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The Baffler, No. 18: Margin Call

de Thomas Frank (Editor)

Séries: The Baffler (No. 18)

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from The Un-usable Past by Walter Benn Michaels:

"With respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism has been something of a disaster. The past 25 years have been a sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have indeed been committed to nothing more than historical caretaking. It's no accident that Toni Morrison's Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times or that prominent also-rans included Blood Meridian, Underworld and The Plot Against America. Even younger writers like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead have rushed to take up the burden of the past.

Of course, [Francis:] Fukuyama thought that we'd enjoy flattering ourselves by hearing about the great triumphs of our history. And the extraordinary (and otherwise inexplicable) popularity of admiring biographies of the Founding Fathers suggests he wasn't entirely wrong. But what our novelists have realized is that accounts of the truly horrible things done by and to our ancestors are even more flattering--what we readers really like is to disapprove of other people's bad behavior. In other words, the denunciation of crimes we haven't committed is even more gratifying than the celebration of virtues we don't have.

Thus, even though books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans are sad almost by definition, it's also true that the logic that produces them and makes them so attractive is profoundly optimistic. Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering inequities of slave labor (a characteristic injustice of the past) doesn't involve trying to overcome the burgeoning inequities of free labor (a characteristic injustice of the present). It doesn't involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and when A Mercy reminds us again), we're being told that what ails us is lingering racism--not out of control capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we're being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we're not there yet.


Increasing inequality is simply not something that American culture, even liberal culture, has had much to say about. Instead, the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad say, the Holocaust was. And as our cultural and economic elites have separated themselves from everyone else, and as the Holocaust has begun to show signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Philip Roth and Michael Chabon have boldly moved beyond condemning bad things that happened in the past to condemning bad things that didn't happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the US and the exile of a whole society of Easter European Jews to Alaska.

In the real world, meanwhile, things have finally gotten so bad that even the relatively rich have begun to feel the pain. Harvard's endowment is now only about six times what it was in 1987, not 10 times as much. And disapproval of Holocausts is getting some serious competition from fear of poverty. Which is what the vast majority--the victims of the boom--have been worrying about all along. So maybe it's time for us to forget about Nazi bad guys and focus on the free market instead; to stop congratulating ourselves for being against genocide and start asking what it means to be for free trade... ( )
  pessoanongrata | Mar 30, 2013 |
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The Baffler (No. 18)
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