In Boone County, West Virginia hotel manager Tim Donnelly routinely arrives fo rhis scheduled shift an hour earlier at the Oak Tree Inn. Over the past two years, Mr. Donnelly has lost count on how many times he had to put in more hours to keep up with what he calls “liberal bubble-bursting tourism.”
While the coal industry is flailing, accommodations surrounding Appalachia can’t keep up the masses trekking to the Mountain State to escape their urban enclave.
“I never had so many people ask if our [cable] package includes MSNBC.” Mr. Donnelly told me (as he throws up his hands).
The outcome of 2016 election has spawned a new form of political soul searching where progressives proactively escape their kale-kombucha, scooter infested regions to attempt to “understand” the “other side”.
As a result, the coverage and exploration of coal country, along with states loyal to POTUS 45, have become a burgeoning cottage industry. The GDELT project, an organization that monitors the world’s broadcast, print, and web news reports that coal country overwhelming received the most news coverage, relative to any other region or topic, over the past couple years. The same organization further concludes left leaning news organization dedicate a larger share to “understanding Trump country” than conservative news sites.
The CEO of Kiva.org, a microlending platform, stated the majority of new domestic loans, from liberal lenders in 2017, have gone to individuals in Appalachia. Countless non-profits have been created to service those in the deep south. Recently, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, teamed up with AOL Founder Steve Case to create the “Rise of the Rest” Fund aiming to inject seed funding in companies based outside of major metro hubs and into the heart of the “flyover country” (top-notch Democrat tycoons such as Eric Schmidt of Google and Howard Schultz are among its early investors.)
Countless entertainers have made it their mission to reach across the aisle with new content. Sarah Silverman’s show, I Love You America looks “to connect with people who may not agree with her personal opinions through honesty, humor, genuine interest in others.”
Personally, I was excited to witness the sea change in liberal political discourse and civility. As someone who grew up in a swing state, breaking bread and having close friends with diametrically opposed beliefs was (and is) the norm and not the exception. Ever since I moved to San Francisco in 2010, I found myself engaging in contentious quarrels with my California born and raised liberal pals over the humanity and respect those who disagree with us (as I am a proud liberal) deserve. Seeing so many pro-tolerance and welfare state savants express their need to expand their political horizon (who had ironically been so steadfast in their beliefs) was a breath of fresh air.
What has transpired, however, is a new concoction of the same progressive sins; an illusory coastal clairvoyance that props up cartoonish generalizations with a saviorism complex that side-steps synthesizing the complexity of the history of their red state brethren.
As an urban journalist, I’ve often witnessed this progressive patronization (cloaked as intellectual curiosity) when I sit down for a libation or bite in a southern state. A tourist from a HRC friendly region pelts the service man or woman with stereotypes about that area seeking a confirmation or rebuke as if they are responsible for the thoughts and action of the region’s entire populace.
Whenever I travel internationally, it’s typical for other Americans to come up to me to exchange interesting experiences or cultural quirks from their global ventures. The only time such encounter ever happened in the US was when I was in West Virginia last week. It’s not empathy and understanding, but hillbilly voyeurism that is currently en vogue among liberals.
To escape my own tunnel vision and get a better sense of this new political fad, I met up with Chelsea Ruby, West Virginia’s Tourism Commissioner. On a beautiful sunny day, she’s kind enough to walk me through the Kanawha State Forest in the capital Charleston to witness locals partake in Gauley Season, the period of whitewater rafting that kicks off right after Labor Day and last for about six weeks as the Summersville Dam is released to lower the water levels for the winter season Mrs. Ruby, an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and fan of Senator Kamala Harris, told me she moved back from Connecticut a few years back for events like this along with the ability to raise her kid near family.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times, over the past couple of years, someone from California, Oregon, or New York told me they skipped their trip to Paris or somewhere in Asia so they could get a better idea of ‘how we live,’” she tells me as we watch hundreds of locals dive into the waters.
“It’s as if I’m from another planet or we should be grateful to them. My husband and I travel, you can see I love the outdoors, we like fruit in our drinks, and for Pete’s sake we want to our kids to breathe clean air and be healthy. I can’t force people to get a new job. Hell, I don’t ask you to justify dropping $16 for orange juice mixed with cheap champagne or $20 for chicken that ain’t damn chicken.” Chelsea blurts out as a person exhausted with the two-dimensional narratives.
“I’m sorry, that was rude. I’m just tired of having to prove to people we all have our teeth, read books, and aren’t racist. I know that God awful nastiness is around, I’m not naïve. But I wouldn’t have moved back if I didn’t think there were good people here. I hate being put in a box or having to speak on behalf of a whole population”
Mrs. Ruby tries to remind people that West Virginia wasn’t always the poster-child for downtrodden, lackluster, and hate mongering conservatism.
The state was at the forefront of desegregating schools in response to Brown v. Board of Education. John F. Kennedy won the state by a huge margin and in 1992 Bill Clinton won the state by a solid 13 points. When Shelly Moore Capito became the state’s junior senator in 2000, it was the first time West Virginia sent a Republican to U.S. Senate since 1958.
Singing Our Way out of the Echo Chamber
After the “shocking results” of the 2016 Presidential election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus re-routed their 40th anniversary tour. After initially planning to spend an extensive amount of time in place likes Cuba and China, the group added stops in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia. When announcing the decision, the choir’s director, Tim Seeling proclaimed. “We decided we have as much work to do at home as we do abroad.”
In a phone call, Director Tim Seelig tells me all their shows were packed and the audiences were amazing. “I wasn’t shocked, my family comes from the South. There is a lot of love here and the people are incredibly friendly. Many of my closest family members called me after the 2012 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage to offer their congratulations… All of them hated Obama.”
I asked them if there were any hiccups along the way.
“When our men went out to talk to audience members after the show, we got a number of complaints. Sure, there were a lot that were just assholes. But many good people complained to me that they were looked down upon.” Seeling explains.
“Two instances still keep me up at night. One time our manager got into a squabble with an elderly women when he argued that the LGBTQ community faces equal discrimination in China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia as they do in the South. She told him she volunteered for over forty years in those specific countries and she knew that to be false. He continually called her ignorant Southerner. Another time, I witnessed one of our singers attempting to explain what identity politics meant to an older man. That individual was a professor in political science at Alabama and had worked for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.”
And by no means are these examples isolated cases of progressive civil shortcomings masked in truth telling. According to a new analysis from the Electome project at MIT, a group that monitors political discourse online, showed that liberals who digitally expressed a desire to break out of their political echo chambers, often evoked political thought with less nuance and had a more insular twitter feed than the average American. They also engaged in more name calling.
An honest look at the two years of well-intended efforts to garner a broader perspective of their ideological counterpart show the liberal bubble to be less permeated and more robust.
Most liberals still cling to news outlets that confirm their biases, commonly engage with people with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and beliefs, actively avoid meaningful substantive debate, and alarmingly now harbor more resentment and less empathy for those who they disagree with.
Conservatives unquestionably fall prey to such counterproductive habits as well. There is a justifiable reason to be disappointed and disillusioned with those who support the political agenda of the current administration. Nor is there harm in attempting to understand the lifestyle of our less visible fellow citizens if it is done in mindful, earnest, and respectful manner. Problems, arise, however when those who often embark on lifting their veil of cultural, political, and geographical ignorance fail in their execution, don’t see the shortcomings of their approach, and ignore how their actions are carving themselves off from reality once again. Such actions only invite the continuation of the Democratic nightmare that birthed the latest version of ideological introspection in the first place.
Also published on Medium.