U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Baffler No. 20

Last night I received my issue of The Baffler. It promises to piss some people off. Editor-in-chief John Summers sums up the theme of the issue in his introduction, “This Cradle Won’t Rock”: “Baffler 20 brings you a roll call of the inert, sterile, and depraved cultural leavings of our plutocratic age. Welcome to an America that offers up neither bread nor roses, but a thin philanthropic gruel that advertises the baronial status of business, and a luxury-grade higher education that emits a boosterish fog.”

One of the more compelling pieces in the issue is a scathing review essay of several books on Obama by Chris Bray. Included among the “books bashed” is James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, which the author talked about in his keynote at our 2010 conference, and which Summers reviewed for USIH last year (a critical review that Kloppenberg responded to here). Bray holds no punches. A small snippet, where Bray criticizes Kloppenberg for saying, in a new preface, that his argument holds up after three years of an Obama presidency:

“What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is Professor James Kloppenberg of Harvard University saying he must be right because he’s heard from ‘good friends’ of the president’s at Harvard Law School, not to mention from ‘a former head of a European government’ too. Well, there you go. Sounds like the only person who hasn’t confirmed his portrait of the president’s ‘mature, penetrating mind’ is the man himself; no doubt, the professor lies awake at night dreaming of the call.”

The style of the essay, typical of The Baffler, is biting; probably too biting even for me, and I enjoy a good polemic. But it emphasizes what I indeed found problematic about Reading Obama: the president’s education, imaginatively pieced together by Kloppenberg, means very little in evaluating his presidency.