The Baffler

We opened Magalleria to offer something different. Different magazines of course, but effectively different information, different tastes, different opinions and so on. The Baffler is a left-leaning US journal of cultural and political analysis that ought to be better known here. As we seemingly lurch into an age of fear – or right wing populism as the magazine itself would put it – The Baffler is providing some interesting angles. 

I decided to write about The Baffler after spotting Thomas Frank’s article about curating in the latest issue (No 34). Frank is a writer and commentator who founded the magazine back in 1988. His reputation is burgeoning today on the back of a series of prescient articles on the complacency of US liberalism and its abandonment of the working classes. This is well before Trump’s ascendancy and even before Brexit (and now crystallised in his bestselling book, Listen, Liberal). I’m also very interested in how it has come to pass that we’re all curators now. I must raise a guilty hand – our own literature refers to ‘curating’ our magazine range.

‘Donald Trump does not reform or organise the chaos of the world; he is the chaos of the world.’ 

But I’m not going to give away too much about ‘The Revolution will not be curated’ because it’s best read unprimed. Given the authorship of the piece the insights are political and cultural rather than psychological. Frank reminds us that Facebook’s dismissal of its news curators in 2015 (after accusations of an anti-conservative bias) coincided with the emergence and proliferation of fake news. He believes that Democrats are drawn to curating everything from political agreements to social media proclamations. Republicans are not, or at least much less so, with Trump the epitome of anti-curating: ‘Donald Trump does not reform or organise the chaos of the world; he is the chaos of the world’ (although in a footnote Frank quotes a report that Trump fired campaign staffers in April 2016 because ‘he decided he needed to curate his brand big time’). Ultimately Thomas Frank is asking us if we want to live in an expertly curated world because, whatever the benefits, there is a troubling payoff. It’s right in front of us, but you’ll want to read this article for the tip.

The Baffler works a little like Delayed Gratification in the sense they’re still snooping around the issues after everyone else has pulled up the tent and moved on. Take Sam Kriss’s very accessible musing on pollsters: ‘Psephology in Free Fall, Or why the polls tell you nothing you actually need to know’. Psephology refers to the science of elections, but for all its ‘scientific’ trappings, says Kriss, polls are not taken for what they are: ‘a report on what a small number of people, fond of changing their minds, briefly pretended to think’. Yet, Kriss goes on, politicians ‘adjust their policies, their messaging, even their personal appearance based on what the polls tell them the people want.’ After the political upsets of 2015 in Britain (not to mention Israel and Colombia) there was some damning of opinion polls, but we’d parked thinking about poll-driven political certainties until Trump’s win. This piece is an evisceration that doesn’t offer any strategies, but it is an insightful and in places very funny thought piece about the dangers and stupidity of current methodologies. Returning to Psephology, one of the inventors of the term later said he wished he’d never launched the word. ‘It implies there is some occult expertise about the subject’.

Economists, too, are skewered in this issue (as are cyber experts and forensic scientists). Dean Baker’s article ‘The Wrongest Profession’ lambasts them for consistently falling to call the numbers correctly. ‘They’ve been spreading nonsense to push bad economic policies for decades’. He has the likes of Tim Geithner (United States Secretary of the Treasury under Obama) and the current Speaker Paul Ryan in his sights. The constant talk of fiscal prudence and tackling trillions of dollars of national debt from these ‘deficit hawks’ is, according to Baker, scaremongering that actually conveys little actual information. 

This is typical fare from the magazine. Like most commentary in The Baffler the writing is very accessible. I could learn more from a specialist magazine but I don’t have a head for the technical stuff – I want an armchair ride with a little but of entertainment along the way. Each issue also carries short fiction and poetry, plus illustrated content.

It’s a dense magazine packing a great deal into its 184 pages. I’d like to have highlighted much more, including Carey Dunne’s unsettling piece on the last century’s very weird Mensendierck posture cult, but I’ll finish on an extract from the satirical New Certificates of Expertise series running through the magazine. With an eye clearly on TED, it describes Conference Speakers as ‘knowledge workers with expertise in stringing together disconnected anecdotes and bits of data into main-stage presentations that build into relatable profundity…’

By

Daniel McCabe

April 17, 2017

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