“Being a rebel in terms of the products you buy and the soda pop you drink is just being a pawn in the machine,” says a young Thomas Frank in a 1993 video interview about The Baffler Magazine, a punk literary journal founded by Frank and Keith White in 1988.
“So, is there any hope for us then?” replies an off-camera voice.
“Yes! And here it is, here it is,” says Frank, holding up The Baffler’s fourth issue, “Twenty-nothing,” a 134-page volume that included The Baffler piece that exposed the New York Times Style section’s “Lexicon of Grunge” as a hoax. “Read the magazine. Look, I’m telling you, The Baffler is not the only hope, but it’s an example.”
Thirty years later, The Baffler continues to be a much-needed dissenting voice that challenges the daily onslaught of hot takes populating the media landscape with in-depth, analytical cultural and political criticism. Currently under the editorial direction of Chris Lehmann, a long-time Baffler contributor, the magazine has increased its print production to six issues per year, as its reach grows (even “comrade” Jeb Bush — or someone from his social team — has taken notice).
To celebrate three decades of survival, The Baffler hosted a birthday bash last month at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere — a memorable evening that included musical performances from Deerhoof, Palberta and Maneka, a soft rendition of “Happy Birthday” from Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and stacks of free copies of the magazine’s current issue, “Mind Cures.”
A few days before the party, we caught up with Frank and Lehmann by phone to chat about the magazine’s past, present and future as it teeters into its 30s. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
ALL ARTS: Happy Birthday! I thought I’d just start off by asking, at this point of reflection, how the magazine has changed and how is it operating in this weirdo world that we’re all in?
Thomas Frank: What can I say? It’s stayed pretty true to the original mission, in my view. It’s kind of impressive, really, that it hasn’t swerved all that much.
Chris Lehmann: Yeah, actually that’s a very good point. I think it’s very easy to look at other publications grappling with the dramatic changes in political life, and see there is a quasi-Pavlovian quality to political journalism, where you go back, I shouldn’t name names, but certain august political weeklies back in the day would kind of say, “Hey you know Bill Clinton has discovered neo-liberalism, and it’s really cool boys and girls.”
TF: Oh my God. That’s a place where we could just chortle all the way to, well, I don’t know where we would chortle to.
I mean, we were making fun of that when it was fresh and new. We were making fun of centrism when nobody was.
So, I went back and was looking at some of the early issues, and what strikes me is not how much the magazine has changed, but how much the world around it has changed. That the kind of things that we were saying back then, now lots of people are saying them.
It was such a strange time. We were really all alone in trying to hold new economy capitalism up to questioning of some kind. There were very few other people doing that. And today, everyone is doing that.
CL: Everyone is doing it now.
TF: That’s a great thing. I mean, that really makes me smile. When we started out, we were really all alone.
There was this sense of, you know, being really isolated from the currents of the world around us, where everybody was celebrating. It was the ’90s. And everybody was celebrating this amazing bull market and this new economy and this awesome president we had who “got it.” You remember that expression from those days? The people who just didn’t get it? That was us!
We were the ones who just didn’t get it, and we were right! And we were so scornful about that whole thing, and then it all blew up. I remember gloating quite a bit when the bubble burst in like the year 2000. And thinking how smart we were then, but oh, my God, it’s gotten so much worse. [Laughs]
CL: Tom wrote a great essay several issues back about the condition of the American university as basically means of gouging the middle class. And the weird thing is that our critique hasn’t changed, and the targets keep evolving in sick grotesque new ways that we have to keep attacking. I don’t think either of us in the late ’90s would have thought to ourselves, “Oh, the American university is going to be the source of the next great asset bubble and will radicalize a whole generation of people with worthless diplomas.”
TF: Yeah, that was beyond what we could have imagined.
[You] should know, a whole lot of us were graduate students. A lot of the people that wrote for The Baffler in the early days, that’s where they came from. A lot of disgruntled graduate students.
AA: Can you guys tell me in your own words what the magazine’s mission is about?
CL: The informal slogan is: “The Journal That Blunts the Cutting Edge,” and what that refers to, again, Tom can answer that.
TF: I dreamed that up and put it on the cover of issue number one. And what did I mean by it? At the time it was a statement about, as well as the title was, the sort of academic pseudo-radicalism that was everywhere. One of the themes of the magazine since day one has been the sort of cohabitation of fake radicalism with extreme capitalism. You know, we’ve been on this tear politically to the right for 30, 40 years in this country. And while all of that has been happening, you’ve got all these people proclaiming their great radicalism. I mean wave after wave, generation after generation of this stuff. And that sort of funny little cultural contradiction is one that we’ve been writing about since the very beginning. And that’s what we meant by that.
CL: Yeah, and that’s why I often think, privately to myself, it’s strange having known you all this time, Tom, and when I first met you, you were this guy in Chicago who made fun of indie rock.
TF: No, no. I was into indie rock. I made fun of mainstream rock.
CL: Yeah, yeah, the appropriation of rock-n-roll.
TF: [Laughs] Yeah, they called it alternative. I’m sorry. I still have to laugh about that.
CL: No, it’s hilarious. And what’s also funny, especially when you had your column at The Wall Street Journal, and I would just think, “I still can’t believe I’m reading Tom Frank in The Wall Street Journal.” That is a sign of how The Baffler critique had and continues to gain relevance and traction in the wider debate. Because it is true. You see it everywhere, I think, that the kind of stalwart institutions of consensus are collapsing.
CL: The issue of The Baffler we’re working on now to be published right around election day is devoted to the theme of populism and its many deformations and also why neo-liberals continue to misunderstand what’s happening. There are all these books out right now by guys like Yascha Mounk, who Tom has written about recently, that fundamentally just refuse to understand what populism is. They think it’s a sort of retrograde tyranny of the majority that happens when, you know, people get…
TF: They think it’s demagoguery.
CL: Yeah, exactly.
TF: It’s what you and I would call demagoguery, they call populism.
TF: By the way, this is something that, Chris, probably you probably don’t know, that one of the inspirations for the magazine in the early days was this kind of populist literature from the 1890s, which, this is so totally weird, I was reading a lot of this — you had to read it on microfilm. I spent a lot of time in the library reading.
CL: [Laughs] It’s funny — you and I had exactly the same experience. I read the National Economist, a populist party organ.
TF: Yeah, so you’ve read that?
CL: Yeah, on microfilm in graduate school.
TF: Wow. [Laughs]
CL: I think that’s the reason we were bound to collaborate one day. [Laughs]
TF: And there is a strong flavor of that running through the magazine since day one. Of this kind of traditional American style populism — mistrust for monopoly, suspicion of monopoly, corporate power, etc., etc., fondness for labor. It goes right back to the beginning, and this is, obviously, a strong if not the dominant theme in the Democratic Party up until quite recently here, when it was displaced by Clinton and company.
CL: Right. And the neo-liberal project has always been about dismantling the supports for populism. Of going after labor, going after any critique of inequality. One reason, I think, that we staked out a critique of right-wing populism early on is that left-wing populism has always been really important to us.
TF: And it’s also that we noticed it in a way that other people did not. We noticed how strange it was.
AA: I want to go back to something you said about indie rock, because I want to talk about this anniversary that you guys are having. What’s the through line?
TF: I used to be very serious about music. We thought it was really important. It’s almost hard to understand now how important we thought it was.
We were really attached to the whole world of independent production in the 1980s. That’s really what we came out of. People had their own record labels. People would start their own bands. The idea was that you could — now, I don’t want to repeat clichés here — but the idea was that the most authentic kind of music was stuff that was basically produced in a garage somewhere. And I certainly agreed with that. And that’s how we imagined the magazine. We imagined it as a part of that movement. And that movement, in the world of music, got swallowed up in the early 1990s after the Nirvana record “Nevermind” came out, and all of a sudden the music industry was totally on the prowl for everybody that had anything to do with the punk rock ’80s. And that’s where a lot of that anger came from — watching this happen. You were watching this subculture that was really, really, really meaningful to us get destroyed by money.
And so by the mid-1990s I decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. But there were so many amazing angles to it.
CL: And it’s interesting, again, this goes back to an earlier point, that our targets continue to be the same, but they become more hideous and grotesque. Back in the early ’90s we did this celebrated essay on the music industry by Steve Albini — who was one of these indie rock entrepreneurs — sort of spelling out in brute economic terms how the record industry exists to bleed artists dry. And it was called “The Problem with Music.”
So fast forward to 2016. We had a great piece by Liz Pelly on Spotify, which we called “The Problem with Muzak,” which is the idea of playlists as the ultra-individualized consumer experience and how now Spotify markets playlists explicitly with the idea of making workers more productive. Again, it’s this hideous strip-mining of something that for, I think, generations of Baffler readers now, is incredibly important, and that’s why we felt doing the 30th anniversary party — even though, honestly, I’m too old; I don’t keep up with indie rock the way I used to either — that it’s really important to bring in indie rock bands that exemplify the kind of stalwart Baffler spirit. And so that’s how the idea of this celebration in Brooklyn took place.
AA: And talking about the present a little bit more, you guys recently amped up your print production, right?
CL: Yeah, we publish every other month, which is kind of crazy. There are some lost years in The Baffler annals, but now we’re on a much more frequent print schedule. We kind of felt precisely because of the dire character of public life in the Trump age, these aren’t the times to be a quarterly. We wanted to make The Baffler a more frequent voice out there.
AA: And what is the utility in having a print magazine right now?
CL: I would argue the utility is greater right now because the internet obviously abounds with, pardon the expression, but dumb-shit fast-takes everywhere. And another thing that The Baffler is about is doing serious, longer essays that you have to sit down with and think about, and the way to do that is in print.
I would say I feel as passionately about independent print journalism as I did about indie rock back in the day. It’s a very important political and cultural tradition.
TF: I should say that the value of print, there are two things. One is that there’s a continuity with the past. So, if you look at the issues that we did in the ’90s, they were deliberately laid out and designed in such a way as to put you in mind of a certain magazine from the 1920s, The American Mercury.
And then there’s that it’s part of a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, and it’s part of the conversation that is going to continue on into the future. That’s what paper is. It’s forever. It’s going to be in libraries for a really long time.
CL: That’s absolutely true. And I remember back when I was freelancing promiscuously on the internet, I would never print out stuff that I wrote.
TF: And go try to find it now. [Laughs]
CL: Yeah. I have an entire body of work at suck dot com and at feed dot com that is completely inaccessible to me or anyone. I learned that lesson.
AA: What do you hope for the future in this Dark Age?
CL: Well, that was the name of another Baffler. Number 6.
TF: That was a famous example of us always looking on the dark side when everybody was saying we’re entering a new economy, and it’s a time of perfect information. Remember they used to say this in those days? And we said, “No, this is a time of monopoly.” And what’s crazy now is looking back at that essay, obviously a lot of the particulars, a lot of the predictions are… there’s no way we could have seen how the world would unfold, but the basic prediction about the power of monopoly, that has turned out to be totally true. And Dark Age? Yeah, look at where we are.
CL: All that said, I think it is incredibly heartening to me that The Baffler still exists and that it has a robustly growing readership. I think it’s very hopeful that there is a sort of movement toward democratic socialism that is a genuine popular political movement, not sort of the province of cranks or the political fringe or whatever. I just saw a poll today saying that 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for all. The problem is neither major party supports that. So you have to keep forcing these issues and saying, “Look, you know, the reason why things are so desperately bad and why there’s stagnant wages and inequality is that social goods have been promiscuously privatized to enrich the 1 percent.”
I remember writing an essay for The Baffler on wealth inequality and looking at contemporary statistics, and it wasn’t even part of what people talked about. To the extent they talked about it, they just said, “Oh, it’s the churn of creative destruction. That of course some people are going to be more wealthy and more poor, but today’s poor will be wealthy tomorrow.” It’s total bullshit.
TF: As we all know now.
CL: Yeah, as we all know now. But that’s one thing that makes me hopeful. That a younger version of me that would be making that argument today would have a vast storehouse of research and political arguments to draw on.
So, one should always remember — this is another thing The Baffler always tries to point out — is that history is not inevitable. It is susceptible to human agency, random events that overtake it, collapses, crashes, horrible things, but also possibilities that earlier generations didn’t think existed.
So, you know, I’m very, very gloomy about the present day. Both Tom and I are, largely because we both live in Washington. But at the same time, I would never be so pompous as to say the arc of history bends toward justice, but the arc of history does bend. And there is a capacity for movement and change within that dynamic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.