CULTURE AND TOWN: We want to compliment the Times!

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2021

Where do Trump voters come from?: We want to compliment the New York Times for yesterday's front-page report.

On its face, Michael Powell's lengthy report is merely "anecdotal." At its heart, his report concerns one particular event which occurred at one particular "elite" college—Smith College, in Northampton, Mass.—in July 2018. 

The event in question involved one student. She'd just finished her freshman year. 

She was eating lunch, and reclining on a couch, in the living room of a dormitory which was closed for the summer. Because no one was supposed to be in that place, an extremely polite campus policeman asked her why she was there.

(Their two conversations were recorded. In each instance, the unarmed campus policeman was extremely polite, as of course he should have been.)

The extremely polite campus policeman asked the student why she was there; the soon-to-be sophomore explained.  In a slightly different world, absolutely nothing had actually happened that day.

In a slightly different world, nothing had actually happened. In our world, an enormous amount of fallout emerged from that mid-day event.

The New York Times deserves a great deal of credit for seeing how instructive that one event might be. That one event and its aftermath—that one event and its fallout.

In particular, the Times seems to have seen that this event might help us consider some of the ways we sometimes behave here in the streets of Our Town. Some of the things we may sometimes do imperfectly Over Here, within the liberal / progressive / Democratic Party world.

Last night, Tucker Carlson began his Fox News program with a report on this very event. As we've mentioned, people in the other towns will often be told about the ways our conduct may be less than impressive.

We thought Carlson took an extremely unsympathetic approach toward Oumou Kanoute, the college student who had been lounging and eating her dining hall lunch in a dormitory which had been closed for the summer. 

Don't get us wrong! In many ways, this student behaved imperfectly in the aftermath of that day's (remarkably minor) event. 

That said, college students often do behave imperfectly. Quite often, they could even use some help.

In what ways did this student—she had just finished her freshman year—behave in an imperfect manner? The rundown goes like this:

In the aftermath of the event, she apparently felt that she'd been singled out because of her race. (Her parents are immigrants from Mali.) An investigation by the college found no evidence of that, but there's a lot of pressure on young black kids in the current environment. [her rea;lity]

The student didn't just think that she'd been singled out; she seemed to feel sure that this had occurred. Over the course of the next several weeks, she proceeded to state her views on Facebook. 

She accused several Smith employees, by name, of being racists based on their alleged conduct that day. We say "alleged" for a reason.

The student named a veteran cafeteria worker—a woman who had apparently played no role in what occurred. She named a veteran janitor who hadn't even been on duty when the incident occurred.

She sought the name of another veteran janitor—the person who first saw that someone was in the dormitory which had been closed for the summer. This janitor had called security to report this fact, as he'd apparently been trained to do. 

The student didn't pull her punches in her Facebook posts. According to this Times report from 2018, she described this janitor as  “the racist punk who called the police on me for absolutely nothing.” 

(In retrospect, that initial report was grossly prejudicial and unbalanced.)

According to Powell's report, this janitor—the janitor who was present that day—"was in his 60s and poor of sight." He'd worked at Smith for 35 years. The student wanted to get his name so he could be denounced too.

It's hard to report what the student did without seeming to disparage her. In our view, she showed highly imperfect judgment—but in our experience, college freshmen are rarely mistaken for veteran international diplomats.

The much larger story here involves the behavior of adult authorities at Smith (and beyond). It involves the behavior of various people in the wider reaches of Our Town.

The student's Facebook posts were highly accusatory. Other people simply assumed that her accusations were warranted.

In yesterday's front page report, Powell describes the effect this accusation had on the cafeteria worker who had apparently played no role in sending an extremely polite campus officer to check on the person who was lounging in a building which had been closed for the summer. Say hello to the way we sometimes behave in Our Town:

POWELL (2/25/21): The repercussions spread. Three weeks after the incident at Tyler House, [Jackie] Blair, the cafeteria worker, received an email from a reporter at The Boston Globe asking her to comment on why she called security on Ms. Kanoute for “eating while Black.” That puzzled her; what did she have to do with this?

The food services director called the next morning. “Jackie,” he said, “you’re on Facebook.” She found that Ms. Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email, along with that of Mr. Patenaude, a 21-year Smith employee and janitor.

“This is the racist person,” Ms. Kanoute wrote of Ms. Blair, adding that Mr. Patenaude too was guilty. (He in fact worked an early shift that day and had already gone home at the time of the incident.) Ms. Kanoute also lashed the Smith administration. “They’re essentially enabling racist, cowardly acts.”

Ms. Blair has lupus, a disease of the immune system, and stress triggers episodes. She felt faint. “Oh my God, I didn’t do this,” she told a friend. “I exchanged a hello with that student and now I’m a racist.”

Ms. Blair was born and raised and lives in Northampton with her husband, a mechanic, and makes about $40,000 a year. Within days of being accused by Ms. Kanoute, she said, she found notes in her mailbox and taped to her car window. “RACIST” read one. People called her at home. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” a caller said. “You don’t deserve to live,” said another.

[...]

As for Ms. Blair, the cafeteria worker, stress exacerbated her lupus and she checked into the hospital last year. Then George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of the Minneapolis police last spring, and protests fired up across the nation and in Northampton, and angry notes and accusations of racism were again left in her mailbox and by visitors on Smith College’s official Facebook page.

Powell's treatment of Blair's story continues from there. We can't vouch for her claims about the various ways she was denounced. Surely, though, no one doubts them.

As noted, Smith's investigation found no evidence that Blair had played any role in the fact that the student was told that she was in a closed dormitory by an extremely polite security officer. 

The janitor who wasn't there is also no longer at Smith. According to Powell, Patenaude "left his job at Smith not long after Ms. Kanoute posted his photograph on social media, accusing him of 'racist cowardly acts.' ”

In our view, the student showed imperfect judgment in the days and weeks which followed this event. That said, she was a very young person. Some other people were older.

The larger story in Powell's report involves the behavior of the Smith administration—more specifically, its condescension and prejudicial behavior toward its white working-class employees. The key player was Smith's president, who was and is an adult.

In fairness, she herself had previously been denounced in the streets of Our Town. In this passage, Powell suggests that these earlier incidents may explain the way she handled this latest event:

POWELL: [President] McCartney and her staff talk often of their social justice mission, and faculty say this has seeped into near every aspect of the college. Students can now obtain a minor in social justice studies. That said, the president had stumbled in ways that left her bruised by the time of the 2018 incident.

In 2014, she moderated an alumnae discussion in New York on free speech. A white female panelist argued it was a mistake to ban Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because he used the N-word; that panelist then uttered the word in hopes, she said, of draining the word of its ugly power. Students denounced Ms. McCartney for failing to denounce that panelist. The president requested forgiveness.

Later in 2014 she wrote to the college community, lamenting that grand juries had not indicted police officers in the deaths of Black men. “All lives matter,” Ms. McCartney concluded in an inadvertent echo of a conservative rallying cry. Again, Smith students denounced her and again she apologized.

Ms. McCartney appeared intent on making no such missteps in 2018. In an interview, she said that Ms. Kanoute deserved an apology and swift action, even before the investigation was undertaken. “It was appropriate to apologize,” Ms. McCartney said. “She is living in a context of ‘living while Black’ incidents.”

The school’s workers felt scapegoated.

In 2014, the president had been foolish enough to say that "all lives matter." 

For this misconduct, she'd been rebuked. Powell suggests that she was determined, four years later, to avoid such "missteps" with respect to this latest event.

That's a subjective assessment of motive. But the president's statements and actions in the wake of this new event help create an embarrassing portrait of the way life is currently lived in the more "elite" parts of Our Town.

Powell describes the many anti-bias "training sessions" staff were now required to attend. Along the way, we're treated to the tribalized forms of language which control the way we now talk about "race" in the streets of our highly self-impressed but less than super-bright town.

Thankfully, Powell quotes one Smith professor concerning the condescension of Our Town's academic elites. This professor describes the condescension these elites may direct at the white working-class people who prepare the food inside their cafeterias and sweep the floors of their residence halls. 

In the higher reaches of Our Town, we've been looking down on such people since the dawn of time, or at least since the 1960s. We return you to Woody Guthrie's brilliantly cutting lyrics, written in the age of the Dust Bowl:

I've mined in your mines and I've gathered in your corn.
I've been working, Mister [or Missus], since the day I was born.

We love the use of the word "your" in those sacred lyrics. Along these same lines, even sacred Thoreau may have betrayed a bit of an air when he wrote one of his most quoted lines. 

Unlike Thoreau himself, "The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation?" Within the context of the wider passage from Walden, might that have sounded a bit dismissive to the mass of such men?

Michael Powell (and his editors) did something unusual in yesterday's report. They moved past the easier realm of race into the whirlwind of class.

We recommend that you read his full report. You might also peruse the 35-page report which resulted from Smith's probe of this apparent non-event. 

We've barely touched on the imperfect treatment dished to that cafeteria worker and to those two veteran janitors, one of whom wasn't there. Concerning that imperfect treatment, we will only say this:

Almost surely, this is one of the ways the modern-day Trump electorate gets formed. If you can't imagine that possibility, we'll suggest that you may be one part of the problem here in the streets of Our Town.

We feel sorry for that student. Let us tell you why:

Last night, Carlson played tape of an interview the student did back in 2018. To our eye and to our ear, she was badly in need of counseling help, as is the case for many people in their late teen years.

In our view, that young person got little help from Smith's administration. In our view, Smith pandered to her in an extremely unhelpful way. In the process, several long-time employees got thrown under the bus.

There's a lot of imperfect behavior described in Powell's report. There's also a lot of Stone-Cold Stupid. Our Town has no shortage of that.

The Crazy is running wild in Their Towns. Over Here, where we live, we all understand that fact.

It's harder for us to see the ways we often behave in Our Town. That said, our errors tend to involve matters of gender and matters of "race"—and, as Chekhov memorably wrote, it seems to us that the most difficult part is only just beginning.

For the 35-page Smith report, you can just click here. Plainly, the report describes some of the (avoidable) ways in which Trump voters are born.

Tucker was quite unpleasant last night. That said, on the merits, these events were instructively awful. 

The behaviors were often unseemly, unintelligent, unhelpful. But these are the ways we behave in Our Town, over and over again.

We can't see this about ourselves. Over There, everyone can.


36 comments:

  1. Meh.
    "The others" will come running right back to us with love in their hearts as soon as they read about Right-wing "cancel culture" at Collin College.
    Unless this is yet another strong Right-wing ideological position which is totally negotiable.

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  2. Does this sort of liberal-goebbelsian shit still amuse you, dear Bob? Why? Yawn.

    Hey, was it, by chance, Jussie Smollett in drags?

    Also, seriously, if living in the US of A so horrible, why not go back where her parents are from? Mali. We have no doubt whatsoever that it's a beautiful, beautiful country, without any 'white' people, and thus: no racism. And she probably still has relatives there. All there is to it.

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    1. Привет маленький тролль. Ты недавно трахал свою сестру?

      Delete
    2. What fucking drivel. Try expanding your repertoire to something beyond "go back to where you came from". That's so goddamn trite.

      PS: Presumably the girl was born in this country.

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    3. Dear dembot, for alternatively gifted: even if she was born on top of the Statue of Liberty, we'd still recommend her to leave the country she hates so much and immigrate to a better one.

      Your parents did, dear dembot, and, we presume, everyone's happy now. It's a win-win.

      Delete
  3. "We can't vouch for her claims about the various ways she was denounced. Surely, though, no one doubts them."

    Somerby is highly selective about who he believes without question and who he thinks should be disbelieved on the face of things (in this case, the student).

    For example, Somerby says:

    "The student's Facebook posts were highly accusatory. Other people simply assumed that her accusations were warranted."

    So, it is OK for Somerby believe the cafeteria worker when she reports being called a racist, but not OK when others believe the accusatory student. Why? In both cases, there is no evidence initially and belief is based on nothing substantive.

    But Somerby wants to call liberals fools for believing this student, when he himself is willing to believe a cafeteria worker without checking.

    We don't know who chose to harass that cafeteria worker (who has blown her own experience up into justification for days off and a hospital visit due to "stress"). They may or may not have been liberals. They could be the college student herself, or some of her friends. It is hard to see how anyone would have motive to go to all that trouble without personal involvement.

    But this does sound like the kind of thing Trump supporters do when pointed in a specific direction by Trump or one or another Republican wing-nut. Or maybe the equivalent of internet trolls exist in real life, getting their kicks from sending threats to targets designated on social media.

    However polite that security guard was, he didn't succeed in helping the college student understand that she was not permitted to be in the dormitory (in which she had perhaps been living all school year). He did nothing to ease her embarrassment, which seems to be the likely motive for her accusations. Clearly something set her off, and the extreme politeness of everyone who spoke to her doesn't explain what that might have been. That makes Somerby's presentation sound fishy to me.

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    1. That's nonsense. You're twisting in the wind with your contortions. The cafeteria worker stated a fact: she hadn't contacted the police. This can be verified. The student, of course, wasn't aware of the facts and just proceeded with her accusations. Somerby is correct though: no one expects perfect -- or even rational behavior from a self-righteous teenager -- but a lot more expected from college administrators, who failed everyone, including the student. The student could've been taught a valuable lesson, but wasn't.

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    2. I don't think we know what the student did or didn't learn from this experience.

      Somerby's faith in the cafeteria worker's statement wasn't about the verifiable part, that she didn't contact the police, but about the non-verifiable part where she says she received repeated notes calling her a racist, on her car, and where she attributes her aggravated lupus symptoms to the stress of those notes (and nothing else in her life?).

      That is what I was referring to, but you have to read the whole excerpt from Powell that Somerby quoted.

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    3. The attribution of Lupus attacks to stress can neither be verified nor disproven. I think that everyone should understand that it's a conjecture, a reasonable one at that.
      As far her claim that she received notes calling her a racist: what reason do we have to accuse the cafeteria worker of lying? She provides an eyewitness testimony, so unless it can be demonstrated that she is lying, we have to take her at her word. She doesn't have much to gain, other than a bit of sympathy. There's no indication that she has an agenda.
      The girl, on the other hand, made statements that were demonstrably false. That's the distinction. Whether the girl is truly conniving and is trying to gain notoriety -- or her 15 minutes of fame -- is not possible to discern. So, I am not inclined to read more into the girl's behavior other than she is a teenager.

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    4. Like I said, Somerby is willing to entertain her unprovable statements but not those of the student or women in other situations. He is being selective and accepting unprovable statements when they fit his own prejudices.

      And the girl did accuse the wrong person but had no way of knowing who was on duty until when using the resources available to her.

      As I said, and no one has addressed, the student may have felt that a white student in her situation would not have been approached at all, and she may have felt like they suspected her of criminal intent, which is an affront no matter how polite everyone was about it. There is no nice way to ask "what are you doing here?"

      Blaming hospitalization on a note on your car is a major stretch.

      If you went into a store and a security guard came up and asked you, ever so politely, "have you paid for all of your items?", wouldn't you be affronted and wouldn't it be pretty clear that they suspected you of shoplifting?

      Look at the whole situation, not Somerby's framing.

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    5. I actually did read the article. What is beyond dispute:
      1) The girl accused someone improperly and incorrectly. As you say: she didn't have all the facts at her disposable, which means that she shouldn't have accused the person. Trivially true.
      2) The girl was trespassing, so can't really disregard that and attribute all the subsequent events to racism. It is not at all similar to a security guard questioning you at the store sans any evidence. She should not have been in the dorm in the first place.

      Would a white student have been treated differently? This is absolutely unknowable. That is all speculation and conjecture.

      Again, the girl's accusations are demonstrably false. The other statements may be hard to prove, although when you have an eyewitness testimony, you have to accept it as true, unless shown otherwise.

      The girl is not a true villain here though, the administration is.

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    6. Ilya, she no doubt thought she had the correct name, not knowing when shifts begin or end. She was most likely not aware she was no longer permitted in the dorm. Signs would not have been posted -- no school does that.

      How a white student would have been treated is the main point, not the politeness of the guard. Yes, it is conjecture but it is most likely the source of her complaint, not anything the guard said.

      Getting the name of an employee wrong doesn't materially change the facts of the incident. She was still treated like someone who didn't belong there, after being a member of the campus community for a year but not understanding fully that the dorm was closed.

      She clearly didn't break into the dorm to find a place to eat lunch. That makes no sense at all. So you must recognize her ignorance of the rules. That will make her interaction with the guard more embarrassing to her.

      I think the administration behaved exactly the way most administrations do behave, in my experience on several different campuses.

      What makes this a racial situation is the lack of appreciation that someone who is black may have encountered previous situations in which their right to participate was challenged, and thus may be more sensitive to such accusations, no matter how polite the guard. Prior experience affects current behavior.

      So, she was embarrassed and angry, blew off steam (unfortunately toward the wrong person), and that should have been the end of it. Whoever wrote those notes is a bad actor, if that happened. The adults in this situation are grownups and should have shrugged it off. These encounters happen all the time. If you are a professor, you learn how to anticipate and head off these kinds of situations with students. A cafeteria worker or security guard may not have had enough experience to have seen the danger, but no one was trying to fire them, so they should let it go.

      Working with students requires the ability to handle this stuff so that it doesn't blow up on Facebook, but just browse through RateMyProfessor and you'll see similar pique over very little. It is what students do.

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  4. ...here's a far more amusing current event for you, dear Bob:

    Twitter Says It Purged Dozens Of Accounts For "Undermining Faith In NATO"

    What are your thoughts, my dear? Do you care at all?

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  5. If you didn't use social media, you could be called a racist on it without ever knowing what was happening. In fact, people no doubt call each other all kinds of things behind their backs and the targets never know what has been said. Somerby presumably never reads his comments and has no idea what is being said about him here.

    Why is it so horrible that someone called someone else a racist? Being a racist is not against the law, and Republicans are racists all the time, without consequences.

    This student felt like she was being accused of being a criminal, despite the "politeness" of the security guard. Is it worse to be called a criminal (by implication) or a racist? Which would you rather be accused of? She felt that a white student wouldn't have been approached by the guard at all (no matter how politely). That is the crux of this matter and Somerby never recognizes it, much less addresses it.

    Powell says that the schools workers felt scapegoated when McCarthy apologized (an act which costs nothing). But the workers do not pay $50,000 per year tuition and they are not the "customers" of that university, who are presumably always right and will always receive an apology, regardless of what happened. This is what would occur at a Starbucks if you complained that your coffee was not to your liking. Workers are there to serve customers, not vice versa.

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  6. Bob is finding comfort cherry picking a story about a college security guard knowing full well he got eaten alive in his comments section yesterday on a post about how institutional racism is exaggerated. A post about the actual police not college security guards.

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  7. ...or, and incidentally, dear Bob: since you've lost the bet on that "Mister Trump's War" of yours (we're certain your check's in the mail), should we start a new one on Liberal-Zombie Cult War? It seems like the perfect time now.

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  8. I do not believe that anyone voted for Trump in 2020 because an incident in 2018 involving a college student at Smith who called a few people racist.

    Somerby wants to generalize the behavior of a college student to all liberals. That is just plain lazy. Powell used the anecdote to beat a different drum (about class vs race, Somerby says, though he didn't bother quoting that part of the essay). Instead Somerby uses this poor girl's problems to batter liberals (Out Town supposedly) when, like that poor janitor, we weren't even there and didn't do any of the things Somerby complains about in this incident.

    In other words, Somerby grabs this anecdote, just like Tucker Carlson, and uses it to bash his favorite target, liberals. How is he any different than a run-of-the-mill Republican Fox News host when he does that? And how does it help that student, who Somerby says needs counseling, to spread her problem all over the media once again, two years after this unfortunate incident? She may be a very different person by now. Does she deserve to have her past mistakes follow her everywhere? How is Somerby exhibiting compassion by doing this?

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  9. I thought that it was an interesting and, for the most part, a well-written article. I let my fourteen year-old son read it to get his take. He said that the student was a brat, but the school president was the real culprit here, who immediately kowtowed to the student's accusations. Seems kind of obvious.

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    1. Somerby gave us a string of examples of her kowtowing to others and apologizing readily, but that is pretty much her job, along with fund-raising and keeping donors happy.

      I'm sure the right would like us to believe that all students at so-called elite universities are spoiled, entitled, rich brats, but in reality most are attending on scholarship and are selected to come from a variety of backgrounds, as this girl, an African immigrant, appears to be.

      We don't know what previous experiences with racism this student might have had. This might have been the straw that broke the came's back after a stressful first year in unfamiliar circumstances. Somerby says she needs "counseling" but he is too quick to call people mentally ill, in my opinion.

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    2. I don't think that the girl is mentally ill, but she could use some guidance. It's hard to say from afar whether the girl is a full-blown opportunist who hitched her wagon to a social ill to gain some notoriety. She is certainly quite righteous -- as one expects of someone of her age to be.
      Again, though, whether it's the president's job to keep donor's happy and apologize incessantly, she failed to do right by the employees of the college. This should be someone's job. The proposed training described in the article is psychologically intrusive and obnoxious.

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    3. She blew off steam to her friends on Facebook. How is that a big deal?

      The employees are more replaceable than the students or donors. They should shrug it off, as any adult would. This is a stupid snowflake fest all around, including Somerby and the right-wing.

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    4. She blew off some steam -- that's a very charitable description. Here, perhaps this will help: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/812861/jewish/A-Pillow-Full-of-Feathers.htm
      Yes, the employees are more replaceable and should be treated as nameless cogs in the Smith college money-generating machine. That statement of yours, my friend, is where the crux of the problem lies. Some people are just not that important. It's more important to let a teenager blow off some steam. Enough said.

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    5. I said replaceable, not unimportant.

      Smith is an educational institution and it is non-profit. That doesn't mean it can exist without money. If schools did not do fund-raising, no student could afford to attend except the very wealthy. Most students attend on scholarships funded by donors as part of the university's endowment.

      When a teen lets off steam on Facebook, they can say whatever Facebook lets them. Those employees can sue if they feel harmed, but suing 18 year olds over being called "racist" is pretty stupid.

      All of the adults in this incident are coming off badly, including that cafeteria worker.

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  10. I don't care where Trump supporters come from. I just wish they would go back to their own planet.

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    1. Yes, let's start the rumor that they are all reptilians!

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  11. “Where do Trump voters come from?”

    Does it occur to Somerby that having front-page reports in the New York Times about a two-year-old non-event might be the problem? The reporting, including Carlson’s, forces people to “take sides” and carry on an intense debate about a single (in Somerby’s words) non-event at an “elite” institution. (For a non-event, he sure does expend a lot of thought on it.)

    In the old days, this probably would have been handled quietly and privately, but nowadays we aren’t allowed to escape it.

    It doesn’t help matters that Carlson dredges it up to tell his audience how this one incident shows the world how all liberals act and how “bad” they supposedly are. It’s mostly propaganda played out in the media, and sadly, where Somerby would once have condemned the media for its focus on such non-events, he now agrees with Carlson.

    Meanwhile, there’s no end to interviews with Trump voters at Midwestern diners, but, oddly, there doesn’t seem to be any media interest in speaking to Biden voters in those fucking diners. Instead, they hand us this bullcrap, and Somerby is only too glad to indulge and compliment the Times for its nonsense.

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    Replies
    1. I don't want to hear about how awful the Democrats are until they kill every Republican. Until then, Right-wingers can STFU.

      Delete
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