Inside Clinton's churches: How dumb, and how venal, are the roughly 2500 people who live in Clinton, Arkansas?
If we were forced to take a guess, we'd guess that they aren't especially dumb as compared to everyone else, and that they aren't massively venal.
That said, like Rod Steiger's sheriff, "We ain't no experts." For that reason, the New York Times enacted an ancient human tradition:
They let a credentialed East Coast expert settle these questions for us.
The expert in question is Monica Potts, a former and possibly current Fellow at New America, a major Washington think tank. Potts holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr (class of 2002), plus a master's degree in magazine writing from the Columbia School of Journalism.
In the view of the Times, this equipped Potts to settle a burning question: How much should the people of Clinton, Arkansas be paying their head librarian?
How dumb are the people of Clinton, Arkansas? We have no idea!
For ourselves, we're more inclined to wonder how dumb you have to be to build the front-page essay in the Sunday Review around so pointless a question. But that's what the brainiac New York Times did in last Sunday's editions.
How much should Clinton have paid its librarian? Potts says $25 per hour, but the town bumped that initial budget proposal down to only 19.
As Potts notes, the leading candidate for the job accepted that rate of pay. Some would say this means that the town avoided over-paying for the position—made a sound budget decision.
At any rate, what's the answer? Should Clinton's librarian get $19 per hour? Or should she get 25?
On Monday, Kevin Drum critiqued the Potts essay. He suggested that, in a low-wage rural town with significant budget problems, it's entirely possible that the town's resolution of this quandary may have made actual sense!
Drum didn't raise the larger point, concerning why the New York Times would ridicule this small town's residents over so minuscule a matter. In comments, Drum's readers quickly began insisting that Potts was surely right in her assessment concerning the appropriate wage.
As they did, they brought the eternal note of sadness in. They also put an ancient fact on display:
Within our highly tribal species, urban elites will always ridicule the mental hygiene of the rubes who live in the provinces. Our species has always functioned this way, and until we decide to be less dumb, our species always will.
At any rate, Potts was pretty dadgummed hard on the people of Clinton, among whom she grew up and among whom she once again lives. Basically, she said two things:
The people of Clinton are too dumb to let us credentialed elites tell them how much to pay their librarian. And in their dumbness, they're letting us see how venal they are.
You can see these themes expressed in the passage shown below, but they pop up elsewhere in Potts' piece:
POTTS (10/6/19) Since coming back, I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.In that passage, Potts discovers that the people of Clinton "seem determined to" turn their backs on the brighter people who are trying to help them!
Beyond that, they even stand opposed to "helping [their] neighbor!" Similar condemnation is voiced in this longer passage, in which our evangelist makes a journalistic error:
POTTS: There was general agreement among the Facebook commenters that no one in the area was paid that much—the librarian’s wages would have worked out to be about $42,200 a year—and the people who do actually earn incomes that are similar—teachers and many county officials—largely remained quiet. (Clinton has a median income of $34,764 and a poverty rate of 22.6 percent.) When a few of us, including me, pointed out that the candidate for the library job had a master’s degree, more people commented on the uselessness of education. “Call me narrow-minded but I’ve never understood why a librarian needs a four-year degree,” someone wrote. “We were taught Dewey decimal system in grade school. Never sounded like anything too tough.”For the record, Potts makes a journalistic error in that passage. She compares the proposed personal income for the librarian—initially, $42,000 per year—to the average household income for residents of the town—$34,764.
I watched the fight unfold with a sense of sadness, anger and frustration. I started arguing. It didn’t work. The pay request was pulled from the Quorum Court’s agenda.
I didn’t realize it at first, but the fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here.
The answer was, for the most part, not very much.
This tilts the discussion in Potts' favor. But so it can go when unlettered masses turn their backs on helpful credentialed elites.
At any rate, what are Those People willing to do for each other? As they turn their back on Potts, the journalist comes up with the answer—not very much!
Potts goes on to offer examples of how venal and dumb her neighbors actually are. In that very passage, she quotes a random person on Facebook offering The Dumbest Possible Thought of All Time concerning the need for a librarian to have a college degree.
Apparently, we readers are supposed to see how dumb this particular comment is, and with it how dumb the whole freaking county must be.
For ourselves, we don't think the comment in question is necessarily super-dumb. But as to the obvious generalization we were supposed to draw, we'll only say that, in the same edition of the Times, we read this account of the brilliant way we highly credentialed liberal elites behave on the upper-end coasts:
HESS (10/6/19): Molly Jong-Fast, a former novelist who once described her pre-Trump self as “completely selfish and disinterested in politics” and who is now a liberal Twitter influencer and columnist for the Never Trump site The Bulwark, told me that Maddow “made wonkiness cool.”We're going to guess that the people in Arkansas' heart of dumbness would roll their eyes over conduct like that. But so it goes when we stereotype large groups, and insult individuals, over random behaviors and comments.
Recently, I went to dinner at the home of [Name Withheld], a preschool principal in San Francisco who turned to Maddow in her depression and confusion over the 2016 election. I brought a bottle of rosé, and she poured it into glasses decorated with charms that featured Russia-investigation figures on one side and characters from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on the other. I sipped from the Hope Hicks/Beverly Crusher glass, and we watched Maddow’s show over veggie enchiladas. “I think of her as a news doula: You know the news is going to be painful no matter what, so we might as well have someone who helps us survive it,” [Name Withheld] told me. Last year, [she] had a Maddow-themed birthday party, at which her friends and her two young sons put on big black glasses and slicked their hair to the side. Also in attendance was a life-size cardboard cutout of Maddow, which is now in storage so as not to startle guests.
After [Name Withheld] bought her Maddow cardboard cutout, she got a Robert Mueller one, too. For a time she would sit him in her front window, posing him near speech bubbles that she wrote herself. But after the real Mueller filed his report and failed to step into the role she had imagined for him, she tucked him away in the closet with Maddow. Now her car is decorated with Elizabeth Warren bumper stickers.
For ourselves, we thought Potts quoted several Arkies making dumb remarks which didn't seem all that dumb to us. At one point, she quotes a resident citing the concern she felt when she said "she’d witnessed, in Texas, a hospital being practically bankrupted by the cost of caring for immigrants."
As Potts continues, she seems to fashion this concern in an extremely unflattering way. But what was that woman supposed to think when she saw this hospital approaching bankruptcy?
Potts doesn't exactly say. Meanwhile, is it possible that people in Clinton help each other in venues Potts may have missed?
For ourselves, we have no idea. But tomorrow, we'll visit a comment by a resident about life inside Clinton's churches.
As a general matter, we think it's very unwise to condescend to large groups of people in the way Potts seems to do in her high-profile piece. Indeed, right at the start of her essay, Potts alleges a general view among these rough-hewn rural folk—an alleged view which strikes us as rather apt.
Below, you see a chunk of Potts' third paragraph. She's quoting a Wisconsin professor who wrote an intriguing essay in Vox:
POTTS: In 2016, shortly after Mr. Trump’s victory, Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, summed up the attitudes she observed after years of studying rural Americans: “The way these folks described the world to me, their basic concern was that people like them, in places like theirs, were overlooked and disrespected,” she wrote in Vox, explaining that her subjects considered “racial minorities on welfare” as well as “lazy urban professionals” working desk jobs to be undeserving of state and federal dollars.Right there in paragraph 3, Potts establishes the idea that people in Clinton stand opposed to "racial minorities on welfare." In the course of her essay, she makes no attempt to justify this implicit claim, but this claim lets Times readers know that we're about to be favored with one of our favorite stories.
Professor Cramer also said that rural folk have a certain lack of respect for "lazy urban professionals." As quoted by Potts, the term "urban" may seem like a second racial whistle.
In fact, in Cramer's actual article, the reference seemed more intriguing to us. Cramer said these rural folk were underwhelmed by folk like herself:
CRAMER (11/16/16): They also thought that they didn’t get their fair share of tax money. To them, too much of it went to the cities, to “undeserving” people. The undeserving included racial minorities on welfare but it also included lazy urban professionals like me working desk jobs and producing nothing more than ideas.In Cramer's essay, rural Wisconsinites were said to resent such "lazy urban professionals" as professors and possibly journalists. If people in Clinton hold such resentments, we'd have to say that their general view isn't necessarily wrong.
Potts emerged from a well-funded think tank to tell the people in her home town how much to pay their librarian. She wrote an essay in which it was clear that she found their general view of the world to be dumb and self-defeating.
Indeed, the headline on her New York Times piece said that these drooling rustics live "in the land of self-defeat." That may well be true about them, but it's certainly true about us!
Tomorrow, we'll wonder what is going on inside Clinton's churches. Beyond that, we'll examine the human dumbness occasionally found on the nation's coasts.
As a general matter, let the word go forth to the nations—our vastly self-impressed species routinely lives in the heart of dumbness. Part of that folly lies is this fact:
As a general matter, we're only wired to spot the dumbness when it's found Over There.
Tomorrow: Friend, do you hate flossing? In that case, listen to us...