Do the Clothes Make the Man?
Looking like the broker from another planet, Thomas Frank stood on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in a pinstripe suit, a crisp white shirt and gleaming black lace-ups that would have looked just right on the feet of your fathers father at 9 oclock in the morning on the day of a big business meeting circa 1941. He carried a black leather briefcase and sported a haircut that was almost certainly the result of a visit to a very inexpensive, very old-school barber. And in the pocket of his suit jacket, carefully folded, was a gold polyester tie that would later make his transformation into strange, anachronistic faux-emissary from a bygone business world complete.
Frank, 35, is the author of The Conquest of Cool, a study of advertising and the counterculture, and editor of The Baffler, a journal of biting social criticism that has made the case for traditional left-wing concerns (like unions) and taken great joy in mocking the notion that listening to cool music or buying ecologically correct bath unguents from the Body Shop is going to help change the world. In his new book, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, Frank argues that New Economy propagandists have sold people on what he dubs market populism. Implausibly, they have persuaded us that stock markets are a democratic, even revolutionary force dedicated to overthrowing traditional business elites in favor of the little guy.
Along with the scorn he heaps on New Economy propagandists such as George Gilder, Tom Peters and Thomas Friedman, Frank makes a plea for what he thinks of as real populism -- namely, the kind that in the past led workers to form trade unions, strike for better wages, and, more recently, to stage the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. While a lot of other social commentators spent the 1990s celebrating the wonders of multiculturalism and the Internet, Frank kept his eyes on the bottom line. In One Market Under God, he delivers his report on an economy in which CEOs make 475 times as much money as the average blue-collar worker and 1 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. In Franks opinion, weve been conned, bought off with baubles while our rights as workers and citizens have gone down the drain.
Frank may study markets, but he doesnt seem to make money off them. He was standing on the corner of Wilshire and Western because he had just got off the Metro Rail from Long Beach, where he had spent the night at a friends instead of at a hotel, and his suit was purchased for $20 at a thrift store near the Bafflers office in Chicago. The secret to happiness, he told me later as we sat down to lunch, is a low overhead. We were dining at Aras, an Armenian restaurant on Melrose Avenue that is something like a secret to happiness itself, and Frank was very hungry. There had been nothing to eat at his friends house, and the ride from Long Beach had taken two hours.
I let him dig in, watching as he washed down his plate of lamb and rice with several glasses of water and two cups of steaming coffee. The restaurants owner had offered him a choice between American and Armenian coffee, and Frank had plumped for the stuff that comes in the big cups. He is a patriot, even an old-fashioned patriot, he told me, withering criticisms of corporate America aside, and there did indeed seem something remarkably old-fashioned about the man sitting across from me. In his new book, Frank mocks the idea that those rebel start-up dudes with their snowboards and IPO millions are in some way a beneficent force compared to the dreary brokers of yore. And here he was, looking so precisely like a broker of yore it was startling.
I really hope you dont talk about my clothes in any prolonged manner, he said after Id asked to see the label inside his suit jacket, but the clothes made a strong impression. In any case, Frank seemed somewhat preoccupied with them himself. In preparation for the photographer, he went off in search of a mirror to put on his gold polyester tie, and when he came back the effect was like Tom Wolfe dressed by George Will. It was all a joke, but, somehow, it didnt feel like a joke. Here was the most prominent leftist social critic of his generation, and he was dressed, as he said himself, like an investment banker. The point would seem to be precisely the one Frank makes about the pseudo-rebellious, convention-defying rhetoric of the New Economy: Dont judge by appearances.
There was a subtext to Franks stated hope that I not talk about the clothes. The day before, over the phone, Id read him a passage in The New York Times, from a review of his first book. If Thomas Frank were to happen upon a young man with his hair dyed Manic Panic yellow, the reviewer wrote, wearing a 70s-retro Gucci shirt and plain-front khakis from J. Crew and whiling away an afternoon in Starbucks with a copy of Details and a Sony Sports Discman cranked loud enough for a passerby to detect a song by Toad the Wet Sprocket, he would be seized with despair -- though not the kind that might seize the kids father.
The insinuation was that Frank and his cohorts at the Baffler were earnest killjoys, too busy pouring scorn on consumerism to notice that a lot of people out there were having fun. So I put it to Frank: Would he be seized with despair if he came across such a young man, and what did he think of such a statement coming from the Gray Lady herself?
Its pretty remarkable that the Times would print something like that, he said, measuring his words, but, you know, it was the book review. Would I be seized with despair? Of course not. I see this stuff all the time, as you do, and it doesnt make me despair. I think its funny. I dont know, maybe this doesnt come across, but I think the Baffler is kind of an amusing magazine in a lot of ways.
What about the argument that some people have made contra Frank, namely that people who listen to Pearl Jam or shop at the Body Shop because it sounds politically appealing, could, as a result, move on to more serious political action later on?
Yes, and thats why Ralph Nader just won the election! Frank retorted. Of course they could, but the chances are they wont. A far more persuasive way to interpret these things is as an expression of the way business thinks right now. Look, every corporation, everybody manufacturing products now wants to claim that their stuff is green and wont hurt dolphins. They want to reach the consumers who are interested in that. Yeah, I imagine in some respects thats done fine things, but in other respects its just the fake populism Republicans have used for years, extended to the realm of consuming.
Like the Baffler, One Market Under God is also very amusing in places -- a signal achievement given that it is essentially about economics. I said as much to Frank, singling out his preface -- entitled A Deadhead in Davos, a a hilarious send-up of ex--Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlows fiercely cyber-libertarian Internet manifesto, written in Davos, Switzerland -- for special praise.
Well there you go! he said, laughing. You put your finger on it! So I dont think the tone that I take is necessarily despairing. I think there is some kind of humor to it. A Deadhead in Davos just says it all.
How would you describe the Bafflers mission? I asked.
The idea was to be a magazine that emphasized social criticism, cultural criticism, but done in a particularly literary way, Frank replied. The precedent for that was things like the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken stuff. For several issues the magazine focused on the role of hip in our culture, the commodification of dissent, and the way the imagery and language of dissent had become part of the official culture. This is a funny thing to say now, because now you see this in so many places, but at the time we were just about the only ones talking about this. It struck a lot of people as very strange, and still does. When you say I dont think the counterculture was very revolutionary at all, people think thats a curious statement. So for a while that was definitely the guiding theme, and that sort of mutated into being a more general criticism of business culture. I think thats where we stand now, and thats obviously an extremely large field. But again, were just about the only ones doing this. Business culture in a sense is the culture that we all live in, so its something thats of interest to a very wide audience. Its a study of whos winning -- who wins in American society and how they explain their victory.
The victors in American society are very much the subject of One Market Under God, which is filled with their alternately laughable and chilling statements. I am a revolutionary, as you may know, says one John Reed, CEO of Citicorp. Its just not cool to make things anymore, offers management consultant Ron Nicol. Corporations like to refer to themselves as families. Shouldnt it be the other way around? demands an advertisement for Merrill Lynch. Last comes a whole passel of gems from Kevin Kelly of Wired: No one can escape the transforming fire of machines. The Net is our future. The Net is moving irreversibly to include everything of the world. Side with the Net. And finally, Resistance is futile.
One can quibble with Franks vision of the world, as people often do, for its sometimes overly black-and-white view of things, and parts of his new book can be quite repetitive. But no one else has examined our countrys corporate mind-set with such indefatigable zeal and wit in order to show us how the people who drive our economy actually think. That a peasant may become king does not render the kingdom democratic, wrote Woodrow Wilson in 1910, but our contemporary cyber lords dont have time for such quibbles. Frank advises us not to trust them for a second:
. . . the New Economy is a fraud. Tom Friedmans formula One dollar, one vote is not the same thing as universal suffrage, as the complex, hard-won array of rights that most Americans understand as their political heritage. Nor does it mitigate the obscenity of wealth polarization one whit when the richest people ever in history tell us they are listening to us, that theirs are interactive fortunes, or that they have unusual tastes and work particularly hard. Markets may look like democracy, in that we are all involved in their making, but they are fundamentally not democratic. We did not vote for Bill Gates; we didnt all sit down one day and agree that we should only use his operating system and we should pay for it just however much he thinks is right . . . The logic of business is coercion, monopoly, and the destruction of the weak, not choice or service or universal affluence.
Meeting an author is, of course, not the same thing as reading one. I liked Frank a lot, but both in person and on the phone, it was clear to me that he is a specialist who has spent a lot of time thinking about a few major topics but feels uncomfortable when asked to step outside his chosen intellectual domain. In my no doubt incoherent way, I threw a lot of things at him in the interest of opening things up. I asked him about his childhood and upbringing and family; I asked him what he thought about France, whose leading newspaper he has written for and whose government implements many of the policies he advocates here; I asked him if he had noticed that publications edited by Republicans are sometimes more hospitable to opposing viewpoints than leftist ones; I asked him if he had read his fellow Chicagoan, novelist Saul Bellow.
Franks responses were rarely illuminating. He said that he had read half a Bellow novel, but immediately put in that he had serious problems with Bellows friend Allan Bloom, a predictable leftist response. He admired certain things about France but was quick to reassure me that he is first and foremost an American, as if that were ever in doubt. He had not noticed my point about conservative publications, even though he contributes to The Wall Street Journal. And he felt extremely awkward talking about himself beyond offering that his father is an engineer, that he was on his high school debating team, that he grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, and that he has always been interested in history. The past isnt even past, he told me, quoting Faulkner. The past is with you every day.
Well, fair enough, I suppose. Lots of people feel uncomfortable talking about themselves, and no doubt there are plenty of other Chicago novelists Frank has read with great care. (One of the nice things about the Baffler is that, alongside the sociological stuff, it also prints good fiction and poetry.) Still, I felt a little disappointed. Its more fun when intellectuals mix it up a bit -- in the spirit of Norman Mailer, say, who called himself a Left Conservative when he ran for mayor of New York, made fabulous speeches, got drunk, proposed that the East Village be turned over to acid freaks, and lost. But perhaps Mailers not the best example.
It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances, wrote Oscar Wilde. Sitting across from Frank at the restaurant, I saw a formally dressed, bespectacled young man who in many ways seems quite conservative but who is intent on viewing absolutely everything from a leftist viewpoint. So far, Frank has managed to leaven his sometimes doctrinaire writing with a satirical overlay that crosses political boundaries and has the great distinction of being definite about things in an indefinite time. But a bit more flexibility would be nice.
After lunch, I drove Frank to the KPFK radio station in North Hollywood, where he was interviewed about his book by Marc Cooper. Hes just so wonderful! exclaimed a KPFK worker who apparently had not known of him before. Several hours later, he gave a reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, before an impressively large crowd. Frank was nervous, and drank a lot of water -- It just tastes so good! he joked, advertising-style -- but he was definitely a hit. There were lots of questions, and there would have been more but he had to leave for the airport. This time, someone from KPFK was giving him a ride.
When I got home, I told my wife, who reads the Baffler, that Frank had been dressed in an incredibly formal-looking pinstripe suit. Oh, he probably got it in a thrift store, she said.
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