Bill Maher and Alexandra Pelosi Take Cheap Shots at a Caricature of the South
Two recent episodes of Real Time with Bill Maher featured short films by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi. In the first, which aired on March 9, Pelosi interviewed a series of white Mississippians who expressed strongly negative feelings about President Obama. The interviewees represented the most egregious stereotypes of poor, conservative white voters as toothless, hoarding ignoramuses. Maher read a note from Pelosi, who did not appear on the March 9 broadcast, in which she assured him that these were not cherry-picked interlocutors - that more or less everyone she spoke to felt, acted and looked similar to the people on camera. In other words, we were to understand this to be a representative sample. Maher's panel that night had a grand old time sniping at and making fun of the folks who appeared on camera, despite Maher's insistence before he showed the video that the point was not to make fun of the folks on camera.
A week later, with Pelosi on set with Maher, her second short was broadcast, featuring a handful of African American men waiting outside a welfare office in lower Manhattan. Several said they were Obama supporters because, as one put it, it was good to get "Obama bucks." All appeared to be young or middle aged and able-bodied. They, too, represented some of the most egregious stereotypes - this time of shiftless, irresponsible African American men.
Pelosi and Maher then spoke for several minutes about the "meaning" of each video. The exchange between Pelosi and Maher represented yet another set of egregious stereotypes - this time of self-satisfied, self-righteous liberalism.
A few comments:
1) I would have thought that the trite, mindless cliche about bloggers in their underwear* would have been retired to a time capsule somewhere but, sure enough, Pelosi invoked it. She did so while decrying the "death of journalism," and repeated the equally trite notion that the “extremes on both sides were getting more extreme,” which would result in her being bashed from "both sides" for what she clearly believes was the courageous act of making mockingly derisive videos of two sides of America's underclass. Now, she hadn't actually heard any criticism yet for the second video, because it had just aired, but she was anticipating a deluge, which would validate her masterstroke expose of the half-naked, blogger-driven decline of "real journalists."
Maybe I am missing Pelosi's acute sense of irony, but from where I was sitting, it sure looked like she'd made two lame, shallow, sensationalistic short films lacking in any serious journalistic standards, with the intent to get people upset and, as she understands it, this would prove her point about the decline of journalistic standards. Such a stunt would be something like Rush Limbaugh using his three-day screed against Sandra Fluke to argue that he'd just exposed the lack of decorum in American political discourse.
2) One striking moment came when Maher insisted that he and Pelosi couldn't possibly be accused of racism in the wake of the airing of the welfare office video because "of all the people in the world, we are not out to f-ck black people." After all, Maher noted, Pelosi's mother is Nancy and Maher gets accused of stuff by the right wing. If these seem like non-sequiturs to you, join the club. Pelosi insisted that her welfare video showed why liberals are losing elections because the "entitlement culture" has gotten so big and also that she "didn't have to go far to find free-loading welfare queens." (for the record, she interviewed one woman). This is a funny way of proving your anti-racist bonafides - by repeating right-wing shibboleths about "welfare queens" and "entitlement" when, in fact, public assistance is clearly failing to keep pace with the growing number of people falling into poverty amidst record long-term unemployment. It's also especially rich to get a lecture on entitlement from the daughter of the former Speaker of the House (in fairness, Pelosi did point out how much larger the Pentagon budget is than our food stamps budget. This did not, alas, add to the coherence of her rationale for making these videos).
Pelosi seemed particularly proud of herself that she offended both sides but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, "there is nothing noteworthy about offending "both sides," a feat that can be managed simply relieving yourself on a crowded street. Moreover, very few black people who've spent time in the white world will be shocked to learn that liberals are just as capable as conservatives as regarding them as objects to be invoked at their leisure."
3) some commentators have pointed out that Pelosi needn't have traveled to Mississippi to find folks who would repeat the usual crap about Obama's religious background, etc. She could have traveled in northern California and found the same thing, if not in the same numbers. But more to the point - you don't have to be poor and lacking a full head of teeth (Maher seemed particularly amused by this all-too-clear marker of class privilege, or lack thereof) to believe these things. The evidence is clear that authoritarian-minded individuals who are very well-off and very well-educated are as likely to spout this kind of stuff as are less well-educated authoritarians. And as Chris Mooney has pointed out, there is evidence to suggest better-educated conservatives are more likely to cling to false beliefs in the face of information that contradicts those beliefs than are less well-educated conservatives.
Pelosi and Maher each appeared to lack the self-awareness to appreciate the assumptions and prejudices embedded in Pelosi's shorts. Pelosi may believe that those guys in front of the welfare office - about whom she made no effort to claim were representative of the general population on public assistance - are why Democrats are losing elections. But right-wing populism has succeeded over the past four decades in substantial part by deriding and demonizing an often caricatured "limousine liberal" whose snobbery and elitism offend the sensibilities of ordinary Americans.
In this case, the liberals in question didn't need to be caricatured. They took care of that themselves.
* I was fully clothed the whole time I was writing this.