Sunday, April 1, 2018

Satire

Boy representing the month of June in a Roman mosaic calendar, 3rd century, posted by user Saliko at Wikmedia Commons.


By unpopular demand, I feel obliged to say a few words about the Indiana journalist Adam Wren and his Politico Magazine piece "My 72-Hour Safari in Clinton Country", which has roused a lot of comment around the neighborhood, and about which I already expressed an unpopular view (over at Steve's place), which is that when Wren says his piece is "satire", he is being sincere, though probably wrong in the sense that he doesn't have a very clear idea what satire is like.

But he did have an idea of a target, apparently, when he was pitching the piece to Politico (or, in his version, they were pitching him):

My editors had given me this assignment as something of a lark. The idea: Just as reporters from New York and D.C. trek into Trump Country to visit greasy spoons and other corners of Real America™ to measure support for the candidate, I’d venture from Trump Country to the most stereotypical bastions of coastal liberal elitism, and ask the people I met whether they still support Hillary Clinton. An innocent abroad, I would leave Hamilton County, Indiana, a deep-red suburb north of Indianapolis that Trump won by nearly 20 points, the kind of place where the Koch brothers are presently carpet-bombing Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly with $2 million in television and digital ads for his vote against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Once on the decadent East Coast, I would luxuriate in its undiluted upscale liberal consensus at bookstores, wine bars, cafes and other Blue State institutions peopled by NPR tote-bagging sophisticates. Perhaps I’d drop in on something activist-y, a meeting of Resistance types.
When a hoo-ha erupted about the assumptions of the piece, that Clinton voters are all decadent, undilutedly upscale sophisticates who spend all their time consuming high-end products like books and booze except when they're whipping up the Molotov cocktails at their Resistance meetings (in spite of the fact that there are three million more of us than there are of them), and its procedure of looking only for evidence that confirms it, Wren explained that what he was producing was "satire":






(I guess that link, to Pierce's 2000 Hard to Forget, not very satirical, on the scourge of Alzheimer's disease and his own family predisposition to it, must be meant as satire too.)

Funnily enough, Wren was one of those reporters visiting Trump Country himself, back in February 2017, though he gives no sign of being aware of that. But he wrote a piece for Politico at the time, reporting on a trip out of the coastal elite Indianapolis suburbs to remote Vigo County, telling us what eateries to look in to find the Trump voters in Terre Haute:
What I heard, in conversations with nearly a dozen Trump supporters, is that like the Ameses, most of Vigo County is still “Trumped up.” All around town, folks are still buzzing about the county’s winning streak and Trump’s surprise win. You hear it in chatter at eateries like Logan’s and in coffee shops and diners such as Boo’s Crossroads Cafe & Corner Grind, which could pass as a knockoff of Luke’s Diner in the show “Gilmore Girls.” And the grist of the coastal media’s hot takes? The lies, the fumbles and faux pas that have rattled the D.C. establishment and global allies? None of it seems to resonate here.
Do hot takes have grist? Do Indianans watch "Gilmore Girls" in spite of the coastal elite character of its Connecticuter cast? Are these spoons greasy?

But in any case, that should help clarify some of the confusion over the Clinton voters piece. With characteristic centrist humility*, he's satirizing himself, as the clueless journalist haunting the habitats of people who don't have to be at work at ten in the morning to gather the fresh stereotypes and clichés.

*One of the things I've learned about Adam Wren is that during the 2012 presidential campaign he collaborated on a book entitled Humble for President, apparently about the brave quest of a lonely adjective to make its voice heard in the tumult of arrogant nouns.

Thus, if in last year's piece he made fun of the Trump voters for not allowing themselves to be influenced by what they read in the news, this year, talking to a putative Clinton voter, he's ridiculing himself, or rather the fictional "Adam Wren" who is the unreliable narrator of the essay, for believing that Trump should get the credit for the surge in the stock market and collapse in unemployment that began in 2009, while his interview subject tries to tell him:
Why didn’t Venezky regret voting for Clinton, what with the stock market rallying and jobs aplenty, with people wishing one another Merry Christmas again, and with North Korea reportedly coming back to the diplomatic table to talk denuclearization?
“I mean, come on, read the news,” he told me.
Wikimedia Commons.
Wikipedia.
Trump has also failed to halt the steady rise since 2012 in Americans who say it doesn't matter whether stores say "Merry Christmas", seen here through December 2017. Pew Research.

Or this, talking to a retired math teacher and Stein voter:
What did he not like about Trump? He shrugged. “So many things,” he said. He cited Trump’s support of the “Janus SCOTUS decision,” which I’ll admit I had to look up. He was referring to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, a case that, if it went the wrong way, was “going to destroy public unions,” he said. It wasn’t a case you heard folks bandy about back in Trump Country.
Because maybe the 266,000 Indiana workers represented by unions in 2017 (9.7% of the employed population, down from 11.4% in 2016 as planned under Indiana's new 2012 "Right to Work" law) aren't "bandying about" Janus v. AFSCME, but the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks funded by the Kochs, Altria/Philip Morris, AT&T, and others has definitely been bandying about Indiana workers:
“Teachers unions are at the heart of all this,” says Harvard’s Theda Skocpol. “Teachers exist in every community across the country. They are educated, they speak up, and they care about public schools. Break the teachers unions and you break the organizational power that exists in and around the Democratic Party at the state and local level.”
In an April 2016 fundraising letter obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and published in the Guardian, SPN CEO Tracie Sharpe asks her readers to help strike “a major blow to the Left’s ability to control government.”
I am writing you today to share with you our bold plans to permanently break the power of unions this year. ... I am talking about the kind of dramatic reforms we’ve seen in recent years in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and now West Virginia—freeing teachers and other government workers from coercive unionism—and spreading them across the nation. … I’m talking about permanently depriving the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle.
Naturally our intrepid "Adam Wren" wouldn't know about any of this since he spends all his reporting time in coffee shops hanging out with the unemployed, retired, and occasional freelancers. He has to come to Park Slope, Brooklyn, to learn about the issues facing Indiana workers.

In the same way, just as a hapless New York Timesman like David Brooks thinks to find Trump voters he needs to seek out poverty-stricken and opiate-addicted young nihilists (in the 2016 election, Clinton won in all income groups under $50,000 and age groups under 40, and Trump in all the others), "Adam Wren" thinks to find a Clinton voter he needs to go to the Park Slope Food Co-op and Chelsea Market, as if all 66 million of us lived within three miles of the Brooklyn Bridge (to be honest he also visited DC), and then is surprised to learn that everybody eating at Corkbuzz (pulled chicken sandwich with green apple slaw and avocado mash $14) "seemed to be financially well off".
Like Morrison, everyone I met seemed to be financially well off, a sign of just how much money is still sloshing into pockets of Blue America. In my quest to understand this brand of voter, I visited Chelsea Market, an upscale, enclosed urban food court. Sort of like a food court you’d find at a mall in Indianapolis, except without Chick-fil-As or Wetzel’s Pretzels. In their places stood establishments such as Corkbuzz Wine Studio and The Green Table, which, according to its advertising, was “one of the city’s first farm-to-table restaurants.” It served “farmer’s market salads and daily soups, along with sustainably-raised fish, pasture-raised poultry and grass-fed beef.”

I'll have you know there are five Chick-fil-As in Manhattan, though none of them in food courts, including two less than a ten-minute walk from where I work, and the world's largest Chick-fil-A just opened in the Financial District, five stories including a roof garden and eventually 150 employees.

Similarly, just as that hapless Timesman might (wrongly!) imagine all Trump voters weigh over 300 pounds, "Adam Wren" thinks he should be looking for Clinton voters in a particularly strenuous gym:
“He’s a moron,” said Meghan Early, a real estate broker still sweaty from a Beyoncé-drenched SoulCycle class on International Women’s Day in NoHo, the tony Manhattan neighborhood.
[snip]
I asked Early, the SoulCyclist, what she made of the parts of the country that, as her candidate suggested, were “looking backwards.” Had she ever visited? No, Early told me.
“But I’ve flown over it,” she said.
Hearing herself, she paused, and offered a disclaimer.
“I am in a bubble,” she told me. “But now, I don’t want to get out of it.”
[snip]
Pack. tribe. crew. posse. cult. gang. community. SOUL. The glowing neon-ish white words hovered near the entrance of SoulCycle NoHo. It was International Women’s Day, and as the city dug out from more than 9 inches of snow that came the previous day, I decided to SoulCycle my way to a better understanding of Clinton Country. I’d ridden a bike before, but I had never been to a SoulCycle class. The closest one to me is three hours away in Chicago. Juxtapose a map of their locations with an electoral map, and it’s not difficult to see the company favors hanging its shingles in urban parts of Blue America.
Sort of like a map of the locations of Nathan's Famous Coney Island Hot Dogs. For some reason they don't have a lot of those in Indianapolis either, except in supermarkets (though they have 13 restaurants in Florida, which Trump also won, three in Georgia, two each in Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, and one apiece in Texas, Kentucky, and Minnesota, and I think you can get them in St. Louis if you go to a Cards game).
Forty-five minutes later, the class came to a merciful end. That was when I caught up with Early, the 33-year-old Brooklynite who grew up in Manhattan. Asked how she felt about Trump’s first year in office, the real estate agent rolled her eyes. “First of all, I’m brown,” she said. Early said she knew Trump’s reputation from friends who worked on “The Apprentice.” “He’s horrible,” she told me.
Did she have empathy for Trump voters? Or was she angry at them? She wasn’t angry, she said, but “maybe they should come to Bed-Stuy and walk around the projects to see what my life was like.” I told her I was from Indiana, and had come here to do almost exactly that. She thanked me for listening. “I go off on tangents like this at parties. People are like, K, bye.” We said goodbye.
If she grew up in Manhattan then the Bed-Stuy projects may not be exactly what her life was like, owing to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood being in Brooklyn. Not for the first time, I find myself suspecting that "Adam Wren" is not giving a completely straight account of his experiences. The first time was back in the Park Slope Co-op:
I chatted with Rod Morrison, 66, a British expat who became a U.S. citizen in 1994. Morrison also still supports Clinton, despite the buzzing business at his marketing company, where the majority of his clients are Republicans. He had come to the co-op to return some vegan cat kibble for Daisy, his aging tabby. Recently, his wife had switched Daisy to raw rabbit, which she seemed to enjoy. “Pascal won’t touch it, but Daisy and Mr. Rat gobble it up!”
Raw rabbit cat food exists, it turns out, and the Park Slope Co-op carries at least one brand that makes it (Wysong, which also has an extensive line of vegan cat kibble), but I refuse to believe in the existence of a household where they can't decide whether they want their pets to be vegan or palaeofeline.

I also find that at least some of the characters exist as well, like the proprietor of Rod Morrison Marketing and Elie Venezky in the co-op (I can find references to a bunch of Meghan Earlys but none of them seem to live in New York). This is a very unusual kind of satire, in which real people befuddle and humiliate a fictionally stupid narrator, obsessed with who's saying "Merry Christmas" and unable to conceive that working class people could take any interest in the success or failure of trade unions.

Or maybe—look, Wren's essay is a monster, well over 6000 words or around 85 words per hour, fulsomely describing every sandwich and cocktail, and repetitive, and I can't keep this up much longer—maybe he thinks he's really Tom Wolfe, who's also pretty conservative, and that in trotting out his semifictional gaglines about his subjects' preciousness and affluenza, and accenting stereotypes and brand names instead of granular detail he's making them sound stupid. In which case, sorry, Adam, I knew Tom Wolfe, Tom Wolfe was a friend of mine, though I've spent more time being angry with him than appreciating him, and you, sir, are no Charlie Pierce.

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