Critical thinker John Summers, editor of The Baffler, has never been afraid to speak his mind. (Aditi Mehta)
In May 2012, one month after the release of the first issue of his tenure as editor of The Baffler, John Summers sat in a bar in Cambridge, MA, and counted off all the ways he was unfit for the job. “I don’t have a cellphone or a Facebook account. I’ve never sent a text message. I don’t use Twitter,” he said. “I’m not a journalist. I’m not an academic. I’m not a professional writer. I’m not a professional editor. What I am is otherwise unemployed. Superfluous. That’s what I am.”
It’s a résumé that would disqualify Summers from working at most magazines. But most magazines aren’t The Baffler, which could be described as the country’s foremost journal of superfluous opinion. Throughout its 25-year history, The Baffler has trafficked in the sorts of unprofitable ideas that directly challenge prevailing free-market, technocratic ideologies, ideas that might sound naïve or irrelevant to America’s decision-makers and thought leaders. While many in the media swoon over silicon promises and the inexorable march of organizational progress, The Baffler delights in articulating all the ways in which modern life is bad, and getting worse.
Founded by Keith White and Thomas Frank in 1988, The Baffler published 18 little-read, well-loved issues in 22 years before sputtering out in 2010, apparently for good. But it relaunched in May 2011 in the midst of a worldwide recession, Washington gridlock, and a bubbling current of political disaffection that birthed the Tea Party and Occupy movements. The new editor, Summers, was an independent historian who, at the time, was perhaps best known for a bridge-burning essay castigating his students at Harvard as incurious careerists who think they are owed special treatment and good fortune. “I never even wrote for [The Baffler],” Summers says. “I did write one piece, but it was killed.”
Despite his inexperience—or perhaps because of it—Summers has made his mark. He has professionalized The Baffler and its operations in new ways. He has put the journal on a regular production schedule, expanded its staff, and proved a surprisingly diligent fundraiser. He has made The Baffler—which features fiction, poetry, and striking graphics along with its articles—more beautiful, more timely, and more relevant than ever.
And he has done all this while maintaining The Baffler’s reputation as a magazine of ideas that actually merits the term. “We want the most destructive possible criticism with the highest possible literary standards,” Summers said last year, and he has delivered four perfervid issues taking on such generally revered subjects as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, This American Life, the Pew Charitable Trusts, tech-publisher Tim O’Reilly, Kickstarter, Harvard University, the MIT Media Lab, and The Atlantic, which writer Maureen Tkacik described as “a turgid mouthpiece for the plutocracy, a repository of shallow, lazy spin, and regular host of discussion forums during which nothing is discussed. It is, in every formal trait, a CIA front.”
You don’t have to agree with these opinions to admire the fearlessness and vehemence with which they are expressed. Over the course of their tenure, Summers and company have made a point of systematically dissecting those institutions and thinkers deemed important by the American managerial class, regardless of what this might mean for future keynote invitations, networking opportunities, and job prospects. “The consensus has all been wrong. The country is dying at the top,” says Summers, citing an argument advanced by his longtime friend and current colleague Chris Lehmann. “There’s never been a better time to be outside the consensus.”
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