Thomas Frank at Book Passages

Thomas Frank at Book Passages (12 July 2018)
Thomas Frank at Book Passages (12 July 2018)

Thomas Frank was at Book Passages last night. He’s on a tour for his new book Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports From a Sinking Ship. He was his charming self. I think that he is on the outside what I am on the inside: totally despairing but laughing about it because it’s all so absurd. I don’t just mean the politics — I mean everything. Life is a joke, and I am the punchline. You either laugh or cry.

Poor Will

I dragged Will with me. He didn’t know Thomas Frank. I should have prepared him. While Will laughed a fair amount during the talk, he left about halfway through. I figured he went to the bathroom. We had been drinking a lot of caffeine. And indeed, he did do that. But he noticed that Book Passages sold beer so he got one.

We were separated for the rest of the event. I only saw him back in his seat when I was in line to get my book signed. (More on that in a minute.) But afterward, he was so depressed. I felt bad.

Thomas Frank Said Something New

But there was almost nothing in the speech that was really new. The only thing that surprised me is that he said he liked Democratic politicians more than the liberal commentariat and (gag) political consultants. He noted that someone he used to hate, Cory Booker, sees where things are going and is now really good. And where things are going is real (leftist) populism, not this fake rightwing stuff Republicans use to get elected so they can give tax breaks to billionaires and rip apart unions.

Listening to that, I thought he’d been reading my mind because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking and Booker is my favorite example. And I know what conservatives and liberal “purists” will say, “He’s just saying those things to get elected!” (Yes, Booker wants to be President.) I heard the same thing about Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

And so what?! They are Democrats! By and large, they will govern the way they campaigned. Compare this to Trump: campaigns on building the wall and how the working class is getting screwed. He gets into office and there is no wall. But there is a great big tax cut for fat cats; he’s made healthcare go up in price; he’s started a trade war that is going to hurt the working people who voted for him.

But he did stick by his racism. I’ve got to give him that!

Book Signing

So I stood in line to get my book signed. He’s really great. He’s cheerful and nice to people who stand in front of him and pontificate about things they probably learned from him.

But it gave me time to think of something to say to him. At first, I was going to say, “Could you write, ‘To Frank from Tom,’ so I can use it later to prove that we used to be friends and ask to borrow a couple of bucks.” That seemed a bit too oblique, even for someone as sharp as Thomas Frank. Also, it was a little too much Tom Waits:

Thomas Frank: Hüsker Dü Fan

During the talk, he mentioned hanging out with some of his friends under a freeway overpass drinking and listening to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade while seeing the McMansions being built. And he asked if anyone remembered Hüsker Dü. There was a scattering of acknowledgment. I, of course, was vaguely offended. What else is new? I’m an arrogant bastard. So I figured I’d talk to him a little bit about punk. It would probably be refreshing after the constant political talk that would make Mary Poppins’ suicidal.

So I told him Hüsker Dü was great — especially Zen Arcade. Then I asked him if he was into Minutemen and he was slightly less excited by them but he said he three of their albums. Maybe he’s just really good at this kind of stuff, but giving me an exact number of books made me think he was telling the truth. And why not? For one thing, we are both the same age with relatively similar backgrounds. Minutemen were one of the most political punk bands around — outside Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four, which were much more (probably too) explicit.

Without my asking, he did give me a good signature. I don’t doubt he always uses it when he runs into people named Frank or Thomas. “To Frank from Frank. Thomas Frank.” He has a much better signature than Bruce Campbell — not that I’m complaining about having both of Bruce’s autobiographies signed, thanks to Elizabeth.

Thomas Frank’s Talk

I made an audio recording of the talk. I hate those jittery YouTube videos. The video is mostly useless and the sound is terrible. The sound is pretty terrible here too, but if you turn it up, you can make it all out. I missed the first minute or so, so I faded in. He starts by making a comment about what the Trump Presidential Library will be like. (It’s an interesting thought given that the Nixon Library was filled with flat-out lies to decades.) But the rest of it is a reasonable recording of the event.

It probably would have been even more interesting to record the book signing. But alas.

The book, which I bought more to support independent booksellers than anything, is just a collection of previously published essays — at least half of which I’ve read. But I think I’ve read The Wrecking Crew twice, so I’ll probably read this too.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Frank at Book Passages

  1. You can’t not like Thomas Frank. Smart, affable, self-effacing – and an incurable optimist. Did he talk about how excited he was when Obama was going to restore American Liberalism, only better? Oh Tom, you silly goose! He’s sort of made a career out of talking about things that are already obvious to anyone who’s really paying attention, but if nothing else, Frank deserves some credit for his very first book, The Conquest of Cool in 1997. Along with Naomi Klein, who wrote No Logo in 2000, Frank is notable for having pointed out how marketing has co-opted everything and become a primary mechanism of control in our society. Of course guys like Vance Packard were there before Frank and Klein, but it’s a message that bears repeating every few years.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to say that Thomas Frank isn’t worth listening to. He’s almost always a pleasure to spend some time with, even if I think those Harry Potter specs of his are rose tinted.

    • Of course he mentioned how he was an Obama true believer! He can’t help himself. And it is the one thing that I just can’t grok about him. Yes, he’s optimistic. But foolish?

      I agree about The Conquest of Cool. In fact, I wanted to talk to him about that. But I figured that might get us going. And I hate how people monopolize writers’ time. I’ve been on the other end (not many fans, but really big fans) and it is exhausting. I really wish our problems weren’t so simple and obvious that he could go back to write that kind of stuff. Of course, he does; just not in book form.

      But ultimately, I didn’t go out to learn anything. I went out to hang with a bunch of people who agree with me to listen to a really entertaining guy. I was not disappointed. As I’m sure you wouldn’t have been either.

    • You can watch a very similar talk at another bookstore. I think what Will focused on was just how obvious Thomas Frank makes all this seem. When you are reading more establishment types, you get the impression that it’s all so complex. But listening to Frank, it’s hard not to think, “Why aren’t these idiots listening?!” (What’s the Matter With Kansas? was published 14 years ago and the Democratic Party has apparently learned nothing.) I think it was like that. It wasn’t that Will didn’t laugh a fair amount of the time.

      For the last decade, I’ve been saying that the Democrats should go back to the New Deal / Great Society, say what they really mean, and use 90 percent of their money on GOTV. We have the majority of the people on our side. All we have to do is get them to vote. And so much of what we’ve done since Carter is give them reasons to not vote. The Democratic Party establishment isn’t liberal, it’s technocratic. And the voters just don’t care. Sanders had a background. Certainly, in a general election, he would have been beaten up. But there would have been no doubt about his authenticity. He might well have lost the election. But I don’t think he would have lost Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It doesn’t matter how authentic Clinton was or wasn’t; decades of propaganda made her seem inauthentic. And there is no doubt she is a technocrat. In her book, her big beef with Sanders was that he was campaigning in poetry and she was campaigning in realist prose. Well, I’m afraid that’s on her because people vote for poetry. They stay home for realist prose. Trump didn’t win Wisconsin because he did better than other Republicans; he won because a whole bunch of Democrats just didn’t vote. And if I recall correctly, she never went to Wisconsin. She just figured she had it in the bag and Sanders was supposed to win it for her. Well, maybe he would have — if she had selected him as her VP.

      It’s become increasingly amusing to me that the “realists” in the party live in a dreamland. Political scientists have learned so much about just how irrational voters are, yet we’re still running campaigns the same way. Fast food workers were demanding a $15 minimum wage. Why did Clinton have to be “reasonable” and say she supported $12? Her backers would have been fine if she had gone with $15 but only delivered $12 — or $10. Just who was she trying to impress with this act of “reasonableness”? Ultimately, I think it’s the Villagers. No one was going to vote for Trump over her because she backed $15 rather than $12.

      It is madness. I think about this stuff all the time. For Will, I think it was kind of a baseball bat to the head. I think he thought as bad as things are, at least there were good reasons for it. And Thomas Frank says, “No! It’s just that the Democrats listen to their campaign advisors instead of their hearts.” And I’m starting to see The Wrecking Crew backwards. The Republicans stay in power because they are good at politics — right up to the point where they mess things up so badly the voters just can’t take them anymore. Then they bring in the Democrats. It’s like corporations that are failing: let’s try a woman CEO! (If things were going well, they almost certainly wouldn’t; this is established fact.) It isn’t because these corporate boards are feminists. But when you’re dying, you’ll try anything — even a totally uninspiring Democrat. Frankly, that’s the only reason I think we have hope in November.

      Not that I have any doubt that Clinton would be president today if it weren’t for the mainstream media being totally played by WikiLeaks. Also, about a dozon other things. 2016 really was the Perfect Storm of elections.

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