Over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates (one of my favorite liberal bloggers — his Civil War blogging is always fascinating) takes aim at two Alexandra Pelosi/Bill Maher videos highlighting poor southerners and poor New Yorkers. Pelosi interviewed poor Mississippians outside a Walmart and poor New Yorkers outside a welfare office, and their answers to questions about work and welfare were dispiriting, predictable, and greeted with the equally dispiriting and predictable level of hardy-har-hars from Maher’s audience. News flash: Some poor folks say silly and outrageous things.
“Gotcha” videos like this merit a few comments. First, I’d wager that any learned writer on this Corner could stick a microphone in the face of one of Maher’s fans and elicit howlingly stupid comments with only the slightest bit of effort. Very few people have seriously thought through their world view, understand the facts that support their opinions, and are able to articulate them quickly and easily in a surprise interview (with the editing in the hands of the interviewer). I give interviews almost every day, and a highlight reel of my bloopers and mistakes could easily make someone question whether I earned a GED, much less graduated from law school and practiced constitutional law for the better part of 18 years.
Second, while there’s no doubt that many of the poorest of the poor suffer from many problems, videos like this do nothing but harm. Some watch and point and laugh — seeing individuals beyond redemption. Others watch and get angry — but make the mistake of idealizing the poor. In reality, poverty can be very ugly, with ignorance, violence, and addiction working together to create a culture that’s unrecognizable to the vast majority of Maher’s audience.
Whenever one discusses poverty, there is a constant struggle to see people as they are — rather than the way we want them to be. I’d argue that the Great Society and War on Poverty were built imagining people as we’d want them to be, and welfare reform was a modest step at recognizing people as they are. But as I’ve said many times before, the key to addressing poverty is more personal than programmatic. Pelosi’s video featured a toothless Mississippian, and Bill Maher noted that he wanted to give the man teeth. But do the man’s core issues really revolve around his teeth?
I suppose we’ll never know. After all, he served his purpose as a prop for a good laugh.