Winning Hearts, Losing Souls

Winning Hearts, Losing Souls

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

What’s the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won
The Heart of 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 countercultural 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 repressiveness 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 collect...