools. taking exuberant part in sports and extracur-
And not surprisingly, the rich-kid advantage ricular activitiesthings, in other words, that
in the admissions game is most overwhelming were difficult to pursue in credibly privileged
at the nations most prestigious colleges. At fashion in the Jewish enclaves of major Ameri-
Harvard, only 4 percent of undergrads come can cities. As Jews became more assimilated,
from families in the lowest 20 percent of in- they were better able to demonstrate exactly
comes, but about half of the undergrads come the kind of character the admissions offices
from families in the top 4 percent. Small won- demanded. To this day, the overclass notion
der that just opposite Harvard Yard, a bank of character remains an invaluable filtering
billboard offers something you wont see at device to screen out the proles. And naturally
your typical community colleges or ag-and- enough, the project of acquiring what the Ivies

34 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


call character costs a whole lot of money. male students at a large state university, the
Bankrolling Madisons tennis lessons or Finns authors found that after five years, fully half
summer building houses in Costa Rica does the students were on a path of downward eco-
not come cheapparticularly when you con- nomic mobility and that their fates sorted out
sider the not-so-small fortunes anxious par- almost perfectly according to their class back-
ents are spending on tutors, test-prep services, grounds. As political scientist Suzanne Met-
private school tuition, and even application tler has noted, rather than reducing inequal-
coaches and admissions consultants. ity, our system of higher education reinforces
And yet its worth it: for professional-class it. Less privileged students frequently attend
elites, college is a ticket to the good life. But inferior schools (many of them of the for-prof-
for the rest of America, its a different story. it variety), earn worthless degrees (if they even
In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains graduate at all), and end up mired in debt.
Inequality, sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong The educational adventures of our hero,
and Laura Hamiltons study of a group of fe- The Donald, aptly illustrate the dichotomy

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 35

in higher education. As you might expect, dynasties? It may well beas long as we con-
Trump, a product of upper-crust private tinue to sanction all-out war on the American
schools, is an Ivy League alum. He graduated public sphere. The one sure countervailing
from the prestigious Wharton School of the force against the dead hand of birth-and-fam-
University of Pennsylvania. In 2004 he found- ily oligarchy is a battery of reasonably funded
ed Trump University, an unaccredited insti- and accountable public institutions. Propelled
tution that began by offering online courses by strong health, education, and welfare poli-
and soon branched out to pricey workshops in cies, social democracies like Denmark, Nor-
real estate investing. Former students of the way, and Finland enjoy some of the highest
school claim it was a stone hustle. One of them rates of economic equality and social mobility
wrote, For my $35,000+ all I got was books in the world.
that I could have gotten from the library that But faced with an underfunded and thread-
could guide me better then [sic] Trumps class bare simulacrum of social democracy, enter-
did. New York state regulators forced the prising Americans are left with just two (nar-
school to stop calling itself a university (it row) paths to upward mobility. One is higher
became the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative education, which, as weve noted, remains a
in 2010), and now two class action suits and a sweet deal for the well born but a decidedly
civil suit filed by New Yorks attorney general more dodgy proposition for everyone else. The
are pending. other is an even more surefire, time-tested step
Michael Young would gaze at this spec- forward: marriage. In Capital in the Twenty-
taclehis vision of grinding class oppression First Century, Piketty has observed that nine-
masquerading as fair play returning robustly teenth-century novelists such as Austen and
to life in the elite precincts of Yankee higher Balzac were preoccupied with marriageand
learningwith equal parts chagrin and glee. no wonder. For both men and women, mar-
The pseudo-equitable system that we mistak- riage was a powerful determinant of wealth
enly call a meritocracy is a meritocracy only and social status, and as he says, marrying a
in Youngs pejorative sense: an increasingly large fortune could procure a level of comfort
closed system for elite reproduction, in which not obtainable through work or study. But as
the preexisting possessors of privilege define with college, the practice of marrying money
what counts as merit in terms most pleasing is increasingly limited to the American elite.
to them. The cross-class marriages that used to be
common in the United States are becoming
Married to the Mob relatively rare. Social scientists have espied a
We should not be quite so astonished, then, trend: something they call assortative mat-
to see that in the wake of the 2008 economic ing. This unlovely term of art refers to the
meltdown, the hardiest specimens of eco- tendency of people to marry those with simi-
nomic recovery are also the most mobbed-up lar incomes and education levels. Over the past
ones. For all the symbolic attention we lavish five decades, though theres been an upsurge in
on the myths of self-made American success, assortative mating across all groups, the ten-
the dominant mode of achievement remains dency is strongest among college graduates.
the privileged, networked, debt-indifferent Marriage, you might say, is becoming another
Trump one. much worried-over extracurricular pursuit for
So is America becoming Thomas Pikettys the members of our overclass.
nightmare, a society doomed to be ruled in Whats more, like our other social goods,
perpetuity by a handful of plutocratic family its passing into something like cartel-style

36 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

control, from the top down. Compared to threats arose to thwart the usual prerogatives
their social inferiors, the economically privi- of the stinking richwhich meant, in turn,
leged are more likely to be married in the first that the usual insider tactics that the rich
place, and less likely to divorce. This is hardly preferred werent yielding results. The merely
a boon for our flagging statistics of social mo- rich were galvanized when they worried that
bility, since children benefit from the greater a tax aimed at their economic betters might
stability and more plentiful economic, social, affect them too. The policy entrepreneurs
and educational resources a family headed by who spearheaded these movements borrowed
two high-earning people is likely to provide. heavily from the organizing methods and tac-
Thus, intra-class marriages are literally a tical repertoire of earlier social movements,
means of elite reproduction. They contribute especially populism and womens suffrage.
powerfully to elite closure. They deployed the media-friendly, populist
stylings of the earlier movements to great
The Causes of the Anti-Taxers effect. They also made extraordinary claims
Family clans are hoarding a vast array of re- as to the moral worthiness of the stinking
sources, from material goods like businesses rich, hailing them as virtuous, hard-working
and high-paying jobs to social benefits like entrepreneurs and job creators. And when
high-quality education and even marriage. these anti-tax zealots felt the political system
Having gained possession of these treasures, wasnt acquiescing readily to their demands,
their next goal is obviousto keep as much they proceeded to take over the institutional
of the loot as possible. Enter one of the great- armature of the GOP and remake it in their
est social movements this country has ever own image.
known: the decades-long campaign on the They certainly succeeded. For Republi-
part of the wealthiest Americans to untax cans, especially Republican presidential can-
the one percent. As sociologist Isaac William didates, any talk of raising taxes has become
Martin observes in his insightful chronicle of the political third rail. Thats why its been so
anti-tax activism, Rich Peoples Movements, rich diverting to watch unlikely populist crusader
people not named Trump generally have pre- Donald Trump loudly calling for more taxes
ferred not to call attention to themselves. It on the rich (even though his actual tax plan
was far more seemly and, well, sanitary, you is bedecked with regressive giveaways for the
might say, to do their politicking behind the rich). His championing of this cause has con-
scenes and at arms length, by hiring lobbyists founded his presidential rivals and horrified
or donating to political campaigns. Yet curi- the GOP establishment. The most powerful
ously, in the past half-century, weve seen a of the anti-tax groups, the Club for Growth,
series of highly visible grassroots social move- launched a $1 million ad campaign that ac-
ments in which activists used the tactics of the cused Trump of playing us for chumps.
poor and dispossessed to agitate for tax cuts Club for Growth president David McIntosh
for the rich. Even curiouser, unlike virtually charged that Trump had the worst economic
every social movement in history, the people record of any candidate, with the possible ex-
involved (call them the rich) were explicitly ception of Bernie Sanders.
protesting on behalf of others who were even The Trump anomaly aside, for decades
more wealthy than they werethe stinking now, the anti-tax movement has been part and
rich, as it were. parcel of the GOPs political identity. And
Martin persuasively argues that grassroots sadly, the GOPs tax-phobic demagoguery has
anti-tax activism began when credible policy goaded Democratic Party elites into rampant

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 37

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

mimicry. As a result, the past half-century of were exempt from paying any tax at all. The
tax policy has been a nearly unrelieved march tax itself now applies only to estates worth at
toward upward distribution. Between the end least $5.43 million (the previous cut-off had
of World War II and 1964, the top tax bracket been $643,000). Currently, the maximum tax
hovered around 90 percent; it has plunged to rate on estates is 40 percent, but the average
about 40 percent today. Another major tri- rate paid by taxable estates is much lower,
umph of the rich peoples movement was its around 17 percent. Thats because Congress
success in slashing the capital gains tax. For has helpfully supplied heirs with a panoply of
no particularly compelling rationale other tax-busting deductions and loopholes. And
than reverse Robin Hoodism, income from only the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans
capital gains is now taxed at about half the (thats two out of every one thousand who die)
rate as income from labor. even owe any estate taxes in the first place.
But the crowning glory of the anti-taxers Our tax system is so grotesquely unpro-
has been their radical reform of the estate tax. gressive that the bottom 20 percent of tax-
Theres something downright un-American payers face higher effective tax rates than do
about inherited wealth and the rule of perpe- the four hundred richest people in America.
tuities. Following the American Revolution, And thats not even accounting for the mind-
every state in the union abolished primogeni- blowing amounts of undeclared income the
ture. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to pro- rich stash away in secret Swiss bank accounts
pose that the material circumstances of one and shell corporations in the Cayman Islands.
generation should not bind the next, declar- In his groundbreaking new book The Hidden
ing that the earth belongs to the living and Wealth of Nations, economist Gabriel Zucman
not to the dead. Estate taxes in the United details money-laundering schemes by the
States go as far back as the eighteenth cen- mega-rich that would put your average drug
tury; they were motivated, in part, by fears of lord to shame. He conservatively estimates
America coming to resemble old Europe. The that some $1.2 trillion of Americans personal
estate tax as we know it was established by wealth has been diverted into offshore tax
Congress in 1916, a few years after the federal havens, defrauding government coffers of at
income tax. Initially, the estate tax was low, least $20 billion per year.
but through the 1930s the top rate climbed With our pathetically low top marginal tax
sharply, all the way to 70 percent. Though not rates on the one hand, and the one percents
originally intended as such, the estate tax had use of tax evasion scams on the other, the
evolved into the confiscatory sortthat is, a undertaxing of rich Americans has reached a
tax explicitly designed to discourage the ac- level that threatens to destabilize the entire
cumulation of great fortunes. As Piketty has economy. When the states and the federal gov-
duly noted, the United States all but invented ernment are starved of revenue, they are more
confiscatory taxes, which remained politically likely to cut vital services, which not only in-
popular at least until the 1970s. flicts pain and suffering, but also decelerates
But by 2001, it was another story. Only a economic growth. Moreover, the undertaxing
smattering of organizations mobilized against of the rich is also a powerful driver of todays
estate tax reform, and the voters were indif- soaring economic inequality. In the United
ferent to it, perhaps because advocates had States, both wealth inequality and income
successfully hidden its costs. So that year, inequality are higher than theyve been since
Congress not only cut the estate tax, but dra- the eve of the Great Depression. In the inter-
matically increased the number of estates that war era, progressive taxation was central to

38 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

the development of an economy that enjoyed Finally, the media-circus aftermath of
record levels of growth, social mobility, and that first debate once more underscored the
economic equality. But research by Piketty gently deferential treatment that our mon-
and others has shown that the stupendous tax eyed aristocracy now elicits from one an-
cuts of the past several decades are directly other as a matter of course. In the wake of
associated with higher rates of economic in- his debate performance, Trump proceeded
equality. If Piketty is right, and the rate of to grab more cable-tabloid attention when
return on capital will continue to exceed the he hinted that one of the Fox News debate
rate of economic growth, the result will be a moderators, Megyn Kelly, was chiding him
dystopic inegalitarian spiral. We are already about his insulting treatment of women be-
well on our way to patrimonial capitalisma cause she was probably menstruating. (Or
society in which inherited wealth of genera- as Trump boorishly put it, she had blood
tions past weighs far more heavily than talent coming out of her eyes, blood coming out
and ability in the present. In Pikettys words, of her wherever.) That contemptuous and
the past devours the future. sexualized sneerwhich would hardly have
been tolerated had it come from the mouth
Whos Your Daddy? of a more down-market GOP candidate like
If there is anything salutary about Donald Scott Walker or Chris Christiethen seg-
Trumps presidential campaign, it is his oc- ued into an extended public feud between
casional refreshing honesty about our pay-to- Trump and Roger Ailes, the caretaker of
play political system. In the first Republican Rupert Murdochs family media fiefdom at
debate, Trump said, I will tell you that our Fox News. Thus the real-estate scion faced
system is broken. I give to many people. I give off against the media dynasty patriarch who
to everybody, when they call I give, and you had the power to deprive the Trump cam-
know what? When I need something from paign of its principal life supportwall-to-
them, two years, three years later, I call, they wall media coverage from a network catering
are there for me. He added that after he do- to the wingnut masses. Trump later declared
nated to Hillary Clintons Senate campaign, he was through with Fox News, and yet the
he invited her to his wedding, and she came whole charade seemed to be designed to cre-
to my wedding, she had no choice, because I ate maximum publicity for both parties.
gave. Its hard to miss the larger point here: given
It was little remarked upon at the time, the unresponsiveness of our bought-and-paid-
but that particular bon mot summed up just for elected officials to the political desires of
about everything amiss with the new millen- we the people, our spectatorship of such dy-
niums reversion to family-based patronage. nastic clashes of the titans is what passes for
There was, of course, the casual endorsement political participation. Trump might gleefully
of campaign checks as the premier currency of mock the rest of the GOP field as puppets
elite influence-peddling: When I need some- dancing attendance on the great American
thing from them ... they are there for me. The oligarchs such as the Kochsbut only be-
equally matter-of-fact invocation of Trumps cause his own staggering wealth means hes
own wedding as another occasion for press- one of the masters of the universe holding the
ing flesh and granting political favors served strings. Behold the brave new face of democ-
to highlight the rampant mingling of mon- racy in America. It may not provide much in
eyed prerogative and romantic rites of passage the way of choice, but it sure delivers on the
among Americas family-based power elite. bread and circuses.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 39

Hard Objects
3 Yang Xiaobin

1. Blades

A blade sticks in a pane of glass. One blade.

Bars the door.
In its shadow another owl

A blades voice is a woman

leaping out of water

The sky has deep wounds

Blades drop through the holes

Hanging gardens. Leaves of grass pared sunlight

Those are blades,
coming behind my footsteps

Blade over the lips. Chops

daily conversation.
A shaft of light pierces my breathing
blood pours from the first dynasty

Two blades are eyes

penned in bars of light

2. Bones

Bones sprout in antiquity. Decorate antiquity.

Many moistures

are injected by fresh hands. Space

is uttered by bones
as is walking.

Bones walked through thousands of years

and passed it: where other bones
were crying

40 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Tossed-out bones penetrate
each night.
A global family as resolute
as constellations, braced

immovably between holidays and funerals.

Some face archeology, face the radiant crumble
of culture in center exhibit.

Some escape into the flesh

piece together a human shape
and then, devour the remaining bones

3. Walls

By the wall: s nothing there.

Isolated by air. Those who hammer turn to flowers

Pollen smeared on the wall was carried

off in the mouths of autumn insects.
The wall flees
crushing lovebirds, pirates, and penseurs

The walls love song is encirclement.

At night, the wall slaughters everything
that once cast a shadow
or dissecting them

Human organs sleep in corners.

Bodies projecting onto the wall, splice
into one section

(I stand behind myself

and become a wall)

Translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 41

E x h i bi t C 5 Grace Fechner

42 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 43
The Lighthouses
3 Yang Xiaobin

The lighthouses lead the land into the sea

to drown. When we throw cobblestones into the brains whirlpool
we see it, far off, indiscernible between
sand castles, a spectral shadow dropped from the night sky
it blinks, sweeping over this decrepit century
like the priest standing at my interment
carried my life away in one black sleeve.

The lighthouses break Earth into splintered ships

and banish the blind passengers
Travelers reeling in the lighthouses maze
forsake their households, drain
their flask of moonlight and begin to search
But the route at their ankles is heavier
and hurts like shackles. Between lighthouse and lighthouse
they shiver and pace. Between coast and coast

lighthouses play the oceans nocturne on the tide.

No one hears. Carcasses and bloody flotsam
dangle from the strings, like a lighthouse hung
on the horizon with no steward
Our inner destination, disaster, the other side
A single bud breaking over the cliff wall

44 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

This is beyond reach, this is
a word becoming obsolete, remnants in a clamshell
and unable to speak, a
rapacious tyrant, or an angel, chosen
by pilgrims as the fisherman of the age
who steals fire from the mountain, yet feeds us ash,
makes us practice, and become salt in the fish pile

Yet the white-hot salt cant illumine

the traveler at midnight, exhausted
deluded by the lighthouses he cannot see
he stumbles into desire, suffocates, naked

and too ashamed to speak, smote eyeless by lighthouses

Yet we can still hear the gulls
nesting at the top, nourishing our headstone
with feces. They leave home to find food,
and make no mention of the lighthouse.

Translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 45

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

The Childrens Hour

An all-too-sentimental education
3 Kim Phillips-Fein

Amid a slew of golden anniversaries this year about crime, drug use, and birth rates (fertil-
marking signature achievements of the civil ity rates for nonwhite women are one-third
rights movement, it was easy to overlook the higher than for white women), Moynihan
fiftieth birthday of a slim document titled maintained that serious racial progress would
The Negro Family: The Case for National require that the white establishment stop
Action. The 1965 study, which soon became dwelling on Southern laws, voting restric-
known as the Moynihan Report (it was au- tions, employment discrimination, and eco-
thored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at that nomic indicators and focus instead on a more
time an assistant secretary of labor under intimate matternamely, the tangle of pa-
Lyndon Johnson), presaged the retreat from thology that was the black family.
robust racial egalitarianism that would take Released just after the civil rights move-
shape in America after legal segregation was ment achieved the landmark victories of the
dismantled. In laying out his interpretation of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the
the nations slow progress toward racial equal- Moynihan Report warned that racial inequal-
ity, Moynihan presented a barrage of socio- ity was ultimately rooted in family structure,
logical data to claim that no matter how many not institutional arrangements or public dis-
Jim Crow laws the federal government struck parities of wealth and educational access. The
down, black Americans would remain a subor- demolition of traditional family norms among
dinate group for years to come. black Americans had created a separate cul-
The reason was not white racismat least, ture, one that was dysfunctional, twisted, and
not in any straightforward sense. Rather, incapable of producing people who could be
Moynihan suggested that slavery, Recon- equal citizens. In rhetoric melodramatic and
struction, and Jim Crowthree centuries of sensationalistic by turns, Moynihan urged
injusticehad profoundly distorted the fam- readers to turn away from the political un-
ily life of black America, creating matriarchal derstanding of inequality advanced by the
family structures and undermining male au- civil rights and black power movements and
thority. The result, Moynihan argued, was a instead trace inequality back to a far deeper
chaotic array of social ills: alienation, crime, and more intractable place: the subterranean
delinquency, unemployment, low IQ scores, realm of family life. The Moynihan Report
you name it. Many black men were not even emerged out of the War on Poverty, and
able to pass the test to serve in the Armed Moynihan argued that providing more jobs
Forcesa special tragedy from Moynihans for black men would help to restore order
point of view, since the army might be able to within the family, but his brief also helped to
provide a system of male authority to counter form the intellectual infrastructure for undo-
the female-dominated culture from whence ing the welfare state. After all, if black men
black male recruits had emerged. Dotting and women were trapped within a self-defeat-
his account with ominous-sounding statistics ing culture, how could anything as prosaic as

46 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 47

health insurance or child care help? Putnams account, lack the all-important soft
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis skills of grit, perseverance, patience, self-dis-
(Simon & Schuster, $28), the latest book from cipline, and charm so carefully inculcated in
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, picks middle-class and well-off children. Poor kids
up where the Moynihan Report left off. It hear fewer words, leaving them with reduced
marks Putnams foray into the contemporary vocabularies and shrunken horizons, and well
debate about the causes of and possible cures before the age of reason, their very brains may
for economic inequality. In a sense it is a post- have developed in ways that set them apart
Occupy document, a response to the notion from the wealthy. To intervene in this cycle of
that the startling rise of the very rich might social pathology, we need to find ways to reach
have something to do with policies, laws, and into lacking homes and help the young.
political influence. Its undeniable that social class pervades
Putnams earlier claim to fame was his 2000 the most intimate aspects of life. It shapes
book Bowling Alone, which asserts that politi- family life and childhood, molding people
cal participation has flagged because the civic down to their bodies and their psyches. And
organizations that flourished in the tight-knit schools, as Putnam notes, have long ceased to
communities of the postwar years have disap- resemble the elevators of mobility they per-
pearedsuch humble groups as parent-teach- haps were once upon a time; now they typi-
er associations, bowling leagues, and knitting cally reflect rather than challenge existing
circles. Far from being a nation of rugged indi- social divisions. Yet despite Putnams nod to
vidualists, the United States was once a coun- the clear imprint of class upon families and
try of cozy joiners. The decline of these kinds the allied distortions of childhood experience
of groups, which formed the building blocks wrought by poverty, theres something cloy-
of communal life and democratic association, ing about Our Kids. At bottom, the books pre-
meant a lonelier, less egalitarian culture and scription for reform trades on a hokey, ill-de-
helped to produce an anomic politics in which fined call for communitarian revivalwhich
people no longer bother to vote. translates, in this context, into an unsympa-
Like Bowling Alone, Our Kids is at once a thetic, one-dimensional portrait of the family
jeremiad and an academic work. As Putnam life of the poor. Putnam has perfected a breed
contends that the decline in social mobility of social science that verges on schmaltz.
and the rise in inequality in the United States Homilies about our kids and an unmoored
proceed from class-based differences in child- nostalgia steeped in paternalism wind up
rearing, he tacks between portraits of fami- leading to a fatalistic visionone in which the
lies on disparate rungs of the class ladder and stable communities of the rosy past have been
reviews of the recent sociological literature. irretrievably lost, the contemporary family is
(Putnams framework draws heavily on the far inequalitys motor, and class status is decided
more nuanced and generous work of sociolo- in infancy (if not in utero), making it almost
gist Annette Lareau, as well as Coming Apart, impossible to undo.
the 2012 tract by Charles Murray, anti-welfare
theorist of the Reagan years and coauthor Bedford Falls Lost
of The Bell Curve.) The neighborhoods, the The Midwestern lakeside town of Port Clin-
schools, and most of all, the families of the ton, Ohio, is described by Wikipedia as the
poor, says Putnam, raise children who will be Walleye Capital of the World. (Walleye,
unable to compete and succeed in the economy for the uninitiated, is a type of freshwater
of the twenty-first century. These families, by fish that flourishes in Lake Erie.) Its popu-

48 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The economy has come to resemble some baroque game
of musical chairs, and there might not be enough seats for your kids.

lation is a little more than six thousand, its this pleasing development to the high level of
economy is centered on Great Lakes tourism, social cohesion and communal commitment
and the local poverty rate is over 16 percent. in his small town, to the sense that all the kids
It is also Robert Putnams hometown, but it were our kids.
serves his book as a hometown for everyone, Today, however, Putnams happy and pros-
the place that we all wish that we were from. perous Bedford Falls has become a sour, stag-
Putnam sees it as an archetype of the Ameri- nant Pottersville. He depicts a contemporary
can Dream at midcentury: a community that Port Clinton riven by class. School officials
truly nourished its youth, where virtually relate that wealthy teenagers drive BMWs to
everyone in his high school graduating class school, parking them next to the clunkers that
lived in a home with two parents who owned homeless classmates drive away each night to
their house, in neighborhoods where every- live in. No longer do poor families socialize
one knew everyone elses first name. with middle-class ones; instead, they live in
In those days, men worked in gypsum distant neighborhoods and inhabit separate
mines, on family farms, or at the nearby Camp worlds.
Perry Army base. Women were housewives.
Almost all the kids at the high school par- Stuck in the Middle with You
ticipated in extracurricular activitiesdra- Putnam is a bit vague about what has actually
ma, sports, the school paperand on Friday caused the rise of this new inequality; his real
nights, the whole town could be found at the topic is the way that inequality now passes
football game. Families had dinner together from one generation to the next. In the Port
nightly, whether they were rich or poor. Clinton of his youth, the divide between the
For Putnam, this idyllic community was local elite and the working class was not so
valuable not just on its own terms, but be- vast, and the children of the working poor
cause it was an incubator for social mobility. were able to gain a foothold in the towns in-
The drama club, the team sports, the school clusive middle class and to build decent lives.
bandall these self-improving civic under- Today, the opportunities open to the children
takings added up to prosperity and helped of the poor and those of the rich are so far
nurture a generation of kids who did better apart that they seem hardly to live in the same
than their parents. Putnams data comes from city at all.
a written survey he did of the 150 people in his Through his portraits of twenty-first-cen-
high school graduating class, 75 of whom re- tury families from different racial, ethnic, and
plied. (Some classmates had died, others could geographic backgrounds, we begin to discern
not be tracked down, and still others failed some common themes in the parenting styles
to respond, raising the question of just how Putnam admires. The successful families
much credence we should give to the finding catalogued in Our Kids are not those of the
that everyone knew everyones first name.) super-elite. Putnam steers clear of the trust
Among the respondents, fully half of those fund babies and the scions of hedge fund bil-
whose parents had not completed high school lionaires. Instead, the families he cares about
went on to finish college. Putnam attributes are more humble and familiar, hailing from

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 49

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

small cities like Port Clinton and Bend, Or- Davids childhood, often floating on drugs,
egon, and from the exurbs of Atlanta. They reads one typically rueful sentence. Families
are IT workers and sales managers, denizens sprawl across a range of partners. Half-sib-
of the service economy, and they are desper- lings proliferate. Parents berate or slap their
ate to instill in their children the values and kids instead of listening to them.
personalities that they will need to survive. Forget about family dinners at which
In these families, parents (especially moth- childrens opinions are carefully solicited; at
ers) read to their uncomprehending infants. best, meals are free-for-alls focused on food.
They distribute phonics workbooks for a Abandonment by one or both parents is com-
little practice before dinner; they bring math mon. Parents disappear into the streets, drug-
flash cards on family vacations. Birthdays are addled fogs, oroftenprison. Roles become
celebrated with special themed social gather- uncertain. Children act as caregivers to their
ings: tea parties, Barbie playdates, Academy parents, as when a father develops inoperable
Awards confabs. (These might seem over-the- brain tumors, preventing his daughter from
top exercises in conspicuous consumption, moving forward with her own plans. Some-
but Putnam stolidly views them as examples times this turmoil even encompasses incestu-
of parental devotion, a way of communicating ous relationships and sexual abuse; theres one
to children the importance of their tastes and mention of a girl who has a baby with her step-
interests.) Children take piano lessons and father. Needless to say, birthdays are forgot-
must play a sport each season. They enroll in ten; not only are there no elaborate festivities,
art and ballet classes and take part in track but they barely rate a cake.
meets. In the evenings, the family eats togeth- The experience of family life in the lower
er, discussing current events and what hap- classes is so distant from the norms of the up-
pened at school. Mothers (yes, again, mostly per that the interviewers found themselves
mothers) devote themselves to taking the kids flummoxed at times by the gap between their
to the myriad extracurricular activities and, questions (Did you take the SATs? Did you
when these are almost at an end, to building plan to go to college or get a job? At what age
props for the school prom. All the years of did you start talking with your parents about
effortthe violin practices meant to instill going to college, and how was college talked
self-discipline, the chess classes, the care- about?) and the brutal pathos of their sub-
ful attention to school projects, the building jects lives. Take, for example, young Mary
of rapport with teachers, and the concerned Sue, who was abandoned by her mother in
meetings with therapistsproduce young early childhood and left with no company
adults who are able to participate and flourish but a mouse. In such situations, the people
in our postindustrial economy, who possess conducting the interviews had mercy and jet-
the skills and confidence necessary to go to tisoned the queries about college admissions
good colleges, excel in interviews, and ulti- for a more open-ended approach. To ask about
mately hold jobs in which a childhoods worth college in the face of such abject misery would
of accumulated social capital is paramount. be absurd and borderline obscene.
By contrast, children in poor families are Just as the depiction of postwar Port Clin-
raised by parents who live highly chaotic lives. ton seems lifted from a pastiche of cultural
Theyre less likely to be married or in stable tropes of small-town 1950s America, Put-
relationships, instead drifting into one en- nams twenty-first-century families are al-
tanglement after the next. A steady stream most comedic in the ways that they perfectly
of women flowed through his dads life during realize their stereotypes. All the middle-class

50 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

families are striving, polite, upbeat. The chil- ners with minimal stability. The cultivation
dren who grow up in these families are all that parents of the professional class bestow
close with, and affectionate toward, their par- on their childrenthe constant ferrying to
ents. No one feels that they are being pushed lessons, the expenditures of time and money
too hard, nagged about admission to the Ivies; for tutors and camps, the careful dinner-table
no one (even if the interviewee is barely out of chatconceals a fear of the very real possibil-
adolescence) has anything critical to say about ity of downward mobility. If you are a middle-
those dinner tables; no one looks back and re- class parent now, getting your child into an
members awkward silences, forced conversa- elite college can seem like the only way to pro-
tion, or arguments. tect him or her from the perils of a ferocious
If Putnams middle-class families are be- world. The meritocratic success of your child
nign sitcoms, their poor counterparts are soap acts as a measure of your own parental worth.
operas, distinguished chiefly by violence and Pride in your children and hope for their fu-
rampant sex. They are nightmarishly awful, ture mixes with a powerful sense of dread:
with no redeeming qualitiestheres no sug- the nightmarish sense that the economy has
gestion that they experience any love, joy, or come to resemble some baroque game of mu-
laughter alongside their luridly tangled pathol- sical chairs and there just might not be enough
ogies. There is no analysis of the function that seats left for your kids. All the therapy, piano
their parenting style might serve, and no effort enrichment, and cheerleading may wind up
to explore its sources from the inside. Even giving them extra advantages (that is, unless
though the children of these terrible parents they rebel and reject the entire projecta pos-
do seem capable of remarkable acts of loyalty sibility Putnam doesnt countenance), but the
and loveas with the young woman who takes effort is tinged with panic. For as the portraits
on her fathers care when he develops brain tu- of the poor suggest, the consequences of fall-
morsthe families themselves are presented ing out of the middle class are horrific.
as total, abject failures. These flat depictions
fail to capture the complexity of actual family Think of the Toddlers
life, for either the poor or the well-to-do. In- In the opening pages of The Wealth of Nations,
stead, they evince a curiously bloodless utili- Adam Smith made an argument that might
tarianism, one that reduces the family to a tool seem heretical today, at least in its particu-
of social policy that either transmits the right lars: The children of philosophers and those
values or goes disastrously wrong. of porters, he insisted, were indistinguishable
As Putnam hews to this binary moral until about age seven. They played the same
scheme, he turns a blind eye to the broader at- games and displayed identical native intel-
mosphere of competition that surrounds the ligence, and while individuals were of course
chummy intimacy of the affluent family. He different from one another, the divisions of
somehow fails to notice that all the affection, class were not yet apparent. This basic equal-
labor, and enthusiastic engagement he detects ity of children did not start to erode until they
between middle-class parents and their chil- went to school and were trained for radically
dren is generated partly by a terrible fear of different kinds of lives.
the nastiness of the rest of the world. These Putnam, by contrast, cites social sci-
families are bound together by love, yes, but ence that suggests a childs destiny is largely
also by the overriding conviction that from roughed out between the ages of three and
their earliest years children must be groomed four, or perhaps even earlier, and he is not
to compete in a fierce race that graces the win- alone; many liberal policy wonks see tod-

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 51

dlerhood as the critical dividing point. (As those who go on to college. In the golden age,
journalist Will Boisvert has observed, this high schools ran clubs and teams that were
thinking underlies some of the support for open to all free of charge, and teenagerswho
universal pre-K.) By kindergarten, the minds in Port Clinton, at least, were never, ever dis-
of children have already been moldedtheir affectedlined up to join. Today, a place on
life chances curtailed, their futures set. In the band or the football team can cost $300
this achievement-minded scrum, seven-year- to $400 a year, to say nothing of the time and
olds seem over the hill. Usually the impor- money devoted to the music lessons or youth
tance of early childhood is invoked to make rec leagues that are the necessary foundation
the case for devoting resources to education at for these school-sanctioned activities.
this critical moment, which is all to the good. Putnam sees the fee-gouging of extracur-
But it is hard, at the same time, to avoid the ricular pursuits as a woeful sign that schools
anxiety that lies just below the surface of this have turned away from their mission of com-
heroic mobilization of effort: If the differenc- munal uplift, allowing the incalculable ben-
es of social class have been written indelibly efits of debate competitions and swim meets
into brain structure by the time children are to be meted out by class. Close this book,
learning how to read, what hope is there for he admonishes, visit your school superinten-
undoing such hierarchies later in life? dentbetter yet, take a friend with youand
This kind of fatalism helps to explain the ask if your district has a pay-to-play policy.
weird circularity at the heart of Putnams But while he is right that theres something
analysis. He documents the wide gaps sepa- repellent about schools charging for such ac-
rating the opportunities available to children, tivitiesa practice that surely has grown more
but seems uninterested in explaining why common as school budgets have been cut
American society has become so radically di- back, although Putnam suggests that school
vided. And because his exploration of family finance has not contributed much to the class
dynamics and community cohesion lacks this dividethe emotion seems misplaced. The
deeper curiosity, it makes the problem of in- real economic segregation comes with the
equality seem even more entrenched than it $40,000 price tag for elite universities. Why
needs to. stop with the chess club: why not make the
In his conclusion on what is to be done, case for free college tuition? Why not take
Putnam runs through a variety of public pol- a friend and go down to the state capitol and
icy strategies, such as giving poor families a talk about that?
little extra cash (even $3,000 a year could less- Its hard to imagine that the real cause of
en the caustic stress that damages developing social mobility in midcentury Port Clinton
brains) and providing professional coaching was the Friday night football games or even
to poor parents. But what really infuriates the number of words parents imparted to
him are the school districts that now charge the fungible brainpans of their toddlers. It
students to participate in extracurricular ac- seems more likely that the full employment
tivities. Studies seem to show that a students and strong unions that Putnam mentions in
interest in extracurricular pursuits is correlat- passing made possible the more equal society
ed with success later in life. That may be due and community that he longs for now. But in-
to the mentoring that comes along with them, stead of saying anything about how one might
the soft skills they help to develop, or the imagine more egalitarian economic institu-
more mundane, competitive-minded overlap tions, Putnam focuses on families, parents,
between kids who go out for the teams and communities, and schools. His sentimentality

52 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

hides a deeper pessimism: the grownups are a how parents and children interact, or with the
lost cause, so rally around the kids. recognition that the lives parents can provide
Just as the Moynihan Report would ulti- their children will be guided by the place of the
mately become part of the conservative on- parents in this broader social world? Of course
slaught on the welfare state, Putnams work the sharp class divides of our contemporary
could well be used to attack its last vestiges. scene affect children and parents, neighbor-
His focus on our kids, after all, has a long po- hoods, and schoolsbut for affluent and poor
litical pedigree. In a 1987 interview, Margaret families alike, these little societies cannot
Thatcher famously said (criticizing those loaf- be separated from the larger context, which
ers who would blame society for their prob- weighs on them and determines what they
lems), There is no such thing as society. Less become. Both the families of the poor and the
well known is the second part of her thought: families of the middle class must contend with
There are individual men and women, and the shrinking opportunities our society offers.
there are families. Even as she denied the Theres no real way to protect children from
existence of the entire social world, Thatcher the society they live in, which influences them
had to allow for the familythe last institu- as deeply as it did their parents from their ear-
tion that keeps people from being completely liest days. No amount of stoking the young to
atomistic. run the race faster than the rest can save them.
Although Putnams communitarianism dis- In the end, the only way to help our kids is
tinguishes him from Thatcher, one can see the to try to create a world worthy of them and of
lineaments of the same basic worldview in his the hope and possibility they contain: one in
thought. Social structures have vanished, leav- which wed be happy, and not only anxious, to
ing only individuals whose brain development have them grow up.t
is the source of all things. Families (parents,
really) are the ones who shape these tender
brains, which means that the family is the one
social institution that matters, and thus rep-
resents the only real way to affect the future. Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [C]
Childreninnocent, vulnerable, malleable
human beings for whom we must assume col- Caducity (Lat. caducus: inclined or
lective responsibilityare the only legitimate ready to fail)
targets of public policy. But this accent on (1) Frailty of old age, senility.
children hides a deep and lingering sense of (2) Perishability, impermanence.
inevitable failure. Although Putnams book Hence caducious: shedding at certain
concludes by encouraging the well-off to recall stages of development.
their common responsibility to the poor and Daniel Aaron
to have a bias for action to mitigate the op-
portunity gap, implicit in the argument is the
fear that the children of the poor will never,
no matter how we try to help them, be able to
catch up with those of the wealthy.
Fortunately, though, the reality might be
the inverse of what Putnam suggests. What
if we started with the assumption that fami- STUART GOLDENBERG

lies are embedded in a culture that shapes

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 53

No Knowing
3 Jennifer Nelson

That a really accurate calculation or estimate may not exist, that

the procedure is pure guess-work, or simply traditional and conventional,
happens even to-day in every form of capitalistic enterprise where
the circumstances do not demand strict accuracy.*

I have recurring
dreams that unreadable blisters
are growing out of my skin
then on Roosevelt Island
I had to ask Megan if the water was dangerous
before I believed it, the breach
of saltwater over and over
on New-Englandine rocks
calling swimming swimming out
touching my eyes
small suns and television
treasure or teeth
the coming summer perhaps
the flowers dying directly
end up back in the leaves
if the roots work the way theyre supposed to
and the wind isnt too redistributive
no knowing
how optimism started in the flowers
and ripened with them too I fell
for a powerful charlatan
into a future the flower-parts
smelling better flattened
that Dickinson poem with the bubbles
the charlatan my self
those days
when history has been erased between
today and a particular past
Ive thought of beauty as straight-up
fullness the rich
guano in a parking garage the open
hall of its foyer with concrete stairs
scaffolding its side

* This poem is part of a larger series called Max Webers The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(translated by Talcott Parsons), named for the text from which this epigraph is taken.

54 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

slime deposits agglomerate to gumslops
and isnt it
a gray cool cavern that connects the worlds
literally here between car and sun
but any worlds, self-slaughter and rose
was I restless watching MTV
those open summers interlocking
Minesweeper and the gun cabinet
I learned writers block from the internet
a wall-to-wall carpet
pink it was possible
to hide things there
a notebook under the backcushion
of my fathers chair
charts of biblical genealogy
knotting the first pages
so no one would check the rest
one day
I will make the twenty-eight
hours of travel to Jellyfish Lake
as an offering for what I survived
a lagoon of jellyfish
rising before dawn when unwitting I
dove into them and swam to the jetty
should have killed me
I was also moving for the sun
a healthier algae on the rocks a prickly
resistance from the coral
blooming venom in my feet
Ive got to keep working through this
slime everywhere incorrectly
appears like health
if not then dont write poems
Im waiting for the lavender dove
to afternoon my window
it comes regardless of my hunger
which I submit if trained prepares for love

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 55

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

Clans of the Cathode

Turning off TVs ersatz families
3 Tom Carson

Home is where the heart is, the looking-glass identification involved by

Home is so remote. ritually plunking Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart,
Home is Good Clean Living, and baby Maggie down on their own sofa ev-
Home isI forgot. ery week to watch The Simpsons as their TV
Lets go to your place. morphed into ours.
The mediums ritual invocations of view-
Lene Lovich, Home (1979)
ers at homealong with the greatest of all
TV advisories, Dont try this at home
Picture the slightly peculiar arrangement spelled out the uniqueness of our relation-
of the living-room furniture on almost any ship to the tube. Before streaming and other
vintage sitcom with a primarily domestic set- cut-the-cord innovations, televisions strange
ting, from One Day at a Time to Roseanne. Even advantage in portraying domestic life was
if youve never consciously thought about it, that it was itself an appurtenance of domestic
youll soon realize which omitted staple of life. Our Magnavox or Zenith was virtually a
real-life living rooms the oddly marooned member of the household, not unlike a friend-
front-and-center sofa must have been facing: ly if unimaginative puppy who always wanted
the family TV, of course. to play and never had to poop (okay, unless
Why did their idiot boxes traditionally commercials count). Being a lot more obedi-
stay unseen? Well, for multiple reasons, taste ent than the average pooch, it also supplied
at one time included. In the genteel-minded the only master-servant relationship available
1950s, when the bourgeoisie still hid their to householders who lacked the wherewithal
own TVs inside paneled cabinet consoles for to hire live menials.
politenesss sake, showing us one on a sitcom
would have been almost on a par with giving Watch Duty
viewers a gander at Ward and June Cleavers No less important was how closely the format
loo. of series TV approximated the experience of
Then again, consider how evocativelynot family life, regardless of whether its content
to say coercivelythat missing TVs imagi- did. To begin with, volition seldom seemed
nary perspective on each episodes hijinks involved, particularly in our childhood and
duplicated our own. The sets purely hypo- adolescence. Come prime time, there we
thetical position in the room ended up imply- were, mysteriously stuck with the same god-
ing that it was somehow the very same Mag- damn people week in and week out, both on
navox or Zenith we were parked in front of the screen and in front of it.
at home, a bit of Pavlovian trompe-loeil that Escapism, my ass. Watching the same non-
turned a gazillion American households into sense happen over and over with different fur-
unsuspecting Magritte paintings for decades. belows in milieus that never changed percep-
It fell to The Simpsons, as usual, to emphasize tiblyexcept that the cast members aged and,

56 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


come cancellation time, diedwas realism sion of family, easily outdoing even dramas as
aplenty if you ask me. Even Long Days Jour- beloved as The Waltons in triggering my gen-
ney into Night cant top the crummiest 1970s erations collective nostalgia, weary groans, or
sitcom when it comes to accurately simulat- both.
ing the no-exit basics of waking up every day But if Im also framing things in the past
among a clutch of fools who turn out to be our tense, its because family stopped being the
blood kin: the mind-numbing repetitiveness, primary subject of sitcoms once the broadcast
the sense of resignation, and the suspicion of networks heyday yielded to the plethora of
overwhelming futility offset by affection, co- specialized nooks that audiences enjoy today.
ziness, and the narcosis of sheer habit. Once My own claim to ancient-mariner status is that
we moved out on our own, our sitcom famil- I grew up in the kind of middle-class house-
iars, from The Brady Bunch to Newhart, be- hold that never knew a personal bedroom TV
came our metaphorical tether to home. set, let alone the laptops, smartphones, and
If Im concentrating on sitcoms, go figure. iPads that now let us customize our schedules
Sitcoms are the locus classicus of TVs ver- and our tastes in perfect solitude. Instead, we

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 57

gathered in front of good old Hearth Vader to because theyre fellow survivors, not instiga-
watch programming devised to keep the rents torsbrothers and sisters are exempt from sit-
and rug rats equally entertained, something it comlands current aversion to ties that bind.)
often did by showing us our own circumstanc- How I Met ...s premise made the trends sub-
es in a rose-colored mirror. text explicitnamely, that your lifes happiest
Its not as if the topic has vanished from chapter will end as soon as you recapitulate
the airwaves. No oughties sitcom was more your parents defining mistake. All in all, its
beloved of TV hipsters than Arrested Develop- as if the TV audience couldnt wait to get away
ment, even if its Netflix resurrection a couple from a couple of generations worth of relent-
of years ago didnt make such a great case for lessly bromidic Kinder, Kche, und Kirche.
why. Now in its seventh season, Modern Fam-
ilywhose title, like Arrested Developments, is There Is a War
tellingis still bumptiously with us, introduc- Only it hadnt really been all that bromidic,
ing a new generation to the goony-bird jock certainly not in one key respect. In the 1950s
genius of Ed ONeill. and 60s, TVs view of family was strikingly at
Yet both shows are deliberately meta spins odds with its view of marriage, which by de-
on a genre whose last great exponent was fault (thanks to the periods taboos) was also
probably Foxs Malcolm in the Middle. Able to its view of sex.
accommodate all manner of wised-up anarchy Midway between August Strindberg for
without any loss of old-fashioned heart, that hockey fans and Ubu Roi relocated to Eisen-
very smart series is unjustly remembered as hower-era Brooklyn, that astounding show
the show Bryan Cranston did time in before The Honeymooners was all about frustration and
Breaking Bad upgraded him from ace journey- hostility. It was also presciently pro-feminist
man actor to someone in a position to be a in its lampooning of men as big babies whose
wee bit over-impressed with his gifts. Me, I idiot dreams spawned messes their tuckered-
admire his work on Malcolm more, but its not out better halves were forever cleaning up.
insignificant that Breaking Badmuch like At the time, the Kramdens and the Nortons
The Sopranospresents family primarily as more reactionary counterparts were the Ri-
an exasperating obstacle to the protagonists cardos and the Mertzes on I Love Lucy, whose
twisted fulfillment. title character may have set back womens lib
With rare exceptions, family sitcoms pro- twenty years. Her crazed aspirations to some
moted themselves as places of refuge. So its sort of identity separate from or equal to her
interesting that family is now among the husbands were the chucklesome proof she was
things that sitcoms offer a refuge from. In a a delightful dunce. Not least because she was a
shift signaled by Seinfelds 1989 premiere and genius at it, Ive always loathed Lucille Ball for
certified by Friends five years later, shows cen- turning herself into male chauvinisms answer
tered on hearth and home gave way decisively to Stepin Fetchit, especially sinceoff cam-
in the nineties to shows centered on posses of erashe was one of the shrewdest and most
pals: company you could choose, not relatives resolute women ever to conquer showbiz.
youd been trapped with at birth. In both those shows and others like them,
The group is the decisive unit even when the point was that husbands and wives were
some of its members are married, like Lily antagonists. Their dueling worldviewsand,
and Marshall on How I Met Your Mother, or by implication, incompatible sexual agen-
siblings, like the twins on Its Always Sunny daswere the source of the comic friction.
in Philadelphia. (For whatever reasonmaybe In TV terms, marriage was the war and chil-

58 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Televisions strange advantage in portraying domestic life
was that it was itself an appurtenance of domestic life.

dren were the armistice. (For I Love Lucy, understand. But they could do so only by an-
Little Rickys birth was the equivalent of the nouncing up front that they were absurd.
Peace of Westphalia.) The Honeymooners, God Elsewhere on the dial, all sorts of fraught
love it, never went that route, staying true to domestic hurly-burly was getting itself subli-
its name; when you think about it, the only mated in the most underrated of all sixties TV
other American classic with a title as acrid is genres. The vogue for surreal sitcoms featuring
Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence. That witches, genies, Martians, and talking horses
your head would explode if you tried to imag- and the men desperate to keep the secretis as
ine Ralph and Alice Kramden as parents, or eloquent as can be about the pressure-cooker
even Ed and Trixie Norton welcoming a little stresses undermining middle-class Americas
future sewer worker, is backhanded testimony postwar facade. The sixties embryonic chaos
to how intransigent the show was. reigned in those disguised treatments of pros-
Nonetheless, even TVs view of the nuclear titution (if not worsewas I Dream of Jeannies
family wasnt always as innocuous or conven- Major Tony Nelson the Humbert Humbert of
tional as die-hard Leave It to Beaver fans like sitcoms, or what?), homosexuality (My Favorite
to think they remember. It wasnt all, to trav- Martian), mental illness (Bewitched), alcohol-
esty Philip Larkins best-known verdict on ism (Mister Ed), and the like. If they generally
the parenting business, They cheer you up, didnt identify themselves as shows about fam-
our Mom and Dad / They may not mean to, ily ties, that was partly to keep them looking
but they do. Youll never understand TVor safely far-fetched.
any other commercial art form, reallyuntil Bewitched was the major exception. It not
you notice what its either leaving out or insis- only made a big deal of Samanthas bizarro
tently telling you not to take seriously. clanif Agnes Mooreheads Endora was the
For starters, recollect how many of the ultimate gorgon mother-in-law, the immor-
wholesome family shows the boomers grew tal Paul Lyndes Arthur was the ultimate dis-
up on torpedoed a potential source of dis- solute gay unclebut also featured an infant
cord by smugly getting rid of Mom: The Andy daughter (Tabitha) who was clearly headed
Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Courtship of down the same path. There may never have
Eddies Father. At least until the seventies, sit- been another sitcom with so much fascinating
coms that got rid of Dad were rarer, but a few subtext; in hindsight, it hardly seems acciden-
shows upped the gratification ante by ditch- tal that this show about a man driven berserk
ing both parentse.g., 196671s Family Affair, by his wifes uncanny powers premiered a year
a.k.a. Lord of the Flies for rich kids. Meanwhile, after Betty Friedans The Feminine Mystique
the sixties TV clans to which at least some of aimed the first cannon shot at the patriar-
us would have given anything to belong were chys Bastille. Famously, Bewitcheds pilot was
The Addams Family and its rip-off epigone, scheduled to begin filming on November 22,
The Munsters. Both spoofs made a seductive 1963one hell of an omen for a series about
case for family life as a secret funhouse of witchcraftand the series went off the air two
untrammeled self-expression and joyous ec- months after Ms. magazines 1972 debut gave
centricity that the outside world would never its heroine permission to say, in effect, My

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 59

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

work here is done. I swear, if the Symbionese judge George Jefferson by the content of his
Liberation Army had had an ounce of wit, irritability instead of the color of his skin. Yet
theyd have rebaptized Patty Hearst Tabitha Lear professed dismay when Archie Bunker
instead of Tania. became a hero to Middle America, proving
that he either misunderstood the nature of his
Message Blocked chosen medium or could lie like a psychopath.
From there, it was only a short stepalbeit, The Lear series that stands up best is a rela-
for my money, an imaginative retreatto tive anomaly: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,
Norman Lears discovery of family-oriented starring Louise Lasser as a discombobulated
sitcoms as dandy arenas for issue-mongering. New Jersey housewife facing more commu-
Premiering in 1971, his landmark show All in nity and family tribulations than she has IQ
the Family was followed in quick succession by points to cope with. What made the series
Sanford and Son, Maude, and The Jeffersons. The prescient wasnt its fish-in-the-barrel parody
Nixon jokes, abortion teach-ins, Vietnam ar- of soap operas so much as the recognition that
guments, and racial wrangles flew thick and parody could generate pathosa novel insight
fast. Predictably, people whod always scorned back then. This same gotcha maneuver was
the sitcom pablum the three networks force- exploited to the hilt by Soap, MHs superior
fed usto quote one latter-day Lear admir- imitation. My all-time favorite series that no-
erconcluded that the medium was finally body else remembers, not to mention the one
growing up. you may or may not forgive for giving us Billy
Maybe. But Lears high reputation as a TV Crystal, Soap anticipated Twin Peaks the way
innovator at least partly reflects the famil- Cole Porter prefigured Paul McCartney.
iar liberal fallacy of mistaking a sociological The shows loony-bin version of family life
advancein this case, establishing African was one symptom of how 1970s TV couldnt
American home life as a worthy subject for help reflecting the real-world institutions in-
sitcomsfor artistic progress. I dont think creasing instability. Remember, this was the
Lear had any genuine affection either for his decade when feminism (thanks, Samantha!),
characters or for sitcoms as a form, and it gay liberation (thank you, Paul Lynde), rising
strikes me as absurd that hes considered more D-I-V-O-R-C-E statistics, and other real-
important than, say, sixties guffaw maestro world bids for autonomy were turning fam-
Paul Henningthe creator of, among oth- ily values from an agreed-on concept into a
ers, Green Acres, a happily malicious spoof of polarizing one. Even the premise of The Brady
our relationship to our own folklore that may Bunch depended on Mike and Carol Bradys
well deserve that worn-out word subver- prior marriages, and while Mike was the tra-
sive. (How deeply Thomas Jefferson would ditional sitcom widower, what happened to
have hated it is a major recommendation in Carols first husband never did get explained.
my book.) What makes Lears shows memo- Years later, Florence Henderson won my un-
rable isnt their trademark exercises in ideo- dying love by saying that Carol had actually
logical tic-tac-toe but their stars, from Carroll murdered him.
OConnor redeeming his staggeringly medio- That may explain sitcomlands vogue for
cre career as a character actor by recognizing workplace familiesthe WJM gang on The
that Archie Bunker was a human being as well Mary Tyler Moore Show, the cabbies on Taxi,
as a stereotype to Bea Arthur and her hilari- and so onas less volatile substitutes for the
ous basso-profundo imperiousness as Maude real thing. The idea of workplaces as havens of
to Sherman Hemsley inducing viewers to security looks awfully quaint today, but prime

60 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

time had to keep us reassured somehow, even development, was followed by The Simpsons,
when the sublimations involved were trans- whose impudence aroused Cosbys wrath even
parent: the father-daughter relationship be- before Matt Groenings upstart cartoon series
tween Ed Asners Lou Grant and Mary Rich- tied The Cosby Show in the ratings one glori-
ards, for instance, or the way Marilu Henners ous day in 1990. By then, Roseanne was on the
Elaine could spend five seasons on Taxi with- air too, eventually taking over Bills old spot as
out getting hit on by any of the other regulars the No. 1 show in America.
(meaning that Alex, Tony, Bobby, et al. were For more than one reason, I think of The
effectively her brothers and romance would Cosby Show, Married . . . with Children, The Simp-
have amounted to incest). Cheers came along sons, and Roseanne as the Final Four. Not only
in 1982, splitting the difference between the did they all contend for the title of Greatest
workplace sitcoms that preceded it and the Sitcom Ever, but between them they expressed
Friends-era salutes to camaraderie that the everything family sitcoms were capable of
title saloons regulars anticipated. So far as so definitively that nothing thats aired since
quasi-familial comfort goes, not much could has really been able to compete. Its all there:
top a version of The Iceman Cometh in which Cosbys didactic bent and soothing shelter from
Hickey never shows up to damn everyones the storm; Married ...s gleefully crass depic-
pipe dreams and nobody even gets drunk. tion of a now candidly sexual frustration and
Equally telling was that, beginning with hostility; The Simpsons postAddams Family
Dallass 1978 premiere, the most emblematic circus of superficially insolent, surreptitiously
biological families on TV were the vicious heartwarming delights; and Roseannes post
ones on prime-time soaps: the Ewings, Dy- Norman Lear use of the form to talk about
nastys Carringtons, Falcon Crests Channings. every abiding kitchen-table and faddish kitch-
Those Reagan-era glitterfests made the most en-sink issue in sight. If Cosby was the one I
of a pop-culture truth that daytime soapsal- hated even then, because old Bill was feeding
ways the Borgia-friendly yin to prime times the public Quaaludes in order to have his way
Panglossian yanghad exploited for decades: with us a long time before we learned that he
if you want to keep an audience spellbound by was pulling the same stunt in private, the other
unregenerate evildoers whose cutthroat view three are in my pantheon.
of life in no way implicates them, just make ev- A quarter-century later, only The Simpsons
erybody rich. is still with us, a freakish survivor in a TV
But the family sitcom wasnt moribund landscape thats been transformed more radi-
quite yet. Far from it, since the eighties cally than rock and roll was between the Bea-
brought us the once sainted, now tainted tles acme and Eminems. Back when it pre-
Cosby Showbroadcast televisions ultimate miered, nobody would have guessed it would
monument to the old kids-do-the-darndest- end up as the last of the great family sitcoms.
things patriarchal verities, and consciously Running for reelection in 1992, George H.W.
conceived to be just that by its benignly (yeah, Bush memorably called for an America that
right) authoritarian star. The showor maybe looks a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less
I mean heruled unchallenged for three years like The Simpsons, and we all know how that
until three rival programs that functioned as worked out. Im glad it didbut dont blame
dissents premiered in quick succession be- me if I sometimes miss the days when TVs
tween 1987 and 1989. Foxs fabulously dysto- job was telling me what home looked like.
pian Married ... with Children, which was ac- Millions of us thrived on sorting the welcome
tually called Not the Cosbys at one point in its illusions from the infuriating lies.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 61

The Mantegna Oculus Rift
3 Jennifer Nelson

Its crude to claim our technology

moralizes that of the past: inside the a/c
remains in fact the daughter
of the emperor I have conquered
blowing down my neck

and I am a man. When we reach the next level

there are too many guns to be good:
the avatar glows ever more colors
the more essences absorbed
till the diphthong grows unpronounceable.

The whole things about mixing incommensurate scales.

When I tell you Im working on measurement
remember universal means colonial,
please. Our only hope is being open to respect.
Mantegna painted his famous ceiling

oculus in Mantua in a bedroom

for people who are married, i.e.,
building on their difference.
So in my jpg of the oculus
Im less into the Moor

or staring at a puttos well-foreshortened

balls-and-peen and more
into imitating his neighborling
who bites a marble bow
and pierces the oculus rim.

62 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

I am thinking of the people who suffer
to make my electricity possible
not out of love, because it is crude
to fall in love with the fallen
emperors daughter, but because another

foreshortening is always possible to render another

space that dilates failure:
near the core of Mantegnas oculus
a dark slit could actually hold an eye
and probably was for hanging something. I

dont want to look it up. I love the dark navel

in the dark tear at the edge of a cloud,
fresh, I love the peacock watching it,
I love the dirty tape that crosses over it from old
conservators. When I play video games

my avatar is always a woman

and I never simulate our wars,
i.e., those of the United States: instead
on the shattered world known as Outland and in general
I prefer the aftermath of history

understood with fantastical consequence.

In many cities in Europe you have no choice
but even in the States I open
windows in the heat and work beside
birds, children, sirens, thunder.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 63

From Depths
3 Anna Griva

Swimming could be an extension of the desert

palm trees exasperate her calm
and stop life from moving on
like the rider on the dog
who said dont compare me to the rider on the horse
because I havent a sword or sheath, not in my belt
and up till now I hadnt considered it
as something he was missing

Translated from the Greek by Karen Van Dyck.

64 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t D 5 Frances Jetter

Dead Thing with Family.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 65

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

Memoirs of
a Revolutionarys Daughter
3 Neda Semnani

On January 25, 1983, at about nine oclock in ed. Some still took their meals at home in se-
the evening, my father and twenty-one of his cret, or in the company of people they trusted,
friends were led onto a snowy soccer pitch in but it was a risk. Inquisitive neighbors might
Amol, a small town by the Caspian Sea. There, report the offenders to the authorities. So ev-
the Iranian government executed them by fir- ery night after sunset, peoples faces would re-
ing squad following a three-week trial, which lax, and Tehrans streets filled with food sell-
was held in Tehrans Evin prison, several hours ers once again.
to the south. For my father, his trial and death In our apartment above the city, the morn-
came after months in solitary confinement ing of July 11 began more or less normally. In
following his arrest on July 11, 1982. that summer of 1982, we lived in a safe house,
The summer felt long that year, Im told. a living quarters no one knew about, because
Three and a half years out from the 1979 my family was in hiding. My mother, my fa-
Iranian Revolution, under the new Islamic ther, and my youngest aunt, Astefe, who had
regime, Irans citizens were subject to the Ja- been staying with us for several months, went
fari version of Sharia law. It was Ramadan, about their daily routines. I was just shy of
and the normal scents of food stalls roasting three. Most likely, I was playing while my
corn and fat red beet bulbs were replaced by mother prepared my breakfast, warm bread
the smells of sweat, sewage, and dirt. The spread with salty feta cheese and honey. My
government required women to wear hijab father might have been sitting with me. One
and everyone except pregnant women, nurs- of my parents would have cleaned and dressed
ing mothers, small children, the elderly, and me. Its only in the past few yearsthrough a
the infirm to fast. Iranian women, wrapped in series of interviews with my parents family
black sheet-like chadors, held the fabric ends and friendsthat Ive started to appreciate
in front of their mouths as they walked along just how improvised, precarious, and ulti-
the sidewalks. The very religious believe that mately doomed our familys situation was.
if even a grain of dust passes a persons lips, her
fast breaks. From suhur until iftar, any person My father and mother met in 1969, when
caught sneaking a bite or a sip or a smoke in they were students at the University of Cali-
public could expect to lose his job or be arrest- fornia, Berkeley. They were both active in a

Because my father died in 1983 and my mother in 2010, I have reconstructed their story over two years of researching
and reporting. I relied on several taped interviews with my mother, between 1991 and 1992, by my aunt Mahnaz
Afkhami for her 1994 book, Women in Exile. My mothers chapter in the same book proved invaluable. I also relied
on my mothers never-aired interview with the StoryCorps program, taped in 2008, and several of my brothers
interviews with her in 2009 and 2010. To supplement my mothers version of events, I conducted interviews with
our family and their friends and acquaintances and slogged through a great deal of research. The prisoners chant is
drawn from Andrew Veitchs December 14, 1983, article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

66 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 67

campus group called the Iranian Student As- landed on Iranian soil, my mother said that
sociation, and soon they joined the growing the leftists fell to their knees and kissed the
anti-shah student movement organized by tarmac, while the Islamists hailed both Allah
Iranian students studying in the United States and Khomeini. Ten months after my parents
and Europe. From 1969 until 1979, my parents, landed in Tehran, I was borna child of the
their friends, and fellow reform-minded activ- revolution.
ists campaigned tirelessly to remove the shah As Iran groped for political stability, my
of Iran from power and stymie Americas in- mother remembered new newspapers starting
fluence in their home country. In the early up daily, spouting various political philoso-
1970saround the time the American student phies, while people gathered on the streets
left began to lose its waythe Iranian student to debate the countrys future. But as quickly
movement picked up speed. Young anti-shah as the moment came, it passed. Leftists who,
activists were everywhere, in the press and like my parents, had supported Ayatollah
on the streets, protesting against everything Khomeini and his circle during the revolution
from the Vietnam War to the secret bomb- were horrified once the Islamists power solid-
ings in Cambodia to Kent State. Most of the ified and they realized they would have even
participants in the Iranian student movement less influence in this increasingly despotic and
identified with the Communists, who were repressive regime than in the previous one.
the most effective, secular organizers of anti- Pushing against the Islamic Republic of Iran
imperialist action outside of Iran. meant reverting to familiar tactics: protest-
During this period, the most militant ing, distributing anti-government literature,
among the Iranian anti-shah activists be- secret meetings. These had little or no effect
gan to form small, clandestine groups, which and were exceptionally dangerous. No lon-
worked within the broader movement. One of ger just a group of young activists outside the
these groups, its philosophy shaped by Mao country calling for reform, many of the leftists
Tse-tung and Chinas Cultural Revolution, were older, with families. This time they were
was established by a handful of activists from working against the regime while living inside
Berkeley. The groups founders recruited my the country.
father to join them. My father, in turn, re- The revolutionary guardsreferred to
cruited my mother. My parents spent the next familiarly as baradar-ah, or the brothers
ten years writing revolutionary newspapers, regularly rounded up dissenters, with no
chaining themselves to the Statue of Liberty, evidence to justify their detention. If those
and getting tear-gassed in front of the White suspected, when tried without due process,
House. By 1979, they were professional activ- were found guilty, they would be sent to Evin
ists who believed their lifes work was to build Prison for months or years of reeducation ef-
the foundation for a future Iranian revolution. forts. (The prison was nicknamed the Univer-
When the revolution happened, the shah sity of Evin.) They would face relentless inter-
went into exile, and Ayatollah Khomeini re- rogation. People not sentenced to prison were
turned to Tehran, my parents raced back to often executed.
Iran joyfully. Planes out of California, New Nonetheless, until the summer of 1981,
York, and Europe were filled with Iranian my father remained part of the leadership of
students, activists, and revolutionaries, left- an underground leftist opposition group. My
ists and Islamists both, singing revolution- mother was a less active member, but stayed
ary anthems. They were euphoric and full affiliated with the organization until a small
of hope for the countrys future. When they faction calling themselves Sarbedaran-e

68 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

When they landed on Iranian soil, the leftists fell to their knees and
kissed the tarmac, my mother said, while the Islamists
hailed both Allah and Khomeini.

Jangal gained authority. The Sarbedaran had survived and been arrested. Nearly every-
which means head in a noose, to symbolize one who had held any position of importance
its members absolute commitment to their within the organization went into hiding. My
causespent the summer of 1981 drawing up father hid, so my mother and I hid with him,
plans for a violent uprising meant to directly and by the summer of 1982, we had moved into
challenge the regime and inspire Iranians the safe house.
around the country to join in a popular resis- After the Amol uprising, I stayed with my
tance movement. father most days, while my mother worked.
But the Sarbedaran didnt have experience He would spend hours telling me fantastic
with organized resistance; their knowledge stories, and as he told them, he would draw
was theoretical, and although some had in- matching pictures in a notebook, which I
surgency training, most did not. In any case, still have. When I wasnt with him, my fa-
it was unlikely that such a small number of ther would fill his days sculpting and paint-
revolutionaries (estimates range from 100 to ing. Hed make childrens toys that had secret
250) could challenge the government in any compartments perfect for passing messages
significant or lasting way. My parents thought just the pastime for a revolutionary family.
the plan reckless, dangerous, and destined to He built nesting boxes made of blond wood
fail, and my mother left the group. My father that held together without nails. On each box,
opposed the plan, and in an attempt to as- he painted delicate pink peonies. I still have
suage his fears, members of the Sarbedaran the boxes hidden in my closet. As a child, I
blindfolded him, took him to their jungle en- thought them the most beautiful things I had
campments, and kept him there two dayshe ever seen. I still think they are wonderful, and
wasnt convinced. They had to wait until the I am constantly afraid something will happen
rains stopped before they took him home, to them, and they will disappear.
where he was removed from his leadership po-
sition. The uprising went ahead. O n July 11, 1982, my father had a political
On January 25, 1982, in the town of Amol, meeting, so I was to spend the morning with
the Sarbedarans small cadre of leftist revolu- my mother at the language school she had
tionaries challenged the Islamic regime. The opened with her friend at the friends apart-
villagers didnt join the leftists as was hoped; ment. After she finished teaching her morn-
instead, they allied themselves with the gov- ing classes, my mother and I were to meet my
ernments forces. (Some years later, in fact, a father and a rotating cast of family members
statue was erected inside the city to commem- for lunch at my grandparents apartment.
orate the bravery of the Amol villagers public Before she left the apartment, my mother
resistance against the Communist guerillas.) wrapped herself in her loose overcoat, knotted
Many members of the Sarbedaran were killed a scarf under her chin to hide her tight curls,
in the skirmish, and those who didnt die were and went to find my father and say goodbye.
captured. For months, there was no official She found him looking out of a window onto
news about what happened. No one knew who downtown Tehran. In profile, his usually calm

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 69

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

face was pensive, his broad shoulders strained Ill see you at your parents for lunch,
and hunched downward, pushing toward each she said to him. She took my hand, opened
other. My mother reached for him. She told the door of the apartment building, and we
me that she was constantly reaching for him, stepped out onto the sidewalk. Waves of
unable to keep her hands off him. black-clad women moved over the pavement
My father had been quiet all morning, like molten tar rushing down the citys streets.
preoccupied. He was to meet two friends The crowd swallowed us up and carried us
who had been among the leadership of the along.
opposition group until the rise of Sarbeda- Not long after we left, my father left the
ran. They knew the captured militants must apartment dressed in the same gray trou-
have given up names of the group members sers and light blue button-down shirt he had
who had stayed behind in Tehran, but whose? worn to his thirty-eighth birthday party the
Had they given up the people who had left the week before. He had gained weight during his
group, like my mother? My father knew she months in hiding, and the shirt buttons had
was tired of hiding. She was pregnant with started to strain against his soft middle. He
their second child, my little brother, and she had a full beard, and his blue-green eyes shone
wanted to get on with their lives. Years later beneath long arched brows. No one in my
she told her sister that she remembered one family knows exactly where the meeting was
day when she and my father had sat together held, but it must have been the same place this
and watched me play. It was a simple moment, group always met, because the guards were
small and privatethe kind of moment every waiting for them. For some reasoninertia,
family has. perhaps, or simple negligencethey hadnt
She asked him then, Have you thought changed the location.
about what will happen to her if were arrested? Here the story gets hazier: Some people say
Not long after, she said, for the first time they saw the revolutionary guards arrest my fa-
since they had returned to Iran, my father ther on the street as he waited to cross; others
asked friends how to find a smuggler to slip told me that the guards came into the meeting
us out of the country. It was a small gesture, place and arrested the men togethercatch-
but it showed her that he was getting ready to ing them in the act, as it were. But everyone I
leave the opposition group for good. spoke to agrees that the revolutionary guards
But my father was still conflicted. Would werent alone. They had brought along their
he be able to live with himself if he fled Iran informantthe member of the Sarbedaran
and others were arrested? Could he abandon who was behind the Amol uprisingto identi-
his group when the stakes were so high? Who fy my father and the others. The man pointed
was he responsible for? The young revolution- to my father and told the authorities his name
aries who had trusted himor the family who and his former title in the group. The guards,
loved him? Which onethe organization or armed with automatic weapons, pulled my
his familyneeded him more? And which of fathers arms behind his back and bound his
us did he need more? hands together at the wrist with rope.
That morning my mother wrapped her
arms around his waist. She placed her cheek Just before noon, my mother left her friends
against his back. He seemed so vulnerable, she apartment. She had enrolled several new stu-
thought, with only a pane of glass and several dents in her language school, and she wanted
apartment stories between him and the mad to tell my father about them. She smiled as we
world below. walked. The school might actually work, she

70 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

thought. It might become a real job with a penny fortunesto passersby. Astefe remem-
steady income. bers that I was sitting quietly in the back as
When my mother and I arrived at my my mother drove her back to my grandpar-
grandparents apartment, my father wasnt ents apartment.
there. Other family members filtered through Dont wait for me, my aunt said, go on
the apartment, coming and going. Someone home. Omars probably home. Ill just walk or
prepared lunch, and the television blared the take a cab. Ill be there soon.
World Cup final: Italy versus West Germany. As my aunt turned the key in the lock of
My grandmother moved from room to room, the heavy steel door of the building, my moth-
talking at my grandfather in monologue as er pulled away. Astefe walked up three flights
she finished packing for their week-long of stairs, unlocked the door, and stepped into
trip to visit their youngest son, his wife, and the large living room. Behind a long couch,
their newborn daughter in Mashhad, a city in the third doorway from the front door was
northeastern Iran. Minutes went by. No one Astefes old room. It had a twin-sized bed, a
except my mother noticed how late my father chest of drawers, and a telephone that was un-
was. When lunch was ready, they did notice. plugged. The line had been recently serviced,
They waited. Still he didnt come. Their train so the jack had been pulled and hung lifeless
was scheduled to leave that afternoon. Re- from the wall. The next room was the one my
luctantly, they ate without him. Hes late, my parents had stayed in when they first arrived
mother said through clenched teeth, hes late. back in Iran in 1979, until after I was born.
Maybe he stopped somewhere to watch After we had moved out, it was where I would
the match? Astefe offered. No one except my sleep when dinners went on a long while, or
mother knew that he had gone to a meeting when my grandmother took care of me while
that morning. She kept an eye on the door and my parents were out. My toys were piled in the
an ear out for the phone. On the television, corners, though that afternoon my crib was
soccer players raced up and down the pitch. empty.
Why dont you come with us to the train Astefe took off her headscarf and her over-
station? Astefe suggestedanything to calm coat before she walked into the kitchen, found
my mother and keep me occupied. My mother the watering can, and began to make her way
agreed. around the apartment, pouring enough water
In the car, my grandmother remembered to moisten each plant just so. She would have
she had forgotten to water the plants before been careful not to miss a pot. At about four
she left. She asked Astefe to return to the oclock, she finished. She gathered her things
apartment and water them, and then run up- and prepared to leave, shrugging into her long,
stairs and leave the keys with our cousins hus- faded green roopoosh. Astefe busied herself ar-
band, Ali. At the station, my grandparents got ranging the beige silk scarf my father had giv-
out of the car and made their way through the en her. When the government had announced
throng. it would force women to wear hijab, my father
The afternoon was hot and the car had no had painted flowers onto womens heads-
air conditioning. My mother and aunt had carves and given them out, one by one, to fam-
rolled down the windows, but the air wasnt ily members. That afternoon she tied the ends
moving and the stop and start of traffic was of this scarf under her chin and reached for
pushing waves of sour exhaust inside. On the her keys. The intercom buzzed. She answered.
sidewalks, children with blackened fingers Its me, my father said. His voice sounded
tried to sell rolled pieces of Hafizs poetry scratched and far away as it filtered through

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 71

the call box into the receiver at his sisters ear. She couldnt tell them apart. One of them
Im with the brothers, he said. My aunt asked where my parents bedroom was. My fa-
laughed. ther must have told them that this was where
Sure you are, she said. Sure youre with the we lived. Astefe pointed toward the room
brothers. with the crib. While one guard stayed in the
living room with Astefe and my father, the
S he was about to buzz my father into the other guards worked their way from room to
building when she remembered that it was a room, collecting and pocketing the familys
signal to hide anything in the house that was passportsfor some reason, everyone kept
forbidden. their passports at my grandparents home
This is what weve planned for, she thought. bric-a-brac, and random items of value like
She placed the receiver on the table and my grandfathers stamp and coin collections.
moved through each room to make sure there Weeks later, as my aunts, uncle, cousin, moth-
were no outlawed newspapers, pamphlets, or er, and I were preparing to escape Iran over
books in the open. If there was anything to the Zagros Mountains into Turkey, mostly by
hide, she didnt see it. She picked up the re- horseback and on foot, we had to secure fake
ceiver again. passports and identification papers. Once we
Okay, she said, Ill be right down. arrived in Istanbul, my mother and I were able
She grabbed the keys to the front door of to have our American passports replaced, but
the building and ran upstairs. She knocked the rest of the family was stuck. But that was
quietly on our cousins door. Ali answered, all to come.
opening the door wide with a warm smile. She When the guards had taken whatever they
cut him off before he could speak. wanted, they came back to the living room.
Omar is here, she said, keeping her voice One guard looked at my aunt, but asked my
low. He says hes with the guards. I dont know father, Who is she?
whats going on. If you dont hear from me, Shes young, my father said. Shes just in
wait a little while and then come down. high school.
Then she hurried downstairs. As she pulled The guard turned to Astefe and asked,
the heavy front door open, she saw her brother Wheres Leila and the child?
standing with his hands behind his back, as if Shes teaching, my aunt liedmy mother, of
he were waiting for the bus. It took a second course, wasnt teaching. She was with me back
for the scene to rush into focus. His hands in our apartment waiting for either my aunt or
were tied; his face resigned. He was surround- my father to come home.
ed by four revolutionary guards, each one Shell be back soon, Astefe said.
holding an automatic weapon, at least one gun The brothers arranged themselves around
pointing at my fathers back. the living room. They placed their weap-
My aunt stepped back from the door to in- ons across their laps. The party of sixfour
vite the men into the building. My father and guards, my aunt, and my fathersat together
the armed brothers entered. Inside the apart- quietly and waited for Leila. My aunt noticed
ment, she offered the officers refreshments. a warm light coming through the kitchen win-
Some tea? she asked. Or water? dow. It was, she estimated, five oclock in the
It is Ramadan, they said. We are fasting. afternoon when the phone rang.
The guards, each with a layer of dark stub-
ble covering his face, sat my father down on My father was sitting close to his sister on
the couch and began looking into the rooms. one of the couches; his hands, still tied behind

72 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

He was surrounded by four revolutionary guards, each holding an
automatic weapon, at least one pointing at my fathers back.

his back, forced him to slouch forward. His My aunt nodded.
body was tense. Astefe tried to read his ex- Where can we listen? they asked.
pressionit wasnt shock, exactly. It was, she With her free hand, she pointed them to-
realized, defeat. ward her old room. As they all rushed to reas-
No one moved for a moment. It rang again semble the unplugged extension, my mother
and the guards told my aunt to answer it. As- kept talking.
tefe stood up and crossed the room; she lifted Where are you? she asked. Whats going
the handset and spoke into the phone. on? Whats taking so long?
Is that Leila? the guards asked. Everythings okay, my aunt said, the broth-
After a beat, Astefe shook her head, No. ers are here.
She replaced the phone on the cradle and For who? my mother asked. Who did they
returned to her seat by my father. come for? For you? For Omar?
Was that Leila? my father asked Astefe un- Theyre not here for me, my aunt said. Ev-
der his breath. erythings okay. Go and drop the children at
She shook her head. your mothers house, then come over.
My aunt hung up. My mother stood in the
Several blocks away, my mother began to pace phone booth, one hand pressing the handset
our apartment. It was after six, and my father to her ear, the other gripping mine. My aunt
still hadnt come home. Astefe wasnt back yet. thinks the call came just after eight. I should
I was playing with my doll. My mother sat on have been asleep.
the floor near me and stared at the carpet try- By the time the guards had the phone
ing to figure out what to do. We didnt have working, the call was over. They walked back
a phone or a television; no one could reach us into the living room, their guns at their sides.
with news. The only sounds were my hum- That was Leila? they asked. What did she
ming, her own heartbeats, and the noise of say?
traffic from the streets below. She couldnt stay Shes on her way, my aunt said.
still anymore. She threw on her roopoosh and hi- The six adults again settled back into their
jab. She took my hand and left the apartment seats. Astefe pushed herself closer to my fa-
for the phone booth down the street. ther and whispered. I told her what you said,
She dialed my grandparents number, wait- I told her to take the children to her mothers.
ed for the line to catch, the ring to sound, and My fathers body relaxed. It was a code: my
someone to answer. The phone rang and rang. mothers mother lived in California. One last
Just when she was about to hang up, she heard message from my father to my mother. She
the soft click of the receiver being lifted. was to stay away; take me, and get out of the
Hello? she said, Hello? Astefe? Is that you? country.
Why are you so late? The guards got up and began to search the
Everythings okay, my aunt said. Were rooms again, more out of boredom than any-
okay. thing else. My father leaned toward my aunt to
Behind my aunts back, the guards were tell her about the informant.
calling out, Is that Leila? Is it Leila? The government has a list of names, my

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 73

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

father said, theyre going to start arresting ev- He lives upstairs, she said.
eryone on the list. Tell people to get out. The guard stepped back and Ali walked in,
From inside one of the bedrooms, a guard nodding to each guard in turn before saying
shouted for my father and aunt to be quiet. hello to my aunt and father.
They drew apart. I just came down to say a quick hello, he
said as he took one of the empty seats in the
My mother walked out of the phone booth living room.
and half-pulled me behind her as she hurried No one responded or said anything worth
back to our apartment. remembering. Time passed. It was about nine
She looked at the plates piled in the sink in the evening. The intercom for the front
and the toys scattered over the floor. She door sounded. Everyone looked up. My father
grabbed a plastic bag and stuffed in my birth and aunt had been so certain my mother had
certificate, my fathers green card, her col- gotten the message.
lege transcripts, whatever she could find. She Warily, my aunt lifted the receiver for the
grabbed a change of clothes for me and threw front door.
that in over the pile of papers. She picked me Hello? she said.
up and left the apartment. She walked down to Hello! Esmets voice called out. My aunt
the street, and then after a while she stopped buzzed her in.
to think. She had to get her bearings and fig- It is our other cousin, my aunt told the
ure out where we could go. guard. Weve missed iftar, I think.
She went over the people she knew who She opened the door for Esmet and Jafar
lived close by and who might take on the risk and invited them to have a seat in the living
of letting us in, and she decided to walk to room. The couple joined the group in the
my fathers cousins house. Esmet opened the living room. My aunt excused herself to the
door, dressed for a dinner partythe sun had kitchen to make tea. She set the tray for eight
set and people were gathering for iftarwith people and laid out a plate of fruit and sweets.
her husband, Jafar, standing behind her. They They all sipped tea from my grandparents
looked at my mother, holding on to me with delicate glass teacups.
one hand, and with the other, the bag filled The guards arent vicious, Astefe thought.
with childrens clothes and papers. They havent hit us or yelled. Theyve been
They have Omar, my mother said. civilized about it, really. Then she thought,
My mother told them what she knew, which Oh God, this is it. It is all over. It is all done.
wasnt a lot: she was desperate to know what It was midnight before the guards gave up.
was happening. Esmet and Jafar offered to go They pulled my father from the couch and
to my grandparents apartment and act as if gave him a moment to say goodbye to his sis-
they were dropping in for a quick visit, a tea ter. My aunt and father held each other. For
and a biscuit to break the fast with the family. the first time that night, Astefe cried.
After the siblings parted, the guards led
A s Esmet and Jafar were leaving my mother my father down the stairs and onto the street.
and me, our cousin, Alithe one who lived up- It would be more than a month before we had
stairsknocked on my grandparents apart- any news of hima Radio Tehran news re-
ment door. When the guard answered, Ali port in the hotel in Turkey, the first time the
apologized for disturbing the guards. He said government publicly acknowledged that they
politely that he was there to see his family. had him.
Who is this? the guard asked my aunt. My aunt closed the door behind them. She

74 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


turned and looked at her cousins; the four of began to pray. Thousands bent forward, then
them listened to the footsteps and then the sat back on their haunches, calling to God.
sound of the heavy front door closing. My mother was now seven months preg-
Lets go see Leila, Esmet said. nant with my little brother. Her ankles were
swollen. The hemorrhoids that had forced her
E arly August, 1982. The sun rose quickly over into bed rest during her first pregnancy had re-
the great sharp peaks of the Alborz Moun- turned to needle her in the second. Her brown
tains. It was another hot day. My mother was eyes were rimmed red behind thick eyeglasses.
stretched on the outdoor chaise, looking over It had been weeks since she had slept through
the sloped garden grounds toward the wall the night. She was trying to decide if we should
that separated her from Evin prison. That leave Iran and go to California, where her
morning, as happened every morning, the mother lived and where she herself had lived
Muslim call to prayer sounded from the other from the age of ten until she was thirty-one. She
side. It blasted through speakers so large that didnt want to leave. She wanted to stay and to
they were visible above the garden wall. The give birth to my brother in Tehran. She wanted
chaise shook. As the call faded, the prisoners to be near my father, who was on the other side

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 75

of the garden wall, but it was hard finding a safe finement. He was being held in Section 209.
place where she and I could live for more than a Among Irans political activists, the section
few days at a time. Friends, acquaintances, and, was an open secret, a prison within a prison.
in this particular case, a near-stranger, took us It was built at the foot of the mountain and
in at huge risk to themselves. We had been in stretched several stories underground. The
hiding for weeks, and each day my mother put sound of interrogators slicing at the soles of
off making a decision, her belly grew out, wide prisoners feet with cables traveled easily from
and heavy. If we were going to leave Iran before the basement to the prisoners cells on the up-
my brother was born, we would have to do it in per levels. Deep into the night, the prisoners
the next few days. would hear screams through the floors, punc-
My mother got to her feet and carefully tuated by moments of quiet, as though broad-
picked her way past the ancient gnarled oak cast over muffled speakers.
tree and across the small stream that snaked In those pauses, my father might have lis-
over the gardens surface. As she made her way tened as air filled his lungs, then followed the
toward the wall, the prayers became louder sound as he expelled the air from his nostrils.
and louder, pushing up and over the stone, the On that morning, while my mother was walk-
noise filling up the space around her body. She ing in the garden, my father lay in his cell and
walked the walls length slowly, concentrating believed my mother and I were far away. He
on the voices just a thousand feet from her. believed we were on our way to California, or
The prisoners began to chant fidelity to Aya- perhaps he thought we had already arrived
tollah Khomeini. in Berkeley, where he and she had met and
Imam Khomeini, to pay for our crimes, we planned for revolution. He didnt know that
have to become a wall in front of the fighters she was still making her choice.t
at the front, the voices, mens and womens, in-
toned. Down with the U.S. ... down with the
Mojahadin ... with the help of Gods party, the
prison has become a university ... Imam Kho-
meini, God be with you. We dont have any- Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [H]
thing against you in our hearts ...
Before the prisoners chorus finished, be- Hunks A crabbed disagreeable per-
fore the bright morning became a thick-aired son. A covetous sordid miser.
August day, my mother tried to hear any one Now Bildad, I am sorry to say, had
of her friends imprisoned in Evin. They must the reputation of being an incorrigible
be there, some part of the chorus. They must old hunks. Moby Dick
be. She wouldnt think about what else might Daniel Aaron
be happening to them. She strained to hear the
voice that mattered most amongst the cacoph-
ony. As the voices began to fade, she listened
for my father. Since arriving at this house with
the garden, this had become her ritual. After
weeks in hiding, she couldnt be sure where
in the prison my father was being held. She
couldnt have known that he wasnt allowed
outside to pray with the other prisoners. STUART GOLDENBERG
My father was weeks into his solitary con-

76 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t E 5 Carl Dunn

The Key.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 77

wS T O R Y

The Third Son

3 Andrei Platonov

I n a regional town, an old woman died. Her husband, a retired factory

worker of seventy, walked to the telegraph office and sent six identi-
cal telegrams to remote places: Mother died come home father. He
watched with reddened eyes as the aged telegraph worker counted the
money, wrote out his receipts laboriously and stamped them with her
trembling hand. Her heart, it seemed, had been crushed too. She worked
slowly and dejectedly; even the simplest tasks require inner peace.
Back in the house, the father sat at the dinner table, before his wifes
cold feet. He smoked; whispered to himself; watched the lonely life of
a little gray bird in its cage; cried from time to time, then grew calm
again; wound up his pocket watch; observed the weather in the win-
dow that changed from wet, tired snow to rain, to chilly autumnal sun;
and waited for his sons.
The next day, the eldest arrived by airplane; the five others took two
more days to reach home.
The third son brought with him a daughter, a girl of six, who had
never seen her grandfather before.

The old woman had been dead for three days, yet her neat body, ema-
ciated by a long illness, didnt smell of death. After giving her sons a
bountiful, healthy life, she had retained for herself only a tiny frugal
frame, which she had sustainedeven in its most pitiful formfor as
long as she could, in order to love her sons and be proud of them, until
she died.
Six tall men, aged between twenty and forty, gathered silently
around the coffin. The father, the seventh, and smaller and weaker
than even his youngest son, held the girl, who kept her eyes shut from
fear of the strange dead woman whose white eyes seemed to watch her
from beneath closed lids.
The sons shed infrequent tears, and strained their faces to keep
their grief quiet. The father didnt cry; hed had his cry earlier, and now
watched his progeny with inappropriate joy. Two of the sons had joined
the navy and now commanded their own ships. Another worked in a
Moscow theater. His third son, who had brought the daughter, was a
physicist and a Communist. The youngest was studying to be an ag-
riculturist, and the eldest headed a division at an airplane plant and
wore a medal for excellent work. All seven men stood around the dead
mother mourning her silently; the sons were hiding their despair, their
memories of childhood, of the extinguished happiness of love that had

78 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


constantly and generously renewed itself in their mothers heart and

that had always, across a thousand miles, found them and made them
stronger and bolder. And now she had turned into a corpse. She couldnt
love anyone anymore, but just lay there like an indifferent old stranger.
Each son felt at that moment scared and alone, as though some-
where in a dark meadow, in the window of an old house, a light used
to burn, and it illuminated the surrounding night, the flying bugs, the
dark blue grass, the clouds of gnats in the airthe entire universe of
their childhoodand the doors of that house always remained open
for those who had left it, even if none of them chose to return. And
now that light was extinguished, and the world it illuminated turned
instantly from reality into a memory.

On her deathbed, the old woman had requested a service with a priest,
at home. But she had also asked to be buried without one, so that her
atheist sons could walk behind her coffin without shame. Her request
for the priest wasnt about her faith so much as it was about her desire
to enable her husbandwhom she had loved her entire lifeto grieve
to the sound of praying, with candlelight over her dead face. She didnt
want to part with life without some ritual celebration.
After his children arrived, then, the father went to look for a priest.
By dusk he found one: a little, middle-aged man in everyday clothing,
with a complexion made rosy by the vegan food he consumed during
fasts and eyes energized by petty and practical thoughts. The priest
quickly set up slim candles around the coffin, lit the incense, and fell
to mumbling from the book. The sons rose to their feet. They felt em-
barrassed, and stood stiffly in front of the coffin, staring at the floor.
The priest mumbled and sang speedily, almost ironically. He kept
glancing at the platoon of sons with small, understanding eyes. No

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 79

one, not even the father, crossed himself, as they all stood silent guard
over the service.
Afterward, the father slipped some money into the priests palm.
The priest then scurried to the door, moving past the row of men who
didnt even look at him. He would have gladly stayed for the wake and
chatted about wars and revolutions with these representatives of the
new order, which he secretly admired but wasnt allowed to join. The
priest dreamed of performing some heroic action that would allow him
to enter the socialist future, and once even wrote a letter to the local
airfield requesting to be lifted to a maximum height and then dropped
off the plane without an oxygen maskbut received no answer.

When the priest left, the father arranged the beds for his sons in the
back room. His granddaughter went to lie on the marital bed, where
the dead mother had slept for forty years, alongside the coffin in the
front room. He waited until they had settled down in the back, then
closed their door, extinguished the lights everywhere, and returned
to the bed where his granddaughter already lay sleeping, hidden under
the covers.
The old man observed her in the meager light coming from the
snow outside, then approached the open coffin, kissed the hands, the
forehead, and the lips of his dead wife, and whispered, You rest now.
He lay down gingerly by the girls side and closed his eyes, wanting his
aching heart to forget itself. He dozed off; then woke up again. Light
was coming from his sons room; he could hear laughter and loud con-
versation. From all the noise the girl began to toss and turn, or maybe
she wasnt asleep but simply afraid to peek from under the blanket,
scared by the night and the presence of a dead woman.
The eldest son was expounding on hollow metal propellers in a pow-
erful voice, from which one could sense his properly fixed teeth and
deep red throat. The two sailors were telling anecdotes about their
stopovers in foreign ports, then bursting into laughter because the
father had covered them with the blankets they had used as children.
Then the sailor began to wrestle with the actor, as they had done as
children, while the youngest egged them on. They overturned a chair
and grew quiet momentarily, then remembered that their mother was
dead, then that she couldnt hear the noise, and they became loud
again. The brothers all loved one another and enjoyed their reunion.
When would all of them meet againat their fathers funeral? The el-
dest brother asked the Muscovite to sing some of the good new songs.
After the singing, the youngest said something quietly that made ev-
eryone else laugh so hard that in the front room the little girl lifted
her head from under the blanket and called out in the dark: Grandpa,
Grandpa, are you sleeping?
No, Im just lying here, the old man coughed out, timidly.

80 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The girl sniffled. The old man stroked her wet face.
Why are you crying? he whispered.
I feel bad for Grandmother. Everyones living, laughing, and shes
The old man said nothing, just sniffled and coughed. The girl sud-
denly felt scared. She took a closer look at her grandfather and asked,
And you, why are you crying? Ive already stopped.
The old man stroked her little head and whispered, Im not. Im
sweating, thats all.
The girl sat up next to his pillow. Are you crying for Grandmother?
Dont: you are old, youll die soon, you wont be crying then.
Ill stop, the old man promised meekly.

I n the back room, the noise suddenly stopped. One of the sons had
spoken quietly, and everyone had stopped talking. The same voice
spoke again. The old man recognized the voice of the third son, the
girls father. Until then he had remained silent; he hadnt laughed or
talked. Then he entered, fully dressed. He approached the coffin and
lowered himself over the vague outline of his mothers face that no lon-
ger contained any feeling.
It was very late. No one walked or drove in the street. The five
brothers didnt stir in their room. The old man and his granddaughter
held their breath and watched their son and father from the bed.
The third son stood up abruptly, grabbed the edge of the coffin for
support and suddenly fell to the floor. His head bounced on the floor-
boards like a detached, strange object. He made no sound, while his
daughter screamed.
His brothers rushed into the room and carried him away, to revive
Later, when the third son had recovered, his brothers came out of
the back room one by one, dressed in their formal suits and uniforms
despite the late hour, and began to roam the yard, the dark environs
where they had spent their childhood, and there they cried and whis-
pered their laments, as if their dead mother were standing near them
and could grieve with them that she had died and caused her children
to yearn for her. She would have lived forever so that her children
didnt torment themselves now, missing her, and didnt expend on her
the strength of their hearts and bodies, which she had borne. But she
couldnt bear to stay alive any longer.
In the morning, the six sons lifted the coffin and carried it to be bur-
ied. The old man walked behind them, carrying the girl. He had grown
used to missing his wife and now felt pride that he, too, would be bur-
ied by these powerful men and that it would be no worse than now.t

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 81

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

Cradle to Grave
L.A.s family-unfriendly family court
3 Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Whenever a toddler dies in Los Angeles, if Josue-Reys mother, had previously been in-
the word accident or drowning doesnt vestigated twice for neglect and abuse of her
immediately appear in the headline, anyone infant son. One complaint claimed that Josue-
versed in the basics of family trauma will al- Reys parents, who were living together at the
ready know the cause of death: the boyfriend. time, had abandoned him and that his father
Sometimes its the biological father, but more was using meth in the home. The boy had also
often its the mothers inamoratoa man in his reportedly witnessed domestic violence be-
twenties, who has a record, who shakes, beats, tween the couple that involved a gun.
or starves a baby to death. Theres almost al- But instead of removing the boy from Ce-
ways a story in which the baby ends up in the receress care, social workers and family pres-
ER or the ambulance several hours too late; ervation workers offered an array of instruc-
translated into the bloodless euphemisms fa- tion-based services, such as parenting classes
vored by court records and news reports, it be- for Cereceres, who was also raising her other
comes a weirdly causeless-sounding tragedy young children. Social workers later justified
the baby fell or just stopped breathing. the decision to keep Josue-Rey with his moth-
And if you peer a bit deeper into the pat- er, noting that the parent who provided the
terns of family pathology, you come upon most riskCereceress husbandwas no lon-
another near-universal trend: whatever bleak ger living in the house (because he was in jail).
house this child was raised in was not off the This summer, another child, thirteen-
radar. That is to say, many children who perish month-old Smith Fernando Garcia, was blud-
at the hands (or the equally lethal negligence) geoned to death by his mothers boyfriend,
of their parents are already known to social twenty-three-year-old Rodrigo Hernandez.
workers. In 2014, forty-two children died of When Sheriffs officers arrived in response to
abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County. At an emergency call at the East Compton home,
least half of these had been previously referred they found the child, cold, unresponsive, and
to the countys Department of Children and covered in bruises, with a large burn mark on
Family Services (DCFS). his leg. DCFS files obtained by the Los Angeles
One of those dead kids was two-year-old Times indicate that, prior to his murder, Smith
Josue-Rey Maldonado. His mother left him was visibly afraid and would cry whenever
in the care of her boyfriend, Samuel Aguilar, Hernandez was in the room. Smiths mother
twenty-three. Josue-Rey was transported to (whose name has not yet been publicly report-
the hospital early on the morning of August ed) has three other children; she gave birth to
10. The toddlers body was covered in bruises, the first of them when she was seventeen. In
from his hairline to his legs. Family members 2009, a neighbor called in a child abuse com-
told medical staff that the boy was vomiting plaint, saying that a boyfriend (not Hernandez)
and not responsive the night before. Accord- shoved Smiths mother while she was carrying
ing to the Los Angeles Times, Jessica Cereceres, one of her young children. Another complaint

82 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


raised concerns about the mothers welfare; These decisions, as dumbfounding and in-
this caller told the DCFS abuse hotline that furiating as they are, reflect a calculated, bu-
the mother was in a violent relationship. reaucratic logic. Over the last three decades,
Often, repeated reports of domestic vio- the federal government has mandated that
lence against a parent indicate child abuse is state welfare agencies intervening in a family
also happening, which will prompt a good so- crisis must always seek to preserve the family
cial worker to flag a child living in these con- and not disrupt it. The 1980 Adoption Assis-
ditions as high-risk. Though Smiths mother tance and Child Welfare Act directed funds
was interviewed in September 2009 by social away from foster care and toward adoption
workers who found large bruises on her back, services and preventive programs like drug re-
she said, implausibly, that they were self-in- hab counseling, parenting classes, and anger-
flicted. DCFS did not pursue the issue fur- management training.
ther and instead closed her case the following In other words, to lose custody of your kids,
month. And even after Smith was beaten to you would have to try really, really hard. Even
death this summer, the three other children severe violence within a family isnt enough to
were allowed to stay in their mothers care. reliably trigger a serious effort to separate kids

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 83

from a chronic abuser. Along the way, parents This atomized focus on the deserving poor
are offered countless programs they can either and their domestic mores didnt translate well
enroll in or ignore, as state-mandated drug into the industrial age, which saw the rise of
tests come up dirty and violent boyfriends are mass urban poverty at the margins of a new
allowed an open-ended number of sleepovers. regime of economic production. Children of
working immigrants were often condemned
The Social Work Wars to lifetimes of poverty and family abuse
Of course, state intervention in family liv- before anyone thought to inquire into the
ing arrangements isnt a first resort for social particulars of their moral upbringings. Pro-
workers seeking to provide assistance to at- gressive Era reformers such as Jane Addams
risk familiesnor should it be. Theres a long launched the Settlement House movement,
and dismal history of state surveillance of which sought to secure for poor families ba-
family life as social control of the poor by oth- sic material relief, together with a key mea-
er means. Still, families are notorious breed- sure of cultural self-sufficiency via services
ing grounds for interpersonal violence and like language classes, daycare, kindergartens,
abuse at all points on the economic spectrum, nurseries, and playgrounds. Spearheading the
as malefactors from Chris Brown and Adrian Settlement movement were people much like
Peterson to Josh Duggar and Joan Crawford Addams herselfvolunteer members of the
can attest. How, exactly, did we arrive at a middle class, typically university students and
system in which physical harm to at-risk poor mothers with grown children.
kids triggers zero-sum, bureaucratic threat Like other class-interested intrusions into
containment rather than urgent reform? Lets the lives of the poor, the Settlement movement
review the tape. suffered from its share of ideological blind
It wasnt until the early twentieth century spots and moments of moral condescension.
that the state intervened in a childs life, un- But it did supply a basic framework in which
less that child was a threat to the social or- poor families needs could be acknowledged as
derand in these cases, the state operated as legitimate on their own termstogether with
an apparatus of punishment instead of inter- a doctrine of assisted self-help that permitted
vention. Private and religious charities would higher-born dispensers of charity to interact in
feel out the prospects for moral intervention rough parity with its lesser-born objects. This,
in a failing household by sending a friendly in turn, allowed the formerly cloistered daugh-
visitor to interview the family membersan ters of the upper classes to see the challenges
early incarnation of the modern social worker. and hardships poor people faced firsthand, by
The friendly visitors mission was to investi- living directly in their midsta process that,
gate a childs lowly circumstances and then to in many cases, resulted in the radicalization of
certify whether the child was truly deserving the settlement workers.
of private help. Sometimes, these proto-social After the Progressive Era gave way to the
workers would arrange to send a destitute business civilization of the 1920s, however,
child to live in the countryside with a rural the innovations of the Settlement movement
family, trading his labor for room and board. were boiled down to a simple state directive:
Other times, the child would remain with his make the poor immigrant home a shrine to
birth family, and the friendly visitor would Americanism. Once the states new profes-
serve as a role model, dispensing advice and sionalized caste of social workers could cer-
moral instruction that the parents couldnt, or tify that a given troubled home was fit for the
didnt, supply. seamless transmission of middle-class Ameri-

84 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

You tend to greet the intimate horrors of family abuse with
a fatalist shrugwhich is just how our policy elite wants it.

can virtue, the family could then be trusted to tion, organizing strikes among poor mothers
work in concert with the schools, the courts, and welfare recipients in New York and scat-
and other institutions of patriotic probity to tered other urban outposts. Such misguided
mint model citizens. tactics were all that a resurgent conservative
The administrators of state-sponsored so- movement needed to tar every New Deal pro-
cial work, fearful of the recent revolutionary gram of income support for the poor as the
tumult in Russia, had no patience for the Set- dangerous stuff of amoral left-wing militan-
tlement movements sentimental attachment cyonly in this version of the morality play,
to immigrant culture. Indeed, with the wave the restive middle-class Settlement workers
of red scares initiated by Progressive president had given way to bona fide fellow-traveling
Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general A. commies, who could easily be stereotyped
Mitchell Palmer, the specter of economically and dismissed as coddled, overeducated radi-
independent poor immigrant families pitch- cals by the culturally aggrieved rank and file
ing together in cooperatives in the nations of the New Right. The Weathermen might
largest and poorest cities took on a distinctly have done little more than blow up their well-
sinister and subversive castparticularly when appointed New York family homes, but these
formerly volunteer Settlement workers be- radicals wanted to steer ever larger portions of
gan to organize and demand a living wage for the states largesse directly into the hands of
themselves. In 1923 the annual report of the poor families!
New York Childrens Aid Society summarized The next turn of the screw in this great
the new Americanist consensus in social aid: family risorgimento was to give us our pres-
ent-day, hyper-individualized vision of what
There is a well-established conviction on the
it takes to make a broken family whole again.
part of social workers that no child should be
After the Adoption Assistance Act was signed
taken from his natural parents until every-
into law in 1980, the states started to admin-
thing possible has been done to build up the
ister a new generation of social-welfare pro-
home into what an American home should
grams targeted with redoubled force on the
be. Even after a child has been removed,
basics of family preservation. And predictably
every effort should be continued to rehabili-
enough, the overall pattern of family pathol-
tate the home and when success crowns ones
ogy became more starkly individualized than
efforts, the child should be returned.
ever: in the years immediately following the
To a remarkable degree, the postwar peri- passage of the law, the number of children
od of social work and family intervention was in foster placements leveled off, while the re-
a replay of the social work wars of the Progres- ported incidents of child abuse and neglect
sive Era, with the same core dynamic. New increased.
Left activists sought to short-circuit the net- Tradeoffs were necessary, many said, much
work of state aid, which they deemed insuffi- as they had during the first Progressive Era
ciently revolutionary. But instead of focusing push of homebuilding. Just think of the laissez-
on making good the warped fabric of poor faire-mal alternative: snake-pit group homes,
family life, they opted for militant direct ac- corrupt foster agencies that fleece state pro-

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 85

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

grams, and irrefutable data showing that kids on foster care, family court, and the juvenile
who grow up in foster care typically face a life justice system, I can tell you that both positions
of unemployment, poverty, and turmoil. But it are right and both positions are totally fucked.
now seems clear that over the past thirty-five The situation is impossible. Every year, thirty
years, in lieu of displacing adoption and fos- or more kids in L.A. County die at the hands
ter care with an improved, more accountable of a dysfunctional parent or a fucked-up boy-
system of family aid, the family-first thrust friend. And if kids trapped in horrible homes
of contemporary policy-making has simply are taken away from their parents, they may
devolved the excesses of the older homebuild- not die, but they dont exactly thrive, either.
ing ethos onto individual families themselves. Why is it that these are our best options?
To qualify for minimal aid while continuing In part, of course, because the present po-
to hang onto custody of their kids, parents litical consensus wills it. The notion that the
now have to continually reinvent themselves state can fine-tune dysfunctional family life
as alert and engaged students of parenthood, has something for political opportunists of
promising the courts and the social services every persuasion. Conservatives endorse ever
system that they will do better after enrolling more elaborate governmental intrusions into
in the next program or landing the next pre- private life for the sake of preserving the fami-
carious low-wage service job. How theyre sup- lys hollowed-out huskand they lunge at each
posed to hold down jobs, let alone supply stable new opportunity to overstuff said husk with
households for their at-risk kids, in the midst doctrinaire evangelical agitprop. Liberals,
of all this performative box-ticking is an oc- for their part, have rushed to dismantle fed-
cult mystery that your typical parenting class eral income supports for poor families while
will never come close to unpacking. gleefully collaborating with the libertarian
right in assaulting public schools and teach-
What Price Unity? ers unions. (While the cult of educational
Family reunification has a nice, vaguely re- achievement isnt the ironclad arbiter of life
assuring ring to it as a policy goallike put- outcomes that progressives pretend, its none-
ting one hundred thousand more cops on the theless true that a shitty, underfunded school
street or ending welfare as we know it. But is one fewer institution in the lives of poor
like those other dubious neoliberal slogans, American families that can be counted on to
it has translated into a panoply of real-life take any sustained interest in their plight.)
choices running the gamut from bad to worse. Lost in all the self-congratulatory tumult
And policy-makers themselves are far from of state-sanctioned family engineering is any
unified; the national policy debate remains in realistic sense of the all too pressing material
a state of squalor, with traditional ideologies forces that make or break family life. When
all bent out of familiar shape. Conservatives poor families break down, we carve out the
respond to the spread of family dysfunction most intimate and informal features of child-
among the fearsome, demonized underclass rearing and parcel them out to agencies run by
by calling for greater and swifter government the professional caring class. The result is a de
intervention in family life, in the name of facto full employment plan for social workers
preserving childrens safety. Liberals, mean- that yields concrete results for their clients
while, champion the notion that families are that are equivocal at best. How many parent-
resilient and can heal themselves without too ing classes, family maintenance specialists,
much intrusive government action. and caseworkers does it take to undo deep
After spending the last five years reporting family pathologies? Can a battery of state-

86 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Conservatives endorse ever more elaborate governmental
intrusions into private life for the sake of preserving
the familys hollowed-out husk.

mandated services, however well intentioned, care, another is with a legal guardian, and four
ever compete with a well-funded school or a of her children were adopted once Wilsons
two-income household? parental rights were terminated.
To get a firmer grasp on these heady ques- One of the two young children found wan-
tions, consider yet another horror story from dering the street, the three-year-old boy, had
the economic margins of Los Angeles: the been removed from Wilsons care in 2011 due
case of Sidnicka Wilsons children. Last to neglect but was given back to his mother in
spring, two of Wilsons sons, ages two and 2013 by a court order after social workers rec-
three, were spotted wandering a busy South ommended reunification. The two-year-old
Los Angeles thoroughfare. Underfed and in was removed at birth and placed into foster
soiled diapers, they were entering stores and care but was returned to Wilson after a year.
asking for food. According to the Los Angeles Wilson was monitored by a social worker
Times, after a bystander took the children to who, according to internal DCFS documents,
the police, investigators found Wilsons home cleared her multiple times as a suitable care-
to be in a deplorably squalid state. taker for her children. When Wilson was lo-
And in the depressingly common but lit- cated days after her children were taken into
tle-remarked public epilogue to such cases, custody, she was also in possession of cocaine.
investigators discovered that Wilsons chil- Her two children are now back in foster care,
dren were under the protection of DCFS and and Wilson, who was charged with two felony
were enrolled, along with Wilson, in a family counts of child abuse, faces up to eight years in
maintenance program. This particular state prison.
contrivance is a go-to crisis-patch in L.A. All our data tells us, this is exactly the type
County, since its considered a more family- of person where there is a high probability
oriented alternative to foster careand just that she will abuse or neglect her child, Mari-
as important for the administrative caste, a lyn Flynn, the dean of USCs School of Social
cheaper one. The Wilson clans maintenance Work, told the Los Angeles Times. Ideally, we
plan was a six-month intervention meant to would have identified this mother when she
help children who were deemed at low risk was in the hospital and we would have offered
of abuse. Children in the program can stay in her support and training with her first child.
their homes while their families get access to Yet its hard to imagine what sort of sup-
transportation, counseling, emergency shelter port and training could possibly offset the
care, parenting classes, drug counseling, and grim situation into which these children
drug testing. Wilson, hard-pressed to make were born. Indeed, the ancillary services and
ends meet and tailed by a criminal record of training programs that Wilson and her kids
robbery and prostitution, had six other chil- were shunted into function more as a reliable
dren, all of whom had been removed from her source of deniability for the state than a path
due to neglect. According to the Los Angeles to a more stable or secure family life. They oc-
Times, one of Wilsons children is still in foster cupy an almost deliberately ineffective middle

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 87

position staked out between two competing prevention program that liberals and conser-
priorities of the child welfare system: rescuing vatives rule out a priori as unworkable.
a child and supporting a family. Still another Angeleno familys story draws
out this stark moral in no uncertain terms. In
Let Them Eat Parental Training 2009 Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Ther-
Over the decades, child welfare policy has be- olf profiled an unnamed mother ensnared in
come entrenched in this middle ground, the the Mbius-strip maze of the CPS system. Af-
site of flimsyand often fatalcompromises ter a prank call came into 911 from her home,
between child safety and the rights of parents police came to the house to find four children,
like Wilson. ages four to ten, home alone. Per the Times, the
There are a number of important, incre- children were wrestling in their underwear.
mental reforms that could help: agencies could One had burned another with a spatula while
triage families with at-risk children under the trying to fry an egg. None went to school.
age of one, overhaul social worker training and The mother was married, but estranged from
systems of accountability, improve channels her violent husband. She worked from 7 a.m.
of communication between law enforcement to 3 p.m. as a grocery store clerk and had no
and family services, and pay extended-family one to help with child care. Her children were
relatives (aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and removed and put into foster care.
so on) at the same rate as foster parents when When asked what she could do to reunite
they take out-of-home placements. And the her family, the mother responded with the
child welfare system would benefit from bet- simple disarming truth of her situation: I
ter safeguards across the board: greater scru- have no idea how to answer that. The best
tiny of foster care, faster inquiry into child plan is. ... I have no idea. If I answered you as
abuse complaints, a child welfare ombudsman a mother, I would say I want them back right
to coordinate services across departments, now. But it would be the same, with no one to
and a reduction in social worker caseloads. watch my kids. I can say that everything will
But all these measures stop well short of what be fine, but I would be lying.
would likely be the best shot at improving The social worker assigned to the case
the life chances of children and parents alike: couldnt process such an inadmissible descrip-
making families less poor. tion of the unforgiving reality of state-man-
If we are to believe in the supremacy of the aged poverty. Instead, she told the mother
family as the best model for raising safe and that if she completed parenting classes, she
happy children, then a social worker desperate- could regain custody in six months. There, in
ly staying on top of thirty cases at a time while a nutshell, is the new social contract for fam-
pulling down an annual salary of $40,000 isnt ily support: a long-running crisis, rooted in the
going to be an effective bulwark against the most stubborn forms of material deprivation,
overlapping deprivations of poverty, domestic transformed into a raison dtre for the caring
violence, prostitution, and meth. Months-long class. Parenting classes are to dysfunctional
maternal and paternal leave, house-visiting poor families what traffic school is to repeat
nurses, subsidized child carefamily interven- driving scofflawsand each is just about as
tions otherwise known as, you know, economic likely as the other to remedy a serious problem.
redistributioncan preempt some of the more
terrible non-choices impoverished parents Partial Intervention
have to make. And perhaps not coincidentally, This myopic vision of poverty and family life
economic redistribution is the one aggressive is, in its own perverse way, a perfectly logical

88 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

extension of our broader economic malaise. these infinitely more fortunate kids grow up
Neoliberal leaders, from Arne Duncan and are lavishly subsidized by mortgage interest
Cory Booker to the Clinton clan, have made deductions. Their parents can (and usually
a point of undermining the major income sup- do) deploy an armada of casually employed
port schemes of the New Deal, from welfare caregivers to supplement the core labor of
as we knew it on down. The results are on lurid child-rearing, from au pairs and babysitters to
display everywhere, and most especially in the school tutors and camp counselors. All hands
schemes that entrap families in intergenera- are marshaled to arrange the childrens lei-
tional povertyin the rampant global flight of sure pursuits and to optimize their education
capital euphemistically known as free trade; and eventual college-admissions value. Their
in the deindustrialized urban Yuppie play- schools are funded via local property taxes
grounds of the Information Age; in the finan- to guarantee, in essence, that Americas prop-
cialization of real estate, pensions, and basic ertied scions will reap every conceivable in-
public services; and in the systematic disman- tellectual and competitive benefit from their
tling of public schools, teachers unions, and privilege. And even then, the most indulgent
the labor movement. These trends have all and well-to-do parents in the nations suburbs
converged within the past generation to ma- will cozen their offspring in expensive private
roon the urban working class in an economic prep schools, ensuring that these delicate stu-
moonscape, without resources of any kind to dents need never have their studies disturbed
fall back on. by a random encounter with a poor person.
In this context, telling a poor working The schools gap alone speaks eloquent vol-
woman to go to parenting classes is the same umes about how the new neoliberal model of
sort of cynical response neoliberalism has for American achievement utterly breaks down
the union worker whose factory is shuttered for the abandoned kids of our urban and
so his parent corporation can open a NAFTA- merely publicly funded school districts. For
sanctioned maquiladora: Shut the fuck up, the first time in fifty years, a majority of U.S.
learn some more skills, and get used to the public school students come from low-income
new normal. Either become a symbolic analyst families eligible for public assistance, accord-
in the Silicon Valley mold, or accept that you ing to an analysis of 2013 federal data. That
are simply on the wrong side of history. The means that a growing number of children
social-work equivalent of that proposition start kindergarten already trailing their more
seems to be: Mimic the mores of bourgeois privileged peersand rarely, if ever, catch up.
child-rearing without any of its material sup- As the Washington Post reports, such kids are
ports. Prove that youre a deserving mother by less likely to have support at home, are less fre-
entering the workforce without any subsidized quently exposed to enriching activities out-
child care; find the time and money for tutor- side of school, and are more likely to drop out
ing, transportation, and extracurricular arts or and never attend college. No shitand this,
sports for your kidand remember that if you among countless other reasons, is why poorer
fail, its because you were a bad parent. urban districts have so much trouble attract-
Contrast this too-strapped-to-succeed ing and keeping a talented corps of teachers.
model of family nurture with the way fami- After a very short time on the job, it becomes
lies are granted subventions, write-offs, and painfully clear that in order to get their stu-
every conceivable child-centered service in dents on track for the kind of academic suc-
the homeowning suburbs, and you enter an- cess that is the taken-for-granted baseline for
other world entirely. The homes in which privileged suburbanites, teachers in poor city

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 89

Th e Fa m i ly That Pre ys Toget h er

schools have to function as therapists, nurses, material advocacy held steady over the lon-
event coordinators, and de facto parents. ger haul, wrote the studys supervisors, Cris
You dont normally think of these foun- M. Sullivan and Deborah I. Bybee. Women
dational savage inequalities when you see an- who received advocacy services were more
other news report about another lethal case of than twice as likely to remain completely free
child abuse or neglect in our crumbling inner from intimate violence across a two-year time
cities. You tend, instead, to greet the intimate period. Those percentages are still far from
horrors of family abuse with a fatalist shrug inspiringjust 24 percent of the victims in the
which is just how our policy elite wants it. The advocacy-assisted group remained violence-
main instruction to be had in our schools, as free, versus a mere 11 percent of those con-
in our casualized, just-in-time social-welfare signed to the familiar bureaucratic scoldings
state, is little more than an extended exer- of standard social work. But the advocates
cise in self-fulfilling social prophecy. When in question here were a corps of undergradu-
seasoned policy savants gaze out on the grim ate women recruited to take part in the study
deprivations that make up daily family life in and direct victims into preexisting channels
poor America, they sigh over the unforgiv- of income and service support. Just think
ing iron laws of cultural determinism. Weve what gains could be made if serious resources
thrown money at poor urban families and se- were committed to income intervention on a
cured generous federal grants and charter cor- larger scaleif somehow our war-happy, tax-
porate funding to revive urban schools, they slashing civitas could be stirred to give a shit
wail in postideological unison, but it all works about how completely the ravages of inequal-
out to a hopeless muddle of the same obdu- ity can disfigure an ordinary kids life chances
rate, mysteriously immutable cultural mores or condemn a working mother to turn to her
in the enda tangle of pathology in the in- batterer for child care. In the meantime, the
famous words of the 1965 Moynihan Report end of the austerity age will come too late, if it
on the state of the black family. does, for another thirty kids in Los Angeles.t
The research shows otherwise, however.
While documentation of interventions in
the most distressed, violence-ridden families
is incomplete and sketchya scandal of neo-
liberal policy complacency unto itselfthe Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [I ]
initial studies show quite clearly that a reli-
ably responsive network of material aid is the Inquiline Dweller living in anothers
most consistent guarantor of family safety in burrow.
poor and abusive conditions. A 1999 review Daniel Aaron
of aid strategies for victims of intimate part-
ner violence found that, when social workers
left off lecturing their charges and effectively
advocated for housing, child care, and educa-
tional assistance, abuse dropped off signifi-
cantly. Unlike the typical intervention that
demonstrates immediate effects, which then
soon deterioratecough, parenting classes,
coughthe downturn in reported violence for STUART GOLDENBERG
victims receiving significant and sustained

90 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t F 5 Martin Mayo


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 91


Tomorrows Child
3 Ray Br adbury

Originally published as H e did not want to be the father of a small blue pyramid. Peter Horn
The Shape of Things hadnt planned it that way at all. Neither he nor his wife imagined
in 1948, Tomorrows that such a thing could happen to them. They had talked quietly for
Child appeared in Ray days about the birth of their coming child, they had eaten normal
Bradburys 1969 short foods, slept a great deal, taken in a few shows, and, when it was time
story collection I Sing for her to fly in the helicopter to the hospital, her husband held her
the Body Electric! Re- and kissed her.
printed with permission. Honey, youll be home in six hours, he said. These new birth-
mechanisms do everything but father the child for you.
She remembered an old-time song. No, no, they cant take that
away from me! and sang it, and they laughed as the helicopter lifted
them over the green way from country to city.
The doctor, a quiet gentleman named Wolcott, was very confident.
Polly Ann, the wife, was made ready for the task ahead and the father
was put, as usual, out in the waiting room where he could suck on
cigarettes or take highballs from a convenient mixer. He was feel-
ing pretty good. This was the first baby, but there was not a thing to
worry about. Polly Ann was in good hands.
Dr. Wolcott came into the waiting room an hour later. He looked
like a man who has seen death. Peter Horn, on his third highball,
did not move. His hand tightened on the glass and he whispered:
Shes dead.
No, said Wolcott, quietly. No, no, shes fine. Its the baby.
The babys dead, then.
The babys alive, too, butdrink the rest of that drink and come
along after me. Somethings happened.
Yes, indeed, something had happened. The something that had
happened had brought the entire hospital out into the corridors.
People were going and coming from one room to another. As Peter
Horn was led through a hallway where attendants in white uniforms
were standing around peering into each others faces and whispering,
he became quite ill.
Hey, looky looky! The child of Peter Horn! Incredible!
They entered a small clean room. There was a crowd in the room,
looking down at a low table. There was something on the table.
A small blue pyramid.
Whyve you brought me here? said Horn, turning to the doctor.
The small blue pyramid moved. It began to cry.
Peter Horn pushed forward and looked down wildly. He was very

92 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

white and he was breathing rapidly. You dont mean thats it? Horn thought
The doctor named Wolcott nodded.
to himself,
The blue pyramid had six blue snakelike appendages and three eyes
that blinked from the tips of projecting structures. theyre
Horn didnt move.
kidding me.
It weighs seven pounds, eight ounces, someone said.
Horn thought to himself, theyre kidding me. This is some joke. This is some
Charlie Ruscoll is behind all this. Hell pop in a door any moment and
joke. Thats
cry April Fool! and everybodyll laugh. Thats not my child. Oh, hor-
rible! Theyre kidding me. not my child.
Horn stood there, and the sweat rolled down his face.
Oh, horrible!
Get me away from here. Horn turned and his hands were opening
and closing without purpose, his eyes were flickering. Theyre
Wolcott held his elbow, talking calmly. This is your child. Under-
kidding me.
stand that, Mr. Horn.
No. No, its not. His mind wouldnt touch the thing. Its a night-
mare. Destroy it!
You cant kill a human being.
Human? Horn blinked tears. Thats not human! Thats a crime
against God!
The doctor went on, quickly. Weve examined thischildand
weve decided that it is not a mutant, a result of gene destruction or re-
arrangement. Its not a freak. Nor is it sick. Please listen to everything
I say to you.
Horn stared at the wall, his eyes wide and sick. He swayed. The
doctor talked distantly, with assurance.
The child was somehow affected by the birth pressure. There was
a dimensional distructure caused by the simultaneous short-circuit-
ings and malfunctionings of the new birth and hypnosis machines.
Well, anyway, the doctor ended lamely, your baby was born into
another dimension.
Horn did not even nod. He stood there, waiting.
Dr. Wolcott made it emphatic. Your child is alive, well, and happy.
It is lying there, on the table. But because it was born into another
dimension it has a shape alien to us. Our eyes, adjusted to a three-
dimensional concept, cannot recognize it as a baby. But it is. Under-
neath that camouflage, the strange pyramidal shape and appendages,
it is your child.
Horn closed his mouth and shut his eyes. Can I have a drink?

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 93

Certainly. A drink was thrust into Horns hands.
Now, let me just sit down, sit down somewhere a moment. Horn
sank wearily into a chair. It was coming clear. Everything shifted
slowly into place. It was his child, no matter what. He shuddered. No
matter how horrible it looked, it was his first child.
At last he looked up and tried to see the doctor. Whatll we tell
Polly? His voice was hardly a whisper.
Well work that out this morning, as soon as you feel up to it.
What happens after that? Is there any way tochange it back?
Well try. That is, if you give us permission to try. After all, its
your child. You can do anything with him you want to do.
Him? Horn laughed ironically, shutting his eyes. How do you
know its a him? He sank down into darkness. His ears roared.
Wolcott was visibly upset. Why, wethat iswell, we dont know,
for sure.
Horn drank more of his drink. What if you cant change him back?
I realize what a shock it is to you, Mr. Horn. If you cant bear to
look upon the child, well be glad to raise him here, at the Institute,
for you.
Horn thought it over. Thanks. But he still belongs to me and
Polly. Ill give him a home. Raise him like Id raise any kid. Give him a
normal home life. Try to learn to love him. Treat him right. His lips
were numb, he couldnt think.
You realize what a job youre taking on, Mr. Horn? This child
cant be allowed to have normal playmates; why, theyd pester it to
death in no time. You know how children are. If you decide to raise
the child at home, his life will be strictly regimented, he must never be
seen by anyone. Is that clear?
Yes. Yes, its clear. Doc. Doc, is he all right mentally?
Yes. Weve tested his reactions. Hes a fine healthy child as far as
nervous response and such things go.
I just wanted to be sure. Now, the only problem is Polly.
Wolcott frowned. I confess that one has me stumped. You know
it is pretty hard on a woman to hear that her child has been born dead.
But this, telling a woman shes given birth to something not recogniz-
able as human. Its not as clean as death. Theres too much chance for
shock. And yet I must tell her the truth. A doctor gets nowhere by
lying to his patient.
Horn put his glass down. I dont want to lose Polly, too. Id be pre-
pared now, if you destroyed the child, to take it. But I dont want Polly
killed by the shock of this whole thing.
I think we may be able to change the child back. Thats the point
which makes me hesitate. If I thought the case was hopeless Id make
out a certificate of euthanasia immediately. But its at least worth a

94 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


Horn was very tired. He was shivering quietly, deeply. All right,
doctor. It needs food, milk, and love until you can fix it up. Its had a
raw deal so far, no reason for it to go on getting a raw deal. When will
we tell Polly?
Tomorrow afternoon, when she wakes up.
Horn got up and walked to the table which was warmed by a soft
illumination from overhead. The blue pyramid sat upon the table as
Horn held out his hand.
Hello, Baby, said Horn.
The blue pyramid looked up at Horn with three bright blue eyes. It
shifted a tiny blue tendril, touching Horns fingers with it.
Horn shivered.
Hello, Baby.
The doctor produced a special feeding bottle.
This is womans milk. Here we go.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 95


Baby looked upward through clearing mists. Baby saw the shapes
moving over him and knew them to be friendly. Baby was newborn,
but already alert, strangely alert. Baby was aware.
There were moving objects above and around Baby. Six cubes of a
gray-white color, bending down. Six cubes with hexagonal append-
ages and three eyes to each cube. Then there were two other cubes
coming from a distance over a crystalline plateau. One of the cubes
was white. It had three eyes, too. There was something about this
White Cube that Baby liked. There was an attraction. Some rela-
tion. There was an odor to the White Cube that reminded Baby of
Shrill sounds came from the six bending-down gray-white cubes.
Sounds of curiosity and wonder. It was like a kind of piccolo music, all
playing at once.
Now the two newly arrived cubes, the White Cube and the Gray
Cube, were whistling. After a while the White Cube extended one of
its hexagonal appendages to touch Baby. Baby responded by putting
out one of its tendrils from its pyramidal body. Baby liked the White
Cube. Baby liked. Baby was hungry. Baby liked. Maybe the White
Cube would give it food ...
The Gray Cube produced a pink globe for Baby. Baby was now to
be fed. Good. Good. Baby accepted food eagerly.
Food was good. All the gray-white cubes drifted away, leaving only
the nice White Cube standing over Baby looking down and whistling
over and over. Over and over.

T hey told Polly the next day. Not everything. Just enough. Just
a hint. They told her the baby was not well, in a certain way. They
talked slowly, and in ever-tightening circles, in upon Polly. Then
Dr. Wolcott gave a long lecture on the birth-mechanisms, how they
helped a woman in her labor, and how, this time, they short-circuited.
There was another man of scientific means present and he gave her
a dry little talk on dimensions, holding up his fingers, so! one, two,
three, and four. Still another man talked of energy and matter. An-
other spoke of underprivileged children.
Polly finally sat up in bed and said, Whats all the talk for? Whats
wrong with my baby that you should all be talking so long?
Wolcott told her.
Of course, you can wait a week and see it, he said. Or you can
sign over guardianship of the child to the Institute.
Theres only one thing I want to know, said Polly.
Dr. Wolcott raised his brows.
Did I make the child that way? asked Polly.
You most certainly did not!
The child isnt a monster, genetically? asked Polly.

96 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The child was thrust into another continuum. Otherwise, it is
perfectly normal.
Pollys tight, lined mouth relaxed. She said, simply, Then bring me
my baby. I want to see him. Please. Now.
They brought the child.
The Horns left the hospital the next day. Polly walked out on her
own two good legs, with Peter Horn following her, looking at her in
quiet amazement.
They did not have the baby with them. That would come later.
Horn helped his wife into their helicopter and sat beside her. He lifted
the ship, whirring, into the warm air.
Youre a wonder, he said.
Am I? she said, lighting a cigarette.
You are. You didnt cry. You didnt do anything.
Hes not so bad, you know, she said. Once you get to know him.
I can evenhold him in my arms. Hes warm and he cries and he even
needs his triangular diapers. Here she laughed. He noticed a nervous
tremor in the laugh, however. No, I didnt cry, Pete, because thats
my baby. Or he will be. He isnt dead, I thank God for that. HesI
dont know how to explainstill unborn. I like to think he hasnt been
born yet. Were waiting for him to show up. I have confidence in Dr.
Wolcott. Havent you?
Youre right. Youre right. He reached over and held her hand.
You know something? Youre a peach.
I can hold on, she said, sitting there looking ahead as the green
country swung under them. As long as I know something good will
happen, I wont let it hurt or shock me. Ill wait six months, and then
maybe Ill kill myself.
She looked at him as if hed just come in. Pete, Im sorry. But this
sort of thing doesnt happen. Once its over and the baby is finally
born Ill forget it so quick itll never have occurred. But if the doctor
cant help us, then a mind cant take it, a mind can only tell the body to
climb out on a roof and jump.
Thingsll be all right, he said, holding to the guide-wheel. They
have to be.
She said nothing, but let the cigarette smoke blow out of her mouth
in the pounding concussion of the helicopter fan.
Three weeks passed. Every day they flew in to the Institute to visit
Py. For that was the quiet calm name that Polly Horn gave to the blue
pyramid that lay on the warm sleeping-table and blinked up at them.
Dr. Wolcott was careful to point out that the habits of the child were
as normal as any others; so many hours sleep, so many awake, so much
attentiveness, so much boredom, so much food, so much elimination.
Polly Horn listened, and her face softened and her eyes warmed.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 97

At the end of the third week, Dr. Wolcott said, Feel up to taking
him home now? You live in the country, dont you? All right, you have
an enclosed patio, he can be out there in the sunlight, on occasion. He
needs a mothers love. Thats trite, but nevertheless true. He should
be suckled. We have an arrangement where hes been fed by the new
feed-mech; cooing voice, warmth, hands, and all. Dr. Wolcotts voice
was dry. But still I feel you are familiar enough with him now to
know hes a pretty healthy child. Are you game, Mrs. Horn?
Yes, Im game.
Good. Bring him in every third day for a checkup. Heres his for-
mula. Were working on several solutions now, Mrs. Horn. We should
have some results for you by the end of the year. I dont want to say
anything definite, but I have reason to believe well pull that boy right
out of the fourth dimension, like a rabbit out of a hat.
The doctor was mildly surprised and pleased when Polly Horn
kissed him, then and there.

P ete Horn took the copter home over the smooth rolling greens of
Griffith. From time to time he looked at the pyramid lying in Pollys
arms. She was making cooing noises at it, it was replying in approxi-
mately the same way.
I wonder, said Polly.
How do we look to it? asked his wife.
I asked Wolcott about that. He said we probably look funny to
him, also. Hes in one dimension, were in another.
You mean we dont look like men and women to him?
If we could see ourselves, no. But remember, the baby knows
nothing of men or women. To the baby whatever shape were in, we
are natural. Its accustomed to seeing us shaped like cubes or squares
or pyramids, as it sees us from its separate dimension. The babys had
no other experience, no other norm with which to compare what it
sees. We are its norm. On the other hand, the baby seems weird to us
because we compare it to our accustomed shapes and sizes.
Yes, I see. I see.
Baby was conscious of movement. One White Cube held him in
warm appendages. Another White Cube sat further over, within an
oblong of purple. The oblong moved in the air over a vast bright plain
of pyramids, hexagons, oblongs, pillars, bubbles, and multi-colored
One White Cube made a whistling noise. The other White Cube
replied with a whistling. The White Cube that held him shifted
about. Baby watched the two White Cubes, and watched the fleeing
world outside the traveling bubble.
Baby feltsleepy. Baby closed his eyes, settled his pyramidal young-

98 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

ness upon the lap of the White Cube, and made faint little noises ...
Hes asleep, said Polly Horn.

Summer came. Peter Horn himself was busy with his export-import The Gray Cube
business. But he made certain he was home every night. Polly was
all right during the day, but, at night, when she had to be alone with
the child, she got to smoking too much, and one night he found her a pink globe
passed out on the davenport, an empty sherry bottle on the table
for Baby.
beside her. From then on, he took care of the child himself nights.
When it cried it made a weird whistling noise, like some jungle animal Baby was
lost and wailing. It wasnt the sound of a child.
now to be fed.
Peter Horn had the nursery soundproofed.
So your wife wont hear your baby crying? asked the workman. Good. Good.
Yes, said Peter Horn. So she wont hear.
They had few visitors. They were afraid that someone might 9
stumble on Py, dear sweet pyramid little Py.
Whats that noise? asked a visitor one evening, over his cocktail.
Sounds like some sort of bird. You didnt tell me you had an aviary.
Oh, yes, said Horn, closing the nursery door. Have another
drink. Lets drink, everyone.
It was like having a dog or a cat in the house. At least thats how
Polly looked upon it. Peter Horn watched her and observed exactly
how she talked and petted the small Py. It was Py this and Py that, but
somehow with some reserve, and sometimes she would look around
the room and touch herself, and her hands would clench, and she would
look lost and afraid, as if she were waiting for someone to arrive.
In September, Polly reported to her husband: He can say Father.
Yes he can. Come on, Py. Say, Father!
She held the blue warm pyramid up.
Wheelly, whistled the little warm blue pyramid.
Again, repeated Polly.
Wheelly! whistled the pyramid.
For Gods sake, stop! said Pete Horn. He took the child from her
and put it in the nursery where it whistled over and over that name,
that name, that name. Horn came out and poured himself a stiff
drink. Polly was laughing quietly.
Isnt that terrific? she said. Even his voice is in the fourth dimen-
sion. Wont it be nice when he learns to talk later? Well give him
Hamlets soliloquy to memorize and hell say it but itll come out like
something from James Joyce! Arent we lucky? Give me a drink.
Youve had enough, he said.
Thanks, Ill help myself, she said and did.
October, and then November. Py was learning to talk now. He
whistled and squealed and made a bell-like tone when he was hungry.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 99


Dr. Wolcott visited. When his color is a constant bright blue, said
the doctor, that means hes healthy. When the color fades, dullthe
child is feeling poorly. Remember that.
Oh, yes, I will, I will, said Polly. Robins-egg blue for health, dull
cobalt for illness.
Young lady, said Wolcott. Youd better take a couple of these
pills and come see me tomorrow for a little chat. I dont like the way
youre talking. Stick out your tongue. Ah-hmm. You been drinking?
Look at the stains on your fingers. Cut the cigarettes in half. See you
You dont give me much to go on, said Polly. Its been almost a
year now.
My dear Mrs. Horn, I dont want to excite you continually. When
we have our mechs ready well let you know. Were working every day.
Therell be an experiment soon. Take those pills now and shut that
nice mouth. He chucked Py under the chin. Good healthy baby, by
God! Twenty pounds if hes an ounce!
Baby was conscious of the goings and comings of the two nice
White Cubes who were with him during all of his waking hours.
There was another cube, a gray one, who visited on certain days. But
mostly it was the two White Cubes who cared for and loved him. He
looked up at the one warm, rounder, softer White Cube and made the
low warbling soft sound of contentment. The White Cube fed him.
He was content. He grew. All was familiar and good.
The New Year, the year 1989, arrived.
Rocket ships flashed on the sky, and helicopters whirred and flour-
ished the warm California winds.
Peter Horn carted home large plates of specially poured blue and
gray polarized glass, secretly. Through these, he peered at his child.
Nothing. The pyramid remained a pyramid, no matter if he viewed
it through X-ray or yellow cellophane. The barrier was unbreakable.
Horn returned quietly to his drinking.
The big thing happened early in February. Horn, arriving home in
his helicopter, was appalled to see a crowd of neighbors gathered on
the lawn of his home. Some of them were sitting, others were stand-
ing, still others were moving away, with frightened expressions on
their faces.
Polly was walking the child in the yard.
Polly was quite drunk. She held the small blue pyramid by the hand
and walked him up and down. She did not see the helicopter land, nor
did she pay much attention as Horn came running up.
One of the neighbors turned. Oh, Mr. Horn, its the cutest thing.
Whered you find it?
One of the others cried, Hey, youre quite the traveler, Horn. Pick
it up in South America?

100 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Polly held the pyramid up. Say Father! she cried, trying to focus
on her husband.
Wheel! cried the pyramid.
Polly! Peter Horn said.
Hes friendly as a dog or a cat, said Polly, moving the child with
her. Oh, no, hes not dangerous. Hes friendly as a baby. My husband
brought him from Afghanistan.
The neighbors began to move off.
Come back! Polly waved at them. Dont you want to see my
baby? Isnt he simply beautiful!
He slapped her face.
My baby, she said, brokenly.
He slapped her again and again until she quit saying it and col-
lapsed. He picked her up and took her into the house. Then he came
out and took Py in and then he sat down and phoned the Institute.
Dr. Wolcott, this is Horn. Youd better have your stuff ready. Its
tonight or not at all.
There was a hesitation. Finally Wolcott sighed. All right. Bring
your wife and the child. Well try to have things in shape.
They hung up.
Horn sat there studying the pyramid.
The neighbors thought he was grand, said his wife, lying on the
couch, her eyes shut, her lips trembling ...
The Institute hall smelled clean, neat, sterile. Dr. Wolcott walked
along it, followed by Peter Horn and his wife Polly, who was holding
Py in her arms. They turned in at a doorway and stood in a large room.
In the center of the room were two tables with large black hoods sus-
pended over them.
Behind the tables were a number of machines with dials and levers
on them. There was the faintest perceptible hum in the room. Pete
Horn looked at Polly for a moment.
Wolcott gave her a glass of liquid. Drink this. She drank it. Now.
Sit down. They both sat. The doctor put his hands together and
looked at them for a moment.
I want to tell you what Ive been doing in the last few months, he
said. Ive tried to bring the baby out of whatever hell dimension, fourth,
fifth, or sixth, that it is in. Each time you left the baby for a checkup we
worked on the problem. Now, we have a solution, but it has nothing to
do with bringing the baby out of the dimension in which it exists.
Polly sank back. Horn simply watched the doctor carefully for
anything he might say. Wolcott leaned forward.
I cant bring Py out, but I can put you people in. Thats it. He
spread his hands.
Horn looked at the machine in the corner. You mean you can
send us into Pys dimension?

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 101

If you want to go badly enough.
Polly said nothing. She held Py quietly and looked at him.
Dr. Wolcott explained. We know what series of malfunctions,
mechanical and electrical, forced Py into his present state. We can
reproduce those accidents and stresses. But bringing him back is some-
thing else. It might take a million trials and failures before we got the
combination. The combination that jammed him into another space
was an accident, but luckily we saw, observed, and recorded it. There
are no records for bringing one back. We have to work in the dark.
Therefore, it will be easier to put you in the fourth dimension than to
bring Py into ours.
Polly asked, simply and earnestly, Will I see my baby as he really
is, if I go into his dimension?
Wolcott nodded.
Polly said, Then, I want to go.
Hold on, said Peter Horn. Weve only been in this office five
minutes and already youre promising away the rest of your life.
Ill be with my real baby. I wont care.
Dr. Wolcott, what will it be like, in that dimension on the other
There will be no change that you will notice. You will both seem
the same size and shape to one another. The pyramid will become a
baby, however. You will have added an extra sense, you will be able to
interpret what you see differently.
But wont we turn into oblongs or pyramids ourselves? And wont
you, doctor, look like some geometrical form instead of a human?
Does a blind man who sees for the first time give up his ability to
hear or taste?
All right, then. Stop thinking in terms of subtraction. Think in
terms of addition. Youre gaining something. You lose nothing. You
know what a human looks like, which is an advantage Py doesnt have,
looking out from his dimension. When you arrive over there you can
see Dr. Wolcott as both things, a geometrical abstract or a human,
as you choose. It will probably make quite a philosopher out of you.
Theres one other thing, however.
And that?
To everyone else in the world you, your wife and the child will look
like abstract forms. The baby a triangle. Your wife an oblong perhaps.
Yourself a hexagonal solid. The world will be shocked, not you.
Well be freaks.
Youll be freaks. But you wont know it. Youll have to lead a se-
cluded life.
Until you find a way to bring all three of us out together.
Thats right. It may be ten years, twenty. I wont recommend it

102 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

to you, you may both go quite mad as a result of feeling apart, differ- I wish we
ent. If theres a grain of paranoia in you, itll come out. Its up to you,
could have
Peter Horn looked at his wife, she looked back gravely. another kid
Well go, said Peter Horn.
and forget
Into Pys dimension? said Wolcott.
Into Pys dimension. all about
They stood up from their chairs. Well lose no other sense, youre
this one.
certain, doctor? Will you be able to understand us when we talk to
you? Pys talk is incomprehensible.
Py talks that way because thats what he thinks we sound like
when our talk comes through the dimensions to him. He imitates
the sound. When you are over there and talk to me, youll be talking
perfect English, because you know how. Dimensions have to do with
senses and time and knowledge.
And what about Py? When we come into his strata of existence.
Will he see us as humans, immediately, and wont that be a shock to
him? Wont it be dangerous?
Hes awfully young. Things havent got too set for him. Therell
be a slight shock, but your odors will be the same, and your voices will
have the same timber and pitch and youll be just as warm and loving,
which is most important of all. Youll get on with him well.
Horn scratched his head slowly. This seems such a long way
around to where we want to go. He sighed. I wish we could have
another kid and forget all about this one.
This baby is the one that counts. I dare say Polly here wouldnt
want any other, would you, Polly?
This baby, this baby, said Polly.
Wolcott gave Peter Horn a meaningful look. Horn interpreted it
correctly. This baby or no more Polly ever again. This baby or Polly
would be in a quiet room somewhere staring into space for the rest of
her life.
They moved toward the machine together. I guess I can stand it,
if she can, said Horn, taking her hand. Ive worked hard for a good
many years now, it might be fun retiring and being an abstract for a
I envy you the journey, to be honest with you, said Wolcott,
making adjustments on the large dark machine. I dont mind telling
you that as a result of your being over there you may very well write
a volume of philosophy that will set Dewey, Bergson, Hegel, or any of
the others on their ears. I might come over to visit you one day.
Youll be welcome. What do we need for the trip?
Nothing. Just lie on these tables and be still.
A humming filled the room. A sound of power and energy and

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 103


They lay on the tables, holding hands, Polly and Peter Horn. A
double black hood came down over them. They were both in dark-
ness. From somewhere far off in the hospital, a voice-clock sang, Tick
tock, seven oclock. Tick tock, seven oclock ... fading away in a little
soft gong.
The low humming grew louder. The machine glittered with hid-
den, shifting, compressed power.
Is there any danger? cried Peter Horn.
The power screamed. The very atoms of the room divided
against each other, into alien and enemy camps. The two sides
fought for supremacy. Horn gaped his mouth to shout. His insides
became pyramidal, oblong with terrific electric seizures. He felt
a pulling, sucking, demanding power claw at his body. The power
yearned and nuzzled and pressed through the room. The dimen-
sions of the black hood over his torso were stretched, pulled into
wild planes of incomprehension. Sweat, pouring down his face,
was not sweat, but a pure dimensional essence! His limbs were
wrenched, flung, jabbed, suddenly caught. He began to melt like
running wax.
A clicking sliding noise.
Horn thought swiftly, but calmly. How will it be in the future with
Polly and me and Py at home and people coming over for a cocktail
party? How will it be?
Suddenly he knew how it would be and the thought of it filled him
with a great awe and a sense of credulous faith and time. They would
live in the same white house on the same quiet, green hill, with a high
fence around it to keep out the merely curious. And Dr. Wolcott
would come to visit, park his beetle in the yard below, come up the
steps and at the door would be a tall slim White Rectangle to meet
him with a dry martini in its snakelike hand.
And in an easy chair across the room would sit a Salt White Ob-
long with a copy of Nietzsche open, reading, smoking a pipe. And on
the floor would be Py, running about. And there would be talk and
more friends would come in and the White Oblong and the White
Rectangle would laugh and joke and offer little finger sandwiches and
more drinks and it would be a good evening of talk and laughter.
Thats how it would be.
The humming noise stopped.
The hood lifted from Horn.
It was all over.
They were in another dimension.
He heard Polly cry out. There was much light. Then he slipped
from the table, stood blinking. Polly was running. She stopped and

104 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


picked up something from the floor.

It was Peter Horns son. A living, pink-faced, blue-eyed boy, lying
in her arms, gasping and blinking and crying.
The pyramidal shape was gone. Polly was crying with happiness.
Peter Horn walked across the room, trembling, trying to smile
himself, to hold on to Polly and the child, both at the same time, and
weep with them.
Well! said Wolcott, standing back. He did not move for a long
while. He only watched the White Oblong and the slim White Rect-
angle holding the Blue Pyramid on the opposite side of the room. An
assistant came in the door.
Shhh, said Wolcott, hand to his lips. Theyll want to be alone
awhile. Come along. He took the assistant by the arm and tiptoed
across the room. The White Rectangle and the White Oblong didnt
even look up when the door closed.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 105

J ew e l s

No Such Cuck
The conservative jeer
3 Amber ALee Frost

A few months ago, the media class became ics of cuckold porn on a few of the larger free
fixated on a vulgar little portmanteau. Talk- sites. (Im no hero, just a simple truth seeker.)
ing heads of every political orientation served Roughly half of the top hits I found featured
up their piping hot takes on what Dave Weigel a black man with a white woman; the others
at the Washington Post christened the conser- starred all white performers. Racial fetish, I
vative insult of the month: cuckservative. concluded, is a pillar of the genre, and it seems
Just as youd assume, cuckservative com- safe to assume that the virulently racist and
bines conservative and cuckold, referring not lit- misogynistic types who deploy cuckserva-
erally to the husband of an unfaithful woman, tive may well be obsessed with the porno-
but rather to the sort of insufficiently mascu- graphic trope.
line RINO who is unable and/or unwilling Not long after the first wave of cuckserva-
to vanquish the corrosive forces of Marxism, tive commentary washed over the servers of
feminization, and reverse racism that threat- the left-leaning Internet, the sheer spectacle
en to destroy the very fabric of our once-beau- of liberal agita over the expression attracted
tiful country. the attention of more respectable outlets of
At Salon, Joan Walsh professed her shock debate. The Columbia Journalism Review dove
and disgust at the coinage, thanking The Daily into an intensive etymology of the term. (Did
Callers mild-mannered, clean-cut conserva- you know that The Oxford English Dictionary
tive writer Matt Lewis for bringing its ugly informs us that cuckold likely came from
genealogy to her attention. Lewis claimed the cuckoo, a bird that lays her eggs in another
first half of the word comes from the cuck- birds nest?) Even the venerable Gray Lady,
old genre of pornography, wherein a black though reluctant to broach the topic of por-
man has sex with a white woman while the nography, felt obligated to translate cuckser-
performer playing her white husband watches vative to her readership, unfortunately cover-
ashamed, titillated, or both. In this context, ing it under Politics and not, as I had hoped,
the slur implies a race traitor. Over at The in the Style section.
New Republic, Jeet Heer corroborated this us- As cuckservative went more or less main-
age and expounded on the terms disturbing stream, most conservative pundits scram-
undercurrents of psychosexual racism under bled to distance themselves from it, which
the too-clever-by-half headline Conserva- makes sense, since it wasnt doing much to
tives Are Holding a Conversation About enhance their standing in a presidential elec-
Race. tion cycle (and since conservatives, as we
Like Walsh, Heer sized up the epithets know, are traditionally averse to both por-
cultural connotations without the benefit of nography and obscenity). Erick Erickson at
any field research. Since I am nothing if not RedState denounced the word, calling it a
a rigorous and comprehensive journalist, I slur against Christian voters coined by white
decided to investigate the racial demograph- supremacistsa condemnation echoed by

106 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


Matt Lewis, the aforementioned mild-man- host, El Rushbo, who said, Whoa. Put the
nered, clean-cut sociologist of porn. Its a brakes on it, here. Wait just a second. We
fantastic feat of mental gymnastics to twist dont know this yet, cause Trumps not play-
the cuckservative affair into fodder for a ing by the rules. If Trump were your average,
Christian persecution complex, but its hard- ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would
ly an unprecedented move for white commen- have apologized by now, and he would have
tators on the right. After all, many talking begged for forgiveness, and he would have
heads initially treated the recent massacre gone away. And the establishment would have
of black church parishioners in Charleston, claimed another scalp, claiming that they had
South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylann protected the sanctity of campaigns.
Roof as a secular assault on a Christian house
of worship. Cuckold, yes, but he didnt go that last inch,
Even Rush Limbaugh, who is credited with so to speak. Still, the enraged anti-cuckserva-
shepherding the word into mass usage on the tives do tend to favor Trump, so one can de-
right with his July show Trump Was Sup- tect at least the hint of a dog whistle here from
posed to Be Gone by Now, didnt actually El Rushbo.
say the word cuckservative in his rambling, As far as I know, the only high-profile
self-congratulatory appraisal of The Donalds conservative who went to the mat for cuck-
tenacity: servative was right-wing novelty act and gay
Catholic Breitbart scribe Milo Yiannopou-
This is only Wednesday. Trump was sup-
los. He presumes that since he has liter-
posed to be history by now. And it was your
ally taken black dicks in the ass, his careful

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 107

analysis of the theoretical racial dynamics at word did so as an ironic slur against the right.
play afford him a sort of Standpoint Theory It came from Twitter user @glopdemon, a.k.a.
expertisethe kind of intellectual author- horned up rando, whose bio reads, yup, its
ity granted only by personal experience. (He me, the guy that invented cuckservative all
also declared earlier this year that Gay Cul- those years ago. pay me. A search confirms
ture Is Dead. Evidently he failed to consider his pioneering efforts from April 1, 2010. The
that maybe he just isnt being invited to the tweet, like so many others, was hurled into the
good parties.) Yiannopoulos further argued void and largely ignored (as of this writing, it
that cuckold and cuckservative are not rac- has only four retweets and sixteen favorites):
ist terms because they were popularized not
A liberal is just a conservative that hasnt been
on Stormfront or in some KKK chatroom,
cucked yet. Looking for paleo-con man missile
but in that bastion of postracial enlighten-
to do this. #cuckservative #tcot #tcuck
ment, 4chan, which, as it turned out, played
no small role in Roofs radicalization. At first glance, that nasty little bit of de-
rision may seem like your standard outburst
These lackluster defenses and strident re- of right-wing psychosexual petulance, but a
bukes of cuckservative from the right line quick scroll down @glopdemons feed reveals
up rather awkwardly with the eager forensic left political leanings and a pronounced af-
studies of its deep psychology on the (notion- finity for mocking conservatives. When I
al) left. It appears that right-wing allegiance contacted @glopdemon, he confirmed that
to the term is not quite so robust as liberal the neo-Nazis had come up with cuckserva-
commentators would have it. And concurrent tive independentlythough long after his
usages across the political spectrum show that own satirical adoption of the portmanteau.
cuckservative may be a case of multiple inde- I also learned that @glopdemon came to
pendent discovery, the phenomenon of two Twitter through the forums of Something
or more distinct parties developing innova- Awful, now recognized as the progenitor of
tions nearly simultaneously. so-called Weird Twitter, a Twitter-based
For example, Benjamin Franklin is cred- comedy style often characterized by the sort
ited with inventing the lightning rod. But at of absurdist humor that plays well in the com-
around the same time, in the Kingdom of Bo- pressed 140-character format. Its a signature
hemia, Czech scientist and theologian Prokop of the Weird Twitter movement to mercilessly
Divi created a machina meteorologica of argu- troll right-wingers. Alas, poor @glopdemon
ably superior designalbeit in a comically am- reports that hes received only accolades from
bitious attempt to control the weather. Divi the reactionaries he sought to mock:
appears to have built his lightning rod without
I made my tweet as kind of a throwaway joke
any knowledge of Franklins research. (Divis
and forgot about it until a month or two ago
findings were not well received, however: the
when some conservative guys started favorit-
scientific community didnt think much of his
ing it and I knew something was up.
shoddy attempts at preventing storms, while
Anyway, these guys came up with it inde-
the local farmers were so confident in his abil-
pendently, but its so stupid that I figured if I
ities that they blamed him for a drought and
have to deal with weirdos favoriting a tweet
razed the whole structure.)
from five years ago, I might as well have fun
So too with cuckservative. If you reach
with it so I started making a bit of a ruckus
back into the shallow annals of cuckservative
about having created it and wanting credit.
history, you find that the first tweet to use the

108 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Yes, @glopdemons satirical use of cuckserva- teel manners. I cant imagine that the writ-
tive predated the earnest use by roughly five ers clutching their pearls over the slur are
years, simply because extreme right-wing genuinely surprised by the sentiments of the
hysteria will always eventually eclipse any at- extreme far right. Rather, it seems that the
tempt to parody it. Call it Glopdemons Law. whole idea of the word is so gross and outra-
Theres a lot of precedent for this sort of geous that it offends their prim sensibilities
epistemological confusion in political and cul- in the most affirming and self-congratulatory
tural debate. My own favorite specimen dates wayby confirming their libidinal fantasy of
from the 1970s. When Norman Lear, one of ideological opposition. In fact, part of the
the creators of All in the Family, introduced reason the word exploded far and wide on
America to the comically backward Archie social media is that left-leaning Twitter and
Bunker, the first episode was preceded by the Facebook users thought it was so hilariously
following disclaimer: repugnant.
Likewise, its no coincidence that the
The program you are about to see is All in
loudest intra-movement admonishments of
the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous
the cuckservative slur came from the sort of
spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and con-
right-wingers who boast large enough follow-
cerns. By making them a source of laughter,
ings that they must cater to prim sensibilities.
we hope to showin a mature fashionjust
Meanwhile, back in the real world, umbrage
how absurd they are.
appears to be losing its political currency
Viewers, of course, interpreted the show among our less patrician reactionaries. As
for their own ends. Some got the joke and prophesied by El Rushbo, Trump continues
laughed at Bunkers offensive politics. Many to win the hearts and minds of those who
glorified the protagonists behavior as tes- might not openly deploy such nasty little
timony to the resilience and endurance of pejoratives as cuckservative but who can be
traditional values. Still others were incensed reliably swayed to share the sentiments that
by the shows light-hearted depiction of the such terms convey. Even the liberals covering
leading mans bigotry, arguing that laugh- Trumps campaign seem to suggest that his
ing at something so prevalent and politically true offense has less to do with his repulsive
dangerous downplays the legitimate threat it ideas than with his repulsive conduct.
represents. The net effect of this summers cuckserva-
Never mind that All in the Family sought tive panic was to lure liberals once more into
to defang the threat of right-wing intoler- their pet allegiance to etiquette and away
ance by exposing it to mass ridicule. For the from the more risky and demanding conduct
prissy scolds keeping satire at an anxious of politics. The anonymous basement trolls
arms length, the real outrage was that people crying cuckservative are gross, but they dont
were laughing at what they should have been have the political power or public legitimacy
denouncing. The modern-day equivalents of of the mild-mannered, clean-cut rightists.
these earnest Bunker-detractors now write (And if Twitter metrics are anything to go
think pieces about things like cuckservative by, the word has essentially been retired any-
because its the brazen coarseness of bigotry way.) Its the bien pensant conservatives who
that bothers them and not the bigotry itself. continue to whitewash the insidious nature of
The amount of liberal and conservative the conservative movement, even as they con-
ink thats been spilled over cuckservative has vey an air of civilized legitimacy to the easily
been a performative demonstration of gen- shocked Joan Walshes of the world.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 109

J ew e l s

Punk Crock
Whistling eternal yesterday
3 Eugenia Williamson

For a movement that famously proclaimed Such sanitized invocations of punk have
there was no future, punk rock has had a re- overrun what the Times would doubtless call
markably durable half-life. Forty years after stylish street fashionthereby, of course, en-
Televisions legendary residency at CBGB, acting the final consumerist enclosure of a
the world is awash in punk. In the last twen- movement that began as street fashion. This
ty months, former Village Voice rock critic summer, walking near my old apartment in
and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood just out-
a memoir about his downtown New York side Boston, I spotted a wholesome-looking
youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, college dude in expensive glasses, spotless
Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell sneakers without socks, and a Ramones T-
released the paperback edition of his, Patti shirt tucked into a pair of pressed, front-
Smith released the follow-up to her National pleated khaki slacks. Although the Ramones
Book Awardwinning memoir, and Harper- presidential eagle had long joined the Roll-
Collins signed Lenny Kaye, Smiths guitarist, ing Stones tongue and the Pink Floyd prism
to write a memoir of his own.* Ramones fans in the pantheon of meaningless, ubiquitous
can look forward to a forthcoming Martin screen-print designs, something about seeing
Scorsesehelmed biopic and a documentary this particular prepped-up lickspittle in a Ra-
promising new footage of the seminal band, mones T-shirt gave me pause.
whose last founding member perished in 2014. Having come of age well after punk did, I
Punk has cracked the upper echelons of have no good reason to be startled by a dork
the tech sphere too. Earlier this fall, in a picto- wearing a Ramones T-shirt or a tech executive
rial called The Stylish Men of Tumblr, the name-checking punk in the Times. I started
New York Times introduced the world to Pau high school in 1992, the year in which two
Santesmasses, a thirty-nine-year-old product punk-inspired records, Nirvanas Nevermind
manager whose own Tumblr account is devot- and Pearl Jams Ten, outsold Whitney Hous-
ed to modern architecture, skateboarding, ton, Eric Clapton, and almost everyone else.
and punk rockthus apostrophizing a move- As a result, self-identified punksapparently a
ment of self-professed anarchic rebellion as clannish lotspiraled into a recursive identity
if it were a tasteful accessory. Photographed crisis brought about by the sudden omnipres-
atop the grand, dramatically lit staircase in ence of fuzzy guitars, anomie, and sock hats.
his employers Manhattan offices in a pristine People like meyoung teenagers who came
gingham button-down, skinny khakis, and to Nation of Ulysses when Sassy anointed the
shockingly clean sneakers, Santesmasses de- bands frontman Ian Svenonius the Sassi-
scribed his shirt as a punk-slash-mod thing. est Boy in America, and who wore Dinosaur

 iv Albertines and Kim Gordons should not be lumped in with mere rock memoirs, since they are explicitly feminist
works that interrogate their authors work and lives as rock stars in the context of feminism; their stories belong to femi-
nist, punk, and cultural historywhereas Chrissie Hynde recently said girls in short skirts deserve to get raped.

110 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


Jr. T-shirts because they liked cowsshould nifiers meant, in MacKayes view, that their
have been free to enjoy the music playing at deeper cultural significance had been lost in
keggers and in parking lots, but our elders dis- translationa sentiment akin to the mourn-
couraged us at every turn. I remember read- ful Don Henley lyric about seeing a Deadhead
ing an interview with Ian MacKaye in which sticker on a Cadillac.
the Minor Threat founder, Fugazi leader, and Punk, we greasy teens soon learned, was
de facto punk ethicist bemoaned the sudden once the rightful province of a worthy few
omnipresence of facial piercings and shaven able to discern reality from simulacrum, irony
heads. The new superficial vogue for such sig- from sincerity, punks from poseurs, shit from

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 111

As we greasy teens soon learned, punk was the rightful
province of a worthy few who were able to discern irony
from sincerity and punks from poseurs.

Shinola. Punk was diametrically opposed to A good part of alterna-rocks appeal
massification; like an ailing Victorian child, stemmed from the total inaccessibility of
it would die if exposed to the slavering crowd. its ideals: not only had we discovered these
The thrust of this purist insider aesthetic was bands long past their prime, but, confused
neatly summed up in the first track of the de- suburban rebels that we were, we were also
but (and only) album from L.A.s great crash- unlikely to suck dick for a fixlet alone com-
and-burn hardcore punk outfit the Germs mandeer the Docs time machine to see, say,
What We Do Is Secret, a dictum that was Soul Asylums Dave Pirner shoot up in some
almost instantly repealed in a series of cine- Minneapolis basement or, like, whatever it
matic and literary productions devoted to the was the Butthole Surfers did in Austin in the
sainted memory of martyred Germs founder 80s. Therefore, we were unable to experience
Darby Crash. (The Janus-faced nature of authentic punk rock culture and were ban-
punks tetchy relationship to commerce was ished to an ultra-lame shadow world in which
also embedded right there in the Germs origi- obvious poseurs like the Offspring scammed
nal lineup, which featured Belinda Carlisle, millions of lunkhead skaters and Paul West-
who would go on to front mega-pop New erberg crooned soporific AOR. Nothing we
Wave leviathan the Go-Gos before posing for did, including but not limited to dyeing our
Playboy, marrying a Republican fund-raiser, hair pink and getting spit on at a Sonic Youth
discovering Buddhism, andof coursepub- concert, could improve our wretched lot.
lishing a memoir.) At the time, clued-in punksuniversally
dismissive of the alterna-rock crazecould
Territorial Pissings turn to zines like Maximumrocknroll and Punk
As for us Gen-Y rebels, we learned the tenets Planet to determine which of their contempo-
of punk purism from Rolling Stone interviews raries fit the narrow criteria required for le-
with Kurt Cobain, whose suicide would later gitimacy. As increasing numbers of dumb kids
be ascribed to the unfortunate clash between sought to appropriate punk tude for their
the singers hard-won punk values and the ac- own ill-conceived aims, debate raged within
claim of the uninitiated masses (i.e., us). In their pages.
those days, a bands coolness seemed directly This is what makes the current casual mass
proportional to the years its members spent reappropriation of punk so strangeand so
languishing at small clubs and the depth of galling to we (now) battle-hardened veterans
the trauma they had suffered at the hands of of the grunge wars. Today, punk neophytes
their Baby Boomer parents, gorgons all. Sleep- face no such barriers to entry. Latter-day Mo-
ing under bridges and shooting heroin seemed hicans Green Day have a long-running rock
particularly glamorous, especially to subur- opera, tirelessly flogged in Broadway touring
ban girls whose mothers drove them to see shows and a behind-the-scenes documentary
Nine Inch Nails and waited for them in the easily queued up on Netflix. Virgin Money
family minivan. recently licensed Sex Pistols album art for

112 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


a punk rock line of MasterCards. In a post on this pieceeach clearly from the social
called Miley Cyrus Is Punk as Fuck, no less media account of a passionately invested
than the punk editor of Noisey, Vice Medias young personit seems the general culture
music site, declared the millionaire exhi- has at last fully embraced punk. Here, for in-
bitionist ingnue the most punk musician stance, is the cri de coeur from Facebook user
around right now. John Law:
Theres a difference between punk and
Id say the image miley is going for is a version
being a slut, argued Facebook user Danika
of punk that people born in the Gen Y can
May. But judging from the other comments

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 113

For every Patti Smith or Debbie Harry, there were dozens
more strippers and groupies whose value was bound up
in the accessibility of their ladyparts.

relate to ... the complex ideology of punk regarded example of the oral-history narra-
goes way beyond the genre of musicits also tive popularized by Studs Terkel, as well as a
about not giving a fuck and doing exactly classic rock history. It remains in print, with
what is authentic to you ... Miley is punk a second reissue due on its twentieth anniver-
in the sense that shes not afraid to piss off sary next year.
the establishment and rebel against the For the layperson, Please Kill Me offered
bourgeois values of the mainstream and say the delights of vicarious sex, drugs, and rock
FUCK YOU to people who expect from her n roll: Johnny Thunderss swollen hands wept
to conform to what it is to be the ideal role blood as a result of his heroin addiction. Dee
model for little girlsand since shes success- Dee Ramones girlfriend shoved his face into
fully managed to enrage millions (including the grille of a Cadillac. Underage groupies
all the haters in this comment thread) with with brightly dyed pubes swam naked in Iggy
her twerking and naked Wrecking-Ball- Pops pool.
Riding, shes successfully pissed off the For the punk initiate, however, Please Kill
establishment, and thats pretty fucking Me promised more meaningful rewards. Fi-
punk yall! nally, here was a canonical account of the
source of so much hand-wringing. Like a
Despite the self-assurance of the Noisey com- long-hidden plate from the Angel Moroni, the
mentariat, countless articles, dozens of trade book had the potential to redefine the tenets
books, and several scholarly tomes, confusion of an entire way of living.
remains about what, exactly, fucking punk is, As far as I know, it didnt live up to its
yall. As punk pushes into its fourth decade, promise. In fact, when I read it (the first of
its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still at least ten times, since its one of my favorite
murky at best. Does punk retain any mean- books), it struck me that, with few exceptions,
ing at all? the people present at the beginning of punk
had only nominally political and social aims,
Memory Holes and the moral imperative to forswear major
In 1996five years into the mainstream blitz labels, money, and fame asserted itself only in
on punk rock purity and a year before Limp retrospect. Although endearingly gross, the
Bizkit dethroned sad-sack alterna-rockers thoughts and actions of the people who fol-
with nu-metalPenguin Books published lowed the Modernist edict to make it new
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of and had the best and most authentic punk ex-
Punk. Although books such as In Contempt, perience were in no way prescriptive.
Christopher Dardens courtroom memoir, Indeed, as they presented themselves in
and Dogberts Top Secret Management Hand- this initial round of movement reminiscence,
book eclipsed it in sales, authors Legs McNeil the fearless progenitors of first-wave punk
and Gillian McCains exhaustive account of rebellion seemed hardly to distinguish them-
punks origins would go on to become a highly selves from their despicable Baby Boomer

114 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


peers. It almost goes without saying that say- ernment individualist in the rawest American
ing FUCK YOU to the establishment and grain (even though hes lived in England for
pissing off the squares were aims held over the past two decades).
from the radical individualism of the 1960s. Besides, anyone whos seen the Ramones
Left to its own devices, punk would totally documentary End of the Century knows that
vote libertarianthink of David Thomas, punks werent entirely free from rules, even
frontman of the four-decades-and-counting within the confines of their small domain.
pater-le-bourgeois avant-punk ensemble Pere In one of the films saddest sequences, Dee
Ubu, who has recently come out as an antigov- Dee Ramonethe bands lovable, goofy bass

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 115

Some punks of my generation slake their
unquenchable thirst for authenticity
by handcrafting small-batch mustard.

player and resident junkie sexpottries to set Being There
out on his own as a white rapper. By the time Like Woody Allen, the punks interviewed
he hit his forties, he had grown tired of the in Please Kill Me were a mess in the realm of
bowl haircut, tight jeans, and leather jacket sexual politics. I think our scene was prob-
dress code enforced by Johnny Ramone, a ably the first scene where guys and girls hung
man who thanked George W. Bush at his in- out as friends, equally, says Elliot Kidd, lead
duction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. singer and guitarist of the Demons. Please
Chastened by the verdict of the marketand Kill Me contains little evidence of this asser-
it must be conceded, abundant evidence of tion. For every Patti Smith or Debbie Harry,
his absent rapping talentDee Dee fatalisti- there were dozens more strippers and group-
cally dons his bomber jacket and returns to ies whose value was bound up in the accessibil-
the Ramones fold, never again to depart from ity of their ladyparts and their willingness to
the prescribed formula in the short balance of spend their tips on intoxicants and crash pads
his life. So much for punks doing whatever the for the boys onstage. Whats more, the books
fuck they wanted. subjects expend an inordinate amount of en-
Another common understanding about ergy dumping on Nancy Spungen, the teen-
punks is that they alone railed against the age, schizophrenic, heroin-addled prostitute
anodyne, relentlessly cheerful culture of the who dated and was probably murdered by Sid
1970s. Even if one were to ignore the disdain Vicious. Please Kill Me, indeed.
all postwar American artists expressed toward Even punks exclusive claim to the legacy
anesthetized happiness, a quick survey of films of the life and work of William S. Burroughs
from that era proves this is utter bunk. John can be easily contested. The word punk
Cassavetes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a phrase lifted from the Burroughs novel
aside, even the relentlessly bourgeois Annie Junkyseemed to sum up the thread that
Hall, a film written and filmed in Manhattan connected everything we likeddrunk, ob-
during CBGBs heyday, showed a pronounced noxious, smart but not pretentious, absurd,
contempt for unthinking chirpiness. Preten- funny, ironic, and things that appealed to the
sion too: in its most famous scene, Annie and darker side, McNeil explains. But not only
Alvy wait in line at the movies in front of a did 1970s virtuoso jazz-rock band Steely Dan
blowhard pontificating loudly about the films name themselves for a dildo from Burroughss
of Federico Fellini. Alvy, Woody Allens stand- Naked Lunch, their songs were just as absurd,
in and, as such, a great admirer of Fellini, grows funny, ironic, and dark as most of the original
increasingly exasperated with the mans blovi- CBGB offerings. (Not to mention that the
ations. Hes just so indulgent, the man crows polished underground cynics at the helm of
to his date, whose face is entirely obscured by Steely Dan were known to take heroin too.)*
Woody Allens hair. Although Please Kill Me raised more Tal-

* There is also an argument to be made about Steely Dans lack of pretension, but its not one I can win.

116 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

mudic debates about punk authenticity than How else to explain Martin Scorseses in-
it resolved, it did provide a lasting template terest in the Ramones? Scorsese, the man who
for subsequent punk narratives. Thereafter, immortalized The Band in The Last Waltz,
any living person who endeavored to recall his made the Rolling Stones a film score clich,
time as an original punk* was obligated to dis- and subjected Goodfellas viewers to the in-
cuss heroin, Nancy Spungen, CBGB, Maxs terminable guitar solo at the end of Layla,
Kansas City, and all the other people from continually strives to define the hopes and
that era whove written memoirs of their own; dreams of his age bracket through its songs.
at this point, nearly everyone who stepped The pop music he reverently ransacks in his
through the door of CBGB from 1974 to 1976 film soundtracks doubles as a one-stop shop
has either written or been interviewed about for Baby Boomer self-expression and turns
it. The result has been the present-day flotilla his films into an image-laden K-Tel anthology
of books and half-baked documentaries, their for the reflective sixty-plus set. Now that the
nadir a terrible film about the history of the Ramones are safely dead and embalmed as the
Chelsea Hotel, the highlight of which was latest means by which earnest retirees may
watching two old hippie gents discuss third- spin out reveries of their rebel selves, Scorsese
hand information about Nancy Spungens is free to annex their struggles into the grand
murder. (Though the 2013 CBGB biopic rates Baby Boomer narrative. No doubt hell pro-
a close second; its little more than an extended duce an epic hagiography that will tell the nu-
Behind the Music episode with irritating comic anced story of not just a band but of a genera-
book captions strewn throughout.) Its easy to tionone whose story weve heard a million
imagine a time in the near future when U.S. times before.***
punk documentaries will reach the same level
of formalism that they have in England, where No, Fuck You
every film, regardless of its subject,** is obli- Some punks of my generationyoung X-ers,
gated to note that punk changed everything, Ys, X-minus-1s, whateverslake their un-
show the same five-second clip of Johnny Rot- quenchable thirst for authenticity by hand-
ten lurching bug-eyed over a microphone, and crafting small-batch mustard in exquisitely
use Big Audio Dynamite toaster Don Letts as designed jars. Others funnel their anarchic
the all-purpose talking head. desires into disruption, screaming a hearty
This endless retelling of the same stories FUCK YOU to things like widget factory
from every conceivable angle lends itself to the protocols and the U.S. education system. Still
kind of didacticism that also plagued the pop others hold onto a distant dream of funda-
music uprisings of earlier, less self-aware eras, mentalist punk rockerdom.
ones far less preoccupied with shrugging off And they do so without any modicum of
the shackles of 60s hegemony. Punk is now public embarrassment or basic adult self-
the province of the rockistspeople who adore awareness. In 2011 the punk-rock nation saw
lists and minutiae as much as they do rock mu- the release of The Other F Word, a documen-
sic and who know the intricacies of Television tary about middle-aged, latter-day punks who
set lists as intimately as they know the different have become, yes, fathers. Through interviews
kinds of pedals Hendrix used at Woodstock. and performances interspersed with footage

 ith the exception of Patti Smith, God bless her. Just Kids is a really great memoir that does not discuss CBGB much at all.
** Even Genesis!
*** Really, nothing against Martin Scorsese except this one tiny quibble.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 117

J ew e l s

of them playing with their children in lovely identifying these people by name. The only
suburban homes, these tattooed men hope to one I recognized was Flea from the Red Hot
reconcile their punk ideals with their parental Chili Peppers, who is quickly becoming the
obligations, so as (one assumes) to aid similar- American equivalent of Don Letts by virtue
ly situated restive punks in reconciling them- of his propensity to appear in any and every
selves to facing up to their responsibilities. Yank punk-documentary product. (It must
If these fellows are the last true adherents further be grudgingly conceded that he also
to punks legacy, it seems punk has not only comes across as a nice, thoughtful dude, which
voted for Rand Paul but is raising children in a only deepens the mystery of the popular ap-
McMansion funded by festival dates. peal of the Chili Peppers in the asshole-dude
The generic quality of the whole exercise demographics.)
is conveyed, by the way, via a weird sort of You can do any fucked-up thing you want
documentary mimesis. Filmmaker Andrea to do and say, Its punk! says one spiky-
Blaugrund Nevins relies on her viewers fan- haired, tattooed middle-aged man explaining
boy knowledge of the bands she features, only the precepts of his lifestyle. Its about go-
erratically bothering to identify her parade of ing against the grain, no rules, says another
punked-up talking heads onscreen. Consid- skinny, tattooed, middle-aged talking head.
ering most of her subjects are of the Warped Punk rock was really nihilistic and it was
Tour varietya coterie of bands whose music just about doing whatever you want, says a
I cant standyoull have to forgive me for not tattooed guy in a Thrasher logo cap, with the


118 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Blink-182 lyric I fucked your mom playing in live on. But none of this matters: according
the background. to punk gospel, real punk disappeared very
As The Other F-Word demonstrates, living shortly after it began.
punk is indeed about FUCK YOU. But, as the The scene got polluted by the press, the
viewer soon learns, it is also about the person- painter, Guggenheim fellow, and erstwhile
al pain brought about by the divorce epidemic punk scenester Duncan Hannah explains in
of the 60s and 70s. Please Kill Me. Suddenly, people from uptown
Our dads werent there, man, so fuck you! were coming downtown and it was really a
says some guy wearing a Stasi cap with a tear- shame to me. Suddenly, CBGB was packed.
drop tattooed underneath his eye. .. . I remember punk was in Vogue, and when
The divorce rate! Youre promised the that issue came out, I saw Diana Vreeland
American Dream but get a nightmare, says at CBGB and all these tourists, right? Slum-
a middle-aged tattooed guy, who may have mingin the Bowery. And I just thought, Ah,
been one of the same guys Ive already quoted, forget it. You know, if theyre gonna do this,
but Im not sure. A different middle-aged tat- I quit.
tooed guy is forced to square the American The notion that reproduction pollutes
Dream with the American Nightmare in real art dates back to at least the Romantics, but
time when his tiny, adorable daughters try to the ramifications of Hannahs statement are
put their Barbie in his suitcase. Bad things clear: identifying with punk means absolu-
might happen to Barbie on the tour bus, he tion from the shifting winds of popular taste.
says, laughing to himself. To venerate some brief, gone thing spares the
Still, fatherhood has the power to re- supplicant the grief and embarrassment of
deem even the most rebellious and alienated. change. Furthermore, it staves off what the
When the parents saw me pick the kids up, kids are calling FOMO, or the fear of missing
they said, who is this man with earrings and out. How can you worry about missing out on
tattoos? says a man with earrings and tattoos, something long gone?
recalling his first trip to daycare. But once On a recent trip to New York, Ariel Pink,
they saw me holding my baby, they know Im a a musician I like very much, played a secret
dad. Punks: theyre just like us! show a few blocks from where I was staying.
I found out about it on Twitter hours after
OMFUG Meets FOMO the fact and I just felt lame. Had it been 1975,
Unlike the comfortable punkers of The Other I would have remained blissfully unaware
F-Word, the dangerously thin denizens of for days, maybe years. First-person accounts
mid-70s punk remain beacons of shabby of the past allow the beholder to believe she
glamour due in a large part to their world would have been alongside the people that
having disappeared. CBGB is goneand mattered, not left in the dark. In the end, this
worse, its awning is now preserved within non-exclusive sense of belonging is the great
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose val- benefit of any lingering purist allegiance to
ues punk was nominally intended to oppose. punk, no matter how commodified, cynically
The Chelsea Hotel was slated to become yet exploited, or otherwise doomed it proves to
another Manhattan condo development, but be. As that embarrassingly decrepit Boomer
the project stalled before it could be convert- icon Mick Jagger put it a half-century ago, in
ed into pieds--terre for Russian oligarchs; a line almost certainly repurposed in a Martin
its set to reopen next year. Some punks died Scorsese soundtrack: Our love is like our mu-
young, some died in middle age, and some sicits here and then its gone.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 119

Tomb of the Unknown Celebrity
3 Carter Ratcliff

You were sexy.

I mean, you must have been.

You must have stirred

a noticeable neednever
in a majority of the audience, of us,
but in a sizeable plurality. For real,
as maybe people said
in those days.

Whichever they were.

For real and

for a while.

It was a charming while,

I guess, and then that time all drained away.

In your retirement
what was left for you?

Did you dream the impossible dream?

Write the occasional postcard?

It must have been strange, suddenly

to have so much time for yourself.
And stranger yet that we had none for you.

Strangest of all was the calm vast and

resilient enough to absorb all you had,
and you had it all, even
plans for a comeback.

Even a paranoid fantasy.

That shadow
of the palm tree
lurking on the stucco wallwhy didnt it
look to you far more sinister than it did?

Whatever happened to that sexy knack you had,

the knack of coming to life on cue?

Through this days din

and the haze that amplifies the din,

120 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

and reduces it to online rumination,
I can hear your voice, almost, warm
and empty in the way that tells us

you were just this regular person

with this marvelous talent.
What we saw was what we got.
And it was never, in its moment,
not precisely enough.

The moment is so thoroughly

gone that I have no idea which it was or
who I was then, but whoever I may have been

Im sure
I had an intimation
that whoever I am now
would miss you,
and I was right.
I do miss you.
Weve all missed you terribly
since who could possibly know when,

and standing here,

before your vaporous monument

doesnt exactly soothe the anguish of our longing.

Far from it.

In fact, I realize
and, by the way, thanks for the insight

I realize,
as I was saying,
that the point of assembling here,
together, today, is to feel for quite possibly
the very first time the full impact of your absence,

which is your legacy

and belongs to each and every one of us, or will,
one day, for you were the best kind of celebrity,
the very best, an example to us all.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 121

J ew e l s

A Not-So-Golden State
The detective stories of Ross Macdonald
3 Andrew Bacevich

The Library of America is to literature what more than two dozen novels, most of them
Cooperstown is to baseballa sort of Val- featuring private detective Lew Archer as
halla created to immortalize this countrys his two-fisted protagonist. During his hey-
finest writers. And like the storied tradi- day, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Macdonald
tions of our national pastime, the handsome pretty much owned the unofficial Hammett-
black-jacketed volumes of the series summon Chandler Chair of Hardboiled Crime Fiction.
forth a completists spirit. Were I a wealthy He won awards and sold plenty of books, with
man with plenty of available shelf space (or a some of them going on to serve as Hollywood
younger man with plenty of available time), fodder. On the whole, Macdonald did okay
Id acquire the entire Library collection, now indeed, a good deal more than okay.
inching up toward three hundred volumes, By all accounts, Millar did not take much
with more to come. joy from the success he achieved. Haunted by
Part of the draw, I confess, lies in the old- insecurity, battered by disappointments in his
fashioned gallantry and grandeur behind the personal life, and troubled by doubts related
enterprise. The death of the book may well to his sexuality, he was not a happy man. Yet
loom just around the corner, but the curators all this angst made for rich material that in-
of the Library of America choose to pretend formed the recurring themes of his writing:
otherwise. Its a bit like deciding to erect the crushing pain of ruptured relationships
a magnificent new passenger rail terminal and the yearning for reconciliation and resto-
in the waning days of the 1950sbuilding a ration.
legacy for the ages when the objects of your
efforts are about to be rudely consigned to Storm and Stress
historys dustbin. Although born in California, Millar soon
Still, like any club purporting to be exclu- thereafter left that state with his Canadian
sive, the Library of America sooner or later parents when they returned home to Ontario.
confronts this question: How wide can we During a difficult childhood, he experienced
open our doors before the riffraff start turn- at first hand trials similar to those endured
ing up? The nonprofit enterprise began pub- by the characters in his fiction. When he was
lishing in the spring of 1982 with Melville, four, his father walked out and disappeared
Hawthorne, Whitman, and Harriet Beecher from his life. Short on money, his mother
Stowe. Does a pulp maestro like Ross Mac- farmed her young son out to live with various
donald belong in such august company? Judg- relatives. In an essay written years later, he re-
ing by the work brought together in his Four called that by his sixteenth year he had lived
Novels of the 1950s (Library of America, $37.50), in fifty houses and committed the sin of pover-
the answer is a qualified yes. ty in each of them. The deprivation, rootless-
Ross Macdonald was the pen name of ness, and overarching sense of abandonment
Kenneth Millar (19151983), who published that haunted his early life left deep scars.

122 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


After Millar finished high school, his fa- in English literature. He aspired to an aca-
ther died; his mother died not long afterward. demic career, but fate intervened to decide
Proceeds from a small insurance policy en- otherwise. Margaret became pregnant and
abled him to attend college at the University gave birth to a daughter, Linda. Money now
of Waterloo and then to transfer to the Uni- became a problem. So, too, did parenting; nei-
versity of Western Ontario. There he wooed ther mother nor father was prepared for the
Margaret Sturm, herself the product of a responsibility of raising a child. Millars biog-
troubled adolescence. Like Millar, Margaret rapher Tom Nolan, who also edited this col-
nursed ambitions of becoming a writer. One lection, describes the result: He wanted sex
day after his graduation in 1938, they married. more often. She was cold and remote for long
The union proved enduring but tumultuous periods. He shouted, pounded walls, broke
and taxed both parties. things. With their child as witness, the Mil-
The following year the newlyweds were lars formed a twisted hybrid of the fractured
in Ann Arbor, with Kenneth enrolled at the families that had produced the two of them.
University of Michigan, studying for a PhD The onset of World War II, which found Mil-

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 123

In 1950s California as depicted by Macdonald, you arrive
in search of utopia and stay to forfeit your soul.

lar serving a tour in the Pacific as an ensign himself was seeing a psychiatrist. Life in Santa
aboard an escort carrier, came almost as a re- Barbara was not what it seemed on its shim-
spite. mering, sun-bathed surface.
During her husbands absence, Margaret
headed west with Linda in tow. She was be- Just Another Fruit Fly
coming something of a literary hot property, For its first anthology drawn from the Mac-
making her mark with a series of whodunits. donald oeuvre, the Library of America has re-
Recruited by Warner Brothers to rework her packaged four Lew Archer tales written dur-
critical breakthrough, The Iron Gates, into ing this period of Millars life: The Way Some
a screenplay, she used her earnings to buy a People Die (1951); The Barbarous Coast (1956);
house in Santa Barbara. Here Kenneth re- The Doomsters (1958); and The Galton Case
turned when the war ended. (1959). All are set in California, and all adhere
While overseas, Kenneth had begun to to an identifiable formula. All revolve around
publish short fiction, and now, on his wifes Archers efforts to find a missing person. No
dime, he made a stab at becoming a full-time sooner does the detective initiate his inquiries
writer. By 1949, Lew Archerwho would than he bumps into several other seemingly
eventually feature in eighteen novels along unrelated mysteries. Over the course of thir-
with fourteen short storieshad made his ap- ty-or-so compact chapters, while enduring
pearance. So, too, had Ross Macdonald, the or committing a certain amount of mayhem,
pseudonym Millar settled on after discarding Archer discovers that everything connects:
other short-lived alternatives. (Two writers rather than several parallel mysteries, there
named Millar pumping out mysteries might is but one. Crucially, that one mystery has its
be one too many. The use of a pen name avoid- point of origin in parental failure and the ru-
ed confusion.) inous consequences of depriving children of
By the 1950s, both Millars were making the care and protection they deserve.
a splash on the Southern California literary Archer himself remains an elusive figure,
scene, and Kenneth shelved any idea of a life with only sketchy biographical details emerg-
in academe. Even so, family life continued to ing from the first-person narrative. We learn
be a source of tribulation. The Millar mar- that he grew up in Oakland, where he clashed
riage remained stormy and sometimes violent. with a violent father and got into his fair share
Linda was beset with troubles that worsened of trouble. Id been a street boy in my time,
in her teens. In 1956, while driving drunk, she gang-fighter, thief, pool-room lawyer, he re-
killed a thirteen-year-old boy in a hit-and-run calls in a rare moment of reflection. It was a
accident. Arraigned on two felony counts, she fact that I didnt like to remember. During
suffered a breakdown, was hospitalized, and the war, Archer served as an intelligence of-
was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. ficer. He was once a cop in Long Beach, but
The sentence was a lengthy probation, but quit or was fired because he couldnt stomach
she soon violated its terms and landed back in the rampant corruption. Now he lives alone
a state mental institution. By this time, hav- in a five-room bungalow located somewhere
ing attempted suicide at least once, Kenneth between Hollywood and downtown Los An-

124 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

geles. The house and the mortgage on it were each of these, the young are particularly vul-
mementos of my one and only marriage, a nerable.
failure that still gnaws. This California is also curiously empty.
Archer not only lives alone but works There are few crowds. Archers cases take
aloneno sidekick, no partner, no gal Friday him not toward the city but away from it, to
tending his rarely visited office. He is discreet, outlying suburbs and small towns that have
unflappable, and plenty tough when it comes names but possess little by way of a distinctive
to absorbing or meting out punishment. Here history or character. For the most part, life in
he is in a whorehouse dealing with a blackjack- these charmless places is lived behind closed
wielding bouncer: I hit him with a left to the doors, where lonely people harboring secrets
head, a right cross to the jaw, a long left hook and nursing disappointments keep the blinds
to the solar plexus which bent him over into drawn, with pills and liquor bottles close at
my right coming up. Biff bam pow, that was hand. Lowlifes and plotters abound, but their
that. He subsided. ambitions are petty and their schemes crude.
What motivates Archer to play the role of Archer surveys the wreckage without even
knight-errant remains similarly obscure. Be- pretending to offer a remedy. What do you
ing a private eye pays the bills, of course. I want? he asks one doper.
dont do it for the money, though, he explains Kicks. Money and kicks. What else is
at one point. I do it because I want to. A there?
troubled young woman hes been looking for, A hell of a lot, Archer replies.
who happens at the moment to be pointing The cryptic response begs for further elab-
a gun at his midsection, asks Archer why he oration. Yet Archer offers none. Instead, he
bothers. I like to pretend Im God, he replies breaks off the exchange, with the implication
sardonically. But I dont really fool myself. . . . that a hell of a lot is not much at all.
Personally, Im just another fruit fly. If I dont So Lew Archers California is not Walt
care what happens to fruit flies, what is there Disneys or Ozzie and Harriets. Arguably
to care about? And if I dont care, who will? the best and certainly the most readable his-
The fruit flies he cares most about come tory of that state is Kevin Starrs multivolume
from broken families. Archer the loner is also epic. Starr called his narrative of the 1950s
in his way a family man. In a world filled with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abun-
cruelty but devoid of transcendence, he per- dance, 19501963 (2011). But 1950s California
sists in believing that the family offersor at as depicted by Ross Macdonald is not golden,
least should offerprotection and comfort to and its abundance is an illusion or a trap. You
those most in need of both. Family is an an- arrive in search of utopia and stay to forfeit
chor; without it, youre adrift. your soul.
Tracking down a lead, Archer calls on a
An Empty State writer friend reduced to doing well-paid hack-
And Archers postwar California is a particu- work (as Margaret Millar had) for a movie
larly dangerous place to be without an anchor. studio. Did I ever tell you I was a genius?
God is long since dead, and the big shoes he the friend asks. I had an I.Q. of 183 when I
left behind remain ominously empty. Mo- was in high school in Galena, Illinois. What
dernity has rendered faith obsolete without ever happened to me? ... I used to have talent.
providing an adequate substitute. Madness, I didnt know what it was worth. I came out
addiction, alienation, nihilistic violence, and here for the kicks, going along with the gag. ...
general sleaziness fill the resulting void. To Then it turns out that it isnt a gag. Hang on

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 125

J ew e l s

long enough and ... youre not inner-directed withholds judgment. He recalls having once
anymore. Youre not yourself. entertained the view that there are good
For the lucky ones, the best chance of salva- people and bad people, and everything would
tion is to get out and go back where they came be hunky-dory if the good people locked up
from. On his best days, Archer serves as their the bad ones or wiped them out with small
facilitator. A woman learns that the man she personalized nuclear weapons. Over the
left her husband for is a cheap crook. I want course of these several novels, he abandons
to go back to Toledo, where people are nice, that black-and-white view for one that
she tells Archer. Back on the shores of Lake include[s] a few of the finer shades.
Erie, she had felt the allure of Southern Cali- In effect, Archer eventually embraces a
fornia, but now that Ive seen it, its a hellish doctrine of original sin, carefully shorn of
place, she says. Ive fallen among thieves, all religious connotations. Men and women
thats what Ive done. ... I want to go back to across the board are the secret authors of
George. The prospect of her doing so pleases their own destruction, he concludes. The
the detective. It seemed very important to current of guilt flowed in a closed circuit if
me that George should get together with his you traced it far enough. Just as no one could
wife and take her away from Los Angeles, he claim innocence, no one could be singled out
reflects. And live happily ever after. as uniquely culpable. We were all guilty,
That last sentence reminds us that, in the Archer observes, and the guilt is inescapable.
tradition forged by Hammett and Chandler, a We had to learn to live with it.
shamus keeps his heart of gold encased within Learning to live with guilt and with his own
a hard shell of cynicism. For Archer, success- failings, real or imagined, as child, husband,
fully wrapping up a case does not trigger any and parent, was Kenneth Millars calling.
guarantee of happiness. He settles for giving Ross Macdonald served as his intermediary
clients, deserving and undeserving alike, a and Lew ArcherI wasnt Archer, exactly,
second shot at caring for those they ought to but Archer was mehis alter ego. In an es-
care about. Beyond that, theyre on their own. say written toward the end of his life, Millar
In an uncharacteristic whats-it-all-about observed that a mans fiction ... is very much
rumination, Archer concludes that the real the record of his particular life. Over time,
challenge of human existence is to love peo- the writing itself may become a substitute
ple, [and] try to serve them, without wanting for the life, a shadow of the life clinging to the
anything from them. The point of his investi- original so closely that ... it becomes hard to
gations is not to produce a definitive outcome; tell which is fiction and which is confession.
whether Georges wife will actually find Tole- As both storyteller and stylist, Millar pos-
do more agreeable this time than last lies be- sessed formidable talent. Yes, the plots are
yond his purview. Nor is Archer all that much predictable and their resolution too tidy. And,
interested in seeing justice done. His aim is yes, the occasional infelicityJets snored like
simultaneously more modest and more ambi- flies in the skycreeps in. Yet if postwar Cal-
tious: to undo past errors and thereby create ifornia, with all of its glitter and perversity,
the possibility of second chances. offered a preview of where America was head-
When he first takes up his trade, Archer ing, Millar was its master interpreter. In his
is very much the ex-cop cracking wise in the misery, he beheld our futureample reason to
best Philip Marlowe vein. But with the pass- affirm his place in the American canon, if not
ing of time, he becomes something more in the first rank, then at least in the respect-
akin to a father confessora listener who able middle.t

126 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t G 5 Ralph Steadman

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 127

J ew e l s

The Dialectic of Love and Authority

Christopher Lasch on the family
3 George Scialabba

If irony alerts had been invented before 1977, turned out to mean controlling) professions.
they might have saved Christopher Lasch a The latter developmentthe subordination
lot of grief. The title of his controversial book of the family to the authority of a therapeutic
Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged ideology and an impersonal bureaucracyis
misled many of his critics. Lasch was widely the story told in Haven in a Heartless World and
taken to mean that a haven is what the family its successors, the very well-known Culture of
used to be before it was besieged by feminism Narcissism and the not very well-known The
and sexual liberation. Feminists retorted that Minimal Self.
this was a nostalgic fiction: the traditional Lasch makes extensive use of psychoana-
family had never been any such idyll, especial- lytic theory, whose intellectual reputation
ly for women. Lasch could only be an apologist stands pretty low nowadays. But its not neces-
for patriarchy, misappropriating psychoana- sary to enroll in the church of High Freudian-
lytic theory in a reactionary effort to restore ism in order to find Laschs account plausible.
male authority. Reviewing Laschs final, post- Belief in ego, superego, and id is optional; the
humous collection, Women and the Common essential thing is to recognize that our minds
Life, the usually astute Ellen Willis took him have a deep structurean unconscious
to task for his fail[ure] to take patriarchy formed very early and subsequently difficult
seriously and his adamant denial of any re- to access. The unconscious is the mold of our
deeming social value in modern liberalism. character, which is our usual pattern of action
No doubt this had the long-suffering Lasch and reaction. In Laschs formulation:
growling in his grave.
As the chief agency of socialization, the
Haven in a Heartless World is a densely ar-
family reproduces cultural patterns in the
gued book, and Lasch himself was not certain
individual. It not only imparts ethical norms,
what his arguments implied, practically. (He
providing the child with his first instruction
died in his prime, at sixty-one, before he could
in the prevailing social rules, it profoundly
spell out the programmatic implications of his
shapes his character, in ways of which he
far-reaching critique of modernity.) But far
is not even aware. . . . The union of love and
from idealizing the nuclear family, Lasch por-
discipline in the same persons, the mother
trayed it as a doomed adaptation to industrial
and father, creates a highly charged environ-
development. The transition from household
ment in which the child learns lessons he will
production to mass production inaugurated
never get overnot necessarily the explicit
a new worlda heartless world, to which the
lessons his parents wish him to master. He
ideology of the family as a domestic sanctu-
develops an unconscious predisposition to act
ary, a haven, was one response. The premod-
in certain ways and to re-create in later life, in
ern, preindustrial family was besieged (and
his relations with lovers and authorities, his
vanquished) by market forces; the modern
earliest experiences. Parents first embody love
family is besieged by the helping (which has

128 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Far from idealizing the nuclear family,
Christopher Lasch portrayed it as a doomed
adaptation to industrial development.

and power, and each of their actions conveys longer localized in a self-sufficient household
to the child, quite independently of their that controls its own subsistence and work
overt intentions, the injunctions and con- rhythms. According to Lasch, this displace-
straints by means of which society attempts to ment of authority from the childs immediate
organize experience. If reproducing culture environment to far-removed, abstract enti-
were simply a matter of formal instruction tiesthe state, the corporation, the medical
and discipline, it could be left to the schools. and educational bureaucraciesmakes it
But it also requires that culture be embedded harder for the child to achieve emotional in-
in personality. Socialization makes the indi- dependence. Love is necessary but not suffi-
vidual want to do what he has to do; and the cient; love without authority, Lasch wrote,
family is the agency to which society entrusts does not make a conscience.
this complex and delicate task. Why? Psychoanalytic theory offers a spec-
ulative but intricate and coherent explanation.
Different personalities are adaptive in dif- Because the human brain is more complex and
ferent societies; what one has to do varies slower to mature than any other mammals,
according to the prevailing relations of au- the human infant is uniquely helpless at birth,
thority. And since families are the means by unable to distinguish between itself and the
which societies form personalities, the fam- rest of the world. It cannot distinguish be-
ilys structure and dynamics alter in response tween the source of its needs (its own body)
to social change. Changes in economic and and the source of their satisfaction (mainly its
political life, like the rise of capitalism and the mother), which gives rise to a feeling of om-
nation-state, reverberate in the individuals nipotence. When some of those needs eventu-
inner being. ally go unmet, the infant becomes aware of its
separation from the rest of the world, and in
On Good Authority particular from its parents, which gives rise to
For better and worse, modern parents are far helplessness and rage. Gradually it dawns on
more sensitive to outside influences than their the infant that the source of its gratifications
premodern predecessors. Arranged marriages and the source of its frustrations are the same:
are now all but unknown in developed societ- the parents. This recognition is bewildering
ies, corporal punishment is virtually obsolete, and intolerable; it cannot be coped with, only
and the sexual double standard is under heavy repressed.
fire. Meanwhile, each childs respect for di- The return of the repressed, either as symp-
versity and, of course, self-esteem is diligently tom or as fantasy, is inescapable: this is the
cultivated. And all these changes are enforced psychoanalytic equivalent of the law of gravi-
or encouraged by an array of professionals ty or the conservation of energy. And precisely
and agencies. All good; but this anxious, busy because the infant is so helpless, its fantasies
solicitude comes at a price: authority is no of undifferentiated union with its parents, of

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 129

130 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 131

J ew e l s

annihilating them, or of being annihilated by disciple of Laschs (i.e., me) has described the
themare, by way of compensation, outsized. narcissistic personality in these terms:
If the infant is to live with these conflicting
wary of intimate, permanent relationships,
impulses and the ambivalence they generate,
which entail dependence and thus may trig-
it must scale them down, reduce them to life-
ger infantile rage; beset by feelings of inner
sized, manageable proportions.
emptiness and unease ... ; preoccupied with
Throughout human history until industri-
personal growth and the consumption of
alizationthat is, until seven or eight genera-
novel sensations; prone to alternating self-
tions agochildren had the everyday experi-
images of grandiosity and abjection; liable
ence of watching their parents at work, where
to feel toward everyone in authority the
they were seen to make mistakes and also to
same combination of rage and terror that the
possess useful skills that they were willing to
infant feels for whoever it depends on; unable
teach. This reduced the idealized or demon-
to identify emotionally with past and future
ized parents of the childs fantasies to life size.
generations and therefore unable to accept
Even more important, the regular experience
the prospect of aging, decay, and death.
of love and punishment from the same source
taught a vital lesson: that those with the ulti- At least in Laschs time, the clinical litera-
mate authority over the child could be trusted, ture was rife with descriptions of symptoms
and that their disapproval did not threaten like these, replacing the obsessional and hys-
the childs very existence. This fundamental, terical neuroses of Freuds time as the most
gradually accumulating emotional security en- common forms of psychological distress.
abled the child to slough off archaic fantasies
and grow up. When the ultimate authority in Human Scale
a childs life is no longer localized in a pair of The discerning reader will have noticed that
adult humans but rather is invested in abstrac- the foregoing account of emotional develop-
tions like a company or a social-welfare bureau- ment is almost entirely sex-neutral. Roles and
cracy, those fantasies persist. The childs am- functions are not assigned by gender. There is
bivalence toward authority has no focus and so no sexual division of labor, no Oedipus com-
cant be put to rest. Later in life, still plagued by plex, no penis envy. The emotional under-
these unconscious specters, the adult develops pinnings of the formation of conscience are
what Lasch identified as the neurotic personal- universal, Lasch emphasized. The crucial
ity trait of our time: narcissism. experiences are those of fear of separation,
Narcissism has an everyday and a psycho- of dependence and helplessnessthe infants
analytic meaning. A story in the September 4 discovery that he lives in a world that is not
New York Times illustrates the everyday mean- completely secure and dependable.
ing: The political rise of Donald J. Trump This is not a single-mindedly Freudian ac-
has drawn attention to one personality trait count. For all his reliance on psychoanalytic
in particular: narcissism. Although narcissism categories, Lasch said clearly that what is
does not lend itself to a precise definition, most crucial in my view ... is not the division of sex
psychologists agree that it comprises self-cen- roles inside the family, in terms of which par-
teredness, boastfulness, feelings of entitlement ent provides authority or love, but the division
and a need for admiration. Trump is certainly of labor in society, which has relieved the fam-
a narcissist in this sense, but the psychoana- ily of all [economic, educational and authori-
lytic sense is different: a weak, beleaguered self tative] functions. Lasch may or may not have
rather than an overbearing, assertive one. A been a feminist, depending on whether ones

132 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

standard is John Stuart Mill or Andrea Dwor- thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It
kin. But he fully acknowledged the justice has gradually dawned on everyone who does
of womens claims for economic and sexual not have a financial interest in denying it that
equality. He was unruffled by the (then dis- massively tinkering with our physical envi-
tant) prospect of gay marriage. His only con- ronment is bound to have drastic effects on
sistent policy proposal was that the contem- public health. Its taking even longer to recog-
porary notion of career be redefined to make nize that the same is true of our mental envi-
parenting and professional success fully com- ronment. The unending flood of commercial
patibleto make it possible for both men and messaging, utterly empty of information or
women to work more flexible hours, shorter art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates
hours and, when possiblethrough techno- that infect the air of even the most developed
logical advances like personal computers and countries. The continual stream of social mes-
fax machinesto work at home. This is not saging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing
an antifeminist agenda. substance, to the ubiquitously available junk
It was not feminism but mass production, food that none of us can help succumbing to
political centralization, and the ideology of occasionally. The automation of work and the
endless growth and ever-increasing consump- financialization of the economy leave most of
tion that had placed impossible strains on the us as bewildered and vulnerable as the prog-
family and made psychological maturity so ress of science and technology leave all but the
difficult, Lasch argued. Every organism can intellectual elite, who can actually understand
flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. the seemingly magical forces that make our
We have, in our social relations of authority more sophisticated machines run.
and production, abandoned human scale, and It is just as the environmentalists (and, come
the psychic costs are great. to think of it, the Marxists and the Freud-
The main developments of the last few de- ians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on
cades, the information revolution and the tri- one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To
umph of neoliberalism, have only intensified strengthen the family, we must rethink the di-
the pressures besieging the family. Increased vision of labor, which means reevaluating pro-
economic insecurity and the robotization ductivity, efficiency, and growth, which means
of workthe central strategies of neoliber- challenging the distribution of economic pow-
alismhave undermined the authority and er and wealth. We may even need new concep-
self-confidence of parents still further and tions of rights, individuality, and freedom.
confronted adolescents with the prospect of An equal share for men and women or
adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and whites and blacks in administering a toxic
outside the classroom, a tidal wave of adver- society is hardly a worthwhile goal, and cer-
tising-saturated media aims to enlist children tainly not a radical one. Answering Laschs
as fledgling consumers. The internet and so- criticism of contemporary feminism, Ellen
cial media diminish interaction among family Willis wrote in 1997: Since the 60s ... a ma-
members, especially across generations, while jor current of feminist thinking has criticized
face-to-face encounters, with their greater careerism and called for a restructuring of
emotional immediacy, are less and less the work. If that current is still alive, and if it
default mode of communication among ado- hopes to get beyond leaning in, it will need
lescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its to incorporate Laschs critique of progress as
allure, is a centrifugal force. expanded consumption and his insistence on
The family, in whatever form, can only limits and human scale.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 133

Or ph a ns

Three Cheers
for George Scialabba
3 J ohn Summers, Thomas Fr ank, Barbar a Ehrenreich, Nikil Saval,
Rick Perlstein, Noam Chomsky, and George Scialabba

John Summers brass band and a slate of speakerstheir re-

marks are reproduced belowand formed,
W hen the balance of trade between George through the miracle of stationery, a facetious
Scialabbas pension plan requirements and lobbying group, the Committee to Preserve
his age came to an agreement, and his long George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If
dreamed-of chance to break free of his day Any), that successfully importuned the Cam-
job at last presented itself, he retired from bridge City Council to proclaim September
Harvard University, where he had served 10, 2015, the day of the event, George Scial-
with distinction for thirty-five years. No, abba Day.
George did not retire from Harvards distin- Does George Scialabba represent the very
guished faculty. He retired from his cubicle last of the last intellectuals? Or is he so far
positioned in the basement of the Center for behind history that hes destined to become a
Government and International Studies, in prophet of the new future? We did not resolve
whose solemn service he scheduled rooms that question, but the proceedings did provide
for said faculty. an opportunity to depart from our usual acer-
That was August 31. Occupationally speak- bic criticism, aversion to back-scratching, and
ing, Georges next move should have involved manic suspicion of total impending doom. We
slinking away from his chair with a backpack did entertain, if only for a few fleeting hours,
of office supplies and a few mugs and knick- the feeling of gratitude, and evenif youll
knacks stowed away in a cardboard box. But excuse the expressionthe desire for inspira-
George was always equal to and more than his tion. After all, George Scialabba should not
day job in clerking at Harvard. In his spare have made it this far; his peculiar skills were
time, somewhere along the way, he turned to have been sent to the trash heap by the New
himself into one of the countrys best critics Economy sometime around 1993, say. Ditto,
and intellectual essayists by practicing the come to think of it, for the Brattle Theatre,
supposedly lost art of book reviewing. our filmhouse that evening. And yet, long
Seizing a chance to celebrate the uncele- after the art galleries, poetry corners, used
brated, to invert the values of office hierarchy, bookshops, jazz clubs, and book review sec-
to exalt the uncredentialed emanations of a tions went the way of glassblowers and type-
monkish writer on the universitys clerical writer repairmen, we rocked the house.
staff over the blare of the tenured pipsqueaks In case youre wondering, the idea for
that make up Cambridges vaunted academic George Scialabba Day arose spontaneously
establishment, The Baffler decided to do the during a meeting of the members of the Cam-
unnatural thing and throw George a star- bridge City Council, all of whom keep em-
spangled retirement party as if he were a big bossed copies of his anticapitalist essays un-
shot. We produced a tribute film, recruited a der their feather pillows. (If you believe that,

134 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 135
you probably vote too.) Actually, we discov- But the version of Georges line that re-
ered that they trade such official resolutions ally went on to conquer the world was this
like chits and pass them in bulk, usually not one: Creativity is intelligence having fun.
reading them. (One of the more progressive Creativity, thats the important thing. Not
councilors is reputed to mine local obituary mere imagination: creativity. The other really
notices for surviving family, to whom he of- important aspect of the new and improved
fers unsolicited resolutions in honor of the George-ism was its source. Today, you can
deceased.) Were sorry to break it to you, but find this quote all over the Internet, almost
they are just that corruptibleeven in a good always attributed to ... Albert Einstein.
cause. Next year, therefore, were going for a Now, Ive always been interested in fake
whole street: Baffler Boulevard. quotes from famous people. Back in 2011,
I wrote a story about several fake quotes
9 from the Founding Fathers that were then
Thomas Fr ank in vogue with the Tea Party movement, one
from Franklin and one from Jefferson, that
Let us take as our text today Georges most you would hear shouted at their rallies and
famous lineat any rate according to an ar- see repeated in their books and printed on
ticle in the Boston Globea sentence with their T-shirts. It fascinated me because this
which George concluded an article in Har- was a movement that well-nigh worshiped the
vard Magazine way back in 1983: Perhaps, Founders, that regarded their words as sacred,
George wrote, imagination is only intelli- and yet that constantly attributed to them
gence having fun. things they obviously didnt say.
Its a nicely turned phrase, and kind of Similarly, I find it fascinating that the word
light-hearted too. And so Readers Digest creativity replaced Georges original word
picked it up and put it in one of their Quot- imagination, and finally that the whole thing
able Quotes columns the following year. was attributed to Einstein, one of the most
George became famous. celebrated human beings who has ever lived.
Or at least the quote did. Occasionally Today it ranks up there with Einsteins other
people who quoted Georges line took pains really well-known remarks, such as There is
to attribute the quote to Georgethere still no I in TEAM and No rain, no rainbows.
are such peoplebut others apparently didnt But really, it kind of makes sense. Einstein
think it was right to attribute something so is the very symbol of intelligence, the play-
pithy to a guy who toiled in the basement of an ful, fun-loving genius who, we think, liked to
administrative building in Massachusetts and go around sticking his tongue out at photog-
whose name they probably had trouble pro- raphers, because everything was such a lark
nouncing. And so sometimes youll find Ge- when that guy was in the house. He wasnt
orges famous line attributed to unknown at all like our modern dour, serious geniuses,
or an anonymous sage, which is the way the such as Larry Summers. We think of Einstein
Philadelphia Inquirer did it in 2003. as the personification of intelligence having
Then there were variations, one of which ap- fun, and Georges line just seems like some-
peared in the 1992 book Quality, Service, Team- thing Einstein would say, only of course Ein-
work & the Quest for Excellence: Innovation is stein would take care to use the word cre-
simply group intelligence having fun. Innova- ativity instead of imagination, because
tion, George! Maybe we can get you a slot as a everyone knows creativity is something use-
mentor at the Harvard Innovation Lab! ful, something that builds civic value, that

136 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

In exchange for letting us do the work we love, the world swipes
what we have to say and molds it into some pat phrase having to
do with the innovative stuff they do on Madison Avenue.
Thomas Frank
gets the Fortune 500 to move to your town.* cation, foreign affairs; Walter Karp, Jacques
And so Georges quote has been printed on Derrida, Dwight Macdonald.
posters, coffee mugs, and drink coasters, al- I was reading Georges essay about The
ways attributed to Einstein. I found it in books Last Intellectuals yesterday, which is a medita-
like Re-energizing the Corporation and The Busi- tion on where all of us writers and freelance
ness of Being the Best. I found it quoted on the thinkers are headed. George traces the de-
websites of ad agencies, marketing firms, cline from the public-minded intellectuals of
and advertising industry publications. It was the distant past to the careerist academics of
printed onto T-shirts by the city of Denton, the slightly less distant past. But of course he
Texas, a suburb of Dallas that is trying to im- doesnt come down to today, because he wrote
press the world with its attractiveness to the the essay in 1999.
creative class. They handed the T-shirts out at But maybe now that he has time, he will
South by Southwest earlier this year. Creativ- write the rest of the story. And he will tell us
ity is intelligence having fun. how one of the conditions that comes with be-
The saddest thing I found were those ing a critic of ideas is that you have to lead your
people who took Georges line as a key to life outside the sanctioned world of consensus
Einsteins personality, and spun out of what expertise. In Georges case, you get a base-
George wrote a whole theory of how Ein- ment office at Harvard from where you sched-
steins genius brain worked. ule events for the kind of intellectual prac-
There are several ironic layers to this sto- titioners whom the gods of our world smile
ry, if you care to look. One of them has to do upon. Another thing George will understand:
with the literature of creativity and how very This creativity-infatuated world will never
uncreative it is, how the heroes it worships give you a Nobel Prize, or a Genius Grant, or
always turn out to be really well established, a TED prize, or a SXSW Interactive Innova-
how the people who love creativity never dare tion Award, or even a Hoopes Prize, like Baf-
to talk about somebody unknown, and how fler antihero Adam Wheeler. Instead, your
any creative idea always has to have some busi- hard-won insights and well-crafted phrases
ness or marketing application. will become motivational slogans on office
Another ironic side of this story has to do walls or help lure members of the creative
with George Scialabba himself. George is class to some desperate Midwestern town.
one of the ablest chroniclers of the intellec- In a way, what happened to Georges fa-
tual life of our country. Thats what he does. mous line is what happens to all of us. Its the
Hes a critic of ideas, and hes the best there is, deal weve made with the world: in exchange
writing with equal facility about politics, edu- for letting us do the work we lovefor letting

* A nd although I could find no evidence that Einstein uttered Georges famous line, it is always possible that he did,
or that he wrote it in a letter that is tucked away in someones filing cabinet or something. These things are never
completely final.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 137

Or ph a ns

us be critics of ideasthe world swipes what because there was no one particular subject
we have to say, molds it into some pat phrase that we were corresponding about. I know that
having to do with the incredible and really theres a little exchange about populism, quite
innovative stuff they do on Madison Avenue, a bit of an exchange about modernityand I
and then, as a little bonus, attributes it to Al- have to admit, I had to ask George to define
bert Einstein. it for me. I had mixed it up withwhat? Mod-
George, I am afraid that this is what intel- ernism? IKEA? I dont know, I really had no
lectuals are good for. Maybe someday the idea, but he wanted me to write about it, so he
world will thank you, instead of reflexively told me what it was, and I did. We went back
heaping its praise for you onto the over-bur- and forth about the evolutionary roots of hu-
dened shoulders of someone else. But while man community and human solidarity, and we
you wait for that day to come, you need to had an exchange, which I thought was pretty
know that you have the thanks and the admi- fascinating, about God in science fictionthat
ration of all of us. is, the representations of a deity in science fic-
tion. I did not know, at the time, George, that
9 you were once a Catholic, and I also did not
Barbar a Ehrenreich know that you were a serious depressive. And
so there I was, trying to convince you that the
I want to thank The Baffler for bringing us god of science fiction is amoral or bad. I prob-
together tonight, and for just existing. I dont ably shouldnt have done that.
know about you, but The Bafflers pretty im- Anyway, in the Boston Globe recently, you
portant in my life. Its one of the few places I were interviewed, and the reporter asked
can write about really crazy thingslike cell if you ever felt any kind of regret or sorrow
biology and killer macrophagesand theyre in having been excluded from the academic
nice about it, they take it seriously, sometimes mainstream. And I want to take that up just
even print it. for a minute. I am also outside of that main-
I think it was through The Baffler that I stream. I have no job, I have no institution, I
met you, George. (Was it? I dont knowhow have not had many jobs in my life, fortunately.
did we meet?) Well, youve all heard the basic Tom is another floater, a bum, like me, with
story of what tonights about. This is celebrat- no occupation that I know of. Noam, youre
ing the retirement of George Scialabba from probably the most respectable person here.
thirty-five years of work. We know you had Which says a lotwhen Noam Chomsky is
health benefits, because weve all read your the most respectable person in your category,
psychiatric records in The Baffler. Just think youre in real trouble. Well, you could have
about that: for thirty-five years hes paid a been more respectable, you know if it werent
salary, he gets benefits, and during this time for the Vietnam War and a few things like
he writes two or three books and scores of re- that, youd be up there now, youd be ... well,
views and essays. So, you know why Im really truly respectable.
here tonight, George? Because I want that job. I think of The Baffler as in some ways a
I think a lot of us would like that job. I mean, community of outsiders. But I just want to put
they did everything for you, right? Left you it to you, George, that you didnt miss much.
alone, right? Okay. I cant speak from much inside experience
In preparation for tonight, I reviewed my of the academy, but what do you think you
correspondence over the years with George. I missed? Great conversations? Free-ranging
had to search my inbox by his name, naturally, discussions? Gloves-off, intellectual debates?

138 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Modernity: I have to admit, I had to ask George to define it for me.
I had mixed it up withwhat? Modernism? IKEA?
Barbara Ehrenreich
No, I think what you missed out on was a lot discussions of the obviously impending inva-
of academic infighting, committee meetings, sion of Iraq were febrile.
and memosthats about all I know of what Though I had attended my fair share of
goes on there. And youre going to continue antiwar protests in those years, by some mir-
at The Baffler, right? Thats a job, thats some- acle of fateor perhaps the jobless recovery
thing. But let me just point out that where you that many will remember as the hallmark of
were, and where youre going now, to The Baf- the economy during the Bush administra-
fler, you are at the very center of things. You tionI found myself, that day in my cubicle,
have been, intellectually, for a long, long time. three months into an editorial job helping to
Its the insiders you should feel sorry for. We, publish business books and right-wing politi-
here, are the community of outsiders, and to- cal screeds with titles such as The Truth about
day you are our hero. Thank you, George! Hillary and The War on Christmas. We regular-
ly consulted with Roger Ailes before making
9 various publishing decisions. I like to refer to
Nikil Saval myself as a veteran of the war on Christmas.
I was depressed but in some way trapped; the
The title of one of George Scialabbas many only other thing people from my university
celebrated essays runs What Are Intellectu- appeared to be doing was working in private
als Good For? To the extent that this ques- equity. Every night I went home, smoked a
tion gets posed, the idea that intellectuals, bowl, and wrote out long, stoned, depressed
like rock and roll, can save your life (or soul), sub-Herzogian letters, which I never sent, to
isnt one of the answers that usually gets of- the novelist J. M. Coetzee, someone I then
fered in response. I have never met George considered the conscience of the age.
until today, but my life is one that he saved, So it was no doubt with a slight hangover
and probably not the only one. that, bleary-eyed, I clicked on a link that led
The year was 2005. The room was not, me to an article on the homepage of a journal
properly speaking, a room; it was a cubicle called n+1, with the title Farewell, Hitch.
at a major publishing house in Manhattan. I I remember a feeling Ive rarely recaptured
had been there a few months, and I was al- sinceof scrolling through a piece online and
ready profoundly depressed. I had emerged feeling arrested, carefully weighing each sen-
from a literature major and a series of great tence because the prose was so vigorous and
books courses in collegeall supposedly pre- well calibrated.
paring me to become a proper citizen of To read those sentences in the dark months
the country, and maybe even the worldto a of 2005, quietly and raptly scrolling through
world in which citizenship as such had been them on a computer in a cubicle that I hated
impoverished of whatever meaning it ought this was a revelation. At last, the most gratify-
to have. The Tuesday of my second week of ing, funny, thorough and yet somehow deeply
classes was September 11, 2001. Soon the sympathetic denunciation of Christopher
United States had invaded Afghanistan, and Hitchens that I had yet encounteredcaptur-

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 139

A generation of cubicle dwellers is furtively scrolling,
searching for writing like Georges.
Nikil Saval
ing for so many of us the sense of what it was I read many more pieces by George), the re-
like to read a writer we once admired, who vived Baffler. I expect there are more to come.
now seemed to have lost everything we once Where do these magazines, their writers,
admired about him. and their readers come from? Taking a cue
Yet Georges sympathy was key. As a writ- from Christopher Lasch, who shows us how
er, George can be incomparably scathing, no sign of progress was without its costs, psy-
achieving heights of high dudgeon and out- chic or otherwise, we can say that no motion of
rage that are as sublime as they are gratifying. decline is without its benefits. As George him-
But rarelynever, reallydo we come across self has observed, we are undoubtedly in a bad
a piece of his writing where he has failed to time for the institutions of higher learning and
make the requisite attempt to grapple with a journalism. In a review of a reissue of Edmund
books or writers arguments before sharpen- Wilsons literary criticism, George wrote:
ing his knife. For such a delightfully cranky
Will there be another Wilson? Not for a
writer, his quality of engagement leads him to
while, certainly. Theres too much to master
endorse cultural conservatives, or to attempt
and too many electronic distractions. Read-
to reconcile, however arduously, the pragma-
ing Greek and Latin for pleasure is practi-
tism of Richard Rorty, the anti-imperialism
cally unheard of. The very ideal of cultural
of Noam Chomsky, and the romantic proph-
authority is, rightly or wrongly, suspect. Most
ecies of Christopher Laschthree people to
important, the freelance life is less and less
whom he dedicated his collection of essays
possible in an economically rationalized,
What Are Intellectuals Good For? I owe George
hyper-managerial society. Investors want
many things, and one of them is my acquain-
twenty percent returns; we know what that
tance with figures like Lasch, whom my col-
means for literary journalism. Tenure com-
lege education had led me to believe was a
mittees are not impressed by comprehensive
hopeless reactionary, rather than the fiercely
and solitary, idiosyncratic scholarship of
dialectical critic I came to know through
Wilsons sort. And where can a freelancer
Georges writing.
live? Even Hackensack will soon be gentri-
And there is another reason I owe George.
fied. On the Web? Yes, but one wants, if not
Im not sure where muddling through my
to be at the center of things, at least to know
right-wing publishing job might have taken
where it is. Or that it is.
me. But the young magazine where he pub-
lished his piece on Hitchens, n+1, was some- Will there be another George, or at least more
where I subsequently volunteered on nights Georges? The decline of institutions like the
and weekends. Ten years later, the magazine university and the major newspaper are defi-
still existsfrom a certain perspective, even nitely causes for lamentation, but I can say, as
thrivesand I am one of two editors in chief. an editor of a small but surviving leftwing lit-
It is part of a spate of relatively new, lefty jour- erary journal, that they are producing many
nals, and some revived ones: Jacobin, The New more writers and readers interested in radical
Inquiry, the revived Dissent (in whose archives thought. If tenure committees arent impressed

140 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

by comprehensive and solitary thought like I feel very privileged to have George in my
Wilsons, you can be sure that John Summers life. Thanks to George, I got an intimation of
is, and that I am, and that all of Georges edi- what heaven will look like. In Chicago, where
tors have been. So a thriving climate for inde- I live, George once gave a presentation of one
pendent, unaffiliated, radical criticism is some, of his books, before an audience of eight or
even if small, consolation. What this criticism nine. We repaired to a friends house after-
is calling for isnt more radical thoughtits ward, and we had a meal, as we often do, and I
calling also for a radical reorganization of the took a nap, as I often do, on a couch right next
functioning of society. A universal basic in- to the dinner table. I faded in and out of sleep,
come, the democratization of oligarchic insti- enjoying that drugged feeling of a good meal.
tutions, the redistribution of wealth, an end to Id wake up to the sound of the most scintil-
imperial aggression abroad and exploitation at lating conversation between my dear friends
home: these are the arguments underlying this and George. One of them, who worked at the
alternately exciting and desperate time. But Art Institute, began telling a story of what it
desperation leads to searching, and searching was like to walk the Art Institute after work
may yet lead to sympathy for previously re- when all the lights are off, past Picassos, past
jected ideas. A generation of cubicle dwellers the Monets and the Manets, the Modiglianis
is furtively scrolling, searching for writing like and the Seurats, and I fell asleep again. When
Georges, to whom he will give, as he indelibly I woke up, they were talking about an animis-
gave me, resources of hope. tic spirit that had inhabited the Art Institute
after dark, which sent George on some lovely
9 disquisition. I fell asleep again, and I woke up
Rick Perlstein again, and the conversation was still going on.
Amid all his wrestling with the great moral
All this reminds me of one of those Comedy issues of our time, and with his own wres-
Central roasts, likeI got it: George Scial- tling with darkness, we shouldnt forget that
abba is so modest ... George is buoyed by that insouciant joy.
Audience: How modest is he? When George was a young man, he was in-
Hes so modest that his most famous bon culcated with a heretical doctrine. As a high
mot begins with the word perhaps. school recruit to the ultra-right-wing Catho-
I want to thank The Baffler. Ive been with lic lay order Opus Dei, he received harrowing
The Baffler almost since the beginning. I re- instruction in the thousand ways unrepentant
member my first contribution was in Issue souls attached to healthy young bodies could
Three, probably in about 1991 or 1992, and end up spending eternity in Satans lake of
I remember Tom pulling up in his station fire, along with the various unceasing rites of
wagon in front of the Reynolds Club at the purification and mortification it took to pre-
University of Chicago where the radio station vent that awful fate. Packed off to college at
was. I was going off to do my jazz radio show. Harvard, George was required to submit each
Tom pulls up in that state of excitation that semesters syllabi in his majormodern intel-
he occasionally inhabits and says Rick!the lectual history!to his confessor, who would
station wagons full of boxesRick! Were check each assignment against the Index Li-
publishing three thousand issues! And now brorum Prohibitorum, the Vaticans index of
John has taken over with aplomb and grace, forbidden books. First published in 1559, the
and hes been a marvelous steward of the pat- astronomical theories of Giordano Bruno,
rimony, so I want to thank both of them. which caused him to be burned at the stake

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 141

George writes from a position
of agape, like the most religious atheist alive.
Rick Perlstein
in 1600, were finally accepted in 1758, so our Thunderous. But then, George Scialabba is a
young hero was safe receiving instruction in modest man. Only his gifts to us are immod-
heliocentrism. But among the four thousand est. He teaches us what it means for a mind
volumes still included in the twentieth and to wake up; and who of us doesnt need to re-
final edition, issued in 1948, were the works learn the lesson?
of David Hume, John Milton, and Thomas George harbors another heretical belief.
Hobbes. (They didnt even bother listing the He refers in Progress and Prejudice to T. S.
obvious ones, atheists like Schopenhauer and Eliot, Henry James, Edward Banfield, John
Nietzsche; why waste the ink?) Eventually his Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Arthur C. Clar-
confessor, a man who very much resembled ke, Teilhard de Chardin, H. G. Wells, Olaf
my mental image of Dostoevskys Grand In- Stapledon, D. H. Lawrence, William Morris,
quisitor, finally decided it was all too much Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts, Bill McKibben,
trouble, and ordered George to leave intellec- Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Thatcher (!),
tual history alone, on peril of sin and perhaps Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Coleridge, George
damnation. Orwell, Marquis de Condorcet, Paul Krug-
This was the real heresy. Not choosing man, Glenn Greenwald, Christopher Lasch,
Enlightenment over Opus Dei; one could do and Noam Chomsky, in addition to the above-
that and end up a corporate lawyer. The real mentioned Dostoevsky and Peter Gay. But it
heresy, which reactionary Catholicism taught begins with the story of his grandfather, who
him, was a sin against the American grain: was illiterate and worked as a laborer in a fac-
that ideas matter. That they are a matter of life tory of the Hood Rubber Company. A few
and death. Why else would the Church burn months before he was eligible to retire with a
people at the stake for them? pension, he was fired for no reason; speaking
Crazy: he still believes thisbone deep. no English, he had no recourse.
He believes that achieving freedom, whatev- This particular heresy is social democ-
er the generals on CNN and the editorialists racy, the notion that freedom is meaningless
of the Wall Street Journal may preach, is not a without some universal level of material se-
function of American arms or of the sacred curity, without democratizing economic as
workings of the laws of supply and demand. well as political life. That conviction sears
It is a result of human beings exercising their its way through all his prose, always rendered
reason, autonomously, from the ground up. in utterly human terms, never as an abstrac-
In Progress and Prejudice, one of his best tion. It is why Georges deep learning is never
essaysone of twenty-first-century Ameri- pretentious. He writes, instead, from a posi-
can letters best essays, I would sayhe tion of agape, with a love for humankind so
writes, Emulating the philosophes great re- oceanic that he reads like the most religious
fusal, I lodged my little one, enrolling timo- atheist alive. My prayer is that this priest of
rously but proudly in what I had learned from ours, this sweet sacred monster, will raise us
Peter Gay to call the Party of Humanity. a little closer to what he stubbornly believes
Not so little. Not so timorous. Gargantuan. we can be.

142 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

9 development, facts that are unmentionable,
Noa m Chomsky indeed unthinkable, at least in the academic
mainstream and the major media. When we
W hen I received the program from John a go from Georges reception desk to the inner
couple days ago, I found that I was going to be sanctum of the Center for Government and
the final speaker, and it was obvious that you International Studies, we find more accept-
would already have heard a long series of acco- able ideas. So, for example, an eminent profes-
lades. Instead of adding to them, I thought I sor of the science of government at Harvard,
would try to find some of Georges most noto- writing in the prestigious journal International
rious failures and flaws, and talk about these. Security, informs us that the national iden-
So I picked this up from the shelf, his most tity of the United States, unlike that of other
recent collection of essays, For the Republic, powers, is defined by a set of universal politi-
and it took a little work. The first problem was cal and economic values, namely liberty, de-
just the sheer pleasure of rereading wonderful mocracy, equality, private property, and mar-
essays, finding insights I had missed the first kets. Hence the United States has a solemn
time, being overwhelmed by the learningthe duty to maintain its international primacy for
unpretentious learning, as a number of people the benefit of the world. Notice that this is a
have saidthe beautiful writing, kind of a cap- matter of definition, so we can dispense with
tivating quality, which has always impressed the tedious work of empirical verification,
me by being able to give a sympathetic inter- which would surely be as pointless as search-
pretation to ideas that seem at first to make no ing for evidence that two plus two equals four.
sense or worse, but in Georges sensitive hands While I was reading Georges essays, I was
become intelligible, almost convincing ... al- also reading the latest issue of one of the major
most, not quite. journals of international affairs. Naturally, its
But I did find cases where there was a real sober and realistic, no nonsense, no sentimen-
trespass beyond what is legitimate. One strik- tality. The main topic of the issue, emblazoned
ing example is Georges failure to understand on the front cover, is What is Americas pur-
the true significance of high-quality educa- pose? Which is kind of an unusual question
tion. According to George Orwell, in an un- we dont usually ask about the purposes of oth-
published essay, high quality education in- er countries. But the United States, of course,
stills in you the understanding that there are is exceptional. One distinguished academic
certain things it simply wouldnt do to say, or figure describes the goals that we pursue in
that matter, to think. Orwell considered this the world: an open society, respect for uni-
one of the primary reasons why in free Eng- versal human rights, a world-governed inter-
land unpopular ideas could be suppressed national order in which states cannot invade
without the use of force. other states at will. Standing for such a world
And there are plenty of examples in and working to promote it, is not only an exer-
Georges workfor example, his discussion of cise of American power, it is the source of that
what he calls the lesson of the American cen- power. Ill spare you the other contributions,
tury, that the United States is a rogue state, but its worth looking at.
recklessly militaristic, grossly hypocritical, Quite generally, the contributions adhere
self-serving in its professions of devotion to to the principles expressed by the founder and
democracy and human rights, and the chief icon of whats called realism in international
promoter and beneficiary of investor-friendly affairs and international scholarship, Hans
and worker-unfriendly forms of economic Morgenthau, who wrote a book called The

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 143

When we go from Georges reception desk to
the inner sanctum of the Center for Government
and International Studies, we find more acceptable ideas.
Noam Chomsky
Purpose of American Politics, in which he point- ity education seeks to impart, as George Or-
ed out that the United States has the transcen- well explained. And throughout recorded his-
dent purpose, unlike other countries, of estab- tory, failure to imbibe these lessons has quite
lishing equality and freedom in America and generally led to marginalization or worse. Of
indeed throughout the world, since the arena course, this same failure has been the source
within which the U.S. must defend and pro- of the very considerable history of modern in-
mote its purpose is worldwide. Morgenthau tellectual enlightenment, causing changes in
was a very good scholar, honest and compe- domestic and international society back to the
tent. He pointed out that the historical record earliest days. George is an inspiring example of
of American actions is radically inconsistent these failures, and were all in his debt for that.
with Americas transcendent purpose. But he
went on to explain something that you cant 9
understand if you spend all your time at the re- George Scialabba
ception desk. He said we should not confound
the abuse of reality with reality itself. Real- After the premiere of one of his plays,
ity itself is the unachieved national purpose, George Bernard Shaw got up on stage to ac-
which is revealed by the evidence of history knowledge the applause of the audience. After
as our minds reflect it. The actual historical the applause died down but before Shaw had
record is merely the abuse of reality, which is of begun to speak, someone in the theater gave
interest only to small minds. Those who con- him a very loud raspberry. Shaw kept his wits
fuse reality with the abuse of reality are com- about him. I agree with you, he said in the
mitting the error of atheism, which denies the general direction of the heckler, but what are
validity of religion on similar grounds. we two against so many? I thought I might
Hans Morgenthaus insights direct us to have to steal Shaws line this evening, because
another of the cases where Georges analysis I expected that all the extravagantly compli-
goes astray. Thats his critique of the leading mentary things said about me earlier would
neocon intellectual Irving Kristol. George provoke at least one or two of you to give me
seeks to refute his proclamations about Amer- a very loud raspberry when I got up here. But
icas innate magnificence by reviewing a series youre all far too gracious.
of our shocking crimes. But Kristol would Im sure youve all asked yourselves from
have a ready response, simply citing the dean time to time, as I have: What are book review-
of realist scholars, that the historical record ers good for? Are they good for the republic?
that George was wasting his time on was just Well, that is indeed the modern predicament.
the abuse of reality, not reality itself, not the Whatever else were good for, we can at least
transcendent national purpose revealed by remind readers about important books whose
the evidence of history as our minds reflect it. fifteen minutes of publicity have passed. One
Thats the kind of understanding that a qual- such book, Russell Jacobys The Last Intellec-

144 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 145

tuals, couldnt be more relevant to tonights economy. Another wise and eloquent book
theme. In every age, the ideas of the rulers are that deserves to be remembered is Lewis
the ruling ideas, Marx said. But in every age, Hydes The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life
this ideological hegemony is achieved differ- of Property. Hyde shows how artistic and intel-
ently. Jacoby shows how capitalism does it: by lectual exchange form a gift economy, whose
weeding out the laid-back, part-time jobs in li- principal dynamic is not self-interest but grati-
braries, bookshops, and universities on which tude. When were young, our souls are stirred,
young, not-yet-established intellectualslike our spirits kindled, by a book or some other
me thirty-five years agohave always de- experience; and in time, when weve matured,
pended; by eliminating the cheap, funky we look to pay the debt, to pass the gift along.
urban neighborhoods where they lived and From Middlemarch, On Liberty, The Soul of
congregated; by consolidating the publishing Man under Socialism, from Bertrand Russell,
industry and saddling its editorial side with George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, Dwight
the brainless, bottom-line-driven demands of Macdonald, Christopher Lasch, Barbara Eh-
the marketing side; by moving in on the uni- renreich, and many otherssome up here on
versities, subjecting them to the relentless bu- the stage and some in the audienceIve re-
reaucratic imperatives of productivity. The ceived gifts so precious that theyve made life
logic of the market is inexorable, squeezing seem worth living, even through hard times,
out every pocket of inefficiency, every cor- and made passing on some fraction of what
ner where aspiring independent intellectuals Ive received seem like a worthwhile vocation.
might thrive. I wish each of you such gifts, and I thank you
The antidote to a market economy is a gift all from the heart for coming tonight.t

Da n i e ls Dic t ion a r y [V]

Vastation A key term in the Swedenborgian

Dictionary and well known to the students of
Henry James, whose father and brother William
(and possibly HJ himself ) suffered vastations.
What does it mean? Swedenborg defines it as a
deviation, a declension, a falling away from
grace, a turn toward the direction of hell. A
person experiencing a vastation is descending
from heaven, but not yet arrived at hell. For
long periods he occupies a boundary-less limbo,
deviating or declining from a grace he never achieved
or perhaps even suspected. Swedenborg likens a man
whose rational principles are solely derived through
the senses (and not by heavenly affection) to a goose
or a parrot, for that is how his voice sounds to angels. STUART GOLDENBERG

Daniel Aaron

146 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

3 David Ferry

Drifting across the page that Im writing on.

Is it the drifting ghost of the cigarette smoke
From back in the day when I smoked? Is it the voice,

Unbodied, speaking to me, that fantme sans os

Ronsard rising up from the grave tells us he is?
Is it the voice of Enkidu, Tablet Twelve,

Come up through a hole in the Upperworld floor to breathe

Toward Gilgamesh, longing longing to kiss him?
The personal god, breathing upon the page?

Like everyone else, whenever I want to speak

To somebody else, or else alone in the house,
Alone in my head, its hearing my own voice trying,

Trying to say it right, not getting it right,

My own voice breathing towards me, trying to say
How it is, where it is that its coming from, down there?

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 147

wS T O R Y

3 Thomas Geoghegan

The scene: Just before midnight, July 3, 1826, at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson is gravely ill after a series
of strokes. The next day is the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson is
widely expected to make a public statement. His pro-slavery nephew Randolph has promised to pay off
Jeffersons debts and save Monticello if the ex-president will issue a statement saying that all men are
created equal was never intended to include black people. His daughter Martha has asked a poor but
brilliant student from the University of Virginia, Edgar Allan Poe, to help Jefferson compose a state-
ment that will satisfy Randolph without betraying the Declarations principles. This excerpt comes near
the end of the first act. Jefferson is treating himself to a last trip to his wine cellar, before working on his
statement. Frederic, a slave, is also present.

Jefferson: To stay up late at night like this is very injurious to ones

health. I have written quite extensively on personal health, you know.
To be up at midnight, reading some book of forgotten loreNo, no, I
advise against it, normally. Early to bed, sir, but tonight, we have work
to do.
Poe: Of course, I am in bed well before midnightbeing a student,
you know.
Jefferson: [Half to himself.] I fear that my nephew Randolph is de-
Poe: I picked up the draft of histhe one you tore up. Sir, he would
have you disavow the Declaration.
Jefferson: Perhaps I did go too far in the Declaration? Did I, Mr.
Poe: About equality?
Jefferson: No, noliberty. It was liberty that I misjudged. I
thought, sir, that liberty, by itself, alone, would be enough to sustain
us as a country in a common bond, but now when I look at Randolph,
and his friends in the legislature, I see only the liberty of wild dogs.
Poe: Mr. President, you are not responsible for Randolph andhis
Jefferson: I always thought that the Declarationor at least the
original, as I wrote it, sir, before they marred it with their foolish
changescould only bring about a better world, a better Atlantic
worldperhaps even for our poor blacksbut now in my dying hour,
as I spend these last moments in my wine cellar, I can see how it might

148 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


be an instrument of oppressionespecially for the blacks. We oppress

them with our liberty. But Mr. Poe, you are not drinking.
Poe: No, sir, as you know, I do not drink.
Jefferson: No, no, Mr. Poe, here you mustyour glass, which I just
poured. It comes, yes, lets see . . . from the Cask of Amontillado.
Poe: [Takes a deep breath.] Mr. President, I dontall right. To you, sir,
and to the Fourth. [Sips nervously.]
Jefferson: Excellentafter all, you want to be a writer, dont you?
Poe: Sir, I . . . all right, Mr. President, I will. [Drinks.]
Jefferson: You have your pen, sir?
Poe: [Fumbling.] Do I? Yes, yes, I do have a pen.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 149

Jefferson: Here is what I declare about the Declaration, and I say
this to posterity, and to Randolph, and there is the rest of my family,
like my brother Peter, who would come here and spend too much time
with . . . well, let us say the staff.
Frederic: [To Poe.] I think his mind is wandering.
Poe: Sir, as to the Declaration
Jefferson: [Pouring.] Mr. Poe, lets refill your glass
Poe: I, I really cant. Thats enough, right there. Mr. Jefferson, I re-
ally, before we start to write, may I ask just one thing, out of my own
personal curiosity, since we young people never get to ask
Jefferson: Ask!
Poe: Why, sir, did these men, your colleaguessome must have been
like Randolph, from our own Virginia, or Georgia, even God help us,
from South Carolinadeclare that all men are created equal . . . when
. . . when?
Jefferson: [Finishing his question.] when they beat their slaves?
Poe: Yes.
Jefferson: [Hesitant, after pause.] Sir, they were drunk; some had been
drunk since the third week of May.
Poe: No
Jefferson: Yes, and when I wrote those words, all men are created
equaland I did write them, for I was no mere scribe as the vicious
Federalists used to say, well, all of us, Adams, Franklineven as they
conspired to mar my draft, we were a groupwe were counting on
them to be drunk. Indeed, sir, the great gamble we undertook was
that when we introduced this document, they would still be able even
to sign their names. Sir, I held the pens of some. Can you grasp the per
capita gallon equivalent of the wood-alcohol strength of liquor that
every woman and child in the fabled city of Philadelphia through that
hot summer was consuming? Did I say children? Yes, I saw infants
reeling at the breasts of their mothers. Do they now call it the Miracle
at Philadelphia? I tell you, sir, what the miracle was.
Poe: Yes. [Putting down glass.] I can see. How it can lead to equality . . .
Jefferson: But to a writer it was a giftit meant that I could write
any kind of Declaration that I pleased. I could say if I pleased that all
men were created equaland so I did.
Poe: The country was fortunate. But what did you mean? You must tell
meand posterity. This is the chance to write down what you meant.

150 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Jefferson: Now its all gotten confusedits become a kind of reli- Liberty?
gious sentiment. Does anyone read the Declaration? I did not say we
Now when
believe all men are created equalI did not put it forward as a belief,
but as a self-evident fact. It is self-evident, a scientific fact, and now I look
what I intended to be a scientific truth is being embraced, foolishly,
at Randolph,
by people of good will, as a kind of religion.
and his
Poe: Can you slow up? I am trying to write this down.
friends in
Jefferson: And so to my horror, I have set up a kind of church, a
religious establishment, when I was trying to disestablish. Well, I am the legislature,
frustrated. Now I have a question for you: Have you read the Declara-
I see only
the liberty
Poe: [Hesitant.] Of courselike every American, I . . .
of wild dogs.
Jefferson: I knew it. Then tell me what is says.
Poe: What does it say? I . . . I cant remember . . . right now . . . Ive never 9
had alcohol, and Im . . . Im . . . sir, Im having trouble focusing.
Jefferson: [Coaching.] And there is a right to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness?
Poe: Absolutely.
Jefferson: And we are endowed with them like a dowrybut by
who? Can you name who?
Poe: Who? By you, of course. I mean by the Declaration
Jefferson: The Creator, Mr. Poe, the Creator.
Poe: You just said this was not religious.
Jefferson: Its not. The Creator created Newton, and self-evident
facts. The Creator created calculus, sir, in front of our eyes, though it
took us centuries to see it. But the Creator, or the Declaration, did not
stop at three. The Creator tossed in another right, the one that no one
will dare to whisper in the centuries ahead.
Poe: There is another right? Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness . . .
there is another one?
Jefferson: This is ridiculous! It is the most important one
Poe: Then Im sure I read it
Jefferson: No, it doesnt even register. I could bring up one student
after another and get the same response: Oh, there is another one?
Poe: [Looking at his glass.] Im sure I could have remembered ifwhat
is it, sir?

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 151

Jefferson: Ah! It is a right that dare not speak its namebut I
did speak it, sir. I wrote it. It is the thing that underpins the whole
Poe: II cant imagine . . .
Jefferson: It is the right to throw off the governmentit is our right
to change our form of government, at any time, by a simple major-
ity, in any way we pleaseit is our right to cast off this deplorable
Constitution, which is clamped down on us like a prison to cut off
all escape. Do you say Randolph un-declares the Declaration? The
Constitution un-declares. It un-declares the very purpose of the
republic. Write that down, if you dare. Trybut they will not hear
me say it even from the grave. The Constitution exists to nullify the
Declaration. We the People hereby give up our right to rule. Thats
the truth of our history. They did it in Philadelphia, you know, in
1787, knowing that I, Thomas Jefferson, was awayand by then,
sir, they were not drinking. They were frightenedof farmers with
pitchforks. And so, they clamped down on us a Constitution, a kind
of prison that we prisoners cannot escape. Do you know, Mr. Poe,
what it is like to be in a prison, sir? We the Peoplewe are. And now
and forever we will have a permanent pact with the privileged, a pact
that they will never let We the People breakwe have given up the
very right that effectuates every otherthe right to change not just
the government but our very form of government. Now, it will never
change; it is impossible to change. I was in for two terms and tried
to destroy the thing, to give the country back to the people, to get us
out of the prison. I simply added landI only let us pace sea to sea in
a more spacious cell!
Poe: Sir, are you . . . is that a tear?
Jefferson: [Gulping the wine now.] Overthrow it nowbefore it is
too late. Or in two hundred years, in this country, we will not be
created equal. There will be but two racesnot black and white, but
rich and poor, yes, with different physiognomies. You will be able to
mark them on the street. [Pause.] Thats why I added the West, you
see? I thought if I could bring in more states . . . But by adding states
I made it worse. It makes it even harder to overthrow our form of
government. For now you need even more of them to agreeyes,
Mr. Poe, I made it even worse than beforetheres no way out! No
way out!
Poe: Sir, you are grasping my coat

Jefferson collapses and dies the next day. And while there is one brief return to consciousness in the second
act, there is no statement on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration.t

152 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Ex h i bi t H 5 Randall Enos


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 153

Or ph a ns

Marching in Place
The politics of atonement
3 Gene Seymour

As plans were under way in Washington ear- gized black protest for a new generation of mil-
ly this fall for the twentieth anniversary com- lennial activistsand not exactly in ways that
memoration of the Million Man Marcha cu- jibe with the traditional, petitionary modes
rious kind of political revival meeting set for of Washington dissent that were epitomized,
the National Mall in Octoberone could not and in some ways misappropriated, by the
help but notice: there wasnt nearly as much first Million Man March. Its a bit as though
chatter and hum leading up to this event as the original marchs organizers were priming
there was for its predecessor. The 1995 edition themselves for a stirring confrontation with
of the march doubled as something of a me- the white power structure, with the same im-
dia coming-out party for incendiary Nation of port as the galvanic 1965 Selma demonstra-
Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. It was, by any tions, and managed instead to put together for
measure, a successful mass mobilization, even the publics scrutiny and approval a diorama of
if its specific aims were hard to pin down. The placidly sober black family life.
gathering, which drew somewhere between In less than a year, this newest wave of black
400,000 and 850,000 people, was intended protest has given rise to the influential (if
to highlight urban minority voter registration loosely organized) Black Lives Matter move-
while getting the nations leaders to focus on ment, which has drawn demonstrators both
the woes of inner-city black communities. In black and white into a fresh round of chal-
large part, though, the symbolic mission of lenges to a deeply compromised and racialized
the event was right there in its title: to mar- regime of law enforcement and incarceration.
shal a dramatic confluence of black men in the The BLM movement has thrust itself in trou-
nations capital, pledging allegiance en masse blesome and troublemaking fashion into the
to the sturdy American values of self-help and public campaign spectacles mounted by such
family responsibility. prominent white presidential aspirants as
By contrast, this newer Million Man March, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald
which promised to be open to people of all Trump (billionaire blowhard, media darling,
races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual prefer- andthereforeearly front-runner for the
ences carried a tagline, Justice or Else. That 2016 Republican presidential nomination).
sentiment clearly aligns the event with the This tense atmosphere of mutually assured
recent resurgence of civil rights activism fol- misapprehension is, arguably, the clearest point
lowing the high-profile incidents of excessive of continuity between the two Million Man
police force against unarmed black citizens Marches. Back in October 1995, there were
in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cleve- plenty of white people who seemed threat-
land, Houston, and many other communities. ened by the mere prospect of a million black
The spontaneous demonstrations in the wake men from all over the country gathering on the
of court verdicts clearing policemen of crimi- National Mall, even if they were there to law-
nal charges in some of these cases have reener- fullyand quietly, as the marchs organizers in-

154 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 155

I didnt go to the march, partly because I didnt
believe I had anything to atone for.

sistedassemble around the themes of atone- ago days, the respective sins of Willie Horton,
ment, reconciliation, and responsibility. Mike Tyson, and even poor Rodney King had
And for the most part, these nervous whites been conscripted into pasteboard culture-war
focused on the one man in particular who was service as props in a reductive but enormous-
calling the gathering to order: Farrakhan, ly powerful caricature of African American
head of the Nation of Islam and self-anointed manhood as an unstable compound of anger,
legatee to the black separatist vision of the law-breaking, and domestic assault.
Nations early leader Elijah Muhammad. Its In other words, what appeared to bring
difficult to recall, now that were walking the black men of varied means and motivations
back nine of the second Obama administra- to the National Mall that day was a call for
tion, how uncomfortable Farrakhan made them to concede guilt for, or at least complic-
white Americans with his apocalyptic rheto- ity in, real or imagined transgressions alleged
ric, which would veer every so often into the by others while at the same time rededicating
anti-Semitic. (He had infamously dubbed Ju- themselves to being better people.
daism a gutter religion.)
Still, for many African Americans, a reli- Day of Atonement
able track record of making white people un- I didnt go, partly because I didnt believe I
comfortable was enough to certify Farrakhan had anything to atone for. But then, neither
as someone worth listening to, even following. did most of the brothers I knew who made
Never mind that, in strict ideological terms, the trip to D.C. that day. These friends were
the agenda Farrakhan proposed for his people good husbands, fathers, and dedicated wage
was as preoccupied with individual respon- earners from New England, New York, and
sibility and family values as any Reagan-era Philadelphia, where Id come to know them.
Republican whitepaper. And much like the So why did they go? I later asked them. They
patriarchs of the white mainstream religious generally said it wasnt to make amends or to
right, Farrakhan was intent on using the trap- accept even more responsibility than theyd
pings of his influence to dramatize his own in- taken on as workaday family men. Instead,
flated sense of spiritual virtue over and above they told me they wanted to bear witness
any intelligible platform of reform, redress, or and find communion with other black men
redistribution. who for varied reasons needed to be part of a
Along with onetime executive director of joint assertion of their often besieged identi-
the NAACP Benjamin Chavis and other more ties. (Get on the Bus, a 1996 feature film about
traditional civil rights leaders, Farrakhan con- a cross-country trip to the marchdirected
ceived the march as an effort to raise self-es- by Spike Lee and written by Reggie Rock
teem among its participants. More specifically, Bythewoodreplicates this sense of mutual
the gathering was meant to dispel widespread camaraderie while acknowledging the dif-
negative stereotypes of black male behavior ferences in age, class, religion, and attitude
stereotypes reinforced that same year by the among those who showed up.) As with most
often manic media attention devoted to O. J. such events, especially those steeped in racial
Simpsons murder trial. In those not-so-long- pride, the march promised to gratify partici-

156 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

pants shared desire to feel good about be- The Dad Dodge
ing themselveswhich, whatever its other Lets review: for all its accompanying me-
benefits, is a lot different from the need to dia perceptions of Farrakhan as a politically
challenge a status quo stubbornly perceiving transgressive figure, the Million Man March
black men as, in Ishmael Reeds words, sacri- largely ratified a prevailing view, achieving
ficial lambs for male evil. peak acceptance during the Clinton era, that
There were speakers on the Mall that day racial grievance mattered less to black prog-
who submitted such direct challengesmost ress than a call to domestic order in the black
notably Jesse Jackson, who, by stressing in his community. Especially for the kind of presi-
remarks the pernicious growth of the Ameri- dent who went out of his way to stage his own
can prison industry, made it clear to anyone cynical culture-war confrontation with the
listening where a fair portion of blame could hyperbolic nationalist rapper Sister Souljah,
be placed for demonizing and diminishing in a rhetorical joust whose imbalance of power
black manhood. But if those attending and roughly corresponded to the disproportion-
hyping the march expected it to somehow ate show of arms in the U.S. invasion of Gre-
confirm Farrakhans preeminence among nada, the main order of business was not to
African American leaders, they were in for call white America to a sober accounting of its
a perplexing surprise. The minister used his many ongoing racist trespasses, but to trigger
I-Have-a-Dream moment for an extended anguished penance in the troubled households
paranoid rant remembered today more for of black America. Clintonian neoliberals and
its arcane references to Masonic conspiracies Gingrichian conservatives were united back
and numerology than for, well, anything else. then in their firm insistence that black people
As Darryl Pinckney wrote in his New York Re- needed to take control of their own commu-
view of Books account of the march: nities, clean up their collective act, and prove
themselves worthy of advancement. (Among
The former calypso singer, the narcissist who
other things, this chorus of patrician scold-
launched a line of skin-care products in 1986,
ing raised the question of just who, except the
has been selling wolf tickets for so long that
most virulent of white racists, was still insist-
he was ill-prepared to play the benevolent
ing they were unworthy?)
patriarch. His debut in the sun was an anti-
And strangely enough, Farrakhan, for all
climax, like a tedious river-boat ride tourists
the surface belligerence of his rhetoric, fell
regret after theyve made such an effort to get
into line with this litany of family-based re-
to a place theyve heard was so spectacular.
action. Theres little in the contemporaneous
Farrakhan, from that day forward, recovered press accounts of the 1995 march indicating
neither his leadership capital among black that the deindustrialization of inner cities,
folks nor his capacity to alarm white folks. inequality in education facilities and fund-
The legacy of Farrakhans march is hard- ing, or mandatory sentencing laws enacted
er to assess given events of the intervening and supported by the Clinton administration
two decadesor perhaps more accurately, received anything close to the attention gar-
its too painful to confront. And the urgent nered by the hidebound themes of individual
grievances taken up by Black Lives Matter self-help, personal responsibility, and general
and its allies make one wonder just what it was manly uprightness. (Strangely enough, that
that all those black men who showed up on eras get-tough crackdown on the social ills of
the Mall twenty years ago had to account or black and poor America has lately triggered
apologize for in the first place. a round of dubiously manly repentance of its

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 157

Or ph a ns

own, with Bill Clinton, along with erstwhile rather intently to the tireless scolding of black
supporters of such laws from all ideological parents he accused of shortchanging, if not
positions, coming forward in hangdog fashion altogether neglecting, their childrens educa-
to confess that the mandatory-minimum sen- tion. As for black youth themselves, Cosby
tencing laws and casual ransacking of Fourth regarded them as an unrelieved portrait in
Amendment protections that were then ea- cultural gloom, recklessly promiscuous, rap-
gerly advertised during hard-fought reelec- spouting wastrels with low horizons and even
tion campaigns turned out to be counter- lower levels of comportment and language. He
productive and ill-advised. As with Clintons may not have been entirely wrong about the
allowances about his other, more intimate symptoms. But what rankled even those who
trespasses against his intra-family valor later might have agreed with Cosbys prescriptions
in his second term, such concessions strike the was their hectoring, seemingly self-righteous
wearied ear as far too little and far too late.) emblazonment on all available school lecterns
The telling absence of talk about such ur- and talk shows of the Global Village.
gent threats to black Americas communal Thus elevated, Cosbys old-dad sermoniz-
well-being on the MMM stump only height- ing helped reinforce the all-too-current im-
ens the impression that the event was far more pression afoot in America that young black
hermetic and performative than political or men were squandering the hard-won legacies
progressive. A year later, civil rights veteran of the civil rights era while fathering a new
Harry Belafonte told TV host Charlie Rose generation of amoral sociopaths waiting to
that Farrakhan, for all his unsavory rhetoric, happen. By now, Cosbys credentials to admin-
was still the only black leader challenging the ister such stern, paternalistic talking-tos have
status quo from outside the political system. withered, as evidence mounts that hes spent
But the march had been a dud: Black people many of his off-air hours in full-bore amoral-
came together and said nothing. Belafonte sociopath mode himself, allegedly drugging
didnt exaggerate by all that muchespecially and raping women, with the roster of accusers
if youre measuring progress since then. now numbering more than fifty. One begins
to detect a disconcerting pattern here: as with
The Huxtable Hustle Clintons crusading crime initiative, Cosbys
The depoliticized family-first agenda of the public campaign of family self-help coexisted,
initial Million Man March had another key in lurid fashion, with a terrifyingly predatory
accomplice in the political culture of the day brand of private sexual conduct.
and like Bill Clintons crime-fighting agenda, While sentiments such as Cosbys or Far-
his policy portfolio hasnt aged well. Even as rakhans have been classified under the neo-
Minister Farrakhan was muttering to a fast- conservative or neoliberal rubrics, Ive often
emptying house about the occult messages been tempted to call them neo-cast-down-
embedded within the Masonic architectural your-bucket-where-you-are. That, of course,
plan of Washington, D.C., a more genial, com- was the gist of the late nineteenth-century
forting, and paternal voice was raising a new tactics promoted by that first great modern
refrain of patriarchal black accountability avatar of black self-help, Booker T. Wash-
across the American airwaves and bestseller ington. In stark opposition to the politicized
lists. I speak, of course, of Bill Cosby, a.k.a. calls for economic justice by the great proto-
Americas Dad. In a series of books and nationalist thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, Wash-
high-profile speeches, Cosby seized upon his ington seized upon the dominant individualist
new paterfamilias stature to commit himself American gospel of success in a campaign to

158 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Bill Cosby seized upon his paterfamilias stature
to tirelessly scold black parents.

lift up ex-slaves and their descendants by their apartheid, with black men being labeled as
proverbial bootstrapsand to keep at bay criminals in their teen years and then shuttled
what by the end of the nineteenth century was from their decrepit, underfunded inner-city
an increasingly vicious wave of white assaults schools to brand-new high-tech prisons. Re-
on black progress. Washingtons congenial fix- gardless of whether you concur with Alexan-
it-yourself vision of blinkered black autonomy ders conclusions, the evidence she amasses
certainly helped within its studiously circum- makes it harder for a new wave of patriarchs
scribed limits, but then as now it didnt keep to convince black people that their dehuman-
innocent people from being degraded, humili- ization is more their fault than others.
ated, or in many cases, murdered. Listen: I share, to an extent, the view that
we as black people should be more responsible
Not Marching Anymore to each other, for ourselves, and for our chil-
And do such efforts at self-respect automati- drens future. But whenever I hear a Voice of
cally yield greater respect for black people Uplift, be it black or white, telling us that fol-
from those who arent blackor are in power? lowing such bromides will solve our problems,
Lets put it this way: less than two years after I often want to shout some variation on what
the marchs participants offered atonement the comedian Chris Rock says whenever he
and reconciliation, Abner Louima, a Haitian- hears some black person proudly say, I take
born security guard living and working in care of my kids! In these encounters, Rock
Brooklyn, was arrested outside a nightclub, says, hell shout back, Youre supposed to take
beaten, and forcibly sodomized by police care of your kids! and then, for good mea-
with a broom handle. In 1999, four New York sure, offer up a string of expletives lamenting
City police officers shot to death an unarmed low expectations. (Do you think you deserve a
Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo cookie, Rock later asks this hypothetical per-
with forty-one bullets. In 2006, Sean Bell, an son, just because youve stayed out of jail?)
unarmed young black man, died in a hail of Self-determination, self-help, self-respect:
bullets from plainclothes and undercover po- the mainstream loves to insist that black
lice officers. And these are only cases in New people internalize these values as though we
York City, which for years instituted a stop- keep forgetting what they are, or have never
and-frisk policy mostly targeting people of heard of them before. Weve been compelled
color. Need one go on? to help ourselves as far back as slavery, wheth-
In the meantime, the bloating of the pris- er through purchasing our freedom or seizing
on industry to which Jesse Jackson alluded it through escape. But the Voices of Uplift,
in his Million Man March speech reached absorbed in the serious business of remind-
proportions large enough for such experts as ing us, continually, of the unassailable glories
Michelle Alexander to persuasively declare, of personal self-help, rarely accompany them
in her celebrated 2010 jaccuse, The New Jim with suggestions of anything specific that we
Crow, that the criminal justice system im- might possibly achieve with these values: a pro-
prisons a larger percentage of its black popu- fession, a vocation, or even a leap of creative
lation than South Africa did at the height of imagination. Only in constant struggle do we

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 159

seem to exist, either in our own minds or in proficient or above on the 4th grade reading
those of others. component of the National Assessment of
Its also hard not to notice that, in spite Educational Progress compared to 42 percent
of such struggles and a solid twenty years of of white boys and 21 percent of black and
urgent self-help counsel from on high, one of Hispanic girls. Youth who cannot read pro-
the most reliable measures of this brand of ficiently by third grade are four times less
individual achievementcollege enrollment likely to graduate high school by 19.
has lately shown worrisome signs of decline By the time students have reached 9th
among the much-exhorted population of grade, 42 percent of black male students have
young black American men. The U.S. Depart- been suspended or expelled during their
ment of Educations latest figures show the school years, compared to 14 percent of white
national college graduation rate of black male male students. While black youth account
students at roughly 35 percent, compared with for 16 percent of the youth population, they
almost 45 percent for black women students. represent 28 percent of juvenile arrests, and
Meanwhile, the graduation rate for white 37 percent of the detained population. While
males is 60 percent. And according to a study just over 6 percent of the overall population,
of fifty public state universities, black men black males of all ages accounted for 43 per-
represent 7.9 percent of Americas eighteen- cent of murder victims in 2011.
to-twenty-four-year-olds, but only 2.8 percent
of undergraduates at these flagship schools. Obama has promised to make the effort
to change these circumstances a hallmark of
Old-Time Uplift his post-presidency. And yet something about
Are black boys lost? I asked an African Amer- the rhetoric hes been using on this issue is
ican public high school teacher in Washing- redolent of that old and overfamiliar Uplift-
ton, D.C., a couple years back. Yes, he said, with-a-capital-Uthe kind of entreaties that,
though he was hard-pressed to speculate on while recognizing dysfunction within the
where they all went. They cant all be in jail, political system as a contributing factor, will
can they? I asked. He shrugged; he couldnt likely emphasize personal initiative and self-
say for sure, either way. Whatever else the determination as our panacea of first resort.
Million Man March accomplished, its leaders One hopes Obama will also lead the charge
have a lot to answer fornot just for failing to for more equitable funding for public schools,
press those questions back then, but also for and by extension better resources, materials,
not recognizing that such questions would ur- and possibilities for young black men to de-
gently need answers in the future. termine their destiniesthough the charter-
Now our soon-to-be-ex-president has friendly, test-heavy track record compiled by
started an initiative, My Brothers Keeper, him and his Education Secretary Arne Dun-
aimed at empowering boys and young men can scarcely bodes well on that score. Not that
of color. Whatever form this initiative ulti- they all have to go to college, but most of them
mately takes, it has at least dared to answer dont have to go to jail either.
those questions my teacher friend and I were Maybe Im being too hard on the Million
wondering about. The signs, according to the Man March. Farrakhan and his collabora-
White House, are grim: tors were trying, after all, to seize a moment
in time and galvanize the country. It had hap-
As recently as 2013, only 14 percent of black
pened before, not just in August 1963, but also
boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored
in 1957, when the Prayer Pilgrimage for Free-

160 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

dom was staged three years after the Supreme trum that real change always begins. Not even
Courts Brown vs. Board of Education decision the most moss-backed conservative would
ruling racially segregated public schools un- contend the point; indeed, conservatives have
constitutional. It was at that latter demonstra- used such logic for years to argue against civil
tion that Martin Luther King Jr. established rights legislation. But minds change only when
his primacy as the leader of a resurgent civil possibilities are expanded beyond parochial
rights movement with his Give Us the Bal- or reactionary presumptions. Mass gatherings
lot speech. Eight years later, his pleas were on the National Mall have in the past offered
answered by the Voting Rights Act. Roughly the prospect for transformative moments;
a half-century later, that law came under siege, think of Marian Andersons April 1939 recital
with the Supreme Court recently upholding a after the Daughters of the American Revolu-
raft of state voter-ID laws all but explicitly tai- tion kept her off the stage of nearby Constitu-
lored to drive down black and minority voter tion Hall. But transformations can never be
participation. Marches dont always result in reenacted; they can only be commemorated
immediate action, and those actions arent al- or merely simulated. This is the kind of rue-
ways set in granite. But in their time, marches ful but useful wisdom we should expect from
always seemed the best we could do. fathers, the very best of whom are capable of
What the Million Man March aimed for telling us that while nothing or no one is per-
wasnt concrete legislative or systemic change fect, pursuing perfection is an ongoing pro-
so much as attitude adjustment. It is in per- cess that, like it or not, means forsaking old,
sonal attitudes at all points on the racial spec- moldering certainties.t


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 161

I n L o c o Pa r e n t i s

Better Management
Through Belles Lettres
Literature at the B-school
3 Merve Emre

A t six oclock on a Wednesday evening last en your skin. It might be painful, but it can be
spring, dozens of students at Columbia Busi- really beneficial.
ness School jostled into William C. Warren Good! Craven said. Anyone else?
Hall to learn how the study of literature might I think its good when youre talking with
prepare them for executive success. They people from different cultures to bring things
were there to attend Leadership Through back to the human level, said another stu-
Fiction, a three-hour weekly course led by dent. Talk about things that arent inher-
adjunct associate professor Bruce Craven, a ently contentiousthe weather, your family,
novelist and Hollywood screenwriter turned children. Thats a good way to bridge the gap.
business school administrator. But sometimes conflicts just cant be re-
Craven was all smiles as he stood in the solved, said Brian, a former Navy officer who
middle of an ultramodern amphitheater, ra- quickly emerged as one of the classs more out-
diating can-do energy and West Coast cool. spoken students. Through a leadersor a he-
This evening, the class was discussing Little rosjourney, its important to realize whats
Big Man, Thomas Bergers 1964 parody of the worth fighting for, and when you shouldnt
western genre. Narrated by 111-year-old Jack compromise your values.
Crabb, who claims to be the sole white survi- Craven nodded. It often comes down to
vor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the novel finding a balance between protecting your
moves briskly through a series of gruesome identitystaying true to your identity and
confrontations between the Cheyenne tribes your valuesand finding common ground.
and white settlers in the nineteenth century. Then he launched into a story about running
But Craven did not begin the class discussion an executive coaching program in China.
by pointing to the history of colonial conquest One of the things I had to practice was lis-
or its attendant politics of racial genocide, as tening and not always jumping in as a big loud
one might expect in a literature class. What American trying to talk my way through dif-
he focused on, rather, was the failure to com- ferences, he recalled. He reframed this in-
municate. sight with his signature nonchalance. For the
You can see how ineffective the commu- Cheyenne, its like, Our laws are better ...
nication is between the Cheyenne and the set- Our women are hotter ... Our culture rocks.
tlers, Craven said. In their world at the time, Its like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Wood-
violence was the immediate reaction. Yet we stockbut with knives.
can still fall into these kinds of traps. What A four-minute promotional video posted
kinds of insights can we take away from this? online alongside Cravens syllabus outlines
These types of situations really make you the rationale for repurposing literature as
tough, one student volunteered. They thick- management shibboletha teaching philoso-

162 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


phy that embraces everything from ordinary professional obligations, their personal expec-
self-improvement to solipsistic delusion. The tations, and goals. Like real people, fictional
camera leads the viewer to the Kings High- characters stumble, and it is through their
way Diner, just inside Palm Springs, Califor- stumbling, Craven promises, that we will
nia. Craven sits at the counter, flanked by a learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.
pile of books. As he rifles through the stack,
he puts on his reading glasses and peers over The Stumbling Muse
them intently when he wants to make a point. Through my own travels in the literary fron-
These novels, he explains, are narratives tiers of New York, I had heard of classes like
about characters in many different profes- Cravens. Some years earlier, I had received
sions who must find a balance between their an email from a friend, a former investment

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 163

I n L o c o Pa r e n t i s

banker, tipping me off to a class he was tak- administrative job with the Executive Educa-
ing at Stanfords Graduate School of Business tion Program at Columbia, where Craven has
called, improbably enough, The Moral Lead- worked since the mid-1990s, and where he now
er. Its probably a lot like what you do now, serves as program director. But it was only in
he assured me. We read novels and plays and 2010, after business school elites had begun to
poems to try to figure out how they can make feel the aftershocks of the Great Recession,
us better people. When I tried to explain that that the dean of Columbia Business School
that wasnt at all what I didI was a literary asked him to teach a management course on
critic, not a therapist or a spiritual guruhe fiction and leadership ethics. Craven, who was
seemed distressed. You should give it a try, working on several TV pilots and a second
he replied encouragingly, and added, almost novel at the time, leapt at the offer.
as an afterthought: Plus, you could make a By this time, of course, the idea of bringing
lot more money teaching in a business school literature into the business school already had
than at a college. an elite pedigree. A week after Black Monday
Im not living that dream, but Bruce Cra- in 1987, the single largest one-day stock mar-
ven is. Last spring, while gathering material ket crash in U.S. history, Harvard professor
for a book on management theory and fic- Robert Coles published a front-page article
tion, I asked if I could sit in on three sessions in the New York Times Sunday Book Review
of Leadership Through Fictionor LTF, entitled Books and Business: Gatsby at the
as Craven likes to call it. Sounds cool! Cra- B School. Coles, a distinguished professor of
ven responded. Ill be the guy with the gray psychiatry and medical humanities at Har-
beard, setting up my laptop in front of the vard, had recently drifted across the river to
class and drinking coffee! Harvard Business School (HBS), where he
Craven, a trim and kindly dude who splits was now course director of a brand-new class:
his time between New York and his home in The Business World: Moral and Social In-
Desert Hot Springs, California, is that rare quiry Through Fiction.
specimen of business school professor who The move struck him as a timely onenev-
holds neither a PhD nor an MBA. He holds an er before had the business world been in such
MFA in creative writing from Columbia and urgent need of moral and spiritual inquiry.
a BA in politics and literature from UC-Santa Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine had been
Cruz. He thought about getting a PhD in Eng- caught trading stocks on insider information,
lish back in the mid-1980s, but the dizzying Coles explained. Suddenly the subject of eth-
ascendancy of high theory made him think ics in the business world was more explicitly
again. So he took a long road trip with a friend on the minds of everyone. With the help of
around the United States, which he describes a $30 million grant from John Shad, outgoing
as a kind of homage to Jack Kerouac and to chairman of the beleaguered Securities and
Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Exchange Commission (also a timely move),
The quasi-autobiographical novel inspired by Coless literature class emerged as one of the
that journey, Fast Sofa (1993), pitched to a Gen- first successful experiments in HBSs fledg-
X audience, did not catch fire. By the time the ling Leadership and Ethics Program. Today,
reviews came out, Craven was broke, living it is offered to the schools aspiring bankers,
with his parents in New Jersey, and haunting entrepreneurs, and management consultants
unemployment offices trying to figure out under the catchier name The Moral Leader.
what to do with a BA in literature. Despite this inspired act of rebranding,
The answer came in the form of a cushy The Moral Leader (and, for that matter,

164 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

Bruce Cravens leadership course) does not getting and keeping a job and paying the
stray far from the teaching philosophy that bills. Experience had taught Coles that it was
Coles first laid out in Gatsby at the B School pointless to begin by changing the system or,
nearly three decades ago. In those days, Coles in this case, the business school; the best one
and one hundred young corporate aspirants could do was teach people to act virtuously
would pore over such works as William Car- while they made enough money to pay the
los Williamss White Mule, Walker Percys The bills. And it was the magic of the storytell-
Moviegoer, Saul Bellows Seize the Day, and of ers, Coles told his students, that would arm
course, F. Scott Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby. these future bankers with desperately needed
These novels were selected because they bore interior canons of self-regulation, just in time
no ideological rancor or animus, Coles ex- for the deregulation of financial markets and
plained in his Times essay. Instead, all the weakened supervision from the SEC and Fed-
novels on the syllabus attempted to render eral Reserve.
faithfully, honestly, fully a way of life familiar The magic Coles invokes is the magic of
to many of us who live and work in what some sympathetic identification: the afterglow felt
call the corporate world: the furious ups and by a reader absorbed in a narrative experi-
downs of commodities trading, the petty ence that seemed imminently relatable to his
squabbles between office personnel, and the own. Under Coless tutelage, to read Seize the
daily commute from suburban paradises to Day, the story of a middle-class, middle-aged
dingy urban centersbut above all, the dan- man driven to financial ruin by a dishonest
gers of personal ambition. broker, was not an occasion to reflect on the
For it was ambitioneager and vulgar predatory incentives on Wall Street. Rather
ambition, Coles lamentedthat led to the it was to recall the emotional roller coaster of
downfall of such fictional characters as Jay speculation. As one young trader testified to
Gatsby and Tommy Wilhelm. The same am- Coles with palpable glee, We went wild with
bition had poisoned the hearts of men like joy one minute, and the next you felt the hand
Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine, Charles Ke- of Death on your shoulder. Once I looked
ating and Michael Milkeneven New Yorks around and said to myself, This is all crazy.
legendary stereo retailer Crazy Eddie An- After having a good chuckle at the craziness
tar. If only these rich and powerful men had of the trading floor, he continued doing what
let the stories of the past work their magic he did bestcommodities trading.
on the heart, Coles argued in his article, they Others went so far as to interpret the man-
may have been able to resist the ever present date of empathetic identification with literary
temptation of insider trading, fraud, bribery, protagonists quite literallya process Coles
and whatever other forms of financial impro- records in his book The Call of Stories. One stu-
priety the 1980s had to offer. dent, carrying out an assignment for Coless
Coles, like Craven, displayed little patience class, had read Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man
for ideology critique, institutional reform, and then proceeded to spend an afternoon in
or the radical energies of the New Left he- downtown Boston, where he begged for food
roes, whom Coles caricatured in interviews and slept on grates, pretending to be black and
as mean and cruel in their blithe dismissal impoverished. His gorge rose in protest and
of any particular individuals unique person- he returned home, satisfied that his foray into
hood. Even the activist youth of the 1960s make-believe had taught him what he needed
own homes now, he observed in U.S. News to know. The next year, he graduated from
and World Report. [They] have to worry about school and joined one of the top corporate law

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 165

firms in New York City. If this was magic, its advantage for personal, team, and business
spell was weak. success.
The turn to empathy is intimately linked
Haven in a Corporate World with the decline of managerial culture in the
In the decades between Black Monday and 1980s and the ensuing crisis faced by business
the Great Recession, Coless students have schools. No longer convinced that the gen-
scattered to the winds. Many are in big-city teel tradition of teaching managerial respon-
boardrooms. Many more have retired to sibility secured a competitive edge in a market
their suburban paradises with ample money dominated by investment banks, hedge funds,
and time on their hands for leisure reading. and management consultancies, students
Most intriguing, however, are the handful of clamored for financial formulas, mathemati-
his disciples who now teach versions of The cal models, and analytic tools, according to a
Business World at Stanford, University of 1987 survey of the field in Fortune magazine.
Virginia, MIT, and Harvard, and who have For most schools, however, the answer was
given Coless thirty-year-old class a facelift in not to embrace computational techniques or
accordance with twenty-first-century man- corporate finance wholeheartedly. Rather, ac-
agement principles. Although the focus on cording to Stanford professor James March,
the individual remains, they have traded in the very survival of management education
Coless nostalgic yearning for the moral imagi- depended on deepen[ing] an intellectual un-
nation for what management theory calls the derstanding of the relationship between ac-
performance of empathy: the ways in which tivities in business and the major issues of hu-
flexible, self-managing individuals explicitly man existence. Business schools, particularly
acknowledge one anothers needs and desires elite ones, turned to the idea of grooming con-
in a collaborative workplace. scientious leaders instead of narrow-minded
In old-school management training, the managers. At the same time, they turned to
emphasis was on becoming a hard-nosed the narrative artsthe practice of storytell-
leader, putting the companys bottom line ingto help them chart this future anew.
first. In this tradition, you were heading for Its easy to see, then, why business schools
trouble if you sought to be an empathetic continue to insist on fiction as the perfect tool
listener, anxiously guarding against employ- for teaching empathy in the corporate world.
ee dissatisfaction with sentimental talk of The imaginative excursions into the minds
maintaining a good work-life balance and of others, the invitation to identify with
working to self-actualize. Yet empathy those who are not like us, the whole specter
and feeling, more generallyis the corner- of make-believethis emphasis on corporate
stone of the current participatory manage- humanism helps shore up the flailing business
ment fad, which recommends empowering of management education at a moment when
employees in workplace decisions. Authori- it is no longer necessary, not when the real
tarian models of command-and-control are money comes from starting your own hedge
out. Empathy, sensitivity, mindfulness, and fund or designing a new social networking
relationship-building are in. This, at least, is app. The moral leader is the perfect coun-
the lesson we may take away from the hun- terpoint to the figure of the finance drone or
dreds of TED talks, training programs, and socially bumbling tech CEO, who responds
leadership guides like The Empathy Factor, so predictably to financial incentives that he
which promises to restore humanity to the retains no sense of individual personhood, no
workplace while providing a competitive sense of right or wrong.

166 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

A ruthlessly pragmatic approach is shared by nearly
everyone who teaches the course, and it absolves them from
the burden of producing authentically empathic people.

One can find the specifically corporate ap- Accordingly, Teaching the Moral Leader
plications of empathy codified in any number models how to read fiction to tease out the
of business school textbooks designed to ac- strategies [that] are employed to build em-
company classes like The Moral Leader. pathy for sometimes unsympathetic protago-
There are Coless own publications, which nists: those employees who, despite their
include his short-story anthology Minding resistance to unpleasant leadership decisions
the Store: Great Writing About Business from like downsizing or workplace discrimination,
Tolstoy to Now (2008), a collection of postwar must be made amenable to the leaders exer-
fiction that the Wall Street Journal criticized cise of power. In introducing her students to
for failing to contain stories that make capi- Machiavellis The Prince, the first book on her
talism the hero rather than the villain of the syllabus, Sucher notes, This is a perfect place
piece. More in line with the Journals politics to start moral leadership, since leadership re-
are teaching guides like Sandra J. Suchers quires the use of power. This is about power
The Moral Leader: Challenges, Insights, Tools how to get it and preserve it, a necessary con-
(2008) and Teaching the Moral Leader (2012); dition of leadership.
Joseph Badaracco Jr.s Questions of Character: For Sucher, empathy is a skill to be learned,
Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through a series of techniques that can be situationally
Literature (2006); Robert Brawers Fictions of deployed when an unpleasant moral chal-
Business: Insights on Management from Great lenge calls for it. Its not a precursor to a poli-
Literature; and Leigh Hafreys The Story of tics of solidarity but a method for acquiring
Success: Five Steps to Mastering Ethics in Business and maintaining power over others. Sucher
(2005). cautions leaders not to think empathically
Suchers Teaching the Moral Leader is a fine or even to be empathic, but to take actions
example. It opens with a stern claim: I do that appear as such to ones employees. Hers
not take the development of leadership skills is a ruthlessly pragmatic approach shared by
lightly. The authors C.V. bears equally elo- nearly everyone who teaches the course, and
quent testimony to her sense of mission: in it absolves these instructors from the burden
addition to her tenure-track position at HBS, of producing authentically empathic peo-
Sucher has served on corporate boards and plejust one of the ways in which the course
has seen the way leaders can misunderstand explicitly departs from Coless midcentury
the actions of ones subordinatesthat is, liberalism. The Moral Leader does not
ones employees. Students must learn how to guarantee moral leaders, Sucher cautions at
take a deep dive into the world of others if the outset of the book. In The Story of Success,
they are to become effective leaders, particu- MIT course director Leigh Hafrey sets forth
larly at a time of increasing globalization, the same dictum in terms the business elite
vast changes in the life sciences, and conflict- can understand when he observes that remov-
ing pressures from developing, emerging, and ing ethics from the realm of daily action may
developed economies. preserve our values, but it also makes them

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 167

very hard to recall from their luxury status As Craven wanders to the other side of the
when we decide they are needed. If ethics are room, the two men sitting next to me turn to
a luxury good, what managers today need to each other and start comparing the labels on
discipline their employees are just-in-time ac- their designer jeans.
tion plans for feigning care. I didnt do the reading, one confesses to
Sucher and her colleagues are hardly the the other.
first to embrace the promise of empathic Oh, me neither, the other says. But did
connection in the workplace. That idea has you go to the J.P. Morgan sell weekend?
a long genealogy that links Sucher to such di- Nah, I lied and said I couldnt make it.
versely objectionable figures as Elton Mayo, Well, are you coming out on the catama-
father of the human relations school of man- ran on Sunday?
agement theory, and Dale Carnegie, author Over the next three weeks, Craven would
of the 1936 bestselling self-help book How ask me for feedback on how the class was run.
to Win Friends and Influence People. What is What to say? To suggest that his students
unique to reading in the business school, read Orwell or Dos Passos, Marx or Jameson,
however, is how Sucher transforms fiction, was simply unthinkable in the context of the
rather than assembly lines or sales numbers, business school. Likewise, it seemed unchari-
into a source of causal data. Literature pres- table to contend that the whole exercise was
ents us with cause and effect, with action and ineffectiveperhaps there would be some-
result, and through the characters stories thing good to come of it, in some unknow-
we can learn about the dangers, or rewards, able students life. It took me some time to
of acting in certain ways, she explains in an realize how Id been suckered in by Cravens
interview with HBS Working Knowledge. By question. After all, theres nothing managers
pairing inputs (or actions) with outputs (or love more than feedback; upward feedback,
affects), students can figure out which ac- in particular, which preserves the illusion of
tions to take based on the tradeoffs between equality and participatory management. One
short-term costs and long-term (possibly very feels flattered just to be asked.
long-term) benefits. The conversion of com- One answer to Cravens request can be
plex plot points into clear affective payoffs found in a conversation I had with a student
helps clarify to these quick-witted business- whose name I never caught. We were sitting
es how their actions can be moralat least in the back of the classroom one night, pack-
if morality and long-term profit are equated, ing up to leave, when he turned to me and
which they are here. whispered, Can you put something in your
notes for me? I nodded. I was a creative
Drink It All In writing major in college and I hate this class,
In Cravens classroom, students are encour- he said.
aged to bring six-packs and bottles of wine. Why? I whispered back.
Someone passes me a beer. Craven walks Because business school is the fucking
around the room making small talk as people worst, he said, rolling his eyes. And none
slosh their drinks around. A student asks him of this makes it any less terrible. He tipped
where he gets his tattoos done. Craven prom- his beer back and got up. He was wearing
ises hell tell him over email. Later, when I am the whitest shoes I had ever seen and, feel-
accidentally ccd on this email, I learn that his ing a wave of empathy, I watched them as he
preferred spot for Cali ink is Red Hot Tattoo sprinted all the way across the classroom and
in Arcadia, California. out the door.t

168 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

The American Academy on Mars
3 Carter Ratcliff

Techno by necessity,
classicizing on a glorious whim,
our buildings house the persistent idea
that no stretch of terrain anywhere in the universe
cannot be balanced on a fulcrum placed midway
between wilderness and city, the howling emptiness
and the whisper of a weary and thereby corrupting plenitude.

So the art we foster is mostly pastoral.

The science, too. Among our brightest minds
are some we havent seen for years, so lost are they
in the wilderness out there, where, each with its amusing mix
of specialists, our teams of scientists seek the savage numbers
that theory requires but will know how to utilize only when their infinite
is turned into a garden and taught to be elegiac. And to fear death,

though they will never know it. Numbers cant know anything.
Unlike our scientists, who build all sorts of certainties upon them.
Just like artists, to hear them tell it. The confident ones, at least,
and thus the numbers need us, to make them feel useful

here at the Academy, where we battle the grains of dust

whose countlessness is inedible, our daily bread, but also
back on Earth, where the semi-annual report on the full range
of our activities is eagerly awaited. Or so we imagine,
along with the possibility of green in this raw and rusty place.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 169

wS T O R Y

Bitter River
3 Mark Jacobs

Impeccable John Connerly stepped through the front door of his

home in Rio Agrio. He looked at the sky for weather, then made his
way down the cobbles toward the main street of the village. From
behind a curtained window, Kymbat watched him move with hand-
some purpose, as though he knew where he was going. By the time he
turned the corner she was closing the door after herself. She followed
him. Kymbat was his second wife and the only person in the world
with the right to say dementia.
But that was the wrong word. John was just now turning sixty-four.
Sixty-four was not old, not in todays world. She blamed the accident.
It broke ribs and a leg and punctured a lung. All that was fixable. He
healed. He retired. They left Italy and bought a place in the Castile
village he had been telling her about since they met. But the accident
had poked a hole in his mind that could not be fixed. The doctors in
Madrid were matter-of-fact. None of them understood the human
brain. The honest ones admitted their ignorance. You must bring him
regularly for tests.
Following John through the village was easy. On a glorious fall day,
it did not occur to him to look back. The sun was generous, throwing
a bright shawl across the shoulders of man, beast, and building alike.
On a day like this it was easy to imagine how he had fallen in love with
Rio Agrio when he was posted to the Madrid embassy as a young dip-
lomat with a sunny future. The village was more prosperous now but
held tightly to its old Spanish prerogatives. Self-absorbed and secure,
Rio Agrio was proud of its stately stone, its position at the center of
the only world worth knowing.
From a safe distance Kymbat watched her husband stroll down the
street in his blazer and pressed flannels. He was wearing the bur-
gundy tie with the muted stripe. (When they married, she got rid of
every last tie in his wardrobe because Jane, the bad wife, had picked
them out.) He nodded to everyone who crossed his field of vision. He
stopped in front of a shop to scan the newspaper headlines. People
were respectful to him, and sympathetic. Their solicitude cut Kymbat
like a knife; humiliation by proxy.
He was going to the river, although he might not know that
himself. A kilometer outside the village, the Rio Agrio ran a crooked
course between two hills that suggested lazy comfort. They had
picked out the neighborhood a million years ago and settled in to rest.
People told Kymbat the water was heavy with minerals. It had a cop-

170 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

pery cast, running shallow over a bed of flat stones. She had tasted it
once, scooping a handful on a whim. It was so bitter she spat it out.
She watched John make his way to the edge hoping he would not
wade in and ruin his shoes. His behavior was no longer predictable.
Luckily he did not. He stood on the low bank looking around as if
waiting for someone, so she made her move. She went up behind him
and said without warning, John, what are you doing?
He was startled. His mouth twisted up on one side, a tic developed
to hide his confusion when he failed to understand a question. It was an
attempt to be ironic, but it only underscored his befuddlement. He was
still a good-looking man, and the ghost of authority inhabited him.
Things are not as bad as you imagine, Kymbat.
If this was code, she lacked the key to unlock it. She told him, You
remember Elizabeth is coming.
He bridled. Lately he took offense when something she said or did
seemed to express doubt of his capacity.
Of course I remember. Elizabeth. My daughter. She lives in Lon-
don. She is an attorney. We are all hoping she will marry the fellow,
sooner or later.
The fellow was Elizabeths fianc. They lived together. Who cared,
right now, what his name was? This was a test John administered to
himself, and thankfully he passed. For a moment Kymbats anxiety
went away, and the beauty of the place lent her an odd sense of well-
being. Spain. Low trees of silver green congregated to gossip on the
haunches of dry hills. Black goats chewed at bushes; connoisseurs.
A single vulture, just as black, wheeled across a sky of soft brilliance
whose purpose was to illustrate the virtues of light. She was from
Kazakhstan. She knew hard steppes and harder winters, a cold capital
constructed with oil money at an autocrats whim. It was taking time,
learning to find the natural world a refuge.
Appealing to the gentleman in her husband brought out his best.
May I say something, John, something you might not care to hear?
Just dont ask me the name of the third-longest river in the world.
I used to know, but just this moment I cant bring it back.
More than likely he had known that third rivers name. Before the
accident, his mind was fine. It was supple and stuffed with knowledge.
He was a raconteur whose skill with people meant he never bored
them. He picked up languages the way other people picked up phras-
es. A born diplomat, people always said, a man of congenial abilities.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 171

This problem youve been having, she said.
I mean remembering things.
What about it?
Elizabeth is coming.
Youve said that.
Its just that, if she notices you have a problem, Im afraid she will
put you in an institution somewhere.
An institution . . .
For people with health problems. We would lose our home here in
Rio Agrio.
Thats absurd.
It was not the first time they were navigating this conversation.
Kymbats worries about Elizabeth were well grounded. The woman
was an engine of efficiency, American in the worst way. There was a
ruthless quality to her logic, and the decisions to which it led her were
harder than stones. Dementia.
Of course Elizabeth blamed Kymbat for the break-up of her
fathers marriage, never mind that Jane was pretty much gone from
the scene when Kymbat met him in a Vienna caf. Kymbat was
twenty-four years younger than the diplomat she fell in love with.
She was taller than he andJohn taught her the wordwillowy. Her
sex appeal depended on a kind of bodily hauteur that was beyond her
control. To Western men she was exotic. They wondered where she
was from and were not shy about asking.
In Elizabeths eyes all of that added up to an unforgivable offense.
She must be scheming for his money. Some day at lunch the Kazakh-
stani woman who had tricked her father into marriage would poison
his soup.
John took her arm. We can go now.
In fact Jane had a right to half of Johns pension because they had
been married so long. And John was scrupulous. Marrying Kymbat,
he signed over the survivors rights to his government money to Jane.
Fair is fair, he said. I hope you understand. What he didnt do was tell
Jane he was leaving her the money. His death would surprise her. He
had been doing his best to put aside a little to protect Kymbat when
he was gone. The accident put an end to the plan.
She used the walk home as a practice session, quizzing John on
the questions Elizabeth would put to him. He appeared not to mind.
He took it as a kind of game, and John enjoyed games. When he did
not respond sensibly to a question she rephrased it. Sometimes that
helped. She could only hope that Elizabeth would not show up in
interrogation mode. For Elizabeth, life was a situation, and situations
cried out to be resolved.
Despite her worries, Kymbat enjoyed the walk. Rio Agrio was as

172 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


picturesque as a village could be. The Spaniards seemed to be born

with the knack of dignified movement, imparting consequence to
anything they did. Turning around a truck. Sweeping the walk in
front of a store. Choosing tomatoes, or chasing a football. Poise was
built into all of it. She could be happy here. She could manage Johns
difficulty as long as she had to, if only Elizabeth left them alone.
That night she had an assignation with a stranger. It was excit-
ing. The stranger was her husband. It did not happen oftennot
often enoughbut once in a while he came to bed erect and amorous.
When that happened she had the sense he did not know who she was.
Suddenly he found himself in bed with an attractive younger woman
whose Asian features he never tired of tracing with a curious hand.
Any man would take advantage of such a predicament, any man would
think himself lucky. Kymbat played her part in their illicit rendez-
vous without reservation. It turned her on, and the frenzy of Johns
lovemaking made up for the dry weeks when he came to bed and slept

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 173

with her as bunkmate.
After his climax he rolled away from her mumbling. She asked him
what he was saying.
Foreign ministry, visa problems. Cant let the sons of bitches get
away with it. Reciprocity, right? Otherwise whats the point?
Goodnight, John.
What? Yes, goodnight, my love.

Try as she might, she could not wake him up. It was Elizabeth who had
laid him in the box, damn the woman. A terrible desolation settled on
Kymbat as she sat there in the dark room alongside the coffin. Her tears
were diamonds. Her heart was much too loud. She had lost all memory
of who she was, and where she came from. Cold was only a word. Then
he sat up. Here came the famous Connerly grin as he pulled something
from his pocket. A tiny velvet box. He gestured for her to open it. As
she reached to take the box, the landscape shifted and she understood
how far she still had to go to reach true and total desolation.
The dream unsettled her. John was sleeping soundly. She got out of
bed and went to the window. In the street below, a small Ford truck
what the Spaniards called a camionetawas parked on the blurred pe-
riphery of light from an overhead lamp. Near the truck, at the height
of a mans head, the red tip of a cigarette moved a little. Armando. He
had no business standing in her street, not at that hour or any hour.
She hoped to have enough Spanish soon to tell him why.
In the morning, over a three-minute egg and black coffee, John con-
sented to be drilled again on the things Elizabeth would want to know.
And then, before eleven and before Kymbat was ready, Elizabeth
knocked. She had rented a car at the Madrid airport. Kymbat had been
hoping that Martin, her English boyfriend, would come along. Undi-
luted Elizabeth was like vodka on an empty stomach. No such luck.
Still, her delight at seeing her father was real, and easy, and a nice
thing to be around. Johns pleasure was just as heartfelt although tinc-
tured by worry he would get something wrong. They sat in the front
room. Kymbat brought tea and pastries, and Elizabeth presided. There
was something official about her, casually as she was dressed in slacks
and a sweater. Her long dark hair was a treasure. Her face was a map
of good taste. A perfectionist would find nothing to criticize in her
regular features. She looked like her mother. That could not be helped.
Tell me something about yourself I dont already know, she said
to her father.
His response was perfectly acceptable. What would you like to
Do you get bored, living in a village? After all the embassies, I mean.
The people, the work, the travel. You have lived a terrific life, Dad.
He was wearing reading glasses, the better to appreciate some pic-

174 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

tures from a skiing trip that she had shown him on her telephone. As he
peered over the top of the lenses, perplexed, Kymbats gut clenched.
I remember everything.
It came off sounding playful, and Elizabeth took the statement at
face value. Kymbat told herself she must work harder not to dislike
the girl. She couldnt script the entire visit, she knew that. In fact, the
moment she knew must come arrived as they finished their lunch.
Kymbat carried the dirty dishes on a tray to the kitchen. When she
came back into the dining room, Elizabeths eyes were red and puffy. That night
She looked miserable.
she had an
My father and I are going out for a walk, she told Kymbat, taking
his arm protectively. assignation
Uninvited, Kymbat nodded. The tactical defeat was inevitable.
with a
There would be more such moments when father and daughter chose
to be alone. How could they not? The best Kymbat could hope for stranger. It
was minor damage that she could repair. She cleaned up the kitchen,
was exciting.
made herself coffee, and sat with a Spanish magazine as the spirits of
her parents wrestled over her. Her father had been an unquenchable The stranger
optimist. Her mother never expected anything less than the worst.
was her
They did not consciously make their daughter their battlefield, but
the practical effect was the same as if they had. husband.
Her father, Dosken, worked in the finance ministry. In 1997, the
president moved the capital of the nation north. It was a wrenching 9
transition from lovely Almaty in the south, with its Russian boule-
vards, its parks, its Soviet opera house. Astana, on the steppes, was
supposed to be a bulwark against the Russian aggression that would
surely roll their way again. And Dosken made the best of it. It will be
an adventure, he told his family.
Aijan, Kymbats mother, did not see the move as an adventure. It
was fates contempt. She stayed in Almaty with her sister. Dosken
took Kymbat with him. He pleaded with his wife to join them, and
eventually she did. After a difficult year she left. Eight months later
she was back for ten months. Her comings and goings defined the
disjointed rhythm of their family life. When Dosken died in his late
fifties, Aijan moved back into her sisters, where there was not really
room, and closed the door.
Lacking a home, Kymbat managed. Her father had put aside a
little money for her education. She got a degree in business adminis-
tration. A series of jobs began bringing out organizational skills she
had not known were there. Through the years she gained confidence,
independence, and a point of view neither as buoyant as her fathers
nor as gloomy as her mothers. She visited Aijan dutifully in the spare
room at her aunts house, listening patiently to the ongoing argument
with the husband who was no longer there to hold up his end. The sky,
Aijan never failed to point out, was about to fall.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 175

Her mother, losing her eyesight along with interest in the world
outside her room, gave Kymbat her crimped blessing when she told
her about the job in Istanbul. She would be the executive assistant to
the owner of a construction firm eager to get in on the building boom
in Kazakhstan. And the job went well. She liked Taner, her boss, who
never hit on her or made a big deal of her looks. He turned over the
logistics of his work life to her, and she took charge.
She knew something was up the day he called her into his office and
asked how her Russian was. He was a thin man of fifty with a face in-
capable of masking his empathy. He looked down at the worry beads
in his hand as though wondering how they got there. He went to the
window, where he watched the boat traffic on the Golden Horn, mak-
ing sure not to look at her.
Kymbat told him, Russian is my mother tongue. You know that. I
speak it better than I speak Kazakh.
He nodded. So.
You have the two things I need for a special assignment. Discre-
tion, and good Russian.
The assignment was to act as tour guide for a Russian billionaire
in Istanbul. For reasons Taner did not elaborate, the visit was to be
kept strictly secret. You will call him Mr. Arsenev, which is not his name.
Please do not inquire deeply into his biography. Kymbat was to show him
the sights, answer his questions, chat in Russian about any subject he
This isnt . . . she said to Taner.
Taner was offended. Would I do that to you, Kymbat?
Of course he would not. So she met Mr. Arsenev at nine the fol-
lowing morning. The billionaire traveled with two bodyguards who
looked like criminals, and a girl friend dressed trampishly in Prada
and flaunting her breasts. He was over fifty; the girl could not be
twenty-five. Cruising the splendid city in a Mercedes, the bodyguards
in a car immediately behind, Mr. Arsenev drank vodka at a steady
rate and thought Kymbat ought to, too. Her firm refusal sparked
tension between them that got hotter as the day went on. Galina, the
girl friend, was clearly used to her lovers moods and paid no attention
to anything. At a jewelry store, she consented to the humiliation of
being told to pick out something extravagant, something tasteful, for
Arsenevs wife. The deal was, she could pick out something for herself
just as extravagant.
The day was long and trying. By the time they arrived at the glitter-
ing Dolmabahe Palace, Arsenev was sullen, Galina was bored, and
Kymbat was worried.
Go get the director.
It was no easy thing, summoning the director of a major cultural

176 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

organization on command, but Kymbat had strong people skills and
pulled it off. Her Turkish was solid enough by that point that she was
able to translate comfortably. The director was a fastidious man in
urban black with a purple cravat. He looked more like an artist than a
bureaucrat and came forward smiling. Arsenev shook his hand roughly.
Ask him how much for the Aivazovsky paintings, he ordered
Im sorry?
You heard me.
Aivazovsky, it turned out, was a Russian painter of the nineteenth
century. The billionaire collected marine paintings of the sort
Aivazovsky was known for. The conversation was long, unpleasant,
and unproductive. Arsenev thought Kymbat must be translating
poorly since money was no object and he wanted the paintings in a
bad way. He did not appear to understand what the director meant by
cultural patrimony.
When the politely smiling director continued to say no, and no
again, Arsenev snarled. Never mind. I want to see the paintings.
Of course, said Kymbat, relieved. That much, at least, she could
Not with all these people around, he said. Have the director get
rid of them.
I dont think he will do that.
Another painful conversation followed. It ended when Arsenev
asked how much it would cost to close down the museum for the day
so he could wander at his leisure. The director told him $250,000.
Arsenev cursed him and walked out.
Kymbat followed, but the Russian did not want her in his Mercedes
again. You just made a big mistake, he told her. Galina looked at her
with pity and understanding. She knew what it was to cross the man.
The bodyguards glared at Kymbat as though she had a pistol in her
purse; the slightest move and they would drop her. She turned away
and lost herself in the crowd. When she got back to the office, Taner
had the air of a man whose favorite brother has just died. He slapped
his worry beads against the side of his desk and looked away.
Im sure you did not meant to upset the man.
I translated what he said. I translated what the other man said.
He has a bad temper, and a long memory. He is a powerful child. It
will not be safe for you here.
Fine, Ill go home.
No. He has too many interests in Kazakhstan. Why he has taken
such a dislike to you I cannot say, but there is the fact. I will give you
money. Take a vacation. Be away some months. Please do not inform
me where you choose to go. Better that I not know.
So she went to Vienna. She slept late. Afternoons, she sat at a caf

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 177

reading librettos. In the evenings she attended the opera. She was
lonely. When she called her mother, Aijan complained bitterly about
being forced to relocate to the hostile wilds of Astana. Wolves. There
were wolves on those northern steppes. One afternoon as Kymbat
watched snow fall decorously outside the caf window, John Connerly
walked in. She was taken with his smile. The second time they talked,
he took pains to shoulder blame for the marriage that had gone bad.

At dinner Elizabeth told them she was staying in Rio Agrio. She
did not say how long. By the time they sat at the table to eat she had
recovered her composure, but she was chastened in a way that was
new to Kymbat. Martin was moving out. He might leave the apart-
ment while she was in Spain. Kymbat watched John anxiously. She
could not tell whether he grasped his daughters predicament, but
he certainly felt her distress and was as loving as a father should be.
When she needed a hug, he gave her two. Then a healthy instinct to
protect himself sent him to bed early.
Im awfully tired, he told them.
He sounded confused, as if some sort of explanation were called
for that he could not come up with. He kissed Elizabeth first and then
Kymbat, and climbed the stairs slowly. They listened until they heard
the door to the bedroom close. Elizabeth put aside her unhappiness.
She was ready to solve a problem, if only she could get hold of it.
Whats wrong with my father?
What do you mean?
He seems so forgetful. When I asked him about Roy, he said
something about Pakistan. Roy never served in Pakistan.
Roy was Johns best friend. They had joined the foreign service and
risen through the ranks together. Lately, Kymbat had been helping
John compose answers to the emails Roy sent from Prague.
He gets tired, she said. Thats all. Its been that way since the
Elizabeth sat straight in her chair and snapped at Kymbat, You
should never have let him get behind the wheel.
Kymbat nodded meekly. I know.
John had always been a distracted driver, his attention drawn from
the road by conversation or a passing sight. That night, in Rome, re-
turning from dinner with friends, he had insisted on driving with two
glasses of wine inside him. The accident was not his fault, though. An
Algerian immigrant in a bread truck broadsided them as they entered
a traffic roundabout.
For Kymbat, the memory never dimmed. The shock of the impact,
the sensation of free-fall. The Coliseum as backdrop as the Algerian
wailed, pounding his fists on the ground in frustration because his
new life, a good life, was about to go up in smoke. Kymbat herself was

178 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

only shaken up, but the collision jarred loose a memory of Astana.
She was walking with her father in a snowstorm. The air reeked of
coal smoke, and she was sobbing. Dont cry, her father said, you dont
want your tears to freeze. With an effort she suppressed the memory.
She looked for John. He lay on his back on the pavement. There was
blood. His eyes were closed and she thought he was dead.
Elizabeth asked her, What do the doctors tell him?
Actually, the doctors spoke mainly to Kymbat because John was
indifferent. He found the rounds of tests and consultations one more In bed, later
baffling social ritual to which he was subjected as though he were be-
that night,
ing punished.
The doctors have not been definitive. We go back to Madrid next John asked
month. Ill send you an email. That was a mistake. She corrected it. I
Kymbat to help
mean if your father doesnt.
There was a moment when they could have hated each other. It him. I want
passed. What came was not a truce, it was a recognition. You are his
to understand
daughter. I am his wife. The recognition led Kymbat to realize she must
no longer be passive. Unless she acted, unless she did something posi- her sadness.
tive, Elizabeths force of will would carry John away.
Next morning they breakfasted outside on the back patio, where 9
the October sun was a luxury not to be wasted.
I think we should go hunting this afternoon, Kymbat said.
In the Connerly family language, hunting meant taking pictures.
John was a skilled photographer. He got more pleasure from his
camera than from just about anything she could think of. Dementia,
or whatever was afflicting him, had not affected his ability. Elizabeth
would see him at his very best, taking pictures. That was Kymbats
plan, arrived at over night. A day at a time, she would come up with
ways to make her husband look normal, look good. Eventually, Eliza-
beth would leave them alone and go back to England.
Its a wonderful idea, Elizabeth said, and John beamed. He sensed
tension between the two women, and here was a moment of harmony.
I will shop for a picnic this morning, Kymbat told them.
Shopping in Rio Agrio was not a chore; it was a pleasure. There was
a small supermarket, but if you chose to you could avoid it entirely.
Kymbat liked buying vegetables from one place, bread from another,
meat from a butcher, eggs from a gnarled woman with a patch on one
eye. She got what she wanted and was strolling home with her bounty
in straw bags when Armandos truck pulled up next to her.
He switched off the engine and got out of the truck. Armando
owned a vehicle repair shop on the edge of Rio Agrio. He was her
age, more or less, and had the elegance of body that came naturally to
Spanish men. Although he worked on cars his hands were never dirty.
They moved as he spoke like talented white butterflies. He had been
sending signals for several months. Kymbat had been deflecting them.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 179

Your packages are heavy. Let me give you a ride home.
Kymbats Spanish was still tentative. For some reason he seemed to
like that.
I dont mind walking, she told him, but thank you.
I insist.
He reached for a bag. She pulled it away. For just the wrong instant
they were close to one another as Elizabeth and John came around
the corner. Kymbat was mortified. The only thing to do was act the
truth of her innocence. She introduced Elizabeth to Armando. Every-
one shook hands. Armando was careful not to condescend to John,
although everyone in Rio Agrio knew something was not quite right
about the well dressed American who had bought the fine old house
on Calle Alameda.
Elizabeth spoke good Spanish and said something possibly cutting
to Armando, but Kymbat could not follow it. She turned to Kymbat.
Youre busy. Dad and I will carry the groceries.
No, Kymbat told her. I will take them.
But Elizabeth wanted to make a point, and Kymbat surrendered
her bags.
Well see you at home, Elizabeth said, making it sound as though
she didnt really believe they would.
She piloted her father away. John was maddeningly docile and
looked at Kymbat as at an interesting woman he might like to get to
Im sorry, said Armando when they were gone.
It cant be helped.
I suppose not. Anyway Ive been wanting to say something to you
for a long time.
Please dont.
He shook his head. Its just, if you need something, anything,
dont hesitate to come to me.
It was a perfectly pitched statement, balanced on the thin edge be-
tween civility and a come-on. But Kymbat had no time to fret about
it. She had a picnic to prepare. She thanked Armando. When he was
back in his truck she wished she had had the nerve to tell him to stay
away from Calle Alameda.
The hunting expedition that afternoon turned out better than she
could have hoped. John had made the transition to digital photogra-
phy with enthusiasm, and his memory problem did not affect the way
he handled the camera. As he experimented with settings and com-
posed his shots he was in command of the machine and the moment.
It was heartening to watch. As they wandered in the hills outside of
town, Elizabeth got as much pleasure talking her father through his
pictures as he did taking them. They spread a blanket on the ground
under a tree and ate a late lunch, sharing a bottle of Rioja. Kymbat

180 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


did her dexterous best to steer the conversation away from rocks that
could puncture.
Success. And the easy outing made the evening better than the one
before, although Elizabeth was sad. When she called Martin on her
cell phone, he did not pick up.
He says I havent figured out how to love him properly, and hes
tired of waiting, she told them.
After showering, she had put on pajamas and a robe. They made
her look more vulnerable than she usually did, like a person with a
heart capable of breaking, and Kymbat tried again to like her. In bed,
later that night, John asked her to help him.
Help you how, John? What do you want to do?
I want to understand her sadness.
Kymbat was preoccupied trying to come up with another activity for
the next day that would cast John in the right light. The right light was
normalcy. But she put her worry aside and told him, She thinks she has

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 181

been too critical of Martin. She thinks thats why he is leaving her.
Leaving her?
Yes. Do you remember she said that? Do you remember she cried
and you hugged her when she told you?
No answer.
After a few moments she heard him snoring lightly.
The activity her sleeping mind came up with was more of a gamble
than the photography had been. Back in Rome, when their life togeth-
er was new and perfect, John used to like to cook a Turkish meal for
friends. He had developed a love for the cuisine while assigned to the
American consulate in Istanbul, back when Elizabeth was a little girl.
He invited charming, talkative Italians, along with a scattering of dip-
lomats from other missions. He put on Turkish music and served their
guests a meal the equal of what they would get in a fine restaurant on
the Bosporus. Kymbat wanted to believe that cooking would be like
taking pictures, specific to itself, something that did not require a
story, or mastery of the past, but she wasnt sure.
When he came back from his morning walk through the village
with Elizabeth, Kymbat proposed that he make them a Turkish din-
I can get lamb at the butchers, she said. I saw it the other day. It
looked good.
Me? he said. You want me to cook for you?
He sounded mystified, and Kymbat was sure she had made a mis-
take, but after a moment he said, Barbunya.
Elizabeth said, I love your barbunya, Dad.
Barbunya was beans. The word seemed to open a path for John to
get reacquainted with the man with a flair for Turkish food, the man
who knew his way around a kitchen.
I know where I can get the beans, Kymbat told them.
It took all afternoon to prepare the meal. Elizabeth worked with
her father. Reading a book in the living room, trying not to fidget,
Kymbat eavesdropped on the conversation, which was matter-of-fact.
Lower the heat on that front burner, will you? They prompted each other
to remember the Turkish names for garlic and carrots and the other
ingredients they used to know.
Then, out of nowhere, John said, You remember Allan.
Are you talking about Grandpa?
All those years, I listened and listened and never said anything.
I dont understand, Dad.
He was always so critical of Jean.
Jean was Johns mother. Kymbat knew his parents marriage had
been unhappy, and long-lived. Before the accident he disliked talking
about his childhood.
Once, John told his daughter, Allan told Jean she looked terrible

182 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

in the dress she was wearing. You look like a tart, he said. She had
just put on the dress. It was new, and she was beautiful. When he said
that, she cried. Oh, how my heart ached. I think . . . I think I did not
know how to say to him what I should say.
What is that, Dad?
Let your heart love. Forget the dress. Forget everything. Just love.
Elizabeth was crying quietly. Listening secretly, Kymbat felt her
own eyes tearing up. He had done the one important thing he had to
do for his daughter, the one thing no one else could do.
The Turkish meal was as good as she remembered it being in their
Rome days. Mid-way through, John put down his spoon. He picked
up his wine glass.
Barbunya, he announced.
It was a complete sentence. It said everything that needed saying.

W hatever it was that Elizabeth told Martin on the phone, it was

enough to stop him from moving out. Two days after the Turkish
meal she was on her way back to London. As John carried her suitcase
downstairs for her, she took Kymbat by the forearm. She held on hard.
Hes going to get better, isnt he?
It was the truce Kymbat had been hoping for.
Yes, she said. He will get better.
That afternoon, in the fresh absence of Elizabeth, Kymbat and
John took a walk. November was approaching. The sun was still
Spanish bright, but the chilly air made Kymbat nostalgic for home.
She knew she would never go back to Kazakhstan. In fact she did not
want to. As they approached the Rio Agrio a covey of quail scattered
from the underbrush. The panicked drumming of the birds wings
startled both of them, and they laughed. They stopped for a moment.
Kymbat took Johns arm.
Do you want to go back?
There was real pain in his face as he told her, I cant find Sparky.
Sparky was Johns dog, dead for forty years. Kymbat did not know
what to say. He pointed across the river, where the land sloped upward
toward the eroded peak of a brown hill.
I think hes over there.
Im going to get him.
She understood that he would not be talked out of crossing. They
took off their shoes. They folded their socks into the shoes. The earth
under Kymbats feet was surprisingly warm in the sun. They hesitated
a moment, as if they were each separately remembering what they were
there for.t

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 183

B l a c k Sh e e p D ow n

Use It and Abuse It

3 Corey Pein

F utile wars may inspire worthy books, after staple of MBA programs since 1985.
the fact. Unfortunately the global war on But Extreme Ownership is uniquely de-
terror is both futile and perpetual, leaving pravedbeyond repurposing battlefield tac-
no practical room for experience-chastened tics for the boardroom, it shamelessly mines
hindsight. Much like the mobbed-up sys- a catastrophic war to provide pep talks for
tem of government contracting and lobbying sociopaths. The titular emphasis on own-
kickbacks, the shabby structure of the terror- ership, for example, is an unwitting echo of
war is too large and lucrative to voluntarily Colin Powells counsel to George W. Bush in
mothball. It is not, however, too big to fail. 2002 prior to the Iraq invasion: You break it,
Indeed, the longer the war goes on failing, the you own it. Even as they preach humility and
more money can be made. Behold, then, Ex- responsibility, Willink and Babin refuse to
treme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead own up to the fiasco. In keeping with the false
and Win, by Lieutenant Commanders John pretenses of the invasion, they fudge facts,
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. employing combined situations, condensed
Following several tours in Iraq, Willink timelines, and modified story lines. Thats
and Babin (who is married to Fox News an- leadership for you.
chor Jenna Lee) formed a management con- Extreme Ownership tails the Hollywood
sultancy with clients such as Citibank, Sysco, success of American Sniper, which was based
and Triangle Petroleum Corporation. The on the memoir of late Navy SEAL and serial
books conceit is a brutally simple version of fabulist Chris Kyle, who served with Willink
the U.S. militarys standard recruiting pitch: and Babin in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi. The
battlefield experience (assuming you survive) authors gamely puff up their liberation of
can bring civilian success and satisfaction that pivotal Iraqi city as an unalloyed success
to leaders of teams large and small ... men story and a vindication of the Iraq war. De-
and women ... anyone who aspires to better spite the doubters and naysayers, Ramadi was
themselves. And unlike a PhD in the hu- won, they boast. Ramadi remained a model
manities or a Facebook contact list, military of stability ... for years afterward. Yet as the
service is readily transferable to other spheres ink dried on the authors July 2014 publishing
of corporate endeavor. Combat is reflective contract, Ramadi came under siege by Islam-
of life, only amplified and intensified, assert ic State fighters led by generals once loyal to
the authors. A combat leader can acquire a Saddam Hussein. When the book came out
lifetime of leadership lessons learned in only in October 2015, ISIS had controlled Ramadi
a few deployments. Something like this log- for five months. Why let reality muddle the
ic of analogy informs a long line of battlefield message?
handbooks turned into management sci-
ence, such as Carl von Clausewitzs On War O ne does sympathize with the authors
(favored by Jack Welch) and Sun Tzus The dreary civilian grind as consultants rehashing
Art of War (recommended by Tony Soprano). their hard-won battlefield wisdom to pallid,
Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun has been a craven suits. The enemy is out there, Babin

184 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler [no. 29] ! 185

Extreme Ownership is uniquely depraved
it shamelessly mines a catastrophic war to
provide pep talks for sociopaths.

tells one such suit, and then points out the friendly fireare a recurring theme. Thats
window to the world beyond. The hapless cli- understandable, since the good guys in
ents struggle to maintain productivity after, these stories rarely knew where they were
say, cutting employee pay, and the SEALs re- or whom they were shooting ata notorious
spond with platitudes cribbed from Ultimate shortcoming of the Iraq counterinsurgency
Fighting Championship fighters (simple, not campaign that the authors bluff their way
easy) and Word War II colonels (no bad past, betting on the readers ignorance. The
units, only bad officers). Jocko supplies the night raids hated by Iraqi civilians are re-
best advice: wake up early. called here with glee. We flipped over furni-
This same reliable inanity reflex plagues ture, emptied desks and dresser drawers onto
even their accounts of the wartime traumas the floor, ripped down curtains and pictures
that launched their consulting careers: This from the walls, Willink writes. A SEAL
was not a movie and it certainly was no game; falls through a roof. A SEAL kills some un-
The entire place was crawling with muj; lucky sheep in the line of firemuj sheep,
Were any of us to fall into their hands, we he quips. The SEALs retreat: mission accom-
could expect to be tortured in unspeakable plished. Through sheer force of ego, the au-
ways. (One imagines that the Iraqi prisoners thors transmute patently ugly episodes into
at Abu Ghraib might find ways to speak of it.) upbeat boardroom sermons.
The banality of the advice on offer in Ex- There is much unseemly gloating over the
treme Ownership might be more palatable if high-piled corpses of the evil enemy and
the authors didnt consistently undermine telling contempt for their nameless Iraqi al-
their own points by garlanding them with liessome of the worst combat troops in the
anecdotes demonstrating the polar opposite. world, trained and equipped by you-know-
A section on the value of empowering ju- who. (So much for ownership.) In a chapter
nior leaders, for example, hangs on a story in titled Believeabout, yes, the importance
which a commander resolves a dicey situation of believing in the mission, whether it means
by second-guessing and micromanaging his spreading democracy from the barrel of a
subordinates. gun or maximizing quarterly profitsWil-
The wartime scenes unfold a bit like Zero link acknowledges that the Iraqis sometimes
Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow adapt- proved useful. They could open doors. Where
ing Keystone Kops routines. The books a SEAL breacher might use a sledgehammer
introduction has the SEALs lured into an or explosive charge to open a gate ... Iraqi
ambush and then arresting the wrong man. soldiers knew how the doors and gates were
Later, an Iraqi ally is killed and a U.S. solid- secured and would quietly pop them open by
er fragged in the face by high-caliber rifle hand with little effort. Whoa! Even better,
rounds fired with the utmost precision ... they could tell the bad guys from the good.
from the American side. Narrowly averted Im no expert, but I think I found the
blue-on-blue killingsPentagon jargon for problem.t

186 1 The Baffler [no. 29]

E x h i bi t I 5 Dennis Nechvatal

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 187

Bafflomathy [No. 29]
Daniel Aaron (Daniels Dictionary, throughout) Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of
was the first to receive a PhD from Harvard in Labor Movement. Anna Griva (from Depths,
the History of American Civilization. He was the p. 64) is one of a host of new voices from Greece
founding president of the Library of America. translated inAusterity Measures: New Greek Poetry,
Andrew Bacevich (A Not-So-Golden State, out in January 2016. Mark Jacobs (Bitter River,
p. 122) is writing a military history of Americas p. 170) has published many stories in magazines
War for the Greater Middle East. Ray Bradbury including The Atlantic and Playboy. You can find
(Tomorrows Child, p. 92) (19202012) is the him at Molly McQuade
author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, (Yo Mama, p. 12) is the author of Stealing
and Something Wicked This Way Comes, among Glimpses and An Unsentimental Education, as well
hundreds of other published works. as the editor of By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry.
Tom Carson (Clans of the Cathode, p. 56) Jennifer Nelson (No Knowing, p. 54; The
won the National Magazine Award two times Mantegna Oculus Rift, p. 62) is the author ofAim
for criticism. He is the author of Gilligans Wake at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife, out in November.
and Daisy Buchanans Daughter. Noam Chomsky Karen Olsson (from All the Houses, p. 23) is the
(Three Cheers for George Scialabba, p. 134) is a author of the novels All The Houses and Waterloo.
professor (emeritus) at MIT. He is the author of She lives in Austin. Corey Pein (Use It and Abuse
many books and articles on international affairs It, p. 184) is a writer and reporter who offers free
and social and political issues, including 9-11, and samples at He lives in Brighton,
a longtime participant in activist movements. U.K. Rick Perlstein (Three Cheers for George
Barbara Ehrenreich (Three Cheers for George Scialabba, p. 134) is a contributing editor of The
Scialabba, p. 134) is a contributing editor of The Baffler. Kim Phillips-Fein (The Childrens
Baffler. Lucy Ellmann (Distressed Cut-Offs, Hour, p. 46) is the author of Invisible Hands: The
p. 15) is a broad. Merve Emre (Better Businessmens Crusade Against the New Deal.
Management Through Belles Lettres, p. 162) Andrei Platonov (The Third Son, p. 78)
is a visiting fellow at the American Academy of (18991951) was mercilessly hounded by Soviet
Arts and Sciences and is an assistant professor of authorities; The Third Son is among only a
English literature at McGill University. handful of his works published in his lifetime.
David Ferrys (Something, p. 147) most recent Carter Ratcliff (Tomb of the Unknown
book, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, Celebrity, p. 120; The American Academy on
received the National Book Award in 2012. Mars, p. 169) is a poet and art critic. He recently
Thomas Frank (Twenty-Nothing, p. 10; published his first novel,Tequila Mockingbird.
Three Cheers for George Scialabba, Nikil Saval (Three Cheers for George Scialabba,
p. 134) is founding editor of The Baffler. p. 134) is an editor of n+1. George Scialabba
Amber ALee Frost (No Such Cuck, p. 106) (The Dialectic of Love and Authority, p. 128;
is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is on the Three Cheers for George Scialabba, p. 134) is a
National Political Committee of the Democratic contributing editor of The Baffler and the author
Socialists of America and is a contributor toRosa of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, For the Republic,
Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy. Kathleen Geier and Low Dishonest Decades, out with Pressed
(The Family Plot, p. 30) is a writer and public Wafer this winter. Neda Semnani (Memoirs of
policy researcher. She lives in Chicago. a Revolutionarys Daughter, p. 66) is a freelance
Thomas H. Geoghegan (Monticello, p. 148) writer. Her work has appeared in The Week, Los
is an attorney who specializes in labor and Angeles Review of Books, BuzzFeed, and others.
employment law. He has written six books,among Gene Seymour (Marching in Place, p. 154)
them Which Side Are You On? and Only One Thing writes about movies, music, politics, and other

188 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


distractions. Jacob Silverman (Paterfamilias, Kaput, p. 20) is a

contributing editor of The Baffler. John Summers (Bedtime for Democracy,
p. 6; Three Cheers for George Scialabba, p. 134) is editor in chief of The
Baffler. Natasha Vargas-Cooper (Cradle to Grave, p. 82) is a senior reporter
for Jezebel. She lives in Los Angeles. Keith White (Twenty-Nothing, p. 10)
is cofounder of The Baffler. Eugenia Williamson (Punk Crock, p. 110) is
a contributing editor of The Baffler. Yang Xiaobin (Hard Objects, p. 40;
The Lighthouses, p. 44) is a fellow at Taiwans Academia Sinica. He is a
postmodern theorist and poet whose work has influenced Chinese-language
poets on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Susan Zalkind (Grandfather of
the Selfie, p. 8) is a freelance reporter based in Cambridge, MA.

Canaan Morse, Anna Summers, and Karen Van Dyck.

Graphic Artists
Scott Bakal, Karen Barbour, Melinda Beck, Art Chantry, Joseph Ciardiello,
John Cuneo, Mark Dancey, Henrik Drescher, Michael Duffy, Carl Dunn,
Randall Enos, Grace Fechner, Mark S. Fisher, Stuart Goldenberg,
Marcellus Hall, Lisa Haney, Eric Hanson, Brad Holland, Jordin Isip,
Frances Jetter, Victor Juhasz, Victor Kerlow, Lewis Koch, Amanda Konishi,
Stephen Kroninger, Tim Lane, Martin Mayo, David McLimans, P.S. Mueller,
Dennis Nechvatal, Keith Negley, Ralph Steadman, Katherine Streeter,
Yves Tanguy, and Naomi Vona.
The front cover of this issue of The Baffler was illustrated by Jordin Isip.
The illustration on the back cover was created by David McLimans.
Hoefler Text and Gotham typefaces are employed throughout the pages of The Baffler.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 189

C on t e n t P rov i sion s

Feeling the urge to send us a letter? You are warmly invited to muster every
ounce of your praise or damnationwell take eitherand to send it to us at P.O.
Box 390049, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, or via our website,
Fair warning: we reserve the right to edit and publish your missive.

Do you have the negative capability to contribute to The Baffler? Muckraking,
stem-winding, take-downing, doomsaying, and howling with indescribable pain
are all to be expected and duly consideredso long as they dont lack humor.
Poetry with grace and fiction with personality are most welcome; anything
that sounds like it was born in an academic workshop or writers colony
will be printed out and lit on fire.
All contributions to The Baffler are paid (a little).

Invite Us
So they put you in charge of the speakers budget; now its your turn to invite
some sap who wont make everyone in the office feel dumb. Bradley, the smart
guy in the cubicle down the hall, would love to see Malcolm Gladwell come
in and fire up the sales department with a pep talk. But you think the boss is
more likely to be impressed if you went high and heavya Larry Summers, say,
or a big shot from the Bush administration.
At this point, you feel a pang of courage. Sure, your boss and his boss above
him eat up innovation and vibrancy like candy, but why not, just this once,
take a stand against the petty tyrannies of euphemism and clich? Go ahead,
invite one of our editors or contributors to say all the things you wanted to say
at last weeks Skype meeting. Our bags are packed.

190 1 The Baffler [no. 29]


The Baffler (ISSN 1059-9789 E-ISSN 2164-926X) is independently

published three times a year (March, July, November).
Subscription orders and address changes should be sent to:
The Baffler, P.O. Box 16945, North Hollywood, CA 91615-9745.
Telephone: 818-487-2070. U.S./Canada: 844-523-4680. Fax: 818-487-4550.
An electronic, full-text version of The Baffler is available online at Subscription rates are: Electronic only ~ Individuals $27,
Institutions $78. Canadians add 5% GST. Print and Electronic ~ Individuals
$30, Institutions $87. Canadians add 5% GST.
Outside the U.S. and Canada add $23 for postage and handling.
Single Issues ~ Individuals $12, Institutions $30. Canadians add 5% GST.
Outside the U.S. and Canada add $6 per issue for postage and handling.
Claims for missing issues will be honored free of charge if made within three
months after the publication date of the issue.
Claims may be submitted to
Postmaster, send address changes to:
The Baffler, P.O. Box 16945, North Hollywood, CA 91615-9745.
To request permission to photocopy or otherwise reproduce content from
The Baffler, please visit our Rights & Permissions page at http://thebaffler.
com/permissions/, or contact the Permissions Manager directly
at The Baffler Foundation, P.O. Box 390049 Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
Phone: 617-547-7500.

The Baffler [no. 29] ! 191

Eye-opening and irascible, hopeful but not optimistic,
this collection offers a clear-eyed perspective on post-
recession America and pays readers the ultimate
compliment of being able to think for themselves.
Publishers Weekly

A powerful summation
of the systemic challenges
we face as a nation, and
a welcome reminder that
we need strong, dissenting
voices like The Baffler
more than ever.
Boston Globe

The writers possess a contagious enthusiasm for

showing how todays profiteers have caked so much
lipstick on the pig that you can hardly see its face.
Washington Post


192 1 The Baffler [no. 29]




9 Charitable as a Church! 9