Hess from San Francisco: Monica Potts has taken a journey up a long, winding river into the heart of dumbness.
It's even worse than that! For the past twenty years, Potts has been "living on the East Coast, most recently in the Washington area." She reports this fact in the essay which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Review in yesterday's New York Times.
Just for the record, Monica Potts is a good, decent person. From 2010 through 2014, she was a senior writer at the American Prospect, producing longform journalism. Since September 2014, she has been a fellow at New America, formerly the New America Foundation, a well-funded, self-admiring think tank which, in 2013, produced one of the slipperiest books about public schools of the entire "education reform" era.
We don't intend any of this as a criticism of Potts. Some of her past writing has been highly praised. Some of her writing has produced aggressive criticism from people more woke than she.
By any sensible standard, Potts seems to be a thoroughly decent person. But yesterday, the New York Times gave her one of its most valuable weekly platforms to describe her continuing trip into the heart of dumbness.
You see, although Potts has been living in Washington, D.C., she grew up in Clinton, Arkansas, a small town in rural Van Buren County.
Potts left Clinton to go to college; she graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2002. But two years ago, she returned to her home town. She describes this turn of events early in Sunday's essay:
POTTS (10/6/19): I returned to Van Buren County at the end of 2017 after 20 years living on the East Coast, most recently in the Washington area, because I’m writing a book about Clinton, Van Buren’s county seat. My partner and I knew it would be a challenge: The county is very remote, very religious and full of Trump voters, and we suspected we’d stand out because of our political beliefs.The county "is full of Trump voters," Potts reports, finding a slightly unusual way to state an unsurprising fact. It's also "very religious," making the place a challenge.
In its author identity line, the Times describes the book Pots is writing: "Monica Potts is working on a book about the low-income women of her home town." Because the town is very small, there may or may not be an enormous number of such people, depending on how you keep score.
According to Census Bureau estimates, Clinton's population was roughly 2,700 as of 2017. Its median household income was $34,764—well below the national figure of $57,632.
In those same estimates, 22.9% of Clinton residents were said to be living below the federal poverty line. The figure was 19.6% for Van Buren County (population, roughly 16,000) as a whole.
These poverty rates were higher than the national figure of 14.6%. That said, the cost of living would be lower than average in Van Buren County. For most purposes, it's hard to make sensible nationwide comparisons on the basis of a single official "poverty" standard.
At any rate, Potts is back in a town which is "full of Trump voters." Inevitably, the town turns out to be the heart of dumbness, a fact Potts conveys fairly clearly at the start of her front-page report.
How dumb are the people in Clinton? The people in Clinton are dumb! For starters, the Times has placed the following headline on the essay Potts provided:
In the Land of Self-DefeatPotts' essay is coming to us from "the land of self-defeat," where people work from their "mythology!" Potts learned these things from a fight about the local library in Clinton—a fight she describes in her piece.
What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology—and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal.
To her credit, Potts seems to note the implausibility of this undertaking at one point in her essay. Still, in just the third paragraph of her essay, she starts explaining how dumb These People are, along with other rural Americans like them.
She spells it out like this:
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. People like my neighbors hate that the government is spending money on those who don’t look like them and don’t live like them—but what I’ve learned since I came home is that they remain opposed even when they themselves stand to benefit.Needless to say, the people in Clinton have it in for racial minorities on welfare. But according to Potts, they're so dumb that they even oppose federal spending when they themselves stand to gain!
Sadly, they're even dumber than that. Here, let Potts explain:
POTTS: 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.These People! They're so dumb that they won't even cooperate with "the last institutions trying to help them!" And it sounds like they're remarkably venal too. They're opposed to taxes, immigrants and government—but they even stand opposed to "helping your neighbor!"
Potts never quite explains what that unpleasant claim means. But so it may go when people like Potts try to go home again.
Concerning the people of Clinton and/or Van Buren County, we'll quickly give them this. If "their basic concern" is that "people like them, in places like theirs, are overlooked and disrespected," we'll say that yesterday's essay suggests that they aren't always crazily wrong in the things they think and suspect.
We'll examine the logic of Potts' specific critique as the week proceeds. For now, suffice it to say that Potts builds her remarkable act of denigration around a question of pay for the local librarian:
In this low-income locale, the librarian ended up getting paid $19 per hour. Potts believes the figure should have been more like 25.
For our money, the tone of Potts' essay makes her rediscovered fellow citizens seem like giants of perception. That said, how dumb are the people in Clinton?
We're going to guess that there's plenty of room for improvement!
That tends to be true of all us humans, possibly including Potts herself and even the glorious Times. As a general matter, we're all stumbling along, seeing through a shot glass darkly, hampered by the inevitable shortcomings known as the human condition.
Few organizations put our shortcomings on display with more frequency than the Times. We think the paper has done it again by publishing Potts' essay and by giving it such prominent display.
In truth, we thought Potts' essay was itself perhaps a bit less than fully insightful, with a possible undertone of The Ugly. Then too, there was the profile by Amanda Hess which was the featured piece in yesterday's New York Times magazine.
While Potts had ventured to darkest Arkansas, Hess had gone to upper-end San Francisco, where she met with one of Rachel Maddow's legion of fans. She also quoted Molly Jong-Fast, a name-brand Maddow fan, imaginably in New York City.
Potts' journey to Clinton got the featured spot in the Sunday Review. Hess' trip to the Golden Gate received the corresponding placement in the Sunday magazine.
That said, here's our question:
Is it possible that Hess had journeyed upstream to a heart of dumbness too? To us, it almost seemed, reading her essay, that the answer could be yes.
We'll explore these two essays, and the populations they discuss, over the next few days. That said, is Clinton, Arkansas really "the land of self-defeat?"
Before we enjoy that idea too much, let's spend some time among our own set, possibly in upper-end Gotham, definitely out by the bay.