Monday, November 01, 2021

The Sweet Spot Between the Cletus Safari and the Herman Cain Award

by Michael C. Dorf

Ever since the 2016 election, journalists for mainstream centrist-to-liberal outlets like the NY Times, Washington Post, and NPR have periodically ventured into Trump territory to listen to what the volk have to say. This sort of travelogue is so common that it has even earned a pejorative nickname:  a "Cletus Safari", after a stereotypical hillbilly character on The Simpsons. The Cletus Safari is often at least ostensibly sympathetic. Look. Sure, these white working class folks in the Rust Belt or rural America sound like racist and xenophobic theocrats, but you have to understand that ever since the plant closed and the opioid crisis hit, they've had it hard, so that's just projection.

Admittedly, even the ostensibly sympathetic Cletus Safari is patronizing in the way that attributions of false consciousness always are. But despite that and many other problems, Cletus Safaris usually do not traffic in overt hostility for their subjects.

Contrast the Cletus Safari with the Herman Cain Award--a subreddit that glories in reporting on how people who once downplayed or denied the risk of COVID-19 were later infected by and succumbed to it. It's understandable to feel somewhat less sympathy for such people than for, say, Colin Powell, who had received two doses of the vaccine and was about to get a booster, when he succumbed because he had a blood cancer that inhibited his immune response AND because the ambient level of COVID in the U.S. is higher than it would be if we didn't have so many anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Still, the Herman Cain Award itself is grossly insensitive. It's the kind of thing that gives schadenfreude a bad name.

Less gross but still a bit, I don't know, uncomfortable, are the numerous news stories in which an anti-vaxxer who became infected recorded a warning based on a change of heart that came too late. It is possible to imagine that some people who are vaccine-skeptical or otherwise conspiracy-theory-minded could be affected by one or more of these stories. However, they so frequently have a smugness about them that even when they seem to be offered in good faith, it's easy to see them instead reinforcing the view that "we" in the coastal liberal elite look down on the fools whom we're supposedly trying to persuade. No matter how sincere the motives of the people publicizing the posthumous warnings from anti-vaxxers who changed their minds too late, it cannot help that one site collecting them is the Herman Cain Award's Twitter feed.

Is there a sweet spot between the Cletus Safari and the Herman Cain Award? Put differently, how should rational liberals talk about and/or to Trump-supporting COVID-is-a-hoax types without, on the one hand, indulging and thus giving a platform to vitriol and nonsense, or, on the other hand, patronizing, demonizing, alienating, and thus further radicalizing them?

I don't have a perfect answer to that question. I confess that I enjoy the likes of Trevor Noah and John Oliver, each of whom runs numerous stories that have as their basic theme "these people are fools." (To be fair, they also run stories with the theme "these people are doing bad things"). But even if there were much less or even no overt smug condescension, FoxNews and the rest of the right-wing news/opinion ecosystem would find or distort something with which to generate outrage. In a big country with millions of people speaking out in varied fora, it will always be possible to find someone on any side of any issue saying something that either really is condescending or insensitive, or can be readily and plausibly mischaracterized that way. The War on Christmas is a forever war.

Thus, the point of avoiding things like the Herman Cain Award cannot be to persuade people who believe "we" look down on and lack empathy for them because Tucker Carlson told them we do. Nonetheless, there are two other reasons to avoid this sort of behavior. First, there are probably still a few people "in the middle" who will be offended by the insensitivity of the Herman Cain Award and things like it but who would not enlist fully in the fight against the bogus War on Christmas. Second, and certainly more fundamentally, we should avoid gross insensitivity because it's cruel. If a former anti-vaxxer who contracted COVID has, as a dying wish, that their message of regret go out to current anti-vaxxers, I suppose it might not be counter-productive to honor that wish, but let's at least not do so with anything resembling glee.

The opposite danger is easier to avoid. There is almost never a good reason for a Cletus Safari. The answer to the question whether Trumpists are people concerned about the global economic forces that have diminished their expectations or racist xenophobes who are prone to conspiracy theories like "white replacement" is both. Some are more directly activated by one set of concerns than the other, but these are not contradictory explanations. Economic misfortune or even the perception of potential economic misfortune exacerbates tendencies towards scapegoating. It's not important to talk to Cletus to figure out which is his primary motivation. It is important to pursue policies that will be more appealing than whatever appeal Trumpism holds.

But wait, you say. A fair number of Trumpists really are hardcore deplorables who should not be appeased. Sure, I'll grant that. Yet that's not a reason for even a Proud Boys safari, much less a Cletus safari. My point isn't that liberal-to-centrist media should ignore what's happening in Trumpland. It's essential to know where Trumparatchiks are being installed to corrupt elections, for example, so that if possible, steps can be taken to combat them. But the Cletus Safari isn't about keeping an eye on the opposition. It aims to humanize the opposition. To the extent that it ends up humanizing white supremacists, it's offensive. To the extent that it shows us that there are some otherwise sympathetic characters out there who have nonetheless fallen into believing and espousing dangerous and/or offensive nonsense, the Cletus Safari is at best pointless and often patronizing.

Thus, the sweet spot between the Herman Cain Award and the Cletus Safari ends up being fact-based discussion and inquiry, combined with sincere and passionate advocacy for sensible policies. That may sound banal and obvious. Perhaps it is. Yet for those of us who like our news and opinion with a large side of snark (and I'm as guilty as anyone of that taste), the temptation to go in other directions--especially the Herman Cain Award direction--is actually hard to resist.


former student said...

I think this is a good piece and a good start. I guess I would not dismiss entirely the value of trying to get to know working class people of all races (who comprise the majority of covid-is-a-hoax and vaccine-hesitant groups, as well as the base of passionate Trump voters). You don't have to travel into rural, red-state America to get to know Trump voters. There are literally millions in New York City and California, even if they are a minority.

For example, a simple "safari" to various swimming pools in the summer time would turn up this observation: You are much more likely to find mixed race children (by which I mean, here, specifically children with one Black and one white biological parent, as opposed to other mixes) being lovingly cared for by white parents or grandparents in a public swimming pool in Trump country than in a country club or private swimming pool or a public pool in high-income zip code, where Biden voters predominate. You may question this observation and demand statistics, but that is only because you have never undertaken the "swimming pool" safari.

Another useful "safari" would be to spend time in the nation's hospitals and nursing homes and among the nation's home health care workers talking to the nursing assistants themselves rather than the MDs and RNs. These nursing assistants are the people who have been actually taking care of the people recorded as having died of covid. Such a safari might give one insight as to why (statistically, although we never hear from them as individuals in the press) nursing assistants of all races are so much more likely to be vaccine-hesitant and view covid as not a serious threat to themselves or their families than the professionals who have spent most of the last 20 months videoconferencing, sending emails, and socializing only in their "bubbles."

With respect to attitudes towards covid more generally, it might also be useful just to consider the different experiences of people who live in small dwellings (trailer parks, apartment complexes, urban tenements) and depend on public recreational spaces (parks and playgrounds and public swimming pools) to people who live in large, spacious dwellings with comfortable yards and have access to private recreational facilities such as country clubs. Or the difference between people who work with their hands for a living -- whose jobs can only be done outside of their homes -- and people who work with phone calls and emails and word documents and power points and spreadsheets -- even doctors mostly did their jobs by video-conference, but patients can't be moved, turned, changed, bathed, fed, or cared for by video or emails.

The "Cletus" safari might be patronizing -- I agee that it is -- but I still think that there is a non-patronizing way of trying to report on the attitudes and beliefs of the people who hold opposing views.

kotodama said...

[Vol. 1]

“white working class folks”

Yes, they’re invariably white aren’t they?

Also, let’s be clear, they’re not “working class.” If they’re in a diner, it’s inevitably the guy who owns the diner being interviewed. Or it’s a guy who owns a car dealership. Or a contracting/landscaping business. If it’s a farmer it’s the guy who owns and runs the farm.

None of those folks are “working class” anymore than the folks who could readily afford to take multiple days off from their jobs, book lodging in DC—not exactly a cheap market either—and in some cases even charter private flights for a little social gathering at the Capitol, with a side of insurrection (or was it just overexuberant tourism, or a joint Antifa/CIA/Soros/NSA/BLM/FBI false-flag op? it gets confusing sometimes!).

Likewise, the idea that such folks are so genuinely “concerned about [] global economic forces” is utterly devoid of credibility. They’re petty bourgeoisie, not card-carrying members of the proletariat. Sure, compared to an Intel or Apple they only run “small businesses” but at the local or even state level they loom plenty large and wield no shortage of power. They’re petty tyrants. While they might resent the “national” or “global” tyrants, let’s face it, that’s only out of jealousy. (Although, it seems like they’re just fine with Koch Industries, Exxon, Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A, Fox Corp., Uline, RenTech, Clear Channel, Sinclair, etc. etc.)

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. Quite frequently the guy being interviewed just happens to also be the local Republican party chairman. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

A “working class” person would be, you know, someone who actually works for the boss at the diner, farm, dealership, or landscaper, etc. But for some reason these intrepid WaPo, NYT, and NPR journalists never seem able to track them down. Are they so elusive like sasquatch, Nessie, and ET? Or maybe the failure to locate them is by design?

OK, but enough already on the faux downtrodden economically anxious. Time for COVID (in Vol. 2)!

kotodama said...

[Vol. 2]

“the Herman Cain Award itself is grossly insensitive. It's the kind of thing that gives schadenfreude a bad name.”

It’s not insensitive though, not even close. Insensitive would be, actively working to promote, encourage, and support a contagious, harmful, and potentially lethal disease. Oh, and going out of your way to undermine and attack anyone with the temerity to be, I dunno, against infection and in favor of public health and safety? Yup, being pro-COVID and anti-vaxx sounds pretty darn insensitive to me. Sort of like how Jeffrey Dahmer was “insensitive” to his victims.

Likewise, it certainly isn’t bad to feel schadenfreude in this case. Wikipedia helpfully informed me today that schadenfreude actually has 3 distinct categories. One of them is “justice-based schadenfreude.” That’s when a bad thing happens to someone doing bad things. That category seems very appropriate for lucky members of the COVID fan club who get an intimate meeting with their celebrity idol. It’s even more fitting because, of course, their downfall was entirely predictable and in fact they deliberately invited it. So if anything, it’s the best kind of schadenfreude. An easier-to-pronounce term is also available: kismet. (OK, maybe maybe maybe a very small token of gratitude is in order each time they wipe a plague-spreader off the map, but it’s still just a drop in the ocean.)

“how should rational liberals talk about and/or to Trump-supporting COVID-is-a-hoax types … ?”

With respect, you’re asking the wrong question. The right question is not “how?” but “why?” And the obvious answer is, they shouldn’t. Of course, the reason the supposedly “liberal” media types keep falling over themselves to interview Republican chairman business-owner X should be clear from the above. It’s not from any purported concern with the “working class” who seem to be extinct from every town the reporters visit. It’s all about the clicks and engagement. The correct answer is “no” because these people thrive off attention, so talking about and/or to them just plays right into their hands. Like Richard Cheney said (paraphrasing), beware of “feeding the beast.”

“patronizing, demonizing, alienating … them”

Oh, but they richly deserve it. See above.

“further radicalizing them”

I’m a broken record on this, but these are grown-ass adults with free will and agency. They are radicalized because they choose to be. It’s a choice, and you get the consequences accordingly. That’s on them. Republicans are the party of “personal responsibility” right?

“It is important to pursue policies that will be more appealing than whatever appeal Trumpism holds.”

I’m not sure pro-COVID and white supremacist policies are such a good look for the Democratic platform. But again, the question is, who cares what appeals to them? We’ve already got policies that appeal to the clear majority of the country. I think we’re very much on the right track. You have to be incredibly na├»ve to think in politics that you can satisfy every last person all at the same time.

“there are probably still a few people ‘in the middle’ who will be offended by the insensitivity of the Herman Cain Award and things like it”

These so-called “moderates” are more of a fiction than Nessie and sasquatch. Certainly I’ve never seen evidence of them in the wild—although I’m told those intrepid journalists are on the hunt 24/7. Also the idea you can hold a “moderate” position somehow in the middle of pro- and anti-COVID beggars belief. Like I keep saying though, such people—even if they do exist, but I’m doubtful—are a decidedly insignificant electoral constituency. Why do we have to cater to them to the exclusion and detriment of the millions and millions who already support the existing platform? The question practically answers itself.

former student said...

Kotodama: The voting data shows overwhelmingly that white non-college educated voters were Trump's biggest constituency. When you go by current income, things get confused because of the influence of race (Blacks, who as a group are poorer than working class whites, still overwhelmingly vote Democratic for historical reasons) and age (older voters tend to vote Republican and older voters in the same family tend to earn much more than younger voters because of experience in the workforce and cultural forces that still grudgingly value seniority). It also gets complicated by the fact that workers who are doing well -- boilermakers, pipefitters, coal miners who still have a job, natural gas workers, etc, -- overwhelmingly support Trump to keep those jobs, while persons dependent on welfare often do not hold out any hope of ever getting those jobs and vote for the party that will give the biggest paycheck. Certainly the data on covid issues shows overwhelmingly that it is a massive class divide that has nothing to do with race and little to do with partisanship (judged by African Americans at least), with the single exception of the vaccine-hesitancy of people who hold advanced degrees.

And you can't just say that because the people who could afford to travel to DC on Jan 6 could afford to travel to DC, that that means that Trump's voters can afford to travel to DC. That's terrible logic. The Trump voters who went to DC are among the poorest people one can imagine being able to travel to DC, many bankrupt, many ex-military. Ex-military people often can afford to travel to DC both from a time and money perspective, having a little pension at a young age, but they hardly qualify as anything other than working class. And "working class" in the US does not mean abject poverty -- that's kind of the whole point. It is trending that way. The parents of the younger working class people had decent jobs. The fear among the working class, however, is that they never will and they will become only sporadically and informally employed, and dependent on welfare.

Maybe your point that the media tends, when it wants to find Trump voters, to interview small business owners (but not sole proprietors) rather than workers and sole proprietors (like the furnace repair guy) is fair, but more as a criticism of the media trying to duck the class issue than as a reflection of reality. (Certainly small business owners tend to vote Trump, but that's many times over a no brainer, and only a small slice of the electorate.) If you eliminate race and age and wealth as categories and just go by educational divide, it's pretty obvious across all races and ages that the Trump wing of the Republican Party attracts working class people and the DNC wing of the Democratic Party attracts the professional classes.

former student said...

I shouldn't say that small business owners voting Trump is many times over a no-brainer. Immigration is an issue that still divides the working class Trump voters from small business (non-sole proprietor) Trump voters, so Trump focused on enforcement at the border rather than enforcement at the workplace (although he did do a fair bit of that, at least with chicken plants). But when you consider the general concerns of larger small business owners of regulatory overhead (which hits them harder than big businesses, obviously), forced benefits (which also hits small businesses harder than big), and especially covid, it is still mostly a no brainer. Obviously, Biden's immigration policies are a massive boon to ma and pa restaurant owners, lawn care and cleaning service companies, home healthcare cos. and daycares, and many larger small businesses.

kotodama said...

former student, you disappoint. Here was your big chance to point out actual concrete examples of all those working class economically anxious people voting in droves for Trump, and the best you could do was a basket of strawmen and non-sequiturs. And I certainly don't count the Ashli Babbitts of the world (or no longer of the world?) as working class either. Better luck next time maybe.

Jason S. Marks said...

Professor D,

If the moral of the post is that "two wrongs don't make a right," I can agree. And from a moral standpoint, we should try not to find joy in other people's suffering (and since that is the essence of schadenfreude, I am not sure what could give it a good name).

But...I do not think sensitivity requires a blind eye to the pain caused by some of the recipients of the Herman Cain Award. Some of these people had positions in the media and used that position to advance disinformation that I am certain led to an increase in COIVD-19 cases and deaths, a needless increase that need not have occurred. Their behavior must be held to account, and if they came to it too late but still wanted to repent, I think it is responsible to report that conversion in the hope that it could save lives. But the opprobrium many of these people deserve for spreading lies and fomenting hate for a public health issue need not be seen as insensitive. Had the last president worn a mask in March of 2020 and urged his followers and all of the nation to do so, we could have avoided tens of thousands of deaths. That is just a fact. If he cannot escape criticism, I do not see why those who agree with him and participated in a disinformation campaign do not deserve the same. If the retort is that they were followers and he was the leader, I reject that lack of moral agency. It is a fallacious argument.

What about the damage to our health delivery system? Increased cases have stressed hospitals and put everyone at risk as a result. People with necessary non-COVID needs have not had their needs addressed in certain circumstances because of absence of beds or physicians. Who will pay for the costs not covered by insurance? All of us. We had not only unnecessary loss of life, but also loss of public and private funds for healthcare.

And on a personal level, all of us have suffered because too many of our fellow citizens would not take adequate public health measures like wearing a mask or social distancing. Because of COVID, many people could not go to the hospital to be with their loved ones, whether with COVID or some other illness -- a policy still partly in place in many hospitals that limit visitors because of the risk of infection. Our lives have been unfairly impacted because of the action/inaction of others (Kant would label their behavior immoral) who knowingly disregarded public health directives or acted to thwart those directives as "lies" rather than science. I think it would be a mistake to fail to reckon with what happened and to call certain people who had roles in our predicament to account.

Let's look at Herman Cain. He took his own risk in not wearing a mask, though his own doctors surely told him because of his cancer he had a greater chance of dying from COVID. But this is not like a drug addict who through poor choices dies, because the drug addict only directly causes harm to himself. One who flaunts public health regulations in a pandemic is actively spreading the disease and putting all of us at risk. I still don't think a large chunk of the population understands the role they have played, whether they had the disease or not.

I would point out that Camus in The Plague held all to account who failed to fight the plague. I do not see why we should make exceptions for COVID.