Thomas Frank is the author of the bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? and coeditor of The Baffler. I just came across “Dead End on Shakin’ Street,” in which he takes on a kind of contemporary boosterism that all too many people fall for. Just call us vibrant (or creative) and an amazing number of people will feel better about the place they live, or at least better able to defend or promote it. Boosterism is an old tendency in America, mocked in movies and novels. Here’s what Frank says about today’s version (with a link to the full article at the end). I need to keep this in mind when I’m writing about Great Barrington, and you won’t catch me calling it “vibrant” after reading this article.
The Baffler has mocked, analyzed, and derided money’s cultivation of hipness since our earliest days in print. Just think of all the permutations of urban hipness that have flickered by since we undertook that mission: Rollerblading near water. “Potemkin bohemias” like Chicago’s Wicker Park. Richard Florida’s “creative class.” And while each in turn drew the cheers of the bystanders, utilities were privatized to disastrous effect, the New Economy came and went, the real estate bubble grew and burst, the banks got ever bigger, state governments declared war on public workers, and the economy went off a cliff.
It is time to acknowledge the truth: that our leaders have nothing to say, really, about any of this. They have nothing to suggest, really, to Cairo, Illinois, or St. Joseph, Missouri. They have no comment to make, really, about the depopulation of the countryside or the deindustrialization of the Midwest. They have nothing to offer, really, but the same suggestions as before, gussied up with a new set of clichés. They have no idea what to do for places or people that aren’t already successful or that have no prospects of ever becoming cool.
And so the dull bureaucrat lusts passionately for the lifestyle of the creative artist, but beneath it all is the harsh fact that foundations have been selling the vibrant, under one label or another, for decades; all they’ve done this time is repackage it as a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students. As the name of a suburban St. Louis street festival puts it, without the smallest detectable trace of irony, “Let them eat art.”
From “Dead End on Shakin’ Street” by Thomas Frank, The Baffler No. 20.