Reviewed 6/28/2019

Rendezvous with Oblivion, by Thomas Frank

Reports from a Sinking Society
Thomas Frank
New York: Metropolitan Books, June 2018




ISBN-13 978-1-250-29366-4
ISBN-10 0-250-29366-9 228pp. HC $25.00

"The essays collected here scan over many diverse aspects of American life, but they all aim to tell one essential story: This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve. This is the way ordinary citizens react when they learn the structure beneath them is crumbling. This is the thrill that pulses through the veins of the well-to-do when they discover there is no longer any limit on their power to accumulate."

"In headline terms, these essays cover the years of the Barack Obama presidency and the populist explosion that marked its end. It was a time when liberal hopes were sinking and the newly invigorated right was proceeding from triumph to triumph. When I wrote the earliest installment in the collection, Democrats still technically controlled both houses of Congress in addition to the presidency; when I finished these essays,, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and Republicans had assumed a position of almost unprecedented power over the nation's political system.


"It was a golden age of corruption. By this I do not mean that our top political leaders were on the take—they weren't—but rather that America's guardian class had been subverted or put to sleep. Human intellect no longer served the interests of the public; it served money—or else it ceased to serve at all."

– Pages 1 & 2

In assembling his collection, Frank resumed his travels in search of the Great Secret of Modern Life: Why it is that so many people screw themselves by voting Republican. He tells us of the travails of workers in the fast-food industry, with their erratic work schedules and their minimum-wage pay; of airports and airlines, striving to project a noble, futuristic image while becoming increasingly costly, crowded, and chaotic (and which have piled work onto flight attendants while cutting their salaries.)

The book is divided into four parts. The essays of Part 1 cover what makes the wealthy different from you and I; what sort of houses they build and live in; the pitfalls of working in the fast-food industry; the pretensions of airports and airlines, and the self-important people who are their natural prey; and a voluminous volley of vituperation about the latest buzzword many civic boosters have latched on to.

"Specifically, the way vibrancy was supposed to transform communities was by making them more prosperous. ArtPlace used to say its goal was not merely to promote the arts but to "transform economic development in America," a project that was straightforward and obvious if you accepted the organization's slogan: "Art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity.".

"And that, presumably, is why everyone is so damn vibrant these days. Consider Akron, Ohio, which in 2012 was the subject of a conference bearing the thrilling name "Greater Akron: This Is What Vibrant Looks Like." Or Boise, Idaho, whose citizens, according to the city's Department of Arts and History, were "fortunate to live in a vibrant community in which creativity flourishes in every season." Or Cincinnati, which is the home of a nonprofit called Go Vibrant as well as of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which used to hand out "Cultural Vibrancy" grants, guided by the knowledge that "Cultural Vibrancy is vital to a thriving community.".

"Is Rockford, Illinois, vibrant? Oh, my God, yes; according to a local news outlet, the city's "Mayor's Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant." The Quad Cities? Check: as their tourism website (sic) explains, the four hamlets are "a vibrant community of cities sharing the Mississippi River in both Iowa and Illinois." Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is s sort of Paris of the vibrant; a city where dance contests and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called Vibrant Pittsburgh; a place that draws young people from across the nation to frolic in its "numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods," according to a blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations."

– Pages 57-58

He goes on to list the places whose leaders feel vibrancy's vanishing will vitiate the vitality of their vigorous venues. Most bereft, though — a veritable "Sahara of the vibrant" — "is that part of America where lonely midwestern farmers live among what the New York Times calls 'crumbling reminders of more vibrant days.' " The other essays in Part 1 deal with important issues; but I think this vehemence over a civic-booster buzzword is frivolous.

Where have you gone, vagrant vibrancy?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Thirty days for "vibrancy," Mr. Frank!

No more such frivolity is found in the remainder of the book. Part 2 deals with very real declines in the efficacy of America's system of higher education. Frank paints it as imposing a crushing debt load on most graduates, or prohibitively expensive and thus unattainable. At the same time, typical universities have slashed the number of tenured professors they employ, replacing them with "adjuncts" who are underpaid and overworked. However, the number of highly paid administers has ballooned. The predictable results are boom markets for test-prep firms, fibbing on résumés, diploma mills, and even organizations that issue fake accreditations of the diploma mills.

"Never has the nation's system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless. Our ruling class, flashing its legitimacy at every turn, steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Maddoff, missing equity bubbles and real-estate bubbles and commodity bubbles. But accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to the people at the bottom, the ones who took out the bad mortgages or lied on their pitiful résumés.

"I don't defend fraudsters, of course. But as we wring our hands over the low-level cheaters who get jobs with mail-order degrees, it is important to remember that the pillars propping up our legitimate system are also corrupt: that the sacred Credential signifies less and less each year, even though it costs more and more to obtain.

– Pages 98-99

In parts 3 and 4, Frank returns to analysis of politics in the present era. Here he conveys his traditional theme that right-wing politicians are consumed by greed while Democrats have become too beholden to big-money donors and abandoned the working people they once supported — and who once supported them. This goes a long way, as he points out, to explain the widespread support for Trump. Another point he makes is that the media, losing ad revenue due to the advent of the Internet, scramble for income, lay off reporters right and left, and print the stories that attract the most readers. It is a recipe for loss of journalistic integrity,1 and apparently even affects presidential libraries — media of a sort — which have gotten so costly as to require wealthy donors.

I don't regard this book as equal to Frank's previous work. It has no index. But it is well written and makes many valid points. It is definitely worth reading.

1 A highlight of this discussion is his showing how columnists at the Washington Post systematically downgraded Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign. This includes Caroline Rampell misstating economic points — something I find hard to credit. A paragon against a paragon! Who to trust? (I know; some research will sort it out.)
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