2017 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: THE CLETUS SAFARI JOURNALIST

(Editor's note: The Lieberman Award is given annually to the worst example of a human being over a twelve month period. Click the tag at the end of the post to review past winners.)

medalPicking the very worst person of 2017 is not unlike picking the worst aspect of flying on Spirit Airlines. It spoils us for choice and guarantees that whatever we decide will be deeply unsatisfying to large groups of people with very legitimate grievances. We are forced to play the game of "Who is the worst Nazi" both metaphorically and literally these days, and of course it inevitably ends with the tragicomic realization that the task itself is an exercise in futility.

So, one of my goals here was to avoid the bleedingly obvious and choose someone like Donald Trump (who, in an act bordering on prescience, I awarded the Lieberman back in 2015) or prominent right-wing / fascist media hacks. I came close to choosing Mike Cernovich after, among his many acts of idiocy as a wannabe white supremacist raconteur, he forged legal documents to make it look like one of Chuck Schumer's staffers accused him of sexual harassment. But this year was such a thrill ride down Fuck Everything Boulevard that such ephemera hardly register, lost almost immediately in the screaming miasma of awfulness.

Instead a late entrant to the competition – a Dark Horse of cliches and subconscious white supremacy – takes the coveted award for 2017: the mainstream media journalists who persist, more than a full year after the election, in doing Cletus Safaris. What is a Cletus Safari? It's one of those innumerable, insufferable, "Let's go to Rust Bucket, Ohio and interview the old racist white people who voted for Trump and see what they have to say now" pieces that every major news outlet feels obligated to churn out once per month. "Safari" is an appropriate term because it has every bit of the feel of a journalist venturing into the jungle looking for wild animals or naked Savages. The White Working Class (because editors insisted that some kind of tactful synonym for "Midwestern white trash" would make it sound professional and palatable) is fascinating to Beltway and NYC journalists in a sense that goes far beyond the political and lands firmly in the anthropological.

The allure of these pieces, I admit, is strong. They are click magnets. We all want to point and shout "Look!" when presented with the latest batch of stupid, racist quotes from people whose worldview is a sad amalgam of forwarded emails, Facebook comment sections, Fox News, Breitbart, and increasingly severe delirium tremens. We marvel and laugh – for what else do we have for joy these days except a good schadenfreude laugh? – at the rotund, mustachioed morons as they swear coal is coming back and assert that Trump works real hard while Obama spent all his time golfing and, most recently, think they're going to get a tax cut next year. We read these for the same reason that we watch shows about addiction, hoarding, or bed-bound 1000 pound people – because some part of all of us wants to gawk at freaks, and an even bigger part of us needs to remind itself "At least I'm not THAT fucked up!" when we're feeling down.

But the Cletus Safari is, if I can use an extremely polarizing but appropriate adjective, a deeply problematic piece of journalism. Scratch the surface and you see that while this certainly is an acceptable form of Nelson Muntzing dumb poor people (Since the subjects are inevitably white, white readers don't have to feel guilty for mocking them) it is also a severe distortion of reality that – surprise! – reinforces the perception that what is Real, what counts, and what is truly important is what White Country Folk think. They are, even to doubtlessly left-leaning journalists who write these pieces, the Real America.

The problems with that logic are almost too obvious. One is that almost nobody lives in rural areas anymore, and the kind of Rust Belt city ("city") that inevitably serves as the setting for a Cletus Safari – any fading pile of crap in upstate NY, central PA, Ohio, Michigan, or Wisconsin will do – is rapidly shrinking. And to the extent that the population of such places is stabilizing or even growing, it is because of the influx of largely Hispanic newcomers moving in. So not only are these old racist white people not representative of America as a whole, they're not even representative of, to take a recent Cletus Safari example, Johnstown, PA (which Hillary Clinton won).

The second problem is that it has long been widely recognized that these people are impervious to facts, and thus there are diminishing returns to pointing out that the things they say and believe are stupid and wrong. We get it.

Third, and most potentially damaging, is the way these pieces reinforce the idea that white opinion and white votes are more valuable. For every one old white asshole living in Janesville, WI waiting for Trump to give him a wall-building job, there are ten Hispanic immigrants from the last 30 years who gained US citizenship but doesn't regularly vote. There are x African-Americans disenfranchised from the political process by legal machinations or earned cynicism from years of Lip Service Only treatment from Democratic politicians. There are millions of young people who see a political process that has nothing to offer them but disappointment and thus they don't vote. The subconscious emphasis of the Cletus Safari – that white idiots must be Won Back somehow, no matter the cost – is the single biggest yoke around the neck of the American left. And we put it on ourselves.

Fourth and finally there is the obvious data-driven reality that Trump didn't win in mythical Trump Country – he won the election in the very white, generally well-off suburbs of major cities. Every Republican does well with the kind of Cletus we keep sticking in front of cameras and microphones if for no reason other than he is ordered to. The bubble in which he lives is carefully structured to produce the same outcome regardless of who has the R next to his name on the ballot. That person is gone, from the Democrats' perspective, and he is never coming back. More crucially – and this is the part they can't get through their heads – it is not worth it to try to get him back when there are so many eligible voters who do not vote because they see nothing for them in the centrist version of the Democratic Party.

A tangential but important point is the way these stories debase the idea of what journalism is ideally supposed to be. Rather than putting a microphone in front of the most well-informed person to be found, this is the culmination of LOL Reportage that looks for the dumbest person and gives him or her a platform. There is ample room for lolz and mockery in the world, and god knows I love it as much as anyone. But consider that what was once a staple of Jay Leno's laziest but consistently funniest on-the-street gag is now common practice for journalists at our most important mainstream media outlets. Not encouraging, is it?

If any piece of journalism purports to show "Real America" then it would show us a diverse array of viewpoints because Real America is diverse. Instead, journalists not only insist on going to places that no longer represent the mean or modal America – Shuttered Mill, WI or Superfund, PA or whatever – but on finding people who are not even "the average person" in those communities. No one denies that "Look at how stupid these old racist white Trumpers are" was funny the first time or two, but after two years of such anthropological studies enough is enough. At some point it stops being funny and begins to reinforce the idea that one kind of person is important, real, and valuable to the political process. That point was long ago reached, and that is why the writers and editors that continue to pump out Cletus Safaris are the very worst people for 2017.

Stop it. We get it. Now stop it. If you really cared about the voices of Real Americans, how about some who aren't white, almost always male, and running out the clock on their shit lives in the land that time forgot.

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46 Responses to “2017 LIEBERMAN AWARD WINNER: THE CLETUS SAFARI JOURNALIST”

  1. other bill Says:

    Good choice. These fucks certainly earned it.

  2. J. Dryden Says:

    Oooooookay, so my question for the podcast appears either prescient or clueless (depending on whether or not one notes that I posted it BEFORE this piece went up, honest, I did). So, um, never mind, I guess?

  3. Haile Unlikely Says:

    I'd like to see a followup with the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida. They could be numerous & energized/pissed-off enough to make an electoral difference in that shithole penile protuberance of a swamp.

  4. Samantha Beaumont Says:

    Good choice. Great observation.

  5. Samantha Beaumont Says:

    oh my god. one of those pieces is on cnn right this moment. dawsonville, ga. the Old Racist White Dudes abound.

  6. Steve Holt! Says:

    Not being critical here, but just sharing – a friend of mine who is African American and a progressive activist jumped all over me recently for using the term "white trash". I was using it to describe some of the people in my home town, which is pretty much a Cletus Safari village. My friend explained to me that the term "white trash" strongly implies to black people that we call them "trash" only because they fail to live up to the standard of "good whiteness", i.e., how could these people waste their god-given whiteness on such a lazy, fruitless existence? Of course his argument was much more eloquent than what I am writing here, but it was a perspective I had not really thought of before.

  7. Greg Says:

    Steve Holt! It’s also an argument I tried to advance for a while every time Ed used the term. Glad to hear others encountering it. And pondering it.

  8. Mo Says:

    Have I told you recently that I love you?

  9. Mothra Says:

    The most disappointing thing to me is that the Democrats just are not letting go of the idea that they will convince Cletus to someday vote for them.

    And yeah, “white trash” isn’t really a term we should use anymore. For a variety of reasons.

  10. Cal Says:

    any fading pile of crap in upstate ny

    It’s spelled Binghamton, sir, and I’ll have you know we pride ourselves on being the place IBM abandoned.

  11. Old Scold Says:

    So take the modifier from it and you have "trash": people who destroy their own futures through bad decisions encouraged by the rest of their culture.

  12. Katydid Says:

    @Steve Holt! Thank you for sharing that. You learn something new every day.

  13. Katydid Says:

    @Mothra; I think you have it exactly backward. There's so much screaming at the Democrats, "BUT BUT BUT BUT you're not pandering enough to the Deplorables! You need to focus all your attention on THEM"

  14. mago Says:

    Hats off, sir.

  15. Kate Whitehead Says:

    Excellently written piece with some very well thought out and articulated ideas. Just what I've been feeling about what's happening in journalism, but haven't been able to zero in on it and express it. Thank you. I love reading your stuff.

  16. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @Mothra:

    The Democratic Party needs to concern itself first and foremost with not being redistricted, gerrymandered, and vote-suppressed out of existence by 2020.

  17. Emerson Dameron Says:

    PS: My Lieberman nomination is Kris Kobach, a man who knows the GOP can't win without stacking the deck, and has reacted by making himself a mortal enemy of the democratic process.

  18. Ed W. Says:

    But without the Cletus Safari, I would never have found out, courtesy of the Washington Post, that there is a small town in Trump Country, Tennessee, where they never stopped saying "Merry Christmas".

    (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-a-pro-trump-town-they-never-stopped-saying-merry-christmas/2017/12/24/832446a0-e403-11e7-a65d-1ac0fd7f097e_story.html?utm_term=.1d8196ce0994)

  19. democommie Says:

    @ Halle Unlikely:

    Them PR folks will have to GO there to collect their unemployment or other benefits–but not to vote. They'll all be allowed to vote via absentee ballots.

    Oh, yeah, Happy 2018 to all, whatever the unholy fuck that might mean.

  20. Michael Van Huffel Says:

    really great article.

  21. Katydid Says:

    Happy New Year to Ed and everyone who comments in this blog!

  22. Major Kong Says:

    In the universe where Clinton won, and is now at 38% approval, are people writing dispatches from San Francisco about the voters who still love her?

  23. MrBill Says:

    I have been called White Trash, and Hillbilly, and redneck: I’m relatively poor (from having tried and somewhat succeeded in having an art career), a native and mostly lifelong resident of the Southern Blue Ridge (with a pointlessnessly expensive education, and travel in the US and overseas) and had a succession of blue collar jobs (mostly construction) to feed my family when the art was slow..I never cared for these terms, but have noted the greviance collectors in the dominant Republican Party locally revel in them, and excuse their bigotries as “I’m just a hillbilly..”. For folks like me, the inanities of Early Cuyler in “Squidbillies” Are precisely the sort of shit I hear from these Perpetually Aggreived Good People who inhabit the landscape the cartoon is supposed to take place in..indeed, I routinely hear things, willfully racist and ignorant and tribal, that might make ol’ Early blush…T Rump has given them license to express the hate they have been carefully lead into…

  24. Major Kong Says:

    I'm one generation out of Appalachia myself. My relatives and my in-laws live in Appalachia (western PA and southern OH).

    Most of them voted for Clinton. The ones that didn't are now starting to have a bad case of "buyer's remorse" about Trump.

  25. Erin T Says:

    Please forward to every single staff member at the Guardian.

  26. democommie Says:

    @MrBill:

    "T Rump has given them license to express the hate they have been carefully lead into…"

    I don't think that a lot of those people had to be "lead" into anything. Their hatred had only been subsumed into their outward anti-LIEbrulz idiotology.

    I grew up surrounded by racists. I left, I changed. I went home–a fuckton of them never left and never changed–I left again.

  27. jcdenton Says:

    @Mothra
    Ironically, given that the median income of the Trump voter is $70,000, convincing "cletus" to vote for Dems is easier than it seems and also less useful. The white middle class overwhelmingly went fascist, as they usually do.

    @Katydid
    The big problem is actually chasing those "moderate Republican" (read: white, middle class) votes. That was the actual strategy the DNC used in '16 and it doesn't look like they've changed their minds. This focus on the WWC keeps missing two points:
    – They were not in fact Trump's biggest supporters (the white, middle class was)
    – It's pretty easy to get them back by promising actual union jobs. Many of them will still be racist, sexist dirtbags, but they also like union jobs.

    Happy 2018 everyone!

  28. Rugosa Says:

    I'm WWC myself, from one of those Rust Belt cities that now has half the population it did 50 years ago. (Yes, I remember things from 50 years ago.) I would like to see the article explaining to Cletus why people like living in places with jobs and a little bit of culture.

  29. Dice Says:

    Rugosa: What a novel thought; the elevation and normalization of education, curiosity and volition in lieu of legitimizing ignorance and demonizing intelligence.

    Cletus has been re-programmed at will by the republicans since Reagan. He and Jim-Bob and Earl and all the rest aren't worth the effort.

    Knowledge is hard. Belief is easy.

  30. Katydid Says:

    @Rugosa; my spouse is from a rust belt town in Western NY; in 1900 there were 100,000 people in the town; now there's 6500. The nearest jobs are an hour away at either of two big rust belt cities that are also losing population and jobs. Despite that, the public school is shockingly good and the people are shockingly liberal. So it can be done!

  31. geoff Says:

    @Ed, HAW HAW! Not one, but TWO Simpsons references above. As a slack-jawed yokel myself, kudos to you good sir.

    And more seriously, I have read some of these pieces, and yes I'm tired of them too, because what I really see is economic elites poking fun at those who have been abandoned by their former employers. Yes, they're often deplorable people, but I wish they'd interview more white Southern suburbanites making the big dollars as white collar professionals who'd tell them, "Yeah I'm still glad I voted for Trump; I'm about to GET PAID!"

    More to the point, I see this as picking on the lower class. Yeah, they deserve some of it, but there are a LOT of college-educated, high-earning Trump supporters, and you don't see them getting safari'd.

  32. Frenchdawg Says:

    @Cal. I live in Binghamton. In our part of the State, one is more likely to find Cletus living in a double wide, outside of Binghamton, in one of the adjoining, heavily Republican, suburban or rural towns. Here, Cletus is presumed to believe that the City of Binghamton has “way too many (non-white) persons…who came up from New York because welfare is easy and cost of living is cheap.” Our community has depended on federal defense dollars, under multiple primary industries including IBM, dating back to the Civil War. To people in metro New York City, “upstate” refers to Westchester, Orange, and Dutchess counties. Our space is either called “the country,” politely, or the”sticks.” Lastly, IBM did not leave Binghamton; it left Endicott. Good article, Ed. Thank you!

  33. Ten Bears Says:

    Trailer park trash is non racial specific. Look a lot better as beer cans.

    Saw Hot Tuna in Binghamton in nineteen seventy-five, maybe six. My last national tour before settling down to raise the family. All this time I thought glassware was the big industry there. And photography.

    My long hair never has covered up my red neck (chuckles maniacally).

  34. Frenchdawg Says:

    @tenbears. You are half right. Photography was big. Ansco, where my Fatherwasemployed for 25 years, had a large factory in the First Ward of our city. They employed thousands of workers, before and immediately following wwii. Us government destroyed the company, which had been owned by German interests prior to the war.
    Glass…that would be Corning, our neighbor to the west. Corning holds its own, to this day. Deep roots in the capital city, Albany. Our products, post European incursion: lumber, tobacco post production (eg cigars, chew), leather goods, (shoes), guns, carriages, time clocks, computers, electronic components, weaponization, medicine (cancer), education, public services…all of which constitute a slime trail of a very common capitAlist critter, which can be found all over the northeast. Also, wanted to mention that Binghamton/Broome County/NY Southern Tier officially designTed as contiguous Appalachian area of US (vis a vis HUD, etc).
    And, I was at that show with Hot Tuna. Who knew. Ticket $4 maybe $7 max

  35. Ten Bears Says:

    Tickets?

  36. Major Kong Says:

    Stewart-Newburg used to be on my regular schedule.

    We would lay over in Fishkill, which has something like three or four prisons as its main economy.

    So essentially half the people of Fishkill are locked up and the other half are getting paid to watch them.

  37. democommie Says:

    @ Major Kong:

    I think maybe, "half the people IN Fishkill…".

    NY despite all of its prisons is 40th on the list of incarcerations per 100K population of the 50 states. Rather than have you guess who's first–here's the link:

    http://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#rankings?dataset-option=SIR

  38. democommie Says:

    @ Major Kong:

    I think maybe, "half the people IN Fishkill…".

    NY despite all of its prisons is 40th on the list of incarcerations per 100K population of the 50 states. Rather than have you guess who's first–here's the link:

    http://www.sentencingproject.org/the-facts/#rankings?dataset-option=SIR

  39. jcastarz Says:

    @ Major Kong:

    Do you fly out of Pittsburg by any chance? I have two cousins who used to work for USAir there. The pilot of the two is now retired in Idaho, and the other now works for a railroad.

  40. Scout Says:

    The Cletus Safari Hunters are a good choice for this award. They deserve it. Well done, Ed.

  41. Amy Says:

    I did not realize that Trump was a two-time "honoree" of this prestigious award. One hopes everyone will get out of their own way and he can three-peat during his impeachment hearings.

  42. Dr Sunshine Says:

    "What a novel thought; the elevation and normalization of education, curiosity and volition …": Having lived around willfully ignorant white repugs for over half of my fairly long life, but not anymore, thankfully, I can say with some confidence that the people this piece correctly thinks the Dems should not waste their time courting, have no interest whatever in elevation, and they have zero curiosity, except when it comes to football, stock car racing, and finding out which celebrities are cheating on which, which celebrities got fat, etc. Thanks GinAndTacos, for the well-conceived thoughts. Hope someone with influence hears you. Cheers.

  43. DrBDH Says:

    The Wisconsin press spit out a disgusting variant of this before the election: the poor conflicted Republican voters in an affluent suburb of Milwaukee who just could not imagine voting for that vulgar Donald Trump and what were they going to do and how could things have gotten to this point? And then of course, they all marched to the voting booth and voted for Trump and all the horrible Republican Wisconsin politicians that have wrecked what once was a lovely progressive state.

  44. Major Kong Says:

    @jcastarz

    I occasionally get a Pittsburgh layover but it's not one of my regular cities.

    There is an Air National Guard KC-135 unit there that I worked with a few time. I was in a KC-135 unit next door in Ohio.

  45. jcastarz Says:

    @Major Kong

    A half-dozen years back, I sent my Idaho pilot cousin a picture I had taken of the B-17 "Memphis Belle" ex-firebomber look-alike at the Andrews' Air Show here in Washington DC; it turned out a friend of my cousin had flown the plane in for that show. It can be a small world in professional circles such as aviation. So, when you mentioned the west-PA area, I was just wondering…

  46. Brian M Says:

    Props for the Squidbillies reference! I am ashamed to admit I am a fan.