A fifth column at the Wall Street Journal

by Rob Horning

23 April 2008


I was surprised to discover that Thomas Frank, the Baffler founder and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God and other left-leaning cultural critiques, would be writing a regular column for the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page. I learned about it when he wrote about the Obama “bitter” crisis for the paper on Monday. His new gig is especially striking considering that he has derided the page so thoroughly in the past, making it a go-to source for conservative nonsense when he wants to make a point about some typical piece of disingenuous right-wing rhetoric. Now he’ll be sidled along next to it—if only he could know what else was on the page and debunk it as it appears. And you figure the perch was something Frank really couldn’t turn down; it’s too prominent, too tempting a place from which to polemicize. He can serve as a fifth column, preparing the way for the hoped-for takeover of business culture by sensible minds—people who see the futility of creating asset bubbles and the evil of suppressing unions and wages, who are willing to denounce the marketing racket and question the imperatives of consumer-driven growth at all costs, and so on.

But you have to wonder, What is Murdoch, et. al., up to here? It’s a move that seems akin to the NYT‘s printing Bill Kristol’s risible columns, which are fulsome fodder for liberal tut-tutting and so make a certain sense of the NYT‘s presumed readership. But Frank is no hack, like Kristol; Frank’s columns are not so easy to laugh off, nor are they rote recitations of the current state of the ideology he is supposed to represent. The WSJ used to have Alexander Cockburn write a token lefty column for its editorial page back in the 1980s, as Kathy G notes. But unlike Kathy, I don’t believe that the editors at the WSJ “see the writing on the wall, and they know they can’t ignore liberals anymore.” This does not strike me as an attempt to give credence to or acknowledge liberal readers, but maybe I underestimate the attraction Frank might have for people who otherwise wouldn’t bother with WSJ. Maybe it will drive some traffic their way on the Web, as his Monday column was probably more widely linked than the customary tripe. But maybe the editors recognized a kindred spirit, not in ideology by in rhetorical technique. Far too often, liberal polemic is earnest, self-righteous, humorlessly urging some borderline condescending concern on readers for those who can’t speak for themselves. Frank is not that kind of writer; like kindred spirit Barbara Ehrenreich, he seems to delight instead in sarcasm and the kind of haughty diction that frequently enlivens Marxist critiques while eschewing the sort of punning triviality or jargon-laden turgidity that sometimes undermines more-contemporary leftist discourse. Here’s a typical sample, from Monday :

Ah, but Hillary Clinton: Here’s a woman who drinks shots of Crown Royal, a luxury brand that at least one confused pundit believes to be another name for Old Prole Rotgut Rye. And when the former first lady talks about her marksmanship as a youth, who cares about the cool hundred million she and her husband have mysteriously piled up since he left office? Or her years of loyal service to Sam Walton, that crusher of small towns and enemy of workers’ organizations? And who really cares about Sam Walton’s own sins, when these are our standards? Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.

Note the ironic rhetorical questions, the juxtaposition of played-out words like “funky” with colorful, near ostentatious ones like “mellifluous.” Not to mention the absolutely perfect put down of the lazy media coverage of Clinton’s campaign stage management. It’s sardonic, unapologetically smart and allusive, and it verges on downright mean-spiritedness, and that’s what links it to the WSJ’s customary editorial voice, which is often sharpened with contempt. Frank, too, often seems nearly contemptuous, which is a great asset—it conveys confidence in left-wing ideas that you don’t walways see, and suggests strongly (just like Economist “leaders” frequently do)  that you’d be stupid to disagree. Some misinterpret this rhetorical strategy as elitist, but it strikes me as just a refusal to wheedle.

Still I don’t think regular WSJ editorial page readers will be dismayed by Frank’s columns, but perhaps they’ll recognize the tone and delight in its flamboyance. 

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