Part 4—The start of the current cycle: All too often, we liberals are skilled at taking offense.
We're often insulted by The Others. We're sometimes skilled at finding offense where no such offense has been given.
Consider this one example:
We've remained struck, in the past few years, by the opening episode in Ta-Nehisi Coates' award-winning book, Between The World and Me. Coates describes a dispiriting experience he underwent on a Sunday morning show—the fruit of a dispiriting set of events which, by any normal standard, plainly didn't occur.
The incident was easily fact-checked, but it seems that no one bothered or dared. (The unnamed program was Face the Nation. The unnamed moderator was Norah O'Donnell.) Adding to the oddness of this episode, Coates' book is written as a heartfelt, truth-telling letter from Coates to his teen-aged son.
According to Coates' book, Coates was thrown into despair by the offensive incident in question, which rather plainly didn't occur. How did our liberal world respond to this odd performance?
No one fact-checked Coates' account, which is impossible to square with the tape and transcript of the program. Instead, Coates' book received the National Book Award, a very high liberal-ish honor.
Overall, did Coates' book deserve that award? We don't have a view on that. But that opening episode is quite odd, as is our liberal culture.
At present, our liberal culture is heavily built around the skill of taking offense. We constantly see that Those People, the ones Over There, are giving offense through their inveterate racism, misogyny, homophobia, bigotry and xenophobia—and of course their ridiculous voting behavior.
We're highly skilled at taking offense. Do we ever give offense? Consider what the young novelist Willie Davis said about Samantha Bee's above-ground swimming pool joke.
Bee offered the joke last November 9, the night after Donald Trump won. Months later, Davis wrote the following passage in Salon, part of a longer rumination about contemporary liberalism:
DAVIS (2/25/17): On her first show after the election, Samantha Bee, the comedic equivalent of a Facebook “share if you agree” post, said, “America has done the diplomatic equivalent of installing an above-ground pool. Even in the best case scenario and it doesn’t seep into the foundation, our neighbors will never look at us in the same way again.”Should Davis' friend have felt that way? Not necessarily, no.
Who has above-ground pools? Poor people of all races. Rural people with yards. The joke is simply “Poor people who try to act rich are tacky. People who don’t have the money to get a proper pool are an embarrassment, and they should be more concerned with the judgment of neighbors than their own happiness.”
Does that attitude matter to people? One of my best friends—a woman from West Virginia who organizes labor unions and has received commendations from the Obama White House—said when she heard Bee’s above-ground pool joke, she instantly felt like “the poorest kid in class.” She organizes unions and had everything at stake in Clinton winning, but to Bee she was just the stupid, poor kid from a stupid, poor state. That is the flip side of identity politics. It doesn’t matter what she does—only who she is.
Did others hear Bee's joke that way? Quite possibly, yes. That said, we liberals often give severe offense, in ways which nobody misses.
Whatever her intention may have been, Rebecca Solnit's attitude was clear in the recent comments we quoted yesterday. No one would have missed it—no one, that is, except Us.
That said, sneering condescension toward the white working class has been a basic part of liberal culture since the 1960s. Our big stars have long been skilled at giving offense, to tens of millions of voters, in the standard old highly enjoyable ways.
In Solnit's case, a Berkeley crowd was encouraged to chuckle at the thought of Those (ridiculous) People out there "in America" amidst their kids' rural drug addiction. Also in their "bleak suburbs!"
Our attitude at such times is clear. This is one of the obvious ways in which we sent Trump to the White House.
Would Solnit deliberately give offense? We will assume that she wouldn't. When Frank Rich rails about the nation's "hillbillies," we feel a bit less sure.
(Rich, of course, was trashing Al Gore all through the 2000 campaign—and well beyond, even as Gore opposed the war in Iraq and wrote an Oscar-winning film about climate change. Gore, of course, was from Tennessee, just as Bill Clinton had been from Arkansas. If you think those facts are unrelated, you're an easier tribal sell than we are. Our mindless tribal condescension has often hurt us badly.)
Again and again in the past decade, we've sneered at the white working class. Solnit mocked their rural drug addiction. But at the start of the current era, we had Rachel's dick bombs.
Barack Obama had been elected; a "tea party" movement had started. Out in America, many people were being misled by powerful right-wing and Republican figures.
Maddow decided to kick way down, a practice our tribe adores.
You may remember the episode. Night after night, through the course of two weeks, she invited Ana Marie Cox onto her TV show to lob dick jokes at the "tea-baggers." They weren't as culturally hip as Us! This made them ripe for discard.
(Maddow pretended, night after night, that she was embarrassed by Cox's jokes. In this way, she also displayed her contempt for Us. We just sat there and took it.)
Maddow bombed the ridiculous baggers. Eight years later, Solnit snarked about their rural addict sons.
We displayed our uglier, less wise sides. Everyone sees this out "in America." Everyone sees this but Us.
We liberals tend to believe, and to say, that we're just extremely bright. The numbskulls are all found Over There! Within our tribe, we actually tend to believe this.
The truth of the matter is quite different. Everyone knows this but Us.
In part through our massive arrogance, we keep electing people like Bush, even leading to Donald J. Trump. Even now, we can't quite see that some of the problem may lie Over Here, with Us.
We're angered and puzzled by the idea that we should stop insulting The Others (and sneering about their misfortunes). Insulting The Others is our tribe's greatest joy. It lies at the heart of our culture.
We liberals love to take offense; through our unkindness and our indecency, we're also quite good at giving it. We've walked away from Rose of Sharon. When we hear about older women who can't afford to see a doctor, our intellectual leaders angrily say that it's their own dumb fault.
(Why didn't they read Paul Krugman last year? As Krugman himself seemed to say last week, you can't help people like that!)
We snark about people "in America" with their comically addicted sons. When we behave in these time-honored ways, everyone in America can see the way we look.
Everyone can see who we are. Everybody but Us!