Let me just say that my love of the Chicago Reader is such that I am willing to overlook almost any conceit that leaks into its pages. But at Tom Frank I feel I have to draw the line. Frank’s Capital Lies column of April 12 is one of the most patronizing and arrogant articles I have ever read anywhere. Now, I know that Frank does not take criticism well. When a justly distraught reader of his column on Navy Pier a few months back described him brilliantly as “Mr. Smuggypants,” Frank responded with some irrelevant reference to the number of pages he has written on American consumerism, as though quantity has ever been an acceptable replacement for quality. To be fair, Tom Frank is not a moron–he writes fairly well and his cultural criticism echoes the Angst which many left-wingers feel when confronted by the worst indulgences of corporate consumerism. No, Tom Frank has plenty of cunning, it is just that he is a consummate fraud as well. I give him full points for hoodwinking journals like the Reader and the Nation into publishing his lightweight garbage. But, at the same time, it depresses me that his brand of superficial, and ultimately forgettable, cultural criticism is the best that the American Left can offer to critically engage the modern era of corporate consumerism. Frank is no better than Walter Jacobson, dressing up as a bum for a day in order to see how the other half lives. Frank is a dilettante sensationalist parading as a serious scholar. We all ought to be ashamed of ourselves for feeding this man’s already corpulent sense of his own importance.
Tom Frank is the Liz Phair of cultural criticism: a child of privilege turned soi-disant radical. Frank has styled himself as some kind of steward of the archetypal oppressed victim of capitalism: in his own words an ignorant, underpaid, overworked, Twinkie, white bread, and ribs-eating denizen of the underclass of our society. Frank describes this victim moreover as a “slave” and a “peasant” and he leaves no doubt that he feels that the victim of capitalism is defenseless in the maw of corporate America. That is, of course, until Tom Frank, the Great White Hope of the oppressed worker, steps on the scene. It is Tom Frank and Tom Frank alone, the fearless critical intellectual, who can save us all from the number which Lettuce Entertain You is trying to put over on us. I should say at this point that my academic work on socialist intellectuals in Eastern Europe has made Frank’s theory of his own importance sadly familiar. All over Eastern Europe socialist intellectuals envisaged themselves as the spokespeople for, and vanguard leaders of, a nebulous ideological construct known as “the proletariat.” Also like Frank, they contrasted the naive suffering proletarian against the perennial bad guy, the bloated capitalist fat cat. But despite their rhetorical good will toward the working class, in reality these intellectuals did everything in their power to secure every elite privilege they could get their duplicitous hands on. And Tom Frank is no different. Tom Frank’s work is not at all about criticizing corporate America or saving the oppressed American worker, but it is entirely about theorizing a necessity for vacuous cultural critics like himself whose social role it is to endlessly replay the same demented parlor game: save the one-dimensional oppressed worker from the equally one-dimensional evil capitalist system.
This reminds me of a lecture by another cultural critic who constructed a Frankian critique of the Epcot Center in Orlando. At one point someone asked him if he had actually interviewed anyone who worked at Epcot Center or anyone who had visited the place, and he responded, “Well, no, I didn’t think it was necessary.” This exemplifies Frank’s mode of research. If he were actually to talk to anyone, to actually discover something about how people deal with the reality of life in a corporate consumer setting, his dubious and tired opposition of “heroic workers” and “capitalist leeches” would naturally be much harder to sustain. I don’t think that anyone needs to be reminded that the complex meanings of social life rarely fall into neatly divided categories without someone like Frank forcing them into place. No, Frank came, he saw, and he criticized. And he obviously didn’t like what he saw at Foodlife and at Navy Pier and this was reason and evidence enough for him to proceed in reducing the situation to the most binary equation he could find. I doubt, by the way, that anyone who worked for a living would put up with a pompous grouser like Tom Frank for more than a few minutes anyway, but that is hardly the point. The net result of Frank’s shoddy ethnography is that his essays are all about surfaces, veneers, how things look to him at face value. Then he augments these subjective judgments with a healthy dose of vulgar Marxian economic analysis in order to lend a false sense of objectivity to his arguments. This is academic, intellectual, and critical charlatanry, plain and simple. Polemics are the easiest kinds of criticism to write, because they require the least subtlety in thinking and the least analytical ability to carry them off successfully. I can tell you right now, if Frank writes another 20 articles this year they will all basically say the same thing: Here is X (Foodlife court, Niketown, Navy Pier, Taste of Chicago, you pick your own straw man . . . ); here is why X is exploitative; and here is why you should hate X. The subtext is, of course, that since we, the readers, are too starstruck to see Foodlife for what it is, to make our peace with the fact that Foodlife is an unfortunate aspect of corporate consumerism which is not going to be dispelled by a wave from Frank’s pen, we need third-rate academics like Frank to tell us what is what.
I’ve lived in Hyde Park for many years, seen generations of Tom Franks come and go, and it has never ceased to amaze me how people who read so much themselves are so often wedded to the notion that people believe everything which corporations put into writing and image. It comes from a particular intellectual hubris, I think, that allows the Franks of the world to believe that nobody is as clever as they are. I suppose I can, or have to, live with that intellectual arrogance as par for the course. Yet, when someone who is himself a product of a doctoral program at one of the world’s most elite universities demands that he be taken seriously as someone who has the interests of the poor, downtrodden worker at heart, I think I’ll have to pass. Frank is the kind of Marxist who eats well, has nice clothes, comes from a well-to-do family, has a lot of time on his hands, and criticizes corporate consumerism because it doesn’t live up to his own fine tastes.
There is a truly offensive brand of intellectual down here in Hyde Park who believe that “poor people” are more “authentic” than other people because they suffer more than intellectuals do. In worst-case scenarios these “friends of the people” move to Pilsen or spend their nights combing the south side for “authentic” encounters with “poor people” and their many cultures. These intellectuals somehow feel that if they eat at enough restaurants where “poor people” go, or sit near enough to them in a bar, that some of their “authenticity” will rub off. Listen, I think it’s wonderful when anyone tries to diversify his or her cultural experiences–I’m simply objecting to the rank fetishization of the poor as vessels of cultural authenticity for intellectuals like Tom Frank to sip from at their leisure. Need I remind Frank that human beings, regardless of their economic standing, always have their own means for dealing with the trials of their lives and they have their own intellectual integrity as well. How do Frank’s “slaves” and “peasants” feel about his characterization of them? He wouldn’t know. He never asked. So the next time you sit down to a helping of Tom Frank’s humorless, unreflective invective, please, please, ask another question which Frank never asks for fear of being exposed, “What’s in it for him?”
PS: Maybe if Frank changed the title of his column to “Mr. Smuggypants,” at least it would encourage readers to take him with a grain of salt.
Tom Frank replies:
I have no doubt that vulgar Marxism is sinister stuff, but for sheer intellectual flatulence it can’t come close to the breathtakingly conceited pop psychology Dominic Boyer offers us here. Never mind the particulars of what I have written: Boyer knows all about me; he’s probably been reading all those neat Jung books that Sting is into; he knows all about my clothes and my upbringing, and he’s decided it’s his duty to warn the world about my antisocial tendencies. But just what “ethnography” is it that allows Boyer to hold me answerable for some quotes he has invented? Or leads him to resurrect the ancient technique of red-baiting? Or allows him to reiterate my argument about consumer authenticity in the course of denouncing that argument as a species of reprehensible arrogance? Or gives rise to his preposterous suggestion that in criticizing Foodlife I seriously believe that other people aren’t capable of also criticizing it? Maybe if my own “academic work” were finer I would better appreciate the rich irony of this scion of Hyde Park at once proclaiming himself a guardian of intellectual probity and denouncing somebody else as an arrogant and elitist “child of privilege.”
It must be intoxicating to spend your life applying theory to people so recklessly and so righteously. But run this thought through your “ethnography”: just because I write about corporate culture does not mean I think corporate culture simply tricks a vast percentage of the population. To believe, as Boyer clearly does, that critical opinions of contemporary life are deeply undemocratic would rule out most of the material that appears in the Reader; to dare to write about books, films, TV shows, or even restaurants would be an intolerable affront to populist sensibilities, an arrogant presumption that the common man is too dense to understand these things all by himself. And even if you could make the case for such a ridiculous premise (sorry, badmouthing my clothes and some lame Disney criticism you read about somewhere just doesn’t do it), my everyday journalistic crimes would be minor compared to those of self-appointed cultural inquisitors who feel it’s their place to lecture the public on the holy ways of the true academe, on which writers they should read and which they should avoid. That’s a species of rich-kid delusion that I can’t even begin to approach.