Chris Lehmann

  • Unwell Water

    A grim turn of events briefly overtook the barely modulated insanity of our past presidential election season, around the time when the Steve Bannons of the world were declaring war on “the administrative state.” The city of Flint, Michigan, former home of most of the General Motors empire, was found to be in a state of malign neglect usually associated with developing-world kleptocracies like the Sudan or Haiti, as the city’s water supply was shown to be unfit for any human use. Families in the onetime colossus of US automobile manufacturing—which had, not long before, boasted one of the

  • An Underclass of Their Own

    It’s no great exaggeration, these days, to say that the state of the white American working class is driving the American commentariat crazy. The non-college-educated white voter is notoriously the bedrock demographic aligned behind likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump—and leaders of the conservative movement, which has long pivoted on elaborate bait-and-switch appeals to its aggrieved, antigovernment, downwardly mobile base, are appalled to see that base swallowing whole the nativist, protectionist, and belligerently class-baiting nostrums bursting forth from the GOP’s unlikely

  • Homo Americanus

    MY COPY of Raymond Pettibon’s mammoth new anthology of drawings, Homo Americanus: Collected Works, sat untended atop a week’s worth of review copies until I took a good look at its cover. The image is a classic Pettibon, save for a few flourishes of watercolor: It shows a mohawked, guitar-wielding SoCal punk rocker of 1980s vintage, sporting a rainbow-colored Black Flag T-shirt. But on closer inspection, I realized that the appendage caressing the ax’s neck isn’t the punk’s left hand at all—it is, instead, an enormous erect penis. Since there’s a thirteen-year-old girl in my house, I smuggled

  • New Heaven, New Earth

    The dirty secret of all American religion is its novelty. The sanctums of American faith resemble less a solemn pantheon of immutable divinity than a cluttered tinkerer’s workshop, with spare parts from one tradition carelessly soldered onto another, hastily scrawled blueprints on the whiteboard, and false starts and failed prototypes strewn throughout the works.

    By itself, the improvisational nature of American belief is not so surprising—the country was, after all, founded by religious exiles hoping to start the entire Christian experiment afresh in what they took to be virgin territory.

  • Funding Fathers

    IT’S PERHAPS AN UNDERSTANDABLE, if by no means a pardonable, oversight to greet the spectacle of a corps of well-dressed, extravagantly staffed, rhetorically skilled lawmakers and imagine that they are devoted to the public’s business. No matter that they stand economic reality on its head, and use the routine mechanisms of budget approval to try to block implementation of already enacted federal law upheld by the Supreme Court. Nor did it merit notice in official Washington that as the members of the Tea Party Right strained over and over again to justify the whole unprecedented legislative

  • culture September 13, 2013

    Great Perturbations: On George Packer

    In his 2000 memoir, Blood of the Liberals, George Packer mentions a post-collegiate encounter with one of his Yale classmates, a young right-wing pundit who had hired Packer—then dividing his time in Boston between carpentry jobs at construction sites and volunteer stints at a downtown homeless shelter—to build him a bookshelf. This was the mid-1980s, and the conservative was a young man in a hurry, tacking confidently into the post-liberal zeitgeist. He was “an apologist for radical laissez-faire economics and a kind of high-Tory moralism on social issues,” Packer writes, “with an attitude

  • Unfair and Unbalanced

    In our unstable neoliberal world, the venerable social ideal of equality is perhaps the most precarious commodity of all. To be sure, evidence of its absence abounds—in the casual enclosure and systematic auctioning of once-public goods, in the gaudy bailouts of our nonproductive financial sector, in the riotous indulgences of the 1 percent and the gnawing penury of the 99. And as the sphere of its exercise has narrowed to the vanishing point, equality seems to have been downgraded into the great dirty secret of our public life—only in contrast to the old Potter Stewart saw, fewer and fewer of

  • Locked and Loaded

    AS THE HORRORS OF THE SCHOOL MASSACRE IN NEWTOWN, Connecticut, had begun to sink in, and nestle their way into the broken anatomy of the American body politic, another shooting incident took place, this time in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Webster, on Christmas Eve.

    The gunmen in both incidents were demented beyond the pale of culture-war distractions that often deflect attention from the plague of gun violence in American society. Adam Lanza, the twenty-year-old who brutally assassinated twenty elementary-school children and eight adults (including himself and his mother), appears to

  • culture June 08, 2012

    The Higher Bealism: The Moral Limits of Markets

    “I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) announces in the warm-up to his famed populist outburst in Network (1976), inciting his millions of viewers to rush to their living room windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Beale ticks off a standard litany of 1970s-era social woes—inflation, unemployment, bank failures, violent crime—to stoke the audience of his nightly news broadcast. In the end, his undoing proves to be not hubris but civics. He tries to goad Americans into thinking critically about the ultimate source

  • culture April 27, 2012

    Read it and Whine!

    Woe betide our republic of letters! The shadowy culture arbiters who serve on the Pulitzer Prize board have withheld their favor from the field of American novels published in 2011. Booksellers, writers and critics have been up in arms ever since news of the non-award broke in mid-April. In a cri de coeur published in the New York Times’s op-ed pages, novelist Ann Patchett—who also runs an independent bookstore in Nashville—decried the committee’s abstention as a cause for “indignation” and, indeed, “rage.”

  • culture March 23, 2012

    Collision Course by Joseph A. McCartin

    The conservative canonization of Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the tax cut has always been a vexed rite. For one thing, Reagan actually raised taxes in 1982, when the country was sunk in a grim recession.

    The conservative canonization of Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the tax cut has always been a vexed rite. For one thing, Reagan actually raised taxes in 1982, when the country was sunk in a grim recession and the president’s economic advisers were sounding alarms over the gaping hole created in the federal budget by his 1981 package of tax cuts.

  • Anomie of the People

    When riots convulsed working-class communities throughout Britain this summer, the predominant reflex in the English media was to lash out at the rioters as criminals, thugs, and hooligans, engaged in senseless destruction for destruction’s sake. To be sure, there was plenty of unhinged mayhem, especially once the unrest entered the looting and fire-setting phase. But to write off the uprisings—which started at the end of a peaceful Tottenham vigil in protest of the police killing of a black man named Mark Duggan—as the “mindless” conduct of individual bad actors, as the general run of commentary

  • culture June 17, 2011

    Little Churches Everywhere: California's Evangelical Conservatism

    In the long-ago time of the mid-1990s, an earnest pair of radical British intellectuals named Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron surveyed the emerging, and deeply reactionary, dogmas of the Internet age. Barbrook and Cameron explained that this worldview, which they dubbed the “Californian ideology,” hinged on a curious blend of New Left and New Right orthodoxies: culturally tolerant, anti-hierarchical and experimental, it was also punitively neoliberal and profoundly antigovernment in expounding a rigidly libertarian vision of the global economy.

  • culture June 02, 2011

    Scofflaws, Elected or Otherwise

    n the long-ago epoch when Bill Clinton made a credible-sounding populist run at the presidency, he hymned the American dream as a compact securing a better future for those who “worked hard and played by the rules.” Here at the shank end of the great financial collapse of 2008, however, the national credo is pretty much “what work?”—and “screw the rules.”

  • culture May 04, 2011

    The Social Animal by David Brooks

    When America has had to stir itself out of calamity—or even just navigate its way from one calamity to the next—the cultural scene usually comes in for a bout of searing self-inspection. The psychic foundations of the Civil War were famously rooted, at least in terms of the Northern abolitionist sensibility, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Victorian melodrama Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  • Pilgrim’s Progress

    Christopher Lasch was arguably the last, and almost certainly the best, practitioner of a vanished tradition in American letters—an influential social critic who’d been recruited as an informal adviser to presidents; a university pedagogue whose work was addressed to a general, politically engaged readership; and, most of all, a restless intellect, in the best senses of both words, unafraid to call out stultifying orthodoxies or to scandalize their adherents. It speaks volumes about his vocation and the desiccated American intellectual scene that he spent the last years of his life “afflicted

  • Dry Rot

    In an age when the US Senate was plunged into near paralysis over an anemic simulacrum of health-care reform, it seems unthinkable that Congress could have ever rushed headlong into the folly of amending the Constitution to outlaw drinking. But as Daniel Okrent reminds us in Last Call, his richly detailed reconstruction of Prohibition’s thirteen-year reign, what seems in retrospect like a foolishly giddy union of Protestant moralism and the federal state was actually the culmination of generations’ worth of reformist zeal.

    Unlike the many chroniclers who affect bemusement in revisiting the

  • Mourning in America

    It seems fitting that Ronald Reagan’s ninety-eighth birthday, on February 6, coincided with the Senate Republican effort to stonewall President Obama’s economic-stimulus plan. Doomed to failure in a key cloture vote after a trio of moderates pledged support for a compromise plan, GOP senators nevertheless thronged to deliver droning denunciations of the package before the c-span cameras. Government spending couldn’t alleviate the downturn in the economy, they intoned, since, after all, the New Deal hadn’t alleviated the Great Depression; the nation’s mobilization for World War II had proved

  • Sofa, So Good

    Long before Jerry Seinfeld and Samuel Beckett, there was Ivan Goncharov, a minor government official in czarist Russia, and his classic novel about an ordinary Russian aristocrat mired in his own extraordinary inertia. Originally published in 1859, Oblomov chronicles the misadventures of Ilya Ilich Oblomov, a protagonist who doesn’t leave his apartment, indeed scarcely shifts off his sofa, for the first 180-odd pages. Instead, like many Russian men of his era and station, Oblomov remains stolidly in place and worries ineffectually about the prospect of change—the planned uprooting of his Saint


    It seems entirely fitting that the first study to take intellectual measure of the present economic crisis should come from a Canadian fiction writer, best known for dystopian portraits of social control gone hopelessly awry. For as Margaret Atwood contends in Payback, an edited collection of talks she delivered as the 2008 CBC Massey Lectures, debt is both a financial and a spiritual condition, occupying “that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” Atwood, of course, began her book well before the September collapse of world