Magazine article Dissent

Winning Hearts, Losing Souls

Magazine article Dissent

Winning Hearts, Losing Souls

Article excerpt

Winning Hearts, Losing Souls WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OP AMERICA by Thomas Frank Metropolitan Books, 2004 288 pp $24

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, Commodify Your Dissent, the 1997 anthology of essays from the first years of Thomas Frank's magazine, the Baffler, changed my life. A few years before, during an extended junior year abroad, I had seen in Russia, in primitive, transparent condition, the workings of a modern capitalism based on violence, a free press paid for by large moneyed concerns, and a political system run by cronyism, the brazen theft and resale of natural resources, and the naked manipulation of public opinion. I became a leftist. But I returned to a campus where student activism was still dominated by identity politics and to classrooms in which my literature professors, arguing in the wake of the canon wars for their very lives, suggested that the classic texts were subversive because they had sent coded sexual messages to . . . my literature professors. The more fashionable among them extended this idea to television commercials.

I discovered Frank and the Baffler just after my graduation. They were based in Chicago, with connections to midwestern indie rock and the university in Hyde Park. They were serious about popular culture in a way my professors were not, and they were furious. On the invention of "alternative" music: "There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling 'mainstream,' and expensive accessories of all kinds." On the sixties: "It has become difficult to understand the countcrcultural idea as anything more than the self-justifying ideology of the new bourgeoisie." On my professors: "For [them], there is no contradiction between replaying the standard critique of capitalist conformity and rcpressiveness and then endorsing its rebel products . . . as the obvious solution." And on the entire older generation that had created the world I now inhabited: "For each of us there came at some point a revelation, a sudden, astonishing realization of the way your world worked, of the purposes of your media, your politics, your academy.... It was the knowledge that the music-and, by extension, the literature, the thoughts-that spoke most earnestly and honestly to our lives were virtually forbidden, barred from the record labels and airwaves choked with sixties-style liberationist pap." Yup. The magazine had a house ad in which a little boy stopped playing with his toys to look up at his father and ask, imploringly, "Daddy, what did you do during the culture war?" The father, reading his newspaper, looks ashamed. The Baffler would not be caught so off guard.

The premise of the first Baffler collection was that, in much the same way as Western liberalism had reinvented itself in the face of the communist challenge, so business had changed in reaction to the sixties: all stances of rebellion were now highly profitable poses. In the 1995 essay, "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," Frank compiled a remarkable list of ad slogans from major commercial brands: "Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules-Burger King." "If You Don't Like The Rules, Change Them-WXRT-FM." "The Rules Have Changed-Dodge." "It separates you from the crowd-Vision Cologne." And: "The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra-Toyota." What all this talk of revolution signaled was that actual revolution, or resistance, or even basic friction-by which the Baffler, which occasionally reprinted poems from the New Masses, meant the old-style 1930s class antagonism wherein workers formed unions to defend their rights-was becoming impossible, squeezed out of existence by its own advertised simulacra. Some time later, David Brooks would make an eerily similar argument in a semi-satirical celebratory vein; for Frank, the cooptation by intelligent ad writers of the centuries-old language of resistance represented a hollowing out of the American heart. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.