Our own heart of dumbness: We have no doubt that Monica Potts is a good, decent person.
Potts graduated from Bryn Mawr in the class of 2002. That said, she grew up in Van Buren County, Arkansas, and she didn't grow up as one of the swells.
A decade ago, she described her upbringing in a post at Tapped, the group blog of the American Prospect. Youngsters were discussing the question of who gets favored in elite college admissions. As part of a thoughtful longer statement, Potts offered this profile of her rural Arkansas youth:
POTTS (7/21/10): My family was fairly poor when I was young but by the time I was applying to college, had worked its way to tenuous working-class status. I was raised in a town of 2,000 in rural Arkansas, and though I wasn't a member of [Future Farmers of America], I took an agriculture and shop class in middle school, learned how to shoot a rifle (though not very well), and was vice president of Future Homemakers of America (hey, everyone should learn to cook). I had decided at a very young age that I wanted to go to Harvard, but by the time my feminism was ignited as a high schooler, I was applying to the former Seven Sisters schools instead. I admit I identified as liberal, but I'm not sure how that would have come out in the application process, while I can tell you for sure that the fact that I started and ran a church youth group did...In our view, that sounds like part of a fascinating American and human story. In a nation of 330 million souls, there are quite a few such stories, all of which should perhaps be treated with something resembling respect.
Potts has done good work as a journalist in the past. We thought she displayed shaky but highly familiar judgment in her high-profile essay in last weekend's Sunday Review, an essay in which she described her return to her rural home town to write a book about low-income women.
In the course of her essay, Potts smacked the minions of her old hometown—Clinton, Arkansas—pretty dadblamed good. In a novelized form as old as humanity, she seemed to say that the yokels in question are just amazingly dumb, and dad-gummed venal too.
As she noted in her essay, Potts has now spent twenty years living on the East Coast. Most recently, she said she's been living in Washington, where she's been a kept person of the multimillion-dollar think tank, New America.
Right from the start of Sunday's essay, Potts battered her former and once-again neighbors real good. Essentially, she said they're too dumb to come in out of the rain—and that they even oppose the idea of helping others:
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 neighbors.These Arkies today! They won't even let us brighter people tell them what to think and do!
They're against immigrants, Potts explained, citing no particular evidence. But they're also "against helping your neighbors!" Yes, they're really that bad!
Are Potts' neighbors really that dumb and that venal? For ourselves, we've never been to Clinton, but we'll examine the strength of Potts' claims before the week is through.
For ourselves, we don't think the evidence Potts provides supports the "Them So Dumb, Us So Smart" line of pseudo-analysis which has long ruled our human world. But that isn't the question we're going to track down today.
Are Arkies too dumb to come out of the rain? We'll guess that, on balance, they aren't. That said, we thought Potts' portrait of Those Hopeless Rubes was especially striking in Sunday's Times, given the portrait Amanda Hess drew of some of Us Geniuses Here on The Coasts in that same Sunday edition.
Potts' portrait of today's rural Arky was the featured, front-page piece in the high-profile Sunday Review. Hess wrote the featured essay in that same day's Sunday Magazine.
Hess wrote a profile of Rachel Maddow, concerning whom, we're forced to to say, Hess seemed to have little to say. But good lord! After reading Potts go after the pitiful dumbness of the Arkies, we couldn't help noting the portrait Hess drew of a certain class of bicoastal Maddow supporters.
These fans don't hail from the heart of dumbness known as Van Buren County. Rather plainly, they reside in the finer, smarter locales—in our well-educated cities, or on one of our two major coasts.
These are the giants of perception in whose midst Potts had lived for twenty years. But how strange! Hess' portrait of these "typical fans" started off like this:
HESS (10/6/19): Maddow’s typical fan has been branded (by Kat Stoeffel in The New York Times) as the “MSNBC Mom,” a woman who feels that the election has radicalized her; even if she has not moved to the left politically, her liberal sympathies and news consumption have swelled into a suddenly central part of her identity. (The network has monetized this lightly condescending label with a set of MSNBC Mom tote bags and latte mugs.) 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.”Stating the obvious, there's nothing wrong with being an "MSNBC Mom." To read Kat Stoeffel's portrait of such people, you can just click here.
There's nothing wrong with being an "MSNBC Mom" or a Maddow fan. We do return to the concept of condescension as Hess describes the network's attempt to sell these people latte mugs and the occasional tote bag.
In fairness, the network has to find some way to pay Maddow's giant salary, whose size goes unreported by Hess. In a typical part of upper-end culture, we learn the salary of Clinton's librarian in the course of reading Sunday's essays, but we don't learn how much Maddow is paid to assemble a long list of fans, or how much Potts is being paid by her billionaire-funded think tank.
To purchase one of those tote bags, you can just click here. As for Jong-Fast, who Hess describes as a "liberal influencer," she grew up with every coastal advantage—she's the daughter of novelist Erica Jong—but she says she was “completely selfish and disinterested in politics” until Donald J. Trump came to power in 2016!
We'll assume that Jong-Fast is being too hard on herself, if in a hackneyed way. That said, the lazy disinterest and lack of perception of such upper-end players has long been a distinguishing characteristic of the superficial, unintelligent liberal cult which clowned and snored and stared into space until our dumbness and disinterest ended with Trump in the White House.
Our most erudite "liberal influencers" had told us that Donald J. Trump couldn't possibly win that election, and we tended to believe these tribal sachems. Today, we send our agents into the wild to let us know how amazingly stupid Those Other People are!
Is Jong-Fast a "liberal Twitter influencer" in any significant way? For ourselves, we have no idea, but we clicked the link provided by Hess to check on her liberal tweets.
Having done so, we'll only say this—having little or nothing to say on some subject isn't a moral shortcoming. But in her recent tweets, Jong-Fast seems to have little to say about opposition to Trump which isn't completely conventional. She's largely reciting tribal dogma, much as Potts could be said to have done in her familiar account of How Dumb The Others Are.
Are people in Clinton unusually dumb? We feel certain there's room for improvement! That said, our own tribe has been marked by spectacular dumbness over the course of the past thirty-odd years, a point we'll explore in more detail before the week is done.
Today, people like Potts take foundation swag to journey to a heart of dumbness and tell us about the pitiful dumbness of Others. But what are we liberals actually like, Over Here in Genius Land?
Below, you see the way Hess continued as she described that "typical fan." We're withholding the name of the good, decent person in question, though not of the high-IQ liberal realm within which she brilliantly dwells:
HESS (continuing directly): 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.We'll admit that we had to look "doula" up. But why can't those numbnuts in Clinton, Arkansas be more like this typical fan?
Later, Hess returned to this particular fan, who or may not be "typical" of our admittedly brilliant tribe:
HESS: 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.Is this the typical Maddow/Warren fan? The typical modern liberal?
It would be our thought that, in a vast nation, it's hard to come up with a "typical" person. That would be our thought about Maddow fans, and about the pitiful hayseeds described in the Potts travelogue.
Having said that, we'll also say this:
As with Jong-Fast, so too here. Like Jong-Fast, this San Franciscan was shocked, just shocked, when Donald Trump won that election. Our geniuses told her it couldn't happen, and she believed what she heard.
In the next day or two, we'll run through some of the episodes we liberals slept through in the decades leading to that election defeat.
Our persistent indolence and our lack of perception didn't necessarily make us "dumb." But these traits did and do make us human, like the people whose candidate won. There's room for improvement in Van Buren County, but also perhaps Over Here.
Is Name Withheld a typical fan? Not necessarily, no.
Is Jong-Fast a typical liberal? We'll suggest there's no such thing.
That said, while Name Withheld is a regular person, Jong-Fast is now an influencer, and she says that she was lazy and dumb right through 2016! Meanwhile, at the top of the heap, the New Yorker once published a crazy profile of Maddow by Janet Malcolm, who is often hailed as the greatest magazine writer of the past several decades.
Malcolm hails from the top of the coastal elite. Her account of her own devotion to Maddow came straight from the loony-tunes bin.
In Sunday morning's New York Times, readers were told about a typical liberal fan. She'd had a Mueller cutout in her window, and she'd posted speech bubbles of what the great man was saying.
We wouldn't call that person typical, nor would we call her dumb. But sure enough! In that same edition, subscribers got to read about how venal and stupid The Others are. They won't even let giants like us tell them how much they should pay the local librarian!
According to major anthropologists, the tendency to function this way is as old as the human brain. The human brain is wired for tribe, or so the top experts say.
That said, how strong was the logic of Potts' assessments? Not enormously strong, we'd suggest.
We're sure there's room for vast improvement among the burghers of Van Buren County. But have you ever looked around within our own upper-end liberal tents?
Tomorrow: "And turns his back on me..."