Rhetorical Robber Barons and a Nation of Fairytales
On Flint, Yamhill and storytelling as just another extractive industry
Bari Weiss is a famous writer with a very popular newsletter. You likely know her already. Her deal is that she is angry at wokeness and intolerance among American elites (especially Media Elites), a stance that she developed in part because— when she was at the New York Times— she personally wanted other Media Elites to be nicer to her. That’s fine. I’m a replacement-level Dad from Milwaukee with an exponentially less popular newsletter and I too would like Media Elites to be nice to me (I mean, why not? It sounds great!).
This isn’t a newsletter about Bari Weiss. I bring her up because I want to share a clip from her recent appearance on Bill Maher’s entertainment-adjacent yelling program. The clip is about Covid restrictions, but this newsletter isn’t about that either. In the clip, you’ll hear Weiss first joke about how seriously she once took Covid (“I watched Tiger King, I got to the end of Spotify1…”), then bemoan how annoying it is that she isn’t allowed to go back to normal before suddenly pivoting towards what she clearly intends as a big ethical trump card.
“This is going to be remembered by the younger generation as a catastrophic moral crime. The city of Flint, Michigan, which I believe is 80% minority students, has just announced indefinite virtual schooling…”
Now, the immediate argument that Weiss is making about Flint is accurate but misleading. Flint Community Schools did announce an indefinite closure because of staffing challenges with Omicron, but “indefinite” here shouldn’t be understood as a synonym for “forever.” It instead means “we haven’t named the exact date that schools will open again.”
That’s all beside the point, though, and regardless, I mean it… this isn’t a newsletter about the school reopening debate.2 I’m interested in what Weiss is doing rhetorically: The actual main character of her rant is herself and her well-heeled peers, people who took Covid SO seriously (they got to THE END of Spotify!) and who are “over it now” That’s a totally justifiable emotion to hold. Even for the most privileged person, it stinks to be heading into year three of a pandemic. But Weiss knows that being personally annoyed doesn’t give her the moral high ground (there is the pesky matter of nearly 900,000 Americans having already died of Covid). And the whole point of this is to get that high ground, to not merely feel an emotion, but to receive universal validation for it.
And that’s how she gets to Flint. That’s how we always get to Flint: A city so enmeshed in the American consciousness as a poor place full of Black and Brown people that by merely evoking its name, a speaker (particularly a White speaker), is suddenly elevated to the Ethically Correct Position. Your physician friend who still supports public health restrictions isn’t merely annoying Bari Weiss, they are KEEPING BLACK AND BROWN CHILDREN IN FLINT FROM EVER ATTENDING SCHOOL AGAIN.
If this were just a newsletter about Bari Weiss, I’d lay down an easy attack line here about how she has had access to massive public platforms for a number of years and has never said a word about the various crises that have bedeviled the Rust Belt. But I’m a White leftie who grew up in the 1980s, which means that I’m part of the Roger and Me generation. I grew up watching Michael Moore run around with a microphone pointed in the general direction of General Motors Executives and, as such, have long known of the magic talismanic power of Rhetorically Evoking Flint. Back in college, there was one class in particular where I talked about Flint a ton. I later learned that there was one dude in that class who got super annoyed by my whole deal (not just the Flint thing, but the broader grandstanding) and who, from that point on, considered me to be his nemesis. All the way up until graduation, every six months or so I’d hear another report about how annoying I had been in that class (it was a small campus, and he talked about it with a lot of people!). I sincerely hope he’s well. In retrospect, I get his point. I’m working on it.
In my defense, it sure felt as if I cared about General Motors layoffs, but did I? In actuality, I didn’t pay any attention as the city’s financial picture grew direr over the decades and conservative state officials used it as an experiment in replacing democratic governance with “emergency management.” Now, I did feel bad again when the Flint Lead Crisis briefly became a matter of national import. But then Flint’s moment in the spotlight passed again, which meant that Flint again became merely a place you could occasionally evoke out of context (“They STILL don’t have clean water!”) when you felt in the mood for some self-righteous puffery.
So sure, Bari Weiss’ contextless deployment of Flint as some sort of moral human shield is gross and weird. It’s like when various conservative grandstanders suddenly become very concerned about gun violence on the South and West sides of Chicago. And sure, I think that the kind of public policy proposals I support (reparations, universal human services, rebuilding unions, regulating vampiric corporate behavior, green infrastructure, etc.) will likely be more useful in a place like Flint than whatever it is that Weiss is proposing (declaring Covid over, requiring Flint schools to open, all of us apologizing to Bari Weiss for making her feel guilty). But the parachuting in, the situational concern, the deployment of theoretical Black people as a sign of your own righteousness– well, that isn’t just a Bari Weiss problem.
Speaking of former employees of our nation’s paper of record, you may have heard that former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is running for Governor of Oregon! Or maybe not, because the Oregon Supreme Court says that he doesn’t actually live in Oregon. I don’t really care about who is or isn’t legally allowed to be the Governor of Oregon. Maybe Bari Weiss can run? She did get to the end of Spotify, after all. I don’t know! This is not an Oregon Jurisprudence Newsletter!
Here is the story that Nick Kristof tells about why he should be Governor of Oregon: He both cares very deeply about and has a unique understanding of communities like Yamhill, his hometown. Kristoff’s Yamhill is a White rural place where there was once opportunity— where the students with whom he rode the Number 6 bus into town all dreamed of doing big things. It is now, in his telling, a place of shattered dreams— to his credit, the newly minted candidate has been an empathetic interlocutor of his classmates’ stories for years now. While one former Number 6 bus mate became a famous New York Times columnist, a quarter of them are dead— lost to addiction or suicide. Others are alive but struggling.
That is a powerful story, though it perhaps reads less empathetic and more self-serving when presented in a political ad that claims “not to be a typical campaign video” but, which, um, looks and sounds a lot like a typical political video.3
Middle and upper-class White America is always eager to consume stories about places like Yamhill, just as we all know instinctively how to deploy the stories of places like Flint. Poor, Black places are to be pitied in vague, general terms. Poor White places are to be pitied more specifically. It’s all tokenizing, but the latter at least gets an individual human face, a living reminder that There But For The Grace Of God this tragedy could have happened to us (for a powerful example of this Other People’s Towns thinking, please read this amazing Kathleen Mclaughlin piece about art installations that ostensibly bemoan the poisoning of Butte, Montana but that keep sprouting up… anywhere but Butte).
In this taxonomy, Black cities like Flint are, of course, the most dehumanized. They’re consigned to perma-tragedy… the goal is never to listen to the visions of local activists for the future of their community. The implicit assumption is that there is no future worth building or imagining there. For poor White communities, though, we (meaning other White people) can imagine that something better might be possible, as long as a charismatic hero comes along… somebody to whom we personally can relate. J.D. Vance, of course, owes his entire career to his one-time willingness to play the part of the Great White Hope for Appalachia. His Hillbilly Elegy became a bestseller after Trump’s election thanks to the frenzied desire of White liberals to find a redneck whisperer who could explain not only why those people were so poor but also why they were now voting in ways we found distasteful. Kristof is just reading from the Vance playbook, though with more Pacific Northwest-friendly outerwear and fewer references to hollers and meemaws.
Kristof’s legal case for his gubernatorial race is that he did in fact move back to his family’s farm outside Yamhill a while back, even when he was still writing for the Times. Again, I’m not super interested in the legal argument. What interests me much more is the perspective of other residents of Yamhill (Yamhillians?). According to the good people of that community—including its mayor— the main issue is that they’ve literally never seen their town’s would-be political savior. He isn’t involved in local politics. He doesn’t show up to community meetings. He doesn’t volunteer for organizations that are currently working on the issues about which he’s passionate (the mayor works a day job as a housing coordinator for unhoused seniors and veterans). Whether he truly does live outside of town or not isn’t the issue— it’s that he is building a brand as somebody who cares deeply about Yamhill while skipping over any of the steps that would make his hometown hold an actual living, dynamic, three-dimensional place in his heart. Says one Yamhill County Commissioner, “he’s intelligent, no doubt. But he might be better off running for something where he can learn how government works. He’d make a terrific county commissioner.”
There are a lot of overly simplistic lessons to be taken from all this huffery. One currently popular progressive answer is to criticize folks like Kristof and Weiss on purely identity-based grounds: They are tokenizing and savior-y because they are White and well-off, so instead of listening to them we should listen to Black and Brown and working-class people, ideally women, trans and queer people. Which, sure— “listening more to people who are too often ignored, especially when the alternative is a New York Time columnist” is good advice. But in practice, this line of thinking doesn’t erase tokenization— it just sends the earnest White progressive off to Twitter or Instagram or TikTok to find a new nationally-focused influencer with the Correct Identity instead.
And no, the answer isn’t to hibernate, to stop caring about any place other than your immediate backyard. To the contrary, the best way to be less of a sweaty weirdo in your attempts to care about other people’s homes is to be more involved in yeoperson’s work in your own community. In all likelihood, you— like Nick Kristof—- would make a terrific county commissioner (or school board member or goodness please… election commission member).4 Your workplace could probably use a union steward. Your neighborhood could use somebody to host the first mutual aid planning meeting.
If you’re a regular reader, you already knew I was going to say all that because I seem to find a way to insert “do unsexy local stuff and stick with it” into everything I write these days, but I bring it up here for two reasons:
First, if you want to build your muscles for spotting, elevating and partnering with grassroots activists across racial, class and geographic lines, you’ve got to know what that work actually looks and feels like. Otherwise, you’re going to keep chasing after another shiny viral object. You will be a more useful partner for the parent showing up to Flint Community Schools board meetings if you are actively doing the same at your school board. You will be able to better empathize with the housing services provider in Yamhill if you have spent some time with your own unhoused neighbors.
Secondly, the vampiric selling-for-parts that has happened in communities across the country was enabled because powerful, monied interests both created and then filled a vacuum, one rooted in declining grassroots community ties and the hollowing out of the U.S. labor movement. The less local community organization everywhere, the more that city and state-wide rules and regulations could be rewritten to uphold power and domination. That means, in turn, that if we care about other communities having a shot, we have to restitch the ties that would again make each of our own little corners of the world stronger. Flint and Yamhill get raided not just because activists let their guard down in those specific places, but because the tapestry of community connection that could have prevented that raiding had become threadbare from Brooklyn to Barstow and every place in between.
To be honest, I’m glad that Nick Kristof moved back to Yamhill. As somebody whose first home was a sparsely populated Western county of gulches and gullies and radon health mines, I’m jealous that he’s heading back to the kind of place that a lot of us only move away from. I would have been equally happy for him, however, if he had stayed in New York— there is a lot of work to be done there too. Either way, I wish that his first instinct wasn’t to ask what the place where he landed could do for his career, but what thankless projects in that place could use another set of hands. The job— for him, for me, for us—- is never about how well you can take somebody else’s story and make it about you. It’s about how to more fully weave your story together with others.
If you want to support folks who do actual grassroots organizing in small towns across Oregon, check out the Rural Organizing Project. They’re great!
Likewise, if you’d like to learn from and support environmental justice/democracy activism in Genesee County, Michigan, check out the Environmental Transformation Movement in Flint (yes, activists there are still fighting for clean water but they’re also working to stop an asphalt plant that threatens to poison a whole bunch of neighborhoods).
And finally… if you would like to learn how to organize for justice in your own corner of the world (particularly in majority-white communities), sign up here to get more information about Barnraisers Project organizing trainings (I’ll be announcing spring dates soon).
This week’s song: “Do Your Thing” by Moondog
I have spent roughly 40 hours in the past week trying to figure out what “getting to the end of Spotify” means or what it has to do with taking Covid seriously and I’ve still got nothing.
If you really want to read an empathetic piece about the imperfect choices inherent on all sides of the school reopening debate, I highly recommend this op-ed from Seth Lavin, a Chicago principal whom I’ve long respected.
To be fair, Kristof may have shot his video in a barn wearing a very deliberate working-class coat, at least he didn’t wear THAT coat.