The dumbness of all human tribes: On Sunday morning, October 6, the New York Times published Monica Potts' unflattering portrait of Clinton, Arkansas, the small rural town in which she was born and raised.
You could almost tell the profile would be unflattering by the headline the New York Times placed on the unflattering piece:
In the Land of Self-Defeat, the unflattering headline read. By paragraph 5, we were expressly told that people in Clinton, Arkansas are frequently driven by "an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor."
The unflattering essay was given great prominence. It appeared on the front page of the Times' weekly Sunday Review.
One week later, on Sunday, October 13, the Times published nine letters about the Potts essay. Eight of the writers seemed to have noticed that her profile of her home town was, on balance, unflattering.
One dissenter had seen through the ruse! His letter was published at the top of the list. And even as he saw through the ruse, he sang a familiar old song:
To the Editor:So went this, the letter which sat atop the list of nine. According to the Times, "the writer is an associate professor of labor studies at Indiana University South Bend."
Ms. Potts’s article about her small town in Arkansas fits into a genre of reporting that has flourished since the 2016 election in which sympathetic writers, often raised in Trump country, attempt to explain why people in rural America vote against their interests. Often these are written by people who themselves left these places because they were too small, too conservative and too narrow-minded.
In her effort to elicit an empathetic response from readers, Ms. Potts focuses on her subjects’ belief in self-reliance, hostility toward the city and conviction that they have to rely on themselves. Yet she neglects a very important fact. The rural conservative white voters who support Mr. Trump and are so opposed to federal spending often live in states that receive far more than their share of federal funds, especially in relation to those states with larger urban populations.
They don’t really oppose federal spending. They oppose federal funding for black people and others in cities. Perhaps if they were serious in their belief in self-reliance, they would vote to reject the federal funds that come to their state, and it could be used better in states that want it.
For what it's worth, the writer isn't one of these fiery young kids; he received his Ph.D. from Boston University in 1988. He taught at SUNY-Empire State and at UMass-Amherst before coming to Indiana in 2002.
We were surprised, yet not surprised, by the professor's letter. Somewhat amazingly, he apparently thought that he had read as essay by a "sympathetic writer" who was trying to elicit "an empathetic response from readers" concerning the values and motives of the people of her old home town.
The professor had seen right through this attempt to make us sympathize with these appalling yokels. He went on to explain the real reason for the fact that the people of Clinton, Arkansas had ended up paying their librarian $19 an hour, not the $25 Potts found more appropriate:
What really drives the roughly 2500 people of Clinton, Arkansas? According to the associate professor, it's really their opposition to black people in cities!
In fairness, Potts had played this card herself, starting in her third paragraph. She never presented any evidence or information regarding the racial views of these pitiful bumpkins, but she had floated the card, though apparently not as aggressively as the associate professor would have liked.
Let's back up at this point. This letter was written by a professor who apparently thought that Potts was trying to elicit sympathy for the people of Clinton, Arkansas, many of whom did indeed vote for Donald J. Trump.
None of the other letter writers seemed to think that they'd read such a piece. But in this case, as in so many others, Associate Professor Knows Best!
The associate professor let us know what actually motivates the people of Clinton, Arkansas. He didn't even have to go there to check! He pretty much knew just because!
We're prepared to suggest that this featured letter was rather ugly and remarkably dumb, tilting toward a word we rarely use here—just plain f*cking stupid. We're also prepared to suggest that the professor was playing a very familiar card, and that his somewhat ugly letter represents one of the ways our own self-defeating tribe helped elect Donald J. Trump.
Why might some people in Clinton look down on academic credentials? Could it be because they've read letters and essays of this very type from this type of professor before?
The associate professor struck us as especially unpleasant and especially narrative driven. By the ongoing rules of the game, Those People simply have to be racist! It's the story our own tribe most dearly loves.
To what extent are Those People in Clinton actually racist? We can't tell you that. Potts made no attempt to puzzle that out, though she sprinkled the accusation through her piece, starting in her third paragraph. The professor's pique stemmed from the fact she hadn't played this card aggressively enough.
In a remarkably uncharitable moment, Potts did say that people in Clinton tend to be "against helping your neighbor." Later, she added this:
POTTS (10/6/19): [T]he 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.Poor Potts! What were her neighbors willing to do for one another? "Not very much," she revealed, bemoaning the way they'd failed to agree with her view concerning librarian pay.
The answer was, for the most part, not very much.
Just for the record, the knuckle-dragging people of Clinton had built the new library in question just a few years before. This fact wasn't allowed to get in the way of the strangely unflattering portrait Potts chose to paint—strange in that she was willing to base such an unflattering portrait on this one relatively trivial matter, with a couple of Facebook comments cherry-picked for color and the illusion of validation.
On the basis of this small-bore salary dispute, Potts painted a very unflattering portrait of people who won't "do for one another." By the way, are These People willing to do for one another through their local churches?
Like you, we have no idea, nor are we especially interested in seeing the question explored. That said, we'll guess that Potts may not be the leading authority on this matter. Right at the start of her essay, she semi-complained about the fact that people in Clinton are "very religious."
That's another Standard Complaint From Our Own Self-Defeating Tribe. Snide remarks of that type down through the years also helped elect Trump.
We read a lot of comments to the Potts essay. In fairness, a lot of the comments did strike us as extremely narrow-minded and judgmental, but we're referring to comments from our own self-impressed, self-defeating clam.
People are tribal all over the world. People are narrow-minded within all human tribes.
Anthropologists keep coming to us to remind us of such facts. They even say our own tribe is wire such ways—is wired for judgmental dumbness and for self-defeat.
It's hard to say that these credentialed future experts are wrong. Then again, we've been alive for the past thirty years, and we've watched our own spectacularly useless "heart of dumbness" in action.
The other tribe is so dumb and so vile! It's the oldest of all "human" stories!
The associate professor typed it up, and it went to the top of the pile.
In search of the deadbeat people and states: In terms of federal expenditures versus federal receipts, Arkansas is one of the major deadbeat states, though it certainly isn't the worst.
How much of that money goes to people in Clinton? To the people who wanted to pay $19 per hour rather than the plainly more appropriate 25? To the handful of people who made the cherry-picked comments on Facebook? To the disappeared citizens who agreed to build the new library in the first place?
Like the professor and the people of Clinton themselves, we have no idea. The professor was simply singing a song which one group of haters most loves.
We humans form tribes, then find ways to hate. This impulse is frequently self-defeating.
We've been told these things by top anthropologists. Admittedly, they speak to us, despondently, from a dystopian future.