It’s as predictable as hurricane season: Coastal entertainment elitists just can’t resist taking pot shots at Flyover Country. They don’t think we’re their audience, or they just don’t care if we are. Either way, we’ve had enough of it.
Stephen Colbert is just the latest.
After the city lost the Democratic convention to the pandemic, last week he took a gratuitous rip at Milwaukee with a spoof that, I guess, he thought would be funny for the rest of the country. In a “virtual tour” of Milwaukee, the Late Night host on CBS ran a video featuring a “guide” with a lousy South Milwaukee accent touting highlights of the city, such as an “abandoned factory,” an “abandoned mall” and the “most segregated neighborhoods" in the country.
After a predictable blowback by folks in the Beer City and elsewhere, Colbert apologized – sort of. As sincere as his backtracking may have seemed, it still illustrated how heedless Colbert and his ilk are about the heartland and the reasons for our pride. Prankishly or not, he blamed the offense on a staff writer from Wisconsin -- as if Colbert weren’t actually responsible for the hatchet job on Milwaukee that came on his show.
This deserves a closer look. Was this nasty “virtual tour” spawned by coastal entertainment media’s pre-Covid lack of regard for us, in a hoary trope about the Rust Belt from the 1980s? Or did it stem from a flimsy post-pandemic assessment of what Milwaukee must be like these days?
If the former, how do you think an outdated slam from Colbert would be greeted by residents of places in the East or West that long since have outgrown their historic reputations? And if the latter, one could ask Colbert how New Yorkers might feel about a spoof of “Virtual New York” that featured an “abandoned skyscraper,” or how out-of-work actors in Southern California might greet a spoof of “Virtual Los Angeles” which featured an “abandoned movie studio.”
In any event, Colbert’s smear wasn’t the worst that’s been leveled at Flyover Country by a Hollywood smart-aleck. That honor belongs to Bill Maher, who last year appeared to relish delivering a vicious, well-thought-out rhetorical attack on the heartland in the wake of Amazon’s selection of Arlington, Virginia, for its “HQ2" instead of any one of a number of cities in the central United States.
Under the guise of humor, on his Comedy Central show Maher quoted Hillary Clinton from her “basket of deplorables” grab bag, who said two years ago that in the 2016 election, she won the states that are “optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward,” whereas Trump supporters wanted to move the country backward. Maher enhanced those sentiments by saying that red-state Americans are resentful and envious of coastal elitists because “the libs own everything.”
“They turn on the TV and all the shows take place in a few hip cities; there’s no ‘Real Housewives of Toledo’ or ‘CSI: Lubbock.’ There are no red carpets in Wyoming, and no one ever asks you, ‘Who are you wearing?’ Because the answer is always, ‘Target.’
“There are two Americas,” Maher continued, getting to his real point. “We have chef Wolfgang Puck; they have Chef Boyardee. Our roofs have solar panels; theirs have last year’s Christmas lights. We’ve got legal bud; they’ve got Bud … The flyover states have become the passed-over states. That’s why red-state voters are so pissed off. They don’t hate us; they want to be us. They want to go to the party.”
It isn’t even always ill-meaning entertainers on the coasts who get in on bashing us. Garrison Keillor, whose stories about “Lake Wobegon, Minnesota,” on A Prairie Home Companion, became known as an oracle of Midwestern modesty, trashed the heartland in a fit of pique after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
The comic commentator and writer – who had held forth every Saturday night for decades on a stage in a theater in St. Paul, to great acclaim and widespread appreciation by fellow denizens of Flyover Country -- opined for the Washington Post that it was “uneducated white males” in the heartland who elected Trump and warned that they would reap a bitter harvest for it.
Does all of this even matter? Can’t we Flyovers just slough off this institutionalized, rather sophomoric and even banal type of criticism and just keep leading our unaffected lives in the greatest part of the country?
Sure. But not really.
Because every time someone like Keillor or Maher or Colbert takes punches at Flyover Country, based on gross distortions or even some reality, others, even around the world, are watching and listening, and they file away these perceptions either deliberately or subconsciously.
And they act on them, whether they own a company in Germany that wouldn’t even think about creating jobs in America’s heartland, or they’re a coastal millennial from Iowa who hears in these critiques no reason to consider coming back.
Meanwhile, we who do live out here understandably get discouraged. And it all plays into the very tangible factors that raise an economy and a culture or undermine it, that feed self-confidence and pride and daring – or plant seeds of doubt that can keep us down.
So what can we do about it? I’m not about to call for a boycott. But we need to get the coast-based media somehow to give us a fair shake, to consider our worth.
After Trump’s election in 2016, there seemed to be a chance that all of this would change. Whatever you thought of the new president, it was pretty clear that the residents of Flyover Country had sent a loud and clear signal to the political, media and technology establishments on the coasts: Pay attention to us, or we’ll force you to do so.
Yet the media really haven’t, except to parachute into Flyover Country occasionally to report on some anomaly or another. So we must keep trying to put our best foot forward. And hold people like Colbert to account when they step on our toes.