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Bonfire of the Inanities: The essayists in 'Boob Jubilee' reach back to H.L. Mencken for the rancor necessary for exposing the pitfalls of the new economy.

The Roaring '90s

A new anthology from 'The Baffler' magazine--'Boob Jubilee'--dissects the failed economics of the decade that sucked

By Richard von Busack

X-PUNDITS, assemble! Wolverinestate Man (Michael Moore), Nightclubcrawler (Al Franken) and Prairie Fire (Jim Hightower)! There on the left flank, the X-Pundits stand, an indomitable fighting force poised against the sentinels of the dark Lord Ashcroft--a picture only Jack Kirby could illuminate.

For those seeking a more sophisticated political discourse, something's missing. Yes, there's a war on, a counterinsurgency rising against the forces of the Coulters and O'Reillys. Yet someone who lives for fine prose may feel their rah-rahing skills weakening. How can I put it, except to put it: Congratulations on reaching out to the common man, but sloppy pop-political bestseller writing leaves me a little cold.

Enter The Baffler, an elegantly written quarterly that is as proudly left-wing as Studs Terkel himself, who wrote a glowing intro for Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, a collection of 32 essays from the magazine.

The collection surveys the 1990s, what one overenthusiastic New York Times hack described as "The End of History." That idiotically optimistic '90s landscape is not quite forgotten yet. Not too long ago, print publications and websites were sodden with in-flight-magazine-style paeans to Silicon Valley executive wisdom ("plutography," to use a word coined by Tom Wolfe). Or, as The Baffler's editors, Thomas Frank and David Mulcahey (with co-credited writers Greg Lane and Emily Vogt), put it in the opening essay from the anthology, "This Car Climbed Mount NASDAQ":

The pundits told us that a new, frictionless form of toil was supplanting the old, that labor unions and even industry itself were obsolete in a nonexploitative "knowledge economy." We decided to investigate the actual mechanics of work. They told us that inconceivable opportunities awaited the faithful--the entrepreneur, the investor. We pointed out that it was the already-rich who benefited most from the spread of the stock-market religion. They insisted that the libertarianism so fashionable in the '90s was a bold breakthrough, a new politics opening onto a glorious future. We traced its origins to some of the ugliest chapters in recent political history.

In reference to Arthur Koestler's exposé of Communism, The God That Failed, Franks and The Baffler refer to faith in an all-conquering, unregulated market as "The God that Sucked."

The Baffler is based in Chicago, a city that suffered a wicked case of the laissez-faire flu about a hundred years back. It is a magazine influenced by the H.L. Mencken-edited American Mercury. Mencken was a foe of the gullible, Babbitty, hucksterist, dollar-worshipping American of the 1920s. The boob, Mencken named him. Unlike the sometimes ultraright Mencken, the writers at The Baffler are mostly proud neo-New Dealists, embracing the old-school FDR platform of taxes, social services and labor union recognition.

"Us Against Them in the Me Decade," by Christian Parenti, describes forgotten days of American labor strife: the 1970s, when wildcat strikers and the National Guard faced each other down. In 1979, then-Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker increased the interest rate to an unheard-of 16.4 percent. Parenti writes: "The plan was simple: Punish uppity American workers with a 'cold-bath' recession, and they would learn to work harder for less."

In the years since, lost wages and lost jobs have been hidden behind a fog of accusations, mostly about how the working class has failed capital's hopes. The pundits administered anesthesia while big box stores and agribusiness tore the heart out of our Heartland. We know how the song goes: Poor moral fiber. Welfare cheaters and single parents are responsible for decaying schools and our laughingstock of a health system. Everything from godlessness to gangster rap is leading youth into the sewer. Meanwhile, a class of elitist journalists and tenured radical professors are exaggerating the United States' troubles. (In "The Eyes of Spiro Are Upon You," Chris Lehmann traces this popular mythos back to the messenger-shooting sprees of Vice President Spiro Agnew and his powder monkey Patrick Buchanan.)

But The Baffler took no comfort in the sideshow of the Cultural War, of "boob vs. boho," of the supposedly cutting- edge forms of what Frank has referred to as "commodified dissent" in fashion, music and cinema.

The Baffler is particularly juicy on the subject of party animals. They skewer the wealthy awfulness of the Hamptons' snootiest watering holes ("Give the Millionaire a Drink," by Mike Newirth), observe carousing middle-management Republicans getting down with their faux-Irish selves in the ersatz Gaelic pub franchise Fado (in Jim Arndorfer's essay "McSploitation"). They finish the tour among Alternatown's Starbucks scribblers ("Zoned Bohemian," by Newirth). Newirth charts the takeover of a Chicago neighborhood first by would-be young rebels, then by the gentry: "locusts with credit cards," as one frequently displaced artist pal has described it.

The Baffler is as harrowing as Parenti's nightmare-inducing report of the California gulag at Pelican Bay. It's also as bemusing as Bryan Urstadt's story of the self-inflicted shame of a journalist on a junket.

"I, Faker," by Paul Maliszewski, describes his career as a deliberate fabulist in the realm of business magazines. Maliszewski disdains the fibs of his co-liar Stephen Glass, subject of Shattered Glass: "[Glass] only made the conventionally wise seem that much wiser." Our less well-known Pinocchio cooked up a management-training piece published in The Business Journal of Central New York under the name "T. Michael Bodine," on Nov. 10, 1997. Titled "Don't Get Caught Being a Weak Manager," it was woven from a School of the Americas torture manual.

Mark Dancey, regular illustrator for that king of zines Motorbooty, did the Disney/Bosch cover. It's a populist cartoon to charm the X-Pundit fancier: an illumination of the '90s as a dark carnival of pies in the sky, deflating balloons, execs sucking at the teats of a cigar-smoking hog checking the Dow Jones. Despite the frequently comic tone, this is a magazine that had bad news to deliver. And the bad news it delivered seems to have been much more prescient than the outmoded hopes that B2B, fiber optics and biotech were going to put us all back to work.

Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, edited by Thomas Frank and Dave Mulcahey; 404 pages; W.W. Norton; $15.95 paperback.

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From the December 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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