Unconventional wisdom

John Summers was wrong for most magazines; that made him perfect for The Baffler
July 1, 2013

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.”

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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.”

* * *

Summers, 42, is tall and soft-spoken, with a sharp mind and a solemn academic countenance. He comes across as an extraordinarily sincere person: angry but never cynical, disdainful but never sarcastic. Occasionally, his sentences require footnotes. He will laugh at himself, at the circumstances that brought him here, and at the happy thought that somebody might become very annoyed by something he published. But about his ideas he is quite serious. He carries himself with the quiet intensity of a man who, now that he knows people are listening to him, wants to make sure he has something to say.

Summers would have made a great professor, if academia would have had him. He earned a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Rochester in 2006, writing his dissertation on C. Wright Mills, the sociologist best known for his book The Power Elite, a taxonomy and critique of the “overlapping cliques” that ruled American life. Both before and after he got his degree, Summers spent years as a poorly paid adjunct instructor and visiting scholar at various prominent universities, teaching classes, writing essays, swallowing the unpalatable in hopes that it would lead to a tenure-track position. It did not. “At a certain point, I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m not getting a job anyway, so why should I suppress myself?’ ”

In 2008, after a multi-year stint as a tutor and then lecturer at Harvard, Summers wrote a kiss-off essay for the Times Literary Supplement criticizing his former students at Harvard as entitled plutocrats-in-waiting:

Most of the students I encountered had already embraced the perspectives of the rich, the powerful and the unalienated, and they seemed to have done so with appalling ease. In keeping with the tradition of the American rich they worked exceptionally long hours, they were aggressive in exercising their talents, and on the ideological features of market capitalism they were unanimous. Their written work disclosed the core components of the consensus upheld by their liberal parents: the meaning of liberty lies in the personal choice of consumers; free competition in goods and morals regulates value; technological progress is an unmixed good; war is unfortunate.

The Baffler was founded to challenge that same placid white-collar consensus, and so it is unsurprising that the magazine and Summers would enter the same orbit. While studying at Rochester, Summers made the acquaintance of Chris Lehmann, a journalist and Rochester alumnus who was well-connected in the small-magazine world. “I wrote something for him once,” he says. “It was about civility. I was against it.” In 2011, when Thomas Frank was looking for someone to take over The Baffler, Lehmann suggested Summers, who had been planning to found a literary magazine of his own. Though he had little editorial experience and less money, it didn’t take him long to sign on. “If we do this, are we likely to think we’ve wasted our time?” Summers remembers thinking. “Probably not. Even if we haven’t changed the world.”

Though The Baffler originated in Chicago, it is now edited and published in Cambridge, MA, where Summers lives with his wife and two children in an apartment in the Inman Square neighborhood; their second child was born when his first issue was in production. His wife, Anna Summers, is well known for her work translating Russian-language short stories into English. She now serves as the magazine’s literary editor.

But the magazine is a family affair in more ways than one. “I got chewed out in New York by a former Baffler contributor who accused me of being un-Baffler,” he remembered. He is very aware that he has assumed control of a cult magazine. “What happens is you put your ass on the line. My ass is on the firing line,” said Summers last year, when the success of the venture was by no means assured. “But I can take it, I think. What else is there to do during a great depression?

* * *

Summers uses the word “interstitial” to describe where he fits into American intellectual life. “The interstitial life–the life lived in between institutions–is what many of us have been living,” he said in an email. “It does not mean we come from nowhere (that’s the conceit of the overclass, as if their perspective is the only one) but rather that we are partially known in lots of different places.”

He has populated the magazine with other interstitial thinkers, intellectual drifters dismissed by the academy for being too snarky, too strident, or too sincere. There’s Thomas Frank, of course, who remains on the magazine’s masthead as “Founding Editor” and regularly contributes articles and substantive input. There’s Lehmann, now the journal’s senior editor and an invaluable collaborator for Summers. (“Chris is a veteran editor, and I’m just playing,” Summers said.) There’s the radical anthropologist David Graeber; authors Susan Faludi and Rick Perlstein. Though many of the contributors have high public profiles, they are unaffiliated with academic organizations. They have found in The Baffler‘s pages a home for ideas they can’t express elsewhere. Many of these ideas are gloomy ones.

Last year, Summers recalled: “I was in Brooklyn and somebody says, ‘When I think of The Baffler, I think of hope.’ I started laughing. ‘Hope? You mean Issue 5, Dark Days Ahead?’ I told Tom [Frank], and he started laughing. ‘Hope? Go to church.'”

The Baffler would argue that this hopelessness stems from the failure of our major idea-generating institutions–academia and the media–to actually generate ideas. To Summers and his contributors, media and the universities have abdicated their responsibility to challenge prevailing wisdom and encourage unprofitable thought. The most popular media outlets pander to middle-class prejudices and pieties. The most prominent universities sell bankrupt dreams to strivers. “You’ve got whole sections of the country that are over the cliff for risk,” Summers says. “Then you have cultural institutions that don’t want to make any fucking mistakes.”

The Baffler reserves a special scorn for academia and the corporatization thereof. The first issue of Summers’s tenure, which was published by MIT Press, spent 100 pages directly attacking the enthusiastic techno-utopianism that is MIT’s specialty, with particular venom directed at the “trivial, redundant, usually disappointing and often downright annoying output” of the MIT Media Lab.

One of the best pieces from the recent run, in Issue 20, was “Adam Wheeler Went to Harvard,” by the former Gawker writer Jim Newell. Wheeler became briefly notorious a couple of years ago after Harvard discovered that he had fabricated his application–and much else–during the course of his undergraduate career; he was caught after submitting a Rhodes Scholarship application filled with almost entirely fictional accomplishments. Wheeler was expelled, prosecuted for college‐credential fraud, and sentenced to probation; one of the conditions was that he was not allowed to say that he went to Harvard. But Wheeler did go to Harvard, wrote Newell, and his only crime “was that he saw Harvard degrees for what they are–items for purchase that cloak the owner with a manufactured prestige that, in our pretend meritocracy, automatically raises one’s market value upon the deal’s closing.”

As for the media, The Baffler snipes at easy targets–Politico, CNBC–but also takes shots at outlets that are less frequently criticized. The issue with the Wheeler piece also included Eugenia Williamson’s stinging takedown of This American Life, the beloved public radio program that, she wrote, specializes in “twee, transporting narratives” about harmless middle-class ambition. The article ran in the aftermath of a scandal in which monologist Mike Daisey was revealed to have fabricated details of a This American Life story about his trip to Apple’s factories in China. In Williamson’s telling, Daisey, like Adam Wheeler, was merely guilty of telling his superiors what they wanted to hear: in this case, “a dramatic nonfiction narrative in the form of a personal journey” that satisfied “the show’s habit of massaging painful realities into puddles of personal experience, its preference for pathos over tragedy.”

Williamson further explored this theme in a devastating section about a writer named Pete Jordan, or “Dishwasher Pete,” who spent a year roaming the country taking dishwasher jobs in various restaurants and recounting his adventures on tal in a series of wry, first-person segments extolling the joys of sudsy menial labor:

Never mind that Jordan was a writer slumming it to get material. Never mind that only a child of privilege can afford to think of a menial job as an heroic enterprise, or to make up stupid, pseudo-poetic phrases to describe it, like “pearl diving” and “suds busting.” Never mind, either, that dishwashers are unskilled laborers, not members of a subculture, and that most of them who aren’t Dishwasher Pete would rather be doing something else. To This American Life fans, everyone is measured by middle-class terms–even people left scraping dirty plates for minimum wage in a hot kitchen.

If these excerpts sound overly critical, well, that’s the point. The magazine is very much a journal of criticism, under the assumption that rigorous social criticism is a necessary condition for substantive social change. Before assuming control of The Baffler, Summers edited books of essays by C. Wright Mills and Dwight Macdonald. Mills turned his critical faculties on the body politic, Macdonald on contemporary culture; both detested organizational mediocrity. There are few contemporary analogs to Mills and Macdonald, a fact that frustrates Summers but doesn’t surprise him. “Society has decided we don’t need critics, don’t need social criticism, that criticism is superfluous,” he says. No matter: The Baffler has never shied away from superfluity. So while other magazines of ideas sell societal solutions to “thought leaders,” The Baffler is content to be a “thought destroyer,” as Chris Lehmann said at a Baffler event last year. The journal’s tagline phrases the same sentiment in slightly different fashion: “The Baffler: the journal that blunts the cutting edge.”

* * *

At the end of 2012, about 100 people gathered at the Housing Works Book Store in lower Manhattan to celebrate the launch of The Baffler‘s third new issue while simultaneously mocking Ayn Rand, the long-dead polemicist and novelist who argued, at great length, that greed was a virtue. Rather than organize a reading or a panel discussion, Summers and company were hosting something they called the Ayn Rand Game Show. Wearing a severe suit with a gigantic dollar sign on her lapel, an Ayn Rand impersonator led two contestants–Thomas Frank and comedian Julie Klausner–through a series of questions about books: “Rand” would describe classic works of literature, and the contestants had to guess the title. (Rand: “I actually love this book and I wish it were a memoir.” Frank: “Is it Lord of the Flies?”)

Later, the Rand impersonator led Frank and Klausner through a rousing round of “Fuck, Marry, Do Not Resuscitate,” in which she named three fictional characters, and the contestants had to guess which character fell into which category. “John Galt, Tiny Tim, Scrooge McDuck,” Rand said. Frank hesitated before giving his answer: “Marry Scrooge, fuck John Galt, and Tiny Tim must die.” The crowd roared. Afterward, they lined up to buy copies of the latest issue.

People are paying attention to The Baffler. Events across the country have drawn similar crowds; an “impact statement” prepared by the magazine compiles pages worth of acclaim the magazine has received from national and international media outlets. And as the magazine has become more prominent, Summers has had to become something he thought he’d never be: a businessman.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer or an editor or any of those things,” he says. “Least of all a manager. I hate managers. The whole magazine hates managers.” Nevertheless, he is now managing six full-time employees, and actively looking for funds to hire more.

Basic funding for The Baffler now comes from a deal Summers struck in 2011 with MIT Press: The publisher would give Summers $33,000 per issue over the course of the next five years. While that’s more than the magazine historically had to work with, it’s not enough to fund everything that Summers wants to do. He talks about raising several million dollars to found a research institute–“like the conservatives have”–that would employ writers like Frank, Lehmann, and Graeber and give them license to explore their interests without having to hustle for book contracts and freelance assignments. “[We’d be] making the free-market dogma seem as ridiculous as it is,” he says.

So he has been forced to fundraise, to seek out the sorts of rich donors who might be willing to fund an anti-free-market organization. “We estimate there might be 200 to 500 of them,” Summers said last fall. “But you can’t just send them a letter.” At first, it was rough going. “One woman, we’d have very pleasant conversations,” he said. “At the end, there was nothing. And I realized: I paid for lunch. Every time. I lost money.” With some coaching, Summers has gradually learned how to approach these people and solicit donations.

There are other new responsibilities, too: meetings with publishers, speaking engagements. After a life spent primarily on the intellectual outskirts, he seems pleased and occasionally surprised to find himself in a position of relative prominence. “The company I keep is a hell of a lot better than when I was an adjunct teacher,” he says.

Summers now travels from Boston to New York a couple times a month to meet with potential funders and donors. During a recent breakfast, he spoke of plans to put all the magazine’s archived content online, for free, in order to expand the audience and attract new readers. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he looked, for all the world, like a magazine editor. “This is the transformation,” he said, smiling as he reached for the check. “Now I have an iPhone, I have a second tie, and I can pay for breakfast.”

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.