Friday, January 16, 2009

From the anthropology desk

One thing you can count on in American journalism: No matter how tight their budgets, no matter how many staff layoffs may come, editors will always find money to send a feature writer out into the sticks to write -- in the manner of National Geographic reporting on a neolithic Borneo rain forest tribe -- about the hicks in flyover territory:
BRINKLEY, Ark. - Wayne Loewer's truck reveals a lot about his life. A 12-gauge shotgun for duck hunting rests on the floorboard. A blue thermal lunch bag containing elk meat is shoved under the seat, left in haste that morning by his teenage son rushing to catch the school bus.
Binoculars in the console help Loewer scan his 2,900 acres of rice, soybeans and corn.
The dashboard radio is set to classic rock, playing the same Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes from Loewer's high school days, when Brinkley was still a thriving small town with stores and a movie theater.
His muddy truck is 900 miles from the kiosks crowding Pennsylvania Avenue selling "Hope Won" T-shirts. But more than miles separate Loewer from the coming celebration in Washington over Barack Obama's inauguration as president.
The 52-year-old farmer is a conservative Democrat who bet on Republican John McCain and lost, a description that would apply to many in the white South. Now Loewer wonders about his place in Obama's America.
A shotgun! A truck! Lynyrd Skynyrd! Soybeans! My God, who even suspected such primitive folkways still existed in the 21st century?

UPDATE: A commenter asks why I used the word "anthropology" in the title. The Washington Post reporter treats the natives of rural Arkansas in the same way an anthropologist treats a tribe of aborigines in a distant rain forest, emphasizing the exotic customs in a faux-objective manner. Being from the South, I always resented how the national press would routinely dispatch some reporter to cover a story (often involving a crime with racial overtones) in this way:
STUMPWATER, Miss. -- Enos Latimer rocks slowly in the rocking chair on his front porch. White paint peels from the Doric columns in the torrid humidity of a summer afternoon in the Delta.
"Ain't right what they done to that boy," says Latimer, pausing to spit tobacco juice over the rail on the azaleas that border his lawn on Church Street, across from the Beauregard County Courthouse where last week 19-year-old Jerome Watson was convicted of murder in a controversial case that has sparked protests from civil rights activists and stirred memories of bygone injustices. . .

And so forth. There will be the obligatory mention of Spanish moss clinging to ancient magnolia trees, "local color" details like the faded linoleum floor of the local diner, some reference to a Klan atrocity from 1907, and so on -- all that "Gothic South" scene-setting stuff ripped off from Faulkner, the entire point being to emphasize how odd and exotic the place and its people are.

Heaven have mercy on the people who happen to live in the Southern crossroads town that is the locus of one of those "incidents" which draws the attention of the New York Times, Newsweek magazine and CBS News. They turn on the TV and see network newsmen portray their community as a festering cauldron of hate. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, readers pick up their newspaper to see stories slanted to depict the townspeople as so many stock characters out of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I will never forget a New York Times feature, published a few weeks before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which did its damnedest to portay my hometown as embroiled in ugly racial antagonism. Ask anybody who is familiar with both New York City and Atlanta which place has the more amicable race relations -- or the more amicable anything, for that matter, New Yorkers being notorious worldwide for hostile rudeness. Who the hell is this New York Times reporter to make such insinuations about Atlanta?

Just once, I'd like to see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution send a reporter up to New York City to cover some racially-charged "incident" up there -- and do it in the same anthropological style that Yankee reporters use when reporting from the small-town South.

Anyway, so that's what I'm talking about. It's one of my pet peeves from way back, and I hadn't thought about it in a long time. Thanks for asking.


  1. I'm fascinated by this tribe of 'rural Americans'..

    good thing they sent out an explorer to there to chronicle the entire experience..

    we all know it's so backwards that the local paper couldn't be commissioned to do the story or two about it..

  2. "Conservative Democrat"? I think a more apt description would be leftist enabler.

    Democrat politicians are only "conservative" when running for re-election. The perfect example of this was Tom Daschle.

    Any conservative voting for a Democrat and finding themselves unrepresented after the election gets what they deserve.

  3. "A blue thermal lunch bag containing elk meat" There are elk in Arkansas?

  4. Yes, a herd of elk lives in the Ozarks in northwestern Arkansas. A guy who farms 2900 acres in eastern Arkansas probably hunts out west, though.

  5. I am curious to find out why the title of the post uses the word anthropology. I see the word being used in different ways and in different contexts, and if you can tell me anything about your choice in using it, I would be very grateful.