Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society

From the acclaimed author of Listen, Liberal and What's the Matter with Kansas, a scathing collection of his incisive commentary on our cruel times--perfect for this political momentWhat does a middle-class democracy look like when it comes apart? When, after forty years of economic triumph, America's winners persuade themselves that they owe nothing to the rest of the country?With/>What/>...

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Title:Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society
Author:Thomas Frank
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Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society Reviews

  • Gregg

    Leave it to Thomas Frank to take a bad year and make it even worse. His collection of essays spans a few years and several topics: McMansions, middle America, higher education. But mostly Donald Trump and the disaster that befell the nation in 2016 when we elected a spectacularly unqualified man to office. Frank, true to form, goes after the Democrats and how they blew it. And he makes a lot of sense.

    His

    of 2016 made similar warnings to the purported Party of the Left. They’re too tight

    Leave it to Thomas Frank to take a bad year and make it even worse. His collection of essays spans a few years and several topics: McMansions, middle America, higher education. But mostly Donald Trump and the disaster that befell the nation in 2016 when we elected a spectacularly unqualified man to office. Frank, true to form, goes after the Democrats and how they blew it. And he makes a lot of sense.

    His

    of 2016 made similar warnings to the purported Party of the Left. They’re too tight with big banks and private power; they’re spending too much time talking to themselves; they’re selling out unions and the working class. I thought he was right, and I think the election proved him right. This time around, he couches his discussion in a forensic examination of the election that, I suspect, he could have made months after the fact. Hillary Clinton lost, he argues, because

    the one the Democrats chose to run. Because it was her turn. Because

    who she was running against. Because we (the neoliberals) know best, and most of all, because come

    It’s rather remarkable, Frank seems to muse, that this time around, it was a Clinton trying to sell us on trade agreements and Silicon Valley, while the Republican was heaping scorn upon Wall Street and NAFTA. (That Trump is so full of shit on such matters does not escape Frank, of course.)

    I’ve heard similar lines of reasoning from the likes of Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, but here, I don’t know, it resonated more. As did his prescription for victory. Even if Trump fumbles the country into the Dark Ages (which is not impossible), Frank warns the left not to get too comfy from their perch of self-righteousness, since that’s what cost them the last election in the first place. He says it’s time to let go of the mottos of the 90s, stop getting hard-ons for the tech industry and Goldman Sachs, talk to working people, get them on board with the agenda they actually want in the first place. He’s convinced me. I hope he convinces them too.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Thomas Frank founding editor of The Baffler has written a series of pieces on the blighted landscape of American life and Politics going from the second term of the Obama era to the early Trump years. His targets are of course the business class, right-wing demagogues, the business scam that higher education has become, the uselessness of centrist elites, and the shitty behavior of the meritocracy. He sprinkles his observations with Mencken like wit to make the hellscape easier to take in. After

    Thomas Frank founding editor of The Baffler has written a series of pieces on the blighted landscape of American life and Politics going from the second term of the Obama era to the early Trump years. His targets are of course the business class, right-wing demagogues, the business scam that higher education has become, the uselessness of centrist elites, and the shitty behavior of the meritocracy. He sprinkles his observations with Mencken like wit to make the hellscape easier to take in. After all, the reality is foreboding enough best keep some humor in the writing. As usual Frank has a good eye for our current situation.

    Here is a sample of Frank speaking at a university.

  • Elizabeth Burton

     is a collection of essays from 2011 to the present that provides a travelogue of the downward journey of the US. Not that it starts at the top of the hill, because for the bulk of the population that's been forbidden territory for several decades—only the nobility gets to occupy the castles.

    That's sort of the metaphor used in title of the first set of essays, "Many Vibrant Mansions," and the subject of the second piece, "The Archite

     is a collection of essays from 2011 to the present that provides a travelogue of the downward journey of the US. Not that it starts at the top of the hill, because for the bulk of the population that's been forbidden territory for several decades—only the nobility gets to occupy the castles.

    That's sort of the metaphor used in title of the first set of essays, "Many Vibrant Mansions," and the subject of the second piece, "The Architecture of Inequality." Describing his trek through the world of the McMansion, he observes they are "houses that seemed to have been designed by Stanford White after a debilitating brain injury."

    Those unfamiliar with Mr. Frank's work should consider reading his earlier books 

    and 

    before joining him on this trip. The former answers the question many who only became politically involved during the 2016 election keep asking, which is "What are the Republicans doing?" The latter explains that it isn't just the Republicans, and why.

    So, the first part describes how we came to accept escalating inequality, encouraged by politicians on both sides of the aisle who lied and obfuscated to ensure we stayed convinced there was really nothing wrong. That if the benefits of the tax cuts and the trade deals and the bank deregulation somehow missed us…well, it was our fault for not working hard enough, or for making bad choices, or not getting the proper education. Supported by news media and TV and movies that bombarded us with the message that the billionaires were the above-mentioned heroes we must needs struggle to emulate.

    Meanwhile, the first African-American president, who promised us hope and change, saved the banks and the Wall Streeters while millions of the middle-class lost their homes and/or their retirement funds.

    And speaking of not getting the proper education, that's the topic of Part 2: "Too Smart to Fail." This section covers the encroachment of neoliberalism on campus, which has led to a decrease in the number of tenured professors and an increase in the number of adjuncts most of whom can't live on what they're paid and don't know from one week to the next if they'll even have a job. In fact, a writer I know who works as an adjunct had a class he was counting on to pay his living expenses cancelled four days before it was scheduled to start, with no compensation.

    And then there is soaring tuition, which more and more goes to pay inflated salaries for legions of unnecessary administrators while services (and those tenured professors) are cut back. Four-year college graduates are re-entering the world carrying a massive load of debt, which is not just stressful but a major drain on the economy both because wages and salaries have stagnated or actually declined in the last four decades and because money that goes into the vaults of lenders isn't being spent in the economy.

    Part 3, "The Poverty of Centrism," traces the path by which, beginning in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and continued unabated by those administrations that followed him, the rich got filthy rich and the 90% were tricked into believing keeping them that way was good for us. 

    In this section, Mr. Frank also talks about the role the news media have played in enabling this mess. I don't share his admiration for the Washington Post, but I have to wonder if his informal analysis of the way they undermined Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries wasn't a bit painful. Or even disillusioning. He also seems unwilling to admit the collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign and the news media to achieve that goal; he avoids referring to the email leaks that revealed just that, and sadly, he seems to at least partly believe the so-far unsupported insistence on "Russian influence."

    Even so, his criticism of the Democrats was apparently sufficient to get him blackballed by those major news media he tries hard not to accuse of bias.

    The final section, "The Explosion" addresses the why of the election of Donald Trump and why it was the direct result of the Democrat Party's refusal to accept that they could no longer take their traditional working-class and minority base for granted. Which brings us to this year.

    As I said earlier, I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to Thomas Frank's work. The broad scope of the subject matter is easier to take in context if one has a background in what he's written at length. For those familiar with that body of writing, these essays are sharp-tongued snippets of the history of the last seven years, with reference to those that preceded them. They do require personal honesty, in that we who allowed this mess to come as far as it has must take the responsibility for not paying attention and staying informed.

    Well done, Mr. Frank. May we please have some more?

  • Alex

    Frank is one of the most persuasive commentators about the crises inside American liberalism, having garnered attention with his What’s the matter with Kansas and Listen Liberal. Here he offers a series of essays that aims to situate the reader inside the crises progressives in the United States find themselves. The Trump presidency was a shock to many but not Frank who elucidates the real life problems caused by thirty years of neoliberalism and the political party that had chosen to abandon wo

    Frank is one of the most persuasive commentators about the crises inside American liberalism, having garnered attention with his What’s the matter with Kansas and Listen Liberal. Here he offers a series of essays that aims to situate the reader inside the crises progressives in the United States find themselves. The Trump presidency was a shock to many but not Frank who elucidates the real life problems caused by thirty years of neoliberalism and the political party that had chosen to abandon working class people. Frank asks American progressives to look themselves in the mirror in trying to explain the exploits of trump and to break from an economic philosophy that feels more interested in wooing the professional class than winning elections. Frank is hard hitting and unforgiving but also offers lessons those wanting to defeat Trump and Trumpism need to hear.

  • Madeline O'Rourke

    Man,

    is interesting.

    The first half of the essay collection is fairly forgettable; Frank certainly raises good points amongst myriad topics, but it was the second half that really got me. His essays focused on the democratic party and the 2016 election were engrossing. A Bernie supporter himself, he seriously digs into the core issues of how Trump was elected not by simply blaming Trump supporters, but by addressing the ongoing failings of the democratic party. There's a power,

    Man,

    is interesting.

    The first half of the essay collection is fairly forgettable; Frank certainly raises good points amongst myriad topics, but it was the second half that really got me. His essays focused on the democratic party and the 2016 election were engrossing. A Bernie supporter himself, he seriously digs into the core issues of how Trump was elected not by simply blaming Trump supporters, but by addressing the ongoing failings of the democratic party. There's a power, too, in the fact that these essays, insightful as they are, were written as these events were unfolding. That is to say, they weren't all written with the power of hindsight, proving that much of the 2016 debacle was foreseeable, and even avoidable. And the essays are certainly worth reading now, even as the U.S. starts the descent into the 2020 elections. A lot of Frank's observations are unfortunately still relevant and already observable in these early stages of the campaigns.

    I also can't express enough the importance of a good writer. As a university student, I've had to read plenty of pieces with good theses but that were let down by writing that was dry, boring, confusing, or just plain bad. The real gems are those pieces written by authors like Frank: he has something worth saying and he goes about saying it well.

  • Michael Perkins

    The author is reminiscent of Orwell and Hitchens in cutting through the crap and telling it like it is.

    Two of his books (links below) in particular, What's the Matter with Kansas and Listen, Liberal, exemplify this.

    This book is a collection of essays. This Guardian column is included in whole and is a rare voice in explaining how the Demo Party shot itself in the foot and, in some ways, still hasn't learned from its mistakes.

    =====

    Books....

    I recall posting the link of the latter in the midst of the WSJ comments section debate in mid-2016 and some apparent Demo saying: "we've heard all of this ad nauseam" Now he gets to listen to Trump ad nauseam.

  • BlackOxford

    Having most likely entered my final decade of life, I have been drawn into reflecting on my experience with the various institutions in which I have been directly involved - the family, the church, the military, academia, and financial and commercial business. Ticking them off as a has-been in each, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that I have been a consistent failure in them all. But reading

    gives a glimmer of hope that perhaps this failure

    Having most likely entered my final decade of life, I have been drawn into reflecting on my experience with the various institutions in which I have been directly involved - the family, the church, the military, academia, and financial and commercial business. Ticking them off as a has-been in each, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that I have been a consistent failure in them all. But reading

    gives a glimmer of hope that perhaps this failure has not been all mine.

    The collection of essays is a catalogue of institutional corruption, not just in politics where it has always thrived, but also in every significant class of human cooperative endeavour. Persistent sexual abuse by the clergy of children and vulnerable adults; the selling of university places on a large scale; the involvement of senior military people and politicians in patently treasonous activities; the systematic protection of the architects of worldwide financial collapse; the exposure of routine fraud and other reprehensible behaviour among leading cultural lights, all suggest that something systematically is undermining what we vaguely refer to as civilisation.

    The issue which Frank raises is not that these institutions have corrupt members. Such has always been the case. It is rather that the institutions themselves now serve corruption, that they initiate, tolerate, and promote bad behaviour among their members. What was formerly considered as aberrant is now perceived as normal, even admirable. What were at one time institutional inhibitors to the excesses of human desire are now conduits through which those desires can be achieved. What in fact were refuges from the worst effects of free market competition are now places of the greatest intensity of self-aggrandisement.

    To the extent that these institutions are the substance of civilised society, we are retreating into a sort of barbarism. This may not be noticed because the substitution of social virtue with expedient self-interest is subtle. Justice gives way step by step and with progressively strident argument to security. Social responsibility is privatised through ideological rationale as a matter of personal choice. Personal financial success or celebrity come to define social contribution. Integrity gives way to the necessities of ambition which is understood as admirable. And value is what other people say it is. This is the world which Frank documents. It is a world that even Thomas Ligotti might find shocking in its unrelieved exploitative evil (Chris Hedges, not so much).

    It is difficult to maintain the institutional perspective when exhibitionist clowns like Trump, AM radio hosts and cable-news pundits, internet bloggers and social media inciters are what’s most visible and the most obvious symptoms of widespread deterioration in the social fabric. But the problem and its solution is institutional. That is to say, institutional corruption cannot be reversed by changing the leading players, nor through a change in the ruling political party, nor even by legislative or political reform, which would have to be carried out by the very people who would be its target. Paradoxically institutional reform is a purely personal and entirely local act. It starts and it ends in recognising the extent to which corruption has been internalised in each of us by the redefinitions of social virtue promulgated by these institutions.

    Theologians call this kind of profound transformation

    , a spiritual conversion to an alternative way of acting. Such a transformation does not have a rational basis since the institutional rational of every aspect of current society argues against it. This is especially problematic for the religiously-minded who believe that they have already been subject to the required change in attitude. They are, on the contrary, the most resistant to anything which might dim their light of faith, their possession of the absolute truth; yet it is precisely this light, this obsession with formulas of truth, that blinds them to the reality of the situation. Quite literally it is their God who is the architect of our impending social doom.

    Of course believers are generally not a majority of the population. But they don’t need to be. The really powerful source of institutional decay is the secularised legacy of religion. Two central principles of Christianity seem to be particularly relevant. The first is the idea of personal salvation, that is, an ethical responsibility solely for conduct and fate of one’s own life. The second idea is the way in which this fate can be assured, namely through total confidence, obdurate faith, in the correctness of one’s beliefs, rather than in the relationship with one’s fellows. These principles have been assimilated into Western culture and form the core of its ideology.

    Historically, the development of modern institutions of government, politics, education, and law, has been at the expense of the institutional Church. The decline of the institutional Church, however, has perversely released the germ of anti-social, intransigent, militant faith more widely into these non-religious areas of civil life. The result is an ethos of selfish self-confidence which destroys democratic politics, promotes tribal loyalties, and prevents both learning and reasoned argument. It seems to me likely that this is the epicentre of the cultural malaise that Frank describes. We have learned the habits of religion so well that they have survived its institutional decline; and now they are destroying us.

    My own failure within these institutions isn’t mitigated by their deterioration. But perhaps others, particularly the young, might see the implications of Frank’s analysis in their own lives. One can only hope. The track record of success of the old communicating with the young is abysmal. So I’m not holding my breath.

  • David Wineberg

    Having been mightily impressed by Listen, Liberal, I really looked forward to the next insight by Thomas Frank. Unfortunately, Rendezvous With Oblivion is simply a collection of earlier essays, and not any deep new thought to set politicos back on their heels. These reprints are mostly a dated look backward, with much less value than new insight. Once read, they can be forgotten.

    Some of them are really forced. Frank has access to Lexis/Nexis, so he can research the obscure, like how

    Having been mightily impressed by Listen, Liberal, I really looked forward to the next insight by Thomas Frank. Unfortunately, Rendezvous With Oblivion is simply a collection of earlier essays, and not any deep new thought to set politicos back on their heels. These reprints are mostly a dated look backward, with much less value than new insight. Once read, they can be forgotten.

    Some of them are really forced. Frank has access to Lexis/Nexis, so he can research the obscure, like how many nonprofits use the word “vibrant” in their mission statements. And then he quotes many of them. This is boring. A lot of others trounce Trump, everyone’s favorite whipping boy. Too easy. And there is his tired prescription for Democrats to take back the country. It is a complex mélange of tactics the Democrats won’t adopt and which won’t work. What they need is a clean, honest, charismatic leader, and they don’t have one. Even on the horizon. But Frank doesn’t see that. He’s still mourning Hillary. Really.

    I think the best essay concerns presidential libraries. Frank visited three – Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, and was scathing in his appreciation. For lack of anything worthwhile, they all have life-sized replicas of the Oval Office and souvenirs like the president’s actual limo. Right there, live in front of you! They rationalize the subject’s term, minimizing or hiding their blunders and playing up their successes, if any. Mostly, they are an astonishing waste of money: half a billion dollars for the Bush II library, for example.

    Fortunately, Frank writes engagingly. He keeps your attention with the promise of intelligent discourse. This covers a lot of sins, and makes Rendezvous With Oblivion readable, if not memorable.

    David Wineberg

  • Matt

    In some ways, you could argue that this is just a reiteration of Frank's ideas, insights, and critiques, and I guess that's true but 1) it's a collection of journalism from the past several years, so, uh, what do you expect it to be? and 2) those pieces are focused with a laser-sharp-eye on some of the most urgent issues of our time- the enervation of the middle class and the Midwest, the goofiness of centrism, the rise of Trump and the possible fallouts (good and bad) from his hypothetical do

    In some ways, you could argue that this is just a reiteration of Frank's ideas, insights, and critiques, and I guess that's true but 1) it's a collection of journalism from the past several years, so, uh, what do you expect it to be? and 2) those pieces are focused with a laser-sharp-eye on some of the most urgent issues of our time- the enervation of the middle class and the Midwest, the goofiness of centrism, the rise of Trump and the possible fallouts (good and bad) from his hypothetical downfall, and why the Democratic Party has run out of juice, ideologically and politically, from years of self-satisfied awe at the wonder of the technocratic elite (Silicon Valley, academia, number-crunchers, Big Data, etc)….so, yeah, there's no wonder why these pieces are repetitive...

  • Bill

    (3 & 1/2 stars)

    These essays, originally from Harper’s, The Guardian, and two other publications, are from the author of . He delves into subjects societal and political, with the latter third of the book focusing most on Trump and Trumpism. Although the essays were “tweaked,” there’s a certain amount of repetition on topics such as how the Democratic Party went wrong in the last presidential election and what it should do to right itse

    (3 & 1/2 stars)

    These essays, originally from Harper’s, The Guardian, and two other publications, are from the author of . He delves into subjects societal and political, with the latter third of the book focusing most on Trump and Trumpism. Although the essays were “tweaked,” there’s a certain amount of repetition on topics such as how the Democratic Party went wrong in the last presidential election and what it should do to right itself. The writing is consistently refreshing and clear, with occasional insights of possible value.

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