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.